Finnish rap about criminal life speaks of a changing Finland

“A Luger in my hand as I press the buzzer. Are you at home? You’re not? Well, I’ll wait then.”

These are the translated rap lyrics from E.N.R.P., Taisto Tapulist and Bulle – an ensemble called Moral Philosophy – in a song that will be released in July. Luger is a German pistol brand.

“It’s real gangster rap,” Ei Niin Reipas Poike (E.N.R.P.) aka Roope Halinen says about the upcoming album.

The range of domestic hip-hop artists is broad, but over the last decade more rappers have started to speak about life in the underworld.

Halinen, a 30-something rapper from Lahti, was released from pre-trial detention earlier this summer and found not guilty. He was suspected of attempted murder.

As a member of the group formerly known as the United Brotherhood (UB), Halinen has had brushes with the justice system in the past. He has been convicted of a felony drug offence, among other things.

However, this is in the past. UB has been disbanded and Halinen, according to his own words, is no longer part of any organised criminal gang.

He now runs his own record label and focuses on making music.

Crime is “media sexy”

E.N.R.P. has become known for, among other things, the song called “187” and its music video, which has racked up nearly 3.5 million views on YouTube.

When the song was released in 2015, UB was still an active organisation. According to Halinen, his music opens the curtain to the reality of the underworld.

“Money, women and violence! A life that pulls the rug from under you,” he raps.

The first video was removed from YouTube, but even the clean version shows drugs, guns and sex.

“I lived that life back then and rapped about those things,” Halinen says, adding that everyone gets to draw their own conclusions about whether the drugs or guns in the video are real.

E.N.R.P believes many rappers write violent lyrics and make explicit music videos because they attract more streams on Spotify and views on YouTube.

“People are fascinated by those topics, and crime in general is media sexy. It makes money,” Halinen says.

Rappers: Reporters of the street?

Traditionally, rap lyrics are diary-like descriptions of life, often on the fringes of society. Listening to rap can give a better picture of what is happening in different layers of society.

“Rappers have been called the reporters of the street. They honestly report on what’s not talked about in the traditional news media,” says Mertsi “Merzi” Ahlgren, project manager at the Sicilia record company.

Ahlgren, 34, has a 10-year prison sentence behind him. He has been rapping since he was 13 and now, like Halinen, says he plans to focus on music.

Ahlgren’s and Jami Faltin‘s song Criminale has garnered nearly 850,000 views on YouTube. The song provides insight into how someone gets into a life of crime.

“Young and hungry, motivated by money. One way or another, things have always been taken care of. I grew up too fast, had guns before a beard,” he raps.

Roadman culture influences rap

Ahlgren and E.N.R.P. represent Finnish gangster rap in the ‘true crime’ vein, featuring their own experiences as criminals. In addition, Finnish rap is now strongly influenced by the so-called Roadman culture, which originated in Britain.

The term Roadman refers to someone roaming the streets, whose lifestyle may include committing crimes. It combines a fashion style that includes hoodies, designer clothes, oversized jackets, puffer vests and branded sneakers. The more expensive the brand of clothes, the better. One issue with the Roadman culture is that it can also include carrying a blade.

The Roadman trend is expressed in rap through lyrics about crime. Rappers can also report what they see without engaging in illegal activities themselves.

Karri Miettinen, who has had a long career in music under the name Paleface and has written several books about Finnish rap, has a good sense of the evolution of the art form.

He says that new generations talk more freely about smoking and selling marijuana, because it is now more common.

“Rap can be seen as a window into issues in society, and a way to get a handle on them. That’s why we need to listen to rappers,” Miettinen says.

Police: Good that youngsters have sensible things to do

The Roadman phenomenon has been a topic of conversation in Finland over the past year, and youth workers in Helsinki have estimated that there may be a connection between the trend and the rise in youth stabbings.

During the early months of this year, violent crime among minors increased in Helsinki by almost 40 percent compared to last year. According to Helsinki police, more young people carry bladed weapons than previously.

There are several young rappers in Finland whose lyrics and videos allude to gang activity. There are Finnish-language rap videos from many different makers on YouTube, where men wear commando hats or cover their faces with scarves.

Some of these people are connected by a number printed on their outfits. The lyrics may suggest that this is the group that rules a certain suburb and outsiders have no business there. Shooting is simulated using hand signals.

Helsinki police have become aware of these “gangs” who are using various number combinations or names, from time to time. Some of these “gangs” also appear in Finnish rap videos. However, according to police, the matter has no greater connection to rap music.

