Constraints and bans are a bad idea, he said, and suggested that government officials think of how “to take the lead” and “guide [the rap art] in the appropriate direction by appropriate means.” He was not specific, nor did he sound especially threatening.
The presidential council meeting was preceded by repeated cancellations of concerts by rappers and other musicians popular among the Russian youth. A highly popular Russian rapper who goes by the stage name of Husky was sentenced to 12 days in jail.
At first glance, the persecution of musicians is reminiscent of the struggle against rock music in the last Soviet decades. But the similarity is superficial at best. In its pursuit of moral and ideological propriety, the Soviet Union was guided by the one and only true theory: Marxism-Leninism. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, an omnipresent and rigidly hierarchical structure, was the infallible authority. It was the party that decided who was the enemy and why; the police or the KGB then acted on the party’s instructions.
Today it’s hard to say what triggered the current campaign. The persecution of Husky reportedly began after a regional lawmaker asked law enforcement to look into Husky’s music for signs of extremism. An Interior Ministry spokesman, however, told the government news agency RIA Novosti that the ministry had not given orders to cancel concerts. Four days after Husky’s detention, another court ruling set him free.
Then, prominent members of the Russian establishment spoke in defense of rap culture. Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, suggested that rap artists be awarded government grants; First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Sergey Kirienko said canceling concerts was “stupid,” and added that government officials “should know how to work with modern youth culture.” Dmitry Kiselev, a TV host staunchly loyal to the Kremlin and a fierce critic of anybody deemed its enemy, said on his show that one shouldn’t turn the rap community into enemies and called Husky’s detention “disproportionate.” All these statements were made before Putin addressed the issue of rap culture.
In recent years, the Kremlin has shown zero tolerance toward any signs of political activism. Civic activists have also fallen under government pressure. But the popularity of Russian hip-hop shows that, at least in the cultural realm, today’s Russia has broader freedom of expression than the Soviet Union did. Alexander Gorbachev, a leading Russian musical critic, referred to hip-hop as “the most lively social environment in Russia.” Russian rap is a fully fledged industry, with its own labels and celebrities. Some of the top figures attract tens of thousands to their concerts.
Just like their counterparts in the United States, Russian rappers can barely serve as models of moral propriety — their language is colorful, expressive, often insulting and obscene.
Here’s a taste from Noize MC, one of the few “politicized” hip-hoppers:
I'm a pig, a real important character,
My hands were made for nightsticks, my head for a cop hat.
In order to avoid serious bodily harm,
You must fear me. What, still not afraid?
How ‘bout I make a burger out your body
Grind it through the prison bars, then wipe it on the walls?
It is not unusual for rappers to get in trouble with the police or local authorities. But, as Gorbachev wrote two years ago, for the Kremlin, “control over rap culture does not seem to be a matter of primary concern.”
So do the latest persecutions signal a change of policy?
Even in the rigid Soviet system, the campaign against rock music was a spectacular failure. Soon after British and American rock began to penetrate through the Iron Curtain, the passion for this music became ubiquitous. Before too long, Russian rock musicians came on the scene — and neither harassment, persecution or the attempts to “take the lead and guide” could stop it.
In the last years of the Soviet Union, Russian rock became a major force for political protest against the Communist regime, a perfect and powerful symbol of moral and political renewal.
Hip-hop is an entirely different genre, unlikely to claim such a role. Besides, pursuit of freedom is hardly part of the present-day social atmosphere; people in Russia yearn for stability, not change.
But the recent campaign against rappers and other musicians looks just as ridiculous and will probably die out.
But then, what drove it in the first place? I asked three of the most prominent Russian political commentators and got three different answers. One said it started when investigators checked the playlist of the 17-year-old who detonated a bomb in the local FSB offices in the northwestern city of Arkhangelsk, killing himself and wounding three FSB members.
Another said it “reflects growing fears of the aging elite as they see the young generation embark on their own journey.” A third suggested that the Kremlin was responding to numerous complaints against the persecution from ardent loyalist figures and organizations, yet “mostly refrained from making a definitive decision.”
A comment published on the St. Petersburg website Rosbalt was simpler and more succinct: “Persecution of rappers is fully senseless.”