[Marxism] Russia’s Youth Found Rap. The Kremlin Is Worried.
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Wed May 22 17:35:52 MDT 2019
NY Times, May 22, 2019
Russia’s Youth Found Rap. The Kremlin Is Worried.
By Ivan Nechepurenko
TVER, Russia — On a recent Friday night, the rapper Big Baby Tape rushed
onstage at a packed club in this ancient town near Moscow to launch a
The crowd, mostly teenagers, shouted his name ecstatically, jumping and
bouncing off each other as the punchy, bass-heavy music began to play.
Just a year ago, Big Baby Tape was only known to rap aficionados. But in
November, he released “Dragonborn,” his first studio album, posting it
on social networks and streaming platforms. The album had only limited
airplay on Russian radio, and no music videos were played on TV.
Still, it went platinum in three days. Tracks from “Dragonborn” were
played more than 300 million times on VK, the main social network and
streaming platform in Russia, and were on Apple Music’s chart for
months. In an instant, the underdog rapper, also known as Yegor Rakitin,
turned into a celebrity. Nowadays, he wears big sunglasses in public in
an effort to avoid being recognized.
“I never invested any money in promotion,” said Big Baby Tape, who was
born five days after Vladimir V. Putin became Russia’s president in
1999. “Today, you can make good money from streaming online,” he added.
Only a few years ago, Big Baby Tape’s rise would not have been possible
in Russia, where the pop music industry is heavily guarded by cultural
officials loyal to the Kremlin. Veteran music producers acted as
gatekeepers to TV appearances and radio stations, making sure the
content didn’t rock the boat. Without TV and radio appearances, artists
couldn’t fill big concert venues.
But, as elsewhere, the internet in Russia has become the dominant force
in the music industry for young people, and that has changed the
dynamic. In April, the number of paid subscribers to Yandex Music, one
of Russia’s leading streaming platforms, reached 1.7 million, almost
doubling in just a year. Together with nonpaying users, about 20 million
use the service every month.
Helped by such outlets, a vibrant rap culture has flourished that is
independent of the government and its preferred aesthetics and values.
New stars have begun to appear, exploring subgenres and breaking taboos.
“Rappers didn’t try to bend to get on TV, which would mean purging all
traces of drugs, expletives and all sexual comment from their texts,”
said Andrei Nikitin, 40, editor of The Flow, a website that has followed
the scene for years.
Rap has begun capturing the minds of young people in Russia just as
those aged 24 and under are moving from being the group most supportive
of Mr. Putin’s government to one that is increasingly critical of it,
according to multiple polls.
The Kremlin seems to be worried. In 2018, dozens of concerts were
canceled, and in November, the rapper Husky, also known as Dmitri
Kuznetsov, was detained by the police in the city of Krasnodar after he
tried to give an impromptu performance on top of a car after a gig he
had been due to play was called off.
In December, Mr. Putin convened a meeting of the council that advises
him on culture, and ordered his administration to develop a program that
would increase the state’s role in pop music by introducing grants and
by opening music studios around the country. The government said it
would move to filter undesirable content on the internet, but so far has
been unable to find an effective technical solution to do that.
“The impact of hip-hop has been massive,” said the rapper Oxxxymiron,
34, a pioneer of independent hip-hop in Russia. He added that, “Through
music, visual art, movies, dance, clothing styles and more, key values
of hip-hop have spread through contemporary Russian culture.”
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“Russian youth are more cosmopolitan, more in tune with current western
and worldwide trends, more accepting of other ethnicities and traditions
and more aware of social and political issues across the pond,” said
Oxxxymiron, also known as Miron Fyodorov. “This will inevitably change
the way this generation feels about themselves, society, and the world.”
As recently as the 2000s, rap was still a niche genre in Russia. Hip-hop
groups such as Kasta and CENTR toured across the vast country, but never
broke into the mainstream. Media coverage tended to dismiss Russian rap
as provincial, focusing instead on indie music that had very little
following outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.
A turning point came in 2015, when several groundbreaking albums were
released, including records by Oxxxymiron and the Kazakhstan-born rapper
Skryptonite. Around the same time, the rapper Boulevard Depo founded the
YungRussia collective that began to tour across Russia. Several of its
members, including GONE.Fludd and Pharaoh, turned into big stars. In
2017, three rappers, including Oxxxymiron, filled the Olimpiysky Stadium
in Moscow, Russia’s largest indoor venue, in separate concerts.
While most rappers avoided direct political statements in their lyrics,
they tackled issues far from the glorious past that much of Russia’s
state-sponsored cultural output praises. Commemorations of World War II
or Soviet sports victories, two popular themes in movies and TV, have
little to do with the everyday life of young people. Skryptonite’s
tunes, for instance, offered a glimpse into the dark, alcohol-soaked
reality of post-Soviet, urban life. “Gorgorod,” a concept album by
Oxxxymiron, told a multilayered story of a tense relationship between an
ambitious writer and the power-hungry mayor of an imagined city.
And as Russia became more insular after the conflict with the West over
Ukraine, Russia’s rappers were looking outward, taking inspiration and
borrowing from foreign cultures.
Big Baby Tape, for instance, mixed in American slang picked up from
video games with his absurdist Russian flow, heavily peppered with
expletives. The rapper Face, who earned fame with his rowdy,
taboo-breaking tunes, was inspired by the SoundCloud rap movement in the
In 2017, officials in the cities of Novosibirsk, Omsk and Perm canceled
concerts by Face, citing pressure from local antidrug organizations. In
the southern town of Belgorod, organizers asked the rapper to perform
the Russian national anthem before a concert. He refused, canceling the
After that, Face “decided to do a fierce punk record that would destroy
the government, like N.W.A. or Public Enemy did,” he said in an
interview. In September, he released, “Ways Are Mysterious,” a record
full of uncompromising criticism of today’s Russia, on which he rapped:
“Freedom of speech has been sentenced for life here, this is Russia.”
The album turned Face, who grew up in the industrial city of Ufa, into a
darling of opposition activists and liberal journalists, but puzzled
many of his younger fans, who were more accustomed to his earlier
trashy, punk style.
The impact of the internet and the rap boom that followed have been so
profound that even champions of the older, mainstream culture have begun
to take notice.
Igor I. Matvienko, an influential Russian music producer and close ally
of Mr. Putin who has previously called for rap to be banned, said in an
interview that “the industry has completely changed,” and that the
change was irreversible.
But there were upsides, he said. “For the first time in my life, I
realized — and this was a true revelation for me — that Russian youth
began to listen to Russian music,” Mr. Matvienko said.
“If you go to Patriarch’s Ponds, you will hear Russian tracks, booming
loudly from passing cars,” he said, referring to one of the wealthiest
areas in central Moscow.
“Perhaps they won’t be very good ideologically,” he added, “but they
will be in Russian.”
Follow Ivan Nechepurenko on Twitter: @INechepurenko.
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