Church commentary history

A Dive into History: Chapel of the Little Flower (Est. 1926, Detroit)

Having walked passed the church many times, I was struck by its profound beauty and Victorian-Romanesque façade. Now that I know about the history of the building, I want to share this information with you. In this post, I will look at and summarize the story of the “Chapel of St. Theresa–the Little Flower” located in Detroit, Michigan. Established in 1862 during an influx on Catholic followers to the city, throughout the mid-late 19th to early 20th-centures, the newly established St. Patrick’s parish was becoming a realized community. Built by the firm Donaldson and Meier, the architecture featured Romanesque Revivalist aesthetics like Corinthian columns, basilica floorplan, terracotta shingles, and two campanarios. As the Detroit area grew in business and people, a need for a new building was realized which was closer to the related school built for the attending children. Thus, this was built, yet the other church was still in use at this point. However, by the mid-1970s the parish was lessening in people and thus the parish was transferred to St. Theresa. In 1992, the first St. Patrick’s church burned to the ground, and in 2015 the St. Theresa congregation was disbanded due to poor attendance, although the building remains in hopes of congregating once again. In a Detroit Free Press article from 2015, Detroit Archdiocese spokesman Joe Kohn had said, “Given its location, in a part of Detroit that is being revitalized, there’s a hope that it could be used in the future.” I sincerely hope this church will once again thrive and return to its regular services as it had before.

St. Theresa’s Architectural Story

As I had said, the firm that was responsible with creating the building’s Romanesque style was John Donaldson and Henry J. Meier. This is significant for the fact that they were responsible with building many important buildings of their time including: First Unitarian Church of Detroit (1982), the Ste. Claire Hotel (1893), the Mulford T. Hunter House (1895), as well as a huge amount of churches beginning in the 1930s like the Saint Aloysius Roman Catholic Church (1931), and the Saint Matthew Roman Catholic Church (1955). The very last building that the firm was responsible for seems to be the Saints Peter & Paul Roman Catholic Church (1959) which, if one looks at their architectural style, had changed significantly since the beginning of their careers. One of the most famous buildings is the “Beaumont Tower (1928), created using the ‘Collegiate Gothic’ style, taken from the Tudor and Gothic periods. This is all to say that their 79-year career was full of private homes, churches, clubs, and hotels, many of which still are used to this day. Many of their buildings utilize aesthetic features related to the style known as “Richardsonian Romanesque.” This aesthetic originated with the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson who took from the Medieval aesthetics of 11-12th century southern Spanish cathedrals. This means columns, rustification (emphasized stone placement), spires, embellishments, cone-shaped tops, emphasized windows, and usage of red brick. St. Theresa features a twin bell tower design which, on service days, must have rung with vigor throughout the neighborhood. The vaulted arches at the entrance also make a dramatic impression on me as well.

As one website says and which I fully agree with,

“This is a beautiful religious structure, well worth a detour if you are driving toward or away from downtown Detroit.”

Detroit 1701

commentary Current Events Russia

Russian Rap Censorship Database: Some Updates

It is to no one’s surprise that censorship of Russian popular music, especially rappers, has not stopped. Rather, since the war its cultural presence could be argued to be stronger than ever. In my ongoing study of the censorship of Russian rap, and Russian popular music more broadly (I have submitted one article on the topic for publication so far), I have collected the recent updates since February of this year. As recent as yesterday, censorship against artists has become a malicious attack on not only freedom of expression but freedom of opinion as well. This, as some of the examples demonstrate, also extend to those who had previously aligned with state ideologies and political positions. This is concerning. Russia has entered the phase of eating its own, not only those who are more Westernized in their vantage point but those who are both a-political and politically aligned with the state. Further, updates to the stipulations regarding LGBT and drug propaganda have also changed the aesthetics of Russian rap permanently. I will share recent developments and my thoughts on the matter as well.

This will eventually become an article, so forgive the messiness.

