This piece appears as part of our initiative on Identity & Representation, a six-month-long project highlighting different facets of identity and how they shape the practices, conventions, and conversations happening in the Highsnobiety world. Head here for the full series.
The summer I lived in Russia, I was convinced that contemporary Russian music consisted solely of repetitive house beats alongside lyrics recalling some dramatic event on the dance floor. Though I admit to shamelessly Shazam-ing every single one of these songs and later playing them on repeat, I have become aware that Russian music has far more punch than the tracks that circulate the charts may lead you to believe.
In the past few years, Russian music has become a source of dialogue for political and social sentiments brewing throughout the country. Like the rebellious traditions of the Russian novelists, poets, and rockstars that came before them, contemporary Russian musicians have become dissidents of their own sort.
The brave musicians who dare to use their music as a vehicle for resistance face repression and censorship. But the ones who advocate pro-Kremlin political allegiances also risk their popularity, suggesting that the consequences of such political expression has become a double-edged sword.
In September, Timati, a successful rapper and entrepreneur, was forced to reckon with such consequences with his latest music video after it amassed over 1.48m dislikes (and a measly 85,000 likes). The video came out on the eve of polarizing city council elections in Moscow, in which opposition candidates were removed from the ballots, and in some cases, jailed. Timati’s song, titled "Moscow," was an ode to the incumbent party, praising Mayor Sobyanin and his descision to ban Gay Pride parades in 2011.
The video became the most disliked Russian YouTube video in the history of the platform, and was subsequently deleted. Featured on the song was Guf, another Russian rapper, who later posted on Instagram that he was framed and tricked into releasing this song.
Though Timati denies being sponsored by the government, he has a record of making music in support of the current regime, having released a song in 2015 titled “Vladimir Putin is My Best Friend.” In a Kanye West-like fashion, Timati has become a cheerleader for the government.
After the video was taken down, he wrote on Instagram: “Today it’s trendy to complain about the government, but I have my own opinion. Instead of going to protests, you should work and improve yourselves” in reference to the series of protests that have occurred in Moscow this past year.
Russians were not pleased, many taking to social media to voice their disapproval of Timati’s song, seeing this as the Kremlin’s tone-deaf attempt to get Timati to stop them from protesting. It’s no surprise that Russian citizens have grown suspicious.
Last December, Putin addressed how the government aims to approach the subject of Russian rap, suggesting that if they can’t shut down rap music, they must take control of it. Putin referenced drugs as his primary concern, telling Speaker of the Parliament Valentina Matvienko that “Rap rests on three pillars: sex, drugs, and protests. Of all of these, drugs are the most worrying, They are the route to a nation’s degradation.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, there are multiple Russian artists who have been punished with crackdowns and censorship for the critical commentary in their music. In November 2018, the rapper Husky faced several concert cancellations, and was sentenced to 12 days in jail after holding an unsanctioned concert on the top of a car.
In this sea of repression, many other popular Russian artists, like Oxxxymiron, voiced their solidarity, even hosting a concert in Moscow in November 2018 to advocate for freedom of speech. Hours before the concert, the Russian authorities released Husky, signaling that they felt the pressure of the youth.
Another rapper, Ivan Dryomin, who goes by FACE, experienced a series of concert cancellations on charges of referencing drugs and profanity in his music. Dryomin had not intended for his music to be politicized until he found himself scrutinized by authorities. In December 2018, he was quoted in the FT articulating a positive view of censorship on the creative process. "Censorship is pushback and pushback makes you work harder," he stated, "So censorship could make some artists legends.” Following the cancellations, FACE released his track "Humorist," where he criticizes the restrictive regime, rapping “I told the wrong joke and ended up on the blacklist.”
Outside of hip-hop, which is heralded as the most controversial genre of Russian music, Russian electronic group Ic3Peak is also toying with political commentary in their work. Their music video "Смерти больше нет", which translates to "Death Is No More," shocked audiences with the lyrics “I fill my eyes with kerosene / Let it all burn, let it all burn / I am being watched by all of Russia.” All the while, the two are seen standing in front of Russian White House and Lenin's Tomb in Red Square. Nastya Kreslina and Nick Kostylev, the duo behind the group, faced government surveillance and concert cancellations by the Russian authorities in late November 2018, directly after the release of the video.
But over the past year, the duo have not let this pushback slow them down. Last month, Nick and Nastya performed in Yekaterinburg, one of the tour stops impacted by the crackdowns exactly a year ago. Speaking to Highsnobiety, Nastya discussed the experience, describing the return to Yekaterinburg as “both empowering and disturbing.” In this bittersweet reflection, Nastya articulates how the support she has received from fans and journalists over the past year “filled some emptiness inside [her] and gave [her] a strong feeling that the future is bright.”
Moreover, when asked about censorship, Nastya echoes FACE’s remark. “I believe that any kind of boundaries actually give you more freedom to invent new ways to overcome those boundaries, it makes you even more creative," she tells us. "That’s how the progress works. That’s how you grow as an artist."
Shortparis, an experimental band out of St. Petersburg, have also given their audience something to think about. In the video for their track "Страшно / Scary," the band enters a school that is being used as a refuge for Central Asian migrants. Throughout the video, there are subtitles present in Arabic. The group clarifies that the Arabic subtitles read words like ‘Love’ and ‘Friendship’ to reject associations with terrorism. While shooting the video, a pedestrian called the police to file a complaint calling them ISIS Officers. Throughout the filming process, they were being called Nazis and Islamists, which they claim only emphasized the vision behind the video.
The video ends with a blonde, Russian-looking boy on a float waving the Russian flag, being lifted on a soapbox by average citizens, ultimately presenting a challenge to the idea of what is “scary” in today’s Russian society. As vocalist Nikolai Komiagin explains, the band is more interested in constructing aesthetic gestures rather than overt political messages, allowing listeners to devise their own conclusions.
In an interview with Highsnobiety, I asked about the band if they had ever been censored. The group mentioned that they had never experienced censorship from the authorities. Rather, the group notes that “Far more often, we notice self-censorship from colleagues, institutions, journalists and even our audience. Our latest video clip was flagged on YouTube by ordinary people.” The group is referring to their recent music video which follows a boy who goes on a murder spree before he kills himself. One of the top comments, reads “Like if you managed to watch this video before it gets blocked.”
Censorship, and its many forms, isn’t a unique problem to Russia. In 2017, Egyptian singer Shyma was jailed for dancing in her underwear in a music video, and in 2018, the Chinese Government blacklisted rappers that did not align with the values of the Communist Party.
Even Democracies that guarantee freedom of expression have records of censoring artists. In 2014, Tyler, the Creator was infamously banned from visiting New Zealand for being “a threat to public order,” and in 2015, he was banned from entering the UK for reasons that were similarly vague.
Through all of the crackdowns and controversies, these artists have created a channel to inspire frustration, discussion, and bravery in Russia. And while many of the headlines may center around their dissident behavior, their artistry and dedication should not go unnoticed. These artists continue to push forward and stand by their work, finding unique ways to articulate potent ideas. As Nick from IC3PEAK declares, “We believe in what we do, and we believe that it can’t be illegal.”