When A$AP Rocky was in a Swedish jail, the sun never really set. It was July 2019, and Rocky was being held in pretrial detention on an assault charge stemming from a street fight in Stockholm with a few young men who had been following and harassing him and his crew. For a month, he was, he says, confined to a single-person cell for 23 and a half hours a day. He found it hard to sleep. During the high summer in Stockholm, the sun is out for about 18 hours a day. For the other six, dusk melts into dawn. At night, as this eerie twilight spilled through his cell window, Rocky kept the TV on; the background noise of Swedish-language news helped lull him to sleep. But about a week before he expected to get out, a sound on the TV jolted Rocky awake.
A$AP Rocky covers the June/July 2021 issue of GQ. To get a copy, subscribe to GQ. Vintage telnyashka shirt from Raggedy Threads. Kilt, $950, by Vivienne Westwood. Pants, $5,900, by Loewe. Belt, $1,195, by Artemas Quibble. Boots (price upon request) by John Lobb. Earrings and chain necklace (worn as belt), his own. Vintage necklace by Chanel from Janet Mandell. Cuffs, $56,500 (on left wrist) and $72,000 (on right wrist), by Verdura.
“Even though it was in Swedish, I heard ‘President Donald Trump’ and ‘A$AP Rocky,’ and I woke up out of my sleep,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, fuck!’ ”
That’s how Rocky learned that the president had become the most prominent supporter of the #FreeRocky cause. The news was reporting that Trump tweeted that he had spoken with Kanye West about Rocky’s incarceration and that he would be calling the Swedish prime minister about the situation. The following day, the president tweeted that he would personally vouch for Rocky’s bail. On the list of Trump’s priorities, freeing Rocky seemed to be somewhere up there with building the wall and complaining about CNN.
Suddenly, A$AP Rocky—a relentlessly charismatic artist whose favorite canvas is the mosh pit, a norm-busting style icon, a singularly charming man who could tease a smile out of a gargoyle—had been inadvertently thrust into the center of an international diplomatic incident.
Of course, one had to wonder about the president’s motives for embroiling himself in the plight of the jailed rapper. To many of Rocky’s fans and supporters, Trump’s opportunistic interest felt like a ploy to win over Black voters. (“Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States,” Trump tweeted at one point.) They weren’t wrong: According to an American diplomat who later testified about an exchange he heard between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U. at the time, Sondland advised the president to sit tight until Rocky was sentenced to a Swedish jail term, then take action. “Let him get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape when he comes home,” Sondland allegedly told Trump.
Jacket (price upon request) by Chanel. Pants, $3,700 for suit, by Hermès. Vintage belt by Chanel from Janet Mandell. Vintage necklace (large pearls) by Chanel from Kentshire. Chain belt (worn as necklace) from New York Vintage. Necklace (small pearls), his own.
Rocky, meanwhile, knew nothing of the behind-the-scenes machinations. He was alone in a tiny cell, in a Midsommar dusk, following along on a TV he could hardly understand.
He may have been restricted, but A$AP Rocky possesses an energy that can’t be contained. Before his arrest, he had been on tour, which is where he feels the most alive. His shows are designed to smash people together, to make them dance and fight and lose themselves in oblivion, and Rocky feeds off the madness, frequently diving from the stage into the chaos he has created, slam dancing and crowd surfing with the kids who show up to rave with him. Putting him in a prison cell is like trying to harness an out-of-control nuclear reaction. He’s not good at sitting still.
So he kept himself busy. He worked out. He prayed. And true to form as one of music’s most advanced fashion tastemakers, he designed a collection on spec for buzzy Parisian designer Marine Serre.
Image may contain AAP Rocky Clothing Apparel Skirt Human Person Plaid Tartan Suit Coat Overcoat Female and Kilt
Blazer, $2,550, by Valentino. Shirt, $2,500, by Gucci. Kilt, $950, by Vivienne Westwood. Vintage jeans by Levi’s from Raggedy Threads. Belt, $1,195, by Artemas Quibble. Pearl necklaces (top), $2,800 and $6,500 (with chain), by Mikimoto x Comme des Garçons. Vintage cross necklace by Cartier from FD Gallery. Vintage pearl necklace (bottom) by Chanel from Kentshire.
Rocky had been a fan of Serre’s conceptual regenerative streetwear for a few years, and one day in his cell, he began to conceive the outline for a collaboration. He got a pen and paper, which he used to sketch out the idea of a dress that looks imported from a dystopian future: Picture a vintage T-shirt, stretched and elongated, then finished with a kilt-like hem and a Jedi master hood. He didn’t know if the discerning Parisian designer would agree to work with AWGE, Rocky’s creative agency that functions as a platform for his fashion projects. However, he had nothing but time, so he sat in his cell and sketched away.
