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State funding for rappers

Sergey Naryshkin, Russian chief of Foreign Intelligence Service, seems to be very concerned about the condition of his young compatriots. In order to maintain contact with them, he proposed to establish a “link” between state and popular rappers based on governmental funding. However absurd this proposal might seem, it is still better than censorship – which again appeared above the surface.

December 21, 2018 - Filip Rudnik - Articles and Commentary

Grafitti in Krasnoyarsk, Russia Photo: Stanislav Solomahin (cc) wikimedia.org

“What you’re talking about, which guys with guns?/ Tipsy chicks are swinging on the dance floor / Sharing coke with a credit card in a toilet / What kind of guys, Van’? What kind of guns?”, sings Russian pop singer Monetochka in her track with Noize MC. Throughout the song, artists ironically underline the prevalent ignorance of Russia’s teenagers today – they simply don’t care about politics so long as the party is booming. The lyrics, especially the last verse, became somehow prophetic. “Guys with guns” surrounded adolescents, on dance floors, just like it was sung.

Politicians, leave them kids alone

Of course, the Russian state might justify its interest over popular music and its content as part of its larger concern for youth safety. As indicated by Naryshkin, Russian authorities really do scrupulously watch the contemporary music scene; moreover, they strive for contact with young musicians. In response to Naryshkin’s suggestion, presidential special representative for international cultural partnership Mikhail Shvydkoy said, “Just surf the Internet and see how many people read and listen to it. I see, how these guys ‘lead’ youngsters. This is a parallel world, existing nearby, and we cannot afford to not pay attention to it.”. Additionally, even the Russian president took part in this discussion – saying that rap is based on three pillars: “sex, drugs and protests”. Putin strongly underlined that the most worrisome element of it are, obviously, drugs. 

Needless to say, neither artists nor their fans will benefit from this governmental protection. November has witnessed a series of worrisome events. Various concerts were cancelled across all of Russia. This tendency is not new: more than 20 gigs were called off since the beginning of the year. Why? The array of explanations is broad. Allegedly, artists prop up Nazism, pornography or other sorts of amoral values. Musical genre does not matter: fans of popular rapper Husky could not see his concert, and similar actions have been taken against electric duo IC3PEAK, rising pop star Monetochka, and punk band Pornofilmy.

This cancellation scheme has two variants. The first one is pretty straightforward: concert venues receive a call from an administrative body (e.g the mayor’s office, the Federal Security Service, a prosecutor, etc.) strongly advising the venue to call off the event. The second way is more sophisticated: “concerned parents”, after they suddenly get interested in what their little ones listen to, go mad and contact a local prosecutor. In this way, kids are prevented from engagement with “amoral” idols and their “ill-valued” music.

Back in the good old days

Some Russian pundits warn that authorities have created an informal “black list” of forbidden musicians. Even if that document is only a rumour, it is still true that some politicians use language that can easily recall the “good old times”. Such a scenario is reminiscent of the Dagestani minister of youth’s famous comment regarding the banning of the anime-festival in Dagestan’s capital, Makhachkala – “Today anime, tomorrow – LGBT”.  It deliberately rings a bell in the memory of once-Soviet citizens, who were exposed to a very popular and similar saying: “Today he listens to jazz, tomorrow he’ll betray the Fatherland.”

Constraints were not limited only to the cancellation of concerts. In some cases, the artists were detained and questioned. The above-mentioned electronic duo IC3PEAK were performing in Kazan when, 25 minutes into their performance, police turned off the electricity in the venue and surrounded it. Later, the police justified their actions by claiming that a bomb had been planted there. During the same tour, these artists were also arrested for few hours in Novosibirsk. As the duo’s tour-manager believes, this peculiar hunt started because of IC3PEAK’s clip, in which the vocalist pours benzine on herself in front of the Russian White House and sings: “The whole of Russia is looking at me / Let everything burn.”

Still, the most tremendous cancellation took place on November 21st 2018 in Krasnodar. The police refused to allow fans to enter the concert hall for Husky’s rap show. Despite the police’s impediments, the artist nevertheless decided to perform, jumping on a parked car and singing along with the gathered crowd. He was subsequently arrested and sentenced to 12 days in jail for “petty hooliganism”.

You gotta fight for your right to party

Husky’s arrest was perceived as an overt attack on rappers and provoked a stunning reaction. On November 26th 2018, three household names of the Russian rap scene – Basta, Noize MC and Oxxxymiron – organised a joint concert in Moscow to support their detained colleague in an act of solidarity. The event was a giant success, to some extent uniting divided hip-hop culture. Revenues from tickets were transferred to Husky, who decided to donate the money to the NGOs  that helped him during his detainment. After his lawyer issued a complaint, the rapper was released on the same day as the concert called in support of him was performed.

The real cause for Husky’s early release remains a mystery, just as the motivations behind the current wave of systematic concert cancellations do. Was it a top-down order? If so, what was the purpose of it? It is immensely unlikely that someone would ever imagine that these measures will foster the youngsters’ “moral” education. What is more, even politicians and Kremlin-connected journalists seemed to be surprised by the way in which this situation developed. Naryshkin’s idea to fund rappers might seem abstract, but there were also other ridiculous proposals on how to “tame” current idols. For instance, Sergey Markov consciously suggested not to persecute them, but instead to invite them from time to time for “guiding meetings” with officials.

As musicians and their influence remain a big topic in Russia, authorities unwittingly increased their popularity. Who could have ever imagined that Dmitry Kiselyov would talk about rap during his weekly programme?   And it does not stop there – he even tried to rap, with a hip-hop beat, and make slack, wanna-be gangster gestures. At least he made an attempt to contact with teenagers’ hearts. However, Mayakovski – the author of the poem which Kiselyov endeavoured to rap – might be too old-school, anyway.

One could say that these are not real issues, and instead argue that the entire Russian population must confront “more urgent” problems such as pension reform, corruption, unemployment, etc. There is no point to denying that. Nonetheless, these questions – especially those regarding retirement – are often abstract to young people. Meanwhile, music is a real thing to them, which is “theirs” and considered to be very personal. If this last wave of pressure on musicians will impose self-censorship among them, youngsters might feel betrayed. We can already witness examples of it – during one of his concerts rapper Jah Khalib sang “cake, compote” (keks, kompotiki) instead of his traditional chorus, “sex, narcotics” (sex, narkotiki). Obviously, this is an exaggerated instance – nevertheless, even hidden self-censorship is perfectly noticeable within a musical framework.

On top of that, banning the music would add another brick to the existing cleavage between children and their parents; and even worse, youngsters might perceive those parents as an illustration of hypocrisy. The generation of their parents is the generation of current politicians. Let us not forget that Medvedev’s favourite band is Deep Purple. Were they not singing about brief intimate contacts and underlining sexual liberation? They were. So what is wrong with current idols?

Filip Rudnik – currently pursuing his Master’s degree in the CEERES programme at the University of Glasgow. Contributor at “Kultura Liberalna” and editor of eastbook.eu

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