Russian rap has long held up a mirror to Russian society – and the current reflection isn’t flattering

Russian rap has long held up a mirror to Russian society – and the current reflection isn't flattering
Andrey Vladimirovich Menshikov, mostly known by his stage name 'Legalize', but also for his membership in D.O.B and Bad Balance, is used to grating the Kremlin. KabanDanish/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

In retrospect, rap in 1990s Russia was truly free. How so? Look around: the bright post-Soviet future of which Russians caught a glimpse during the 1990s has collapsed, replaced with something much darker, with one of its victims being rap.

In my PhD research on 1990s rap in Russia, I find the era allowed Soviet nostalgia, sexual promiscuity, and self-reflection to live alongside political cooptation, much like in the 1999/2000 song “Beat Battle”, a covert political message in support of centrist electoral candidate Grigory Yavlinsky. The 1996 track “Vote or Lose” by Bachelor Party (in Russian: Malchinik, Мальчишник) is yet another case:

“The time has come to decide the fate of a great country. And everyone must do it, you must do it. Think, what do you choose for yourself? Vote, or you will lose.”

What you can’t find is censorship. Whatever one thinks of Boris Yeltsin’s embrace of the West, thanks to rap, a strong community was created. Come 2023, and censorship has changed that community’s fabric forever.

Beat Battle Concert ft. rock group НАИВ (2000).

Putin and censorship’s creeping reach

Hip-hop was introduced to Russia in the 1970s through skateboarding, graffiti, breakdancing, and the disco predecessor to rap, MCing. Rap entered the picture in the 1980s with disco-funk groups such as Rush Hour (Tchas Pik/ Час Пик) and Brothers In Mind (Bratya Po Razmu/ Братья По Разуму), influenced by the funk sound of the Barbadian DJ Grandmaster Flash, among others. By the 1990s the rap scene was taking off, with everything from festivals, rap battles, and publications – it was a dream come true. Defined by exploration and precarity, the 1990s empowered the rap community to cultivate an identity, although political exploitation shouldn’t be ignored. For example, Bad Balance’s participation in “Vote or Lose” as part of Boris Yeltsin’s 1996 political campaign stands out as one of the decade’s more brazen examples.

With Putin’s arrival in 2000, everything changed. By the late 2000s, life was politicised but rap culture kept innovating – 2H Company’s rap ballet “The Ring” is a striking example. But so did life, with radical skinheads posing a growing threat toward rap’s domestic progress. Despite some groups’ omission of politics, by 2010 rap was socially synonymous with Western overreach – it had to be controlled. So in July, rapper Noize MC was detained at a festival for “foul language”, charged with “petty hooliganism” and jailed for 10 days.

Thus began the saga of rap censorship in Russia, marked by two peaks: 2018, a rise in teen-led violence that led society to deem rap a negative influence and 2021, the year of the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, terrorist attacks and conflations of rap and violence. Mizulina, following the September 22 shooting at Perm University, accused the gunman of being a fan of the rapper Morgenshtern. The second peak was marked by the rapper’s move to Dubai, which came on the heels of his being accused of promoting drug use in his hit, “Pablo”. As of 2023, more than 10 high-profile rappers have left Russia, decimating the domestic scene.

Death by a thousand cuts

To some Russian scholars, rap is a “criminal anti-culture”, to Vladimir Putin it’s defined as “sex, drugs and protest”, and to the head of the Russia’s Internet Defense League, Ekaterina Mizulina, an “extremism-making machine”.

How rap is censored in Russia is as diverse as the country itself. It ranges from fire checks during concerts, lack of security, protest by local officials, or circulated “blacklists”. These range from official sources, such as Tsargrad’s “Russophobes” list, to unofficial like the “Fontaka blacklist”. “Soft” techniques include denigrations from political officials and club owners calling their local officials. Where there is a will, there is a way, and nothing is off-limits, not even calls for physical violence by politicians against rappers it seems.

In recent months, Mizulina in particular has accused rap of everything from child endangerment, spread of “destructive content”, Ukrainian support and “anti-Russian” statements. In so doing, he seeks to reframe rap as a scourge on Russia’s Orthodox soil. When there is tragedy, rap is the first to be connected, regardless of its having any genuine role in the matter.

For some, rap censorship is justified in order to direct cultural development. Yet to rappers, censorship represents the destruction of free expression. These conflicting beliefs on rap censorship’s morality accentuates the point that in Russia, much like 1990s America, contemporary France, and 2020s England, rap is intentionally associated with violence, cultural decline, frivolousness, criminality, and extremism.

Leave or conform

But in the rare case where rap is taken seriously by the public – such as Russian-British artist Oxxymoron (Оксимиро́н) and Noize MC – it’s not very long and on strict conditions. Peer beneath the surface and you’ll find support is guaranteed only when rappers toe the party line. Western career of Timati (Тимати) is effectively finished, and thanks to his 2015 track, “My Best Friend”, participation in the 2022 “celebration” of Crimea’s annexation, and avoidance of the draft, his domestic authenticity is over as well.

Such attacks have borne fruit, one example being trap rapper Scally Milano’s recently released track “I Don’t Want to Live in Dubai”, a sycophant tribute of life in Russia. While other rappers have ridiculed him, I fear we may be bearing witness to the death of Russian rap, one song at a time.

“Sex without a Break” (Bachelor Party/Мальчишник, 1992).

Why it matters

Censorship in Russia has defined how rap is interpreted and curtailed by the public. By studying the “how” and “why”, much can be learned about where Russian culture is headed and what to expect in the future.

We must be careful, however. It’s not correct to say that rap in Russia is political because it’s censored, nor is it truthful to say all rap in Russia is political based on its stated relationship with the government. Moreover, just because rap has been used at pro-war rallies doesn’t mean the genre is any more “political” and controversial than American rap. Much like America’s celebration of rap, in Russia it has been included in tributes for great poets such as Osip Mandelstam, helped popularise others like Vladimir Mayakovsky, and holds clearly educational potential as Russian pedagogues have demonstrated.

So what’s the problem? Why does rap keep falling under the prosecutorial thumb, leading to a desecration of a once thriving culture, replete with Slavophiles, Westerners, and everything in between? It could be said that everything surrounding rap has been politicised, including language choice which, 33 years ago, meant something completely different than it does now. During the final months of 2018 into 2019, the Duma stepped in and created a competition, “Limitless Rap”, ironically won by musicians assisted by artificial intelligence, to give rap a better public image. The attempt failed and in the years following, many rappers would emigrate.

Russian culture’s long night

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Soviet-era tactics such as shutting down bars because of supposed Ukrainian solidarity, criminalising “unapproved beliefs”, and allocating state funding for “patriotic projects” are regular parts of everyday Russian life. The threat of “dimensionless extremism” has created a Russian culture devoid of culture. The 2010s dead and truly gone.

The “death of Russian music” doesn’t look the same for every genre. For rap, it’s rappers halting public performances, the end of satirical critique, a normalisation of investigations, and broadcasting censorship. What does this all really mean? While rap culture continues to innovate as it always has, it also continues to eat itself alive mass-media commentators make spurious allegations and urge that rap simply be banned.

The Conversation

John Vandevert est membre de Uppsala University. He a reçu des financements de Uppsala Uinversity.