If being stuck in a Swedish jail and suddenly part of Trump’s agenda sounds to you like an unusual position for someone to be in, it wasn’t an entirely unfamiliar scenario to Rocky. At the age of 16, he spent two weeks in Rikers Island for firing a gun at a neighborhood bully in Harlem, where he grew up. His professional career has also been marked by a mix of triumph and heartbreak. In 2011, when Rocky was 23, he signed a $3 million major-label deal after dropping his breakout mixtape, Live. Love. A$AP., but tragedy lurked around the corner. Rocky’s best friend and mentor, A$AP Yams, who cofounded the A$AP Mob crew and pioneered a new kind of very online rap movement, died in 2015 of an accidental overdose.
Rocky has learned to wear his scars well. In fact, he bears two actual scars on his otherwise flawless face: The tiny one on his left cheek is the result of a fight from when he was 15. The origin of the scar on the right side, a spindly tear that stretches from the corner of his mouth to his jawline—Rocky used to hide it under silk Gucci scarves, launching a “babushka boy” trend—is murkier. When asked how he got the scar, he often made up stories, like falling off his scooter or being slapped by an auntie with long nails, but in Swedish court, when explaining why he has a security detail, Rocky mentioned he had been slashed the previous year. Even now, he’s cryptic about the incident. “I think shit happens,” he tells me. “And that night, shit happened.”
Tank top, $475, by Emporio Armani. Headpiece (price upon request) by Paco Rabanne. Vintage choker, $75,000, by Cartier from Stephen Russell. Pearl necklace, $6,500, by Mikimoto x Comme des Garçons.
Sweden represented the pinnacle of shit happening, but Rocky took his overnight transformation from adored entertainer to prisoner with remarkable ease. “I’ve been locked up,” he says with a shrug when I ask if incarceration was one of his greatest fears. The Nordic prison food was “trash,” according to Rocky, and the experience of being in near total isolation for a month was “probably the most boring thing you could think of.” But Rocky prefers to look on the bright side: Kronoberg remand prison, he recalls, was much cleaner than Rikers.
After a three-day trial, he was released pending a verdict. (He was eventually found guilty and given a two-year conditional sentence that imposed no further jail time.) The trial featured an unlikely guest at the behest of Trump: one of the administration’s top hostage envoys, who was otherwise tasked with freeing Americans held in places like Afghanistan and Syria. But Rocky thinks Trump’s involvement was a sideshow that could have easily become detrimental. That Trump helped him get out, Rocky says, is a “misperception. He didn’t help—he made efforts and he rooted for me to come home, but he didn’t free me.” When Trump started tweeting, Rocky says, the Swedes had told him he’d likely be out in about a week, and he worried the president’s messages would make them find a reason to keep him locked up even longer, “because they felt like they had a point to prove because he kept saying stuff.… We knew what was going to happen, and it happened the same way they said it would weeks prior,” he says. But when Rocky saw Trump on the news that night in his cell, “I was hoping it wouldn’t turn for the worse.”
In the ensuing weeks, allies of the president started complaining that Rocky didn’t deliver a public statement of gratitude. Despite his perceived silence, and his fears that he’d be punished due to Trump’s ham-fisted Twitter diplomacy, Rocky was indeed grateful. He told the president so on a private phone call. “I was mad thankful that he did that, because he didn’t have to!” Rocky says of Trump. “He took the time out of his day.” The support he received from the president and others, he says, “made me happy while being in there, because when you in jail, you feel like nobody cares. You can get lost, and you feel soulless. Like, you feel low, bro.”
Pants, $4,490, by Bottega Veneta. Vintage necklace (small pearls) by Chanel from Paume Los Angeles. Vintage necklaces (medium pearls and large pearls) by Chanel from Kentshire. Vintage necklace (chain-and-pearl strand) from Lidow Archive.
When Rocky got out, he flew home to L.A., and then soon after, rather than take a victory lap or do what most Americans imprisoned abroad tend to do upon their release, which is to stay put in the States for a little while, he jetted to Paris to have coffee with Serre so he could propose turning his jailhouse dream of a collaboration into a reality.
“I was not expecting anything,” says Serre of their meeting, but the 29-year-old designer was immediately struck by Rocky’s familiarity with garment construction. “He brought me some scarves that he did himself, and I liked the fact that he really knew how to stitch and how to understand the material. And then basically it was just an exchange—ego was not really there,” Serre says. So they got to work. “It was quite natural and easy, and clearly not all collaborations are like that today.” The collection, which includes clingy nylon tops encrusted with upcycled chains, an oversized puffer made with deadstock leather, and those dark, frilly dresses, each constructed from 11 different vintage graphic tees, came out at the end of last year.
When Rocky was locked up, Tyler, the Creator, declared that from then on Sweden was off-limits: “no more Sweden for me, ever” he tweeted. The likes of Schoolboy Q and Lil Yachty agreed. Rocky, on the other hand, stayed away for all of four months after his release. In December he returned to Stockholm, intending to perform for the inmates at the jail he was previously housed in. After being rebuffed by the authorities, he had to settle for an arena show that people from the city’s immigrant neighborhoods could attend for free.