On November 21, rapper Husky climbed on top of a car to perform in front of a crowd that had gathered for his abruptly canceled gig in the city of Krasnodar, southern Russia. “I will be singing my music / My most honest music,” he rapped, before being dragged away by police and surrounded by shimmering phone screens as his fans documented the arrest. This has become evidence of the Russian government’s crackdown on domestic rap music. But what is really going on with the Russian authorities, President Vladimir Putin, and rap?
Husky is one of the brightest talents in the Russian rap scene, and one of the most authentic and ambiguous. The history of Russian hip-hop culture is brief, dating back to the early ’90s, and a lot of contemporary artists still rely on Western hip-hop tropes. Husky, however, is a different story. With a buzzcut and clad in a black sports jacket, he raps in a wired, neurotic manner, taking on the reality of contemporary Russian life in all its hopelessness, beauty, and existential horror. His hit "Panelka," for instance, talks about Soviet-era housing estates, a cityscape familiar to millions of Russians.
Long story short: if someone were to become the poster boy for Russian protest rap, no one could do it better than Husky.
Husky's situation, however, didn’t escalate as much as it could have. The rapper was charged with hooliganism and sentenced to 12 days in prison, only for the sentence to be quickly canceled. Still, the events had a big resonance in the hip-hop community: Russian grime star Oxxxymiron and rappers Basta and Noize MC organized a gig in support of Husky, admitting that even if they're not always behind Husky’s music or political views, it’s important to stand together.
Rap, however, is not the only musical genre that appears to be under attack. In the last six months, dozens of gigs all over Russia have been canceled by the authorities or raided by the police. The reasons usually vary from alleged age restriction violations to health and safety or straight-up accusations of extremism. Or sometimes no reason at all. This has involved rappers such as Face and Allj, dubious neo-emo pop band Frendzona, and avant-garde electronic music project IC3PEAK, which emerged from Moscow’s underground witch house and rave scene.
Of all the cancellations, the case of IC3PEAK seems to have been the most political. In their most recent video for “Death No More” from October 2018, the musicians are filmed setting themselves on fire in front of Russian government building the White House, riding on the shoulders of Russian riot police, and dining on raw meat at Red Square. They also muse about drugs, hopelessness, and political protest in a language Russia's Gen Z understands: “You’ll be taken by police with others on the square / While I’m rolling joints in my new house.”
The wave of gig cancelations seems to be part of a bigger crackdown on music and youth culture, but it is rap that has sparked the most heated debate among all levels of Russian society, right up to President Putin himself. In fact, Russian rappers were suddenly being offered support from inside the government — whether they wanted it or not.
First, Dmitry Kiselyov (who once suggested burning gay people’s hearts), the notorious head of Russian state news media company Rossiya Segodnya, which is believed to be directly associated with controversial international news network RT, spoke in rappers' defense, likening them to Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Then, Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky commented that “it’s better to interfere less with cultural processes, particularly when it comes to youth.”
Suddenly there were initiatives to create grants for Russian rappers to encourage regional development, and Russian rappers Zhigan and Ptaha were invited to the Russian parliament to discuss the issue (although their gigs had not been canceled).
“If it is impossible to stop, then it is necessary to navigate and guide accordingly. Stopping them by force is the worst way, the effect is going to be the opposite,” President Putin commented. He also pointed out that between sex, drugs, and protest — all frequent topics in rap — drugs are the worst problem and a way to the nation’s degradation.
The truth is Russian culture exists in a constant atmosphere of assault on freedom of expression. The government has had no reservations about arresting theater and film director Kirill Serebrennikov, interfering with the Side by Side LGBT+ film festival, or arresting members of Pussy Riot. The punishing hand of the government is ruthless, but can also feel incredibly random. The Russian government is not proficient in culture, particularly when it comes to the tastes of its younger citizens, and its influence online is growing in a space whose fluctuating nature makes it near-impossible to censor outright.
So does Vladimir Putin hate rap? Realistically, he probably couldn’t care less, but he surely recognizes the genre’s powerful potential, and this is a president who brooks no meaningful opposition. In recent years, Russian rap has been growing steadily and has gained an expansive fan base all over the country, particularly among teenagers. Hugely popular viral rap battles have even been dubbed one of the last cultural spaces for free speech in Russia.
Rap can channel pain, anger, and a willingness to take more than you’ve been dealt by your life circumstances — and in very simple words. The Russian government appears to believe that if millions of kids who like rap get upset, they might start burning cars and smashing windows. The authorities' attempts to be unusually careful with rap shows the genre's power — but what to do with this power is ultimately up to Russian rappers themselves.
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