“It is good that young people engage in music. There will certainly be people among them who end up being our clients, but in no way have their connections to rap been particularly visible in our work,” says Detective Inspector Marko Forss of the Helsinki Police Department’s youth unit.

If rappers show gang signs in pictures, it could also be an homage to the origins of gangsta rap in 1980s Los Angeles. There were hundreds of street gangs in LA at the time and gangsta rap became an alternative to violence.

“Throwing gang signs describes a sense of belonging: ‘This is our rapper, and this is our crowd,'” Miettinen says.

Marginalisation is heard in rap

Social media allows for different artists to perform without the gatekeepers of traditional record companies. No one tells these artists to tidy up their speeches or put on a collared shirt.

The goal of videos shared on social media about drugs, gangs and crime is mostly to gain notoriety. That’s why the police don’t want to make a big deal out of it.

“If the police (and as a result, the media) ‘advertise’ a certain group, it will only cause more disturbance. Other young people may get the impression that there is a tougher gang out there. That, in turn, affects people’s sense of security in an overly negative way,” Forss says.

A rapper from Sweden told Yle that too often, the angle chosen by the mainstream media is to blame society’s problems on rap music. The man declined to be interviewed using his own name because the conversation about the connection between crime and rap is difficult and stigmatising.

“The police and the media think that the entourages surrounding these rappers consist of ‘members’ and that they are organised groups. They have no members. They are childhood friends. They involve different people. Some are fellow artists, some are at war with someone on the street,” he says.

According to the Swedish rapper, Finland’s new suburban rap expresses that some Finns feel marginalised.

It is that feeling of not belonging that has been seen as one of the reasons for the emergence of criminal street gangs in Sweden, where firearm related deaths as part of gang wars are a real problem. Criminals draw marginalised young people into street gangs.

The Eastern Uusimaa Police and the National Bureau of Investigation are currently investigating whether new organised criminal groups have emerged in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. There are indications of such a development.

Censoring rap in the UK

In the UK, there has been talk of censoring rap about crime, as some people believe it incites crime. In the UK, street gangs are a reality, in a very different way from Finland. That’s why authorities are concerned about the UK drill, where the lyrics could include gang war declarations.

“It seems like we’re really demonising rap here. Gang warfare can be declared over the phone as well,” says Ahlgren.

According to Halinen, the public should remember that rap music is one art form among many. Freedom of the arts includes the right to choose one’s own subject and way of expression. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in Finland.

“If rap is censored, then my God, what will this world turn into?” asks Halinen.

“Hip-hop police” could exacerbate problems

According to Miettinen, stricter control and classifying groups of friends as organised criminal groups may exacerbate the problem.

An example of this phenomenon in Finland is a case from the 1990s, where a group that painted graffiti on the sides of trains, among other things, was classified an organised crime group.

As a result, the police were able to take tougher measures against graffiti artists. Their sentences were also substantial. Finland is one of the few countries where tagging trains could lead to a prison sentence.

According to Miettinen, the stronghold of the police led to a backlash in which more trains were vandalised. The same could happen with rap control.

“It wouldn’t help to have ‘hip-hop cops’ and start blaming these young people. In fact, this could create negative trends,” Miettinen suggests.

The world is a cruel place

Rap about criminal life has been criticised for romanticising crime. The music and videos also appeal to many minors.

A few rappers can affect young people more than years of government work.

Halinen has thought about the effects of his music on young people. He wants his songs and music videos to be seen as a warning, of sorts, in which you don’t sugarcoat things.

“The world is a cruel place, and we shouldn’t pretend that it’s not. It is also the parents’ responsibility to discuss these matters with their children,” says Halinen.

Merzi’s lyrics also include taking responsibility for the consequences of criminal acts.

“This is what I asked for. What I carry in my trunk, I carry on my shoulders. The Porsche in my yard came at the expense of my freedom,” Merzi raps in a video shot at Kylmäkoski Prison.

The video was made in collaboration with prison staff. Music classes are held in prisons, through which many convicts have discovered rap. It has been found that doing something meaningful while inside the penitentiary institution reduces the risk of recidivism and disruptions in the daily life of the prison.

The music business can provide a meaningful and honest livelihood for those who live outside the law. Halinen and Ahlgren are good examples of this.

Ahlgren believes the problem for many in their twenties today is a lack of respect for others. That’s one of the themes of his upcoming album.

“Rappers could take more responsibility for what their songs say,” he concludes.

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