  1. April (2023)
  2. March (2023)
  3. End of February (2023)

April (2023)

In April, numerous things collided all at once. None, I should add, which were neither foreseeable nor predictable based on previous activities. Major artists like Guf, Shokk, Instasamka, Grot, Scally Milano, and Jahh Kalib were censored in various different ways. This is a significant development as Kalib and Milano are both relatively a-political rappers of two different aesthetic worlds. For Milano, a child of Russia’s booming trap scene, he had primarily stayed out of politics and focused instead on his base and becoming commercially popular. Kalib, who comes from the ‘hookah rap’ line and more dance melodicism route, was also not as political but a bit more vocal than Milano. Later, the banning of rappers Yegor Kreed, among others, for violating terms of service [although prompted by the Russian government] displays the interpolation of governmental desires with private companies. This is hardly unseen in the American and Russian contexts but it again shows the unescapable hand of government in every facet of the Russian contemporary. On the 19th of April, the stipulations on what LGBT propaganda is was finalized, and only six days later upon Scally Milano’s flight from the country a criminal case was opened against the rapper shortly after. This makes a confirmed 15 individuals, including Morgenshtern connected to Russian hip hop that have left. I suspect more are on their way out. Another major event of the month was the censorship of Arbenina who, in February, had succumb to censorship alongside Instasamka. However, in May she had scheduled some concerts in Tashkent (Uzbekistan) in response so her career seems adequate, although labeled a ‘foreign agent’ like Oksimiron.

March (2023)

If we go back to March, we see a whole different set of artists censored, although the names may not surprise you. Figures and groups like Ani Lorak, Andro, Valery Meladze, AK-47, and Kis Kis, representative of both Russian pop, rock, and rap genres, were censored in various degrees. This is heavily significant for several reasons. Chief among them, however, is the fact that censorship has now permeated the fabric of Russian popular music for everyone. This, in and of itself, is not surprising but what is surprising is the speed and range of artists that are becoming targets of governmental restriction. Both Gone.Fludd, a predominately trap-based “New School” rapper, was censored on March 14 and seven days later, the Soviet/Russian rock band Mashina Vremeni (Time Machine) was later censored. The latter were a VIA-band, or Soviet state-sponsored rock band who, although state-sponsored during Soviet times, were vocal in their opposition and targets of censorship throughout the 2000s and 2010s. However, the end of March was essentially defined by the events surrounding Guf and the cancellation of his concerts for various reasons. Outside of him, Lorak was forced to renounce her support for Ukraine on fears of domestic persecution, while the crackdown on bars have begun in Russia in a more decisive and concrete manifestation. On March 19, two bars were shut down. Later, on March 22 several more were on the chopping block. What is to come for Russia?

End of February (2023)

There is lots to talk about if someone looks at the censorship of Instasamka at the beginning of the month but I want to focus on two events that happened towards the later parts of the month because of the implications they hold for the rest of Russian popular music culture itself. Firstly, on February 18 the Russian popular singer (or estradnaya musika pevyets) Phillip Kirkorov, a flamboyant singer of the homosexual persuasion, was finally pushed back against. Not for his political support of Putin, however, nor his repudiation of Zelensky. No, it was for his status as a homosexual that the Russian public have now grown distrusting of and vocally against. As reported by several sources, a concert that was to take place on the 25th of the month was being protested and asked to be cancelled by the public of Kazan. Kazan, my dear readers, is a popular place for censorship as previous research has demonstrated. In 2018, IC3PEAK were censored there along with Schokk in 2023 and Aigel in 2022. Thus, a research project is unfolding as to the documentation of censorship of Russian popular music (or just rappers) as defined by their place orientation. The second is the censorship of singer Shaman (Yaroslav Yuryevich Dronov) for having released the song, “I am Russian.” Meant to be a more supraethnic battlecry designed to bring together the disparate peoples of Russia, rejection of the song lies on claims of ethnonationalism and extremism. Whether true or not is up to you but the post-post-Soviet sensitivity towards ethnocentrism is palpable.

The future of Russian popular music culture is currently being shaped and academics [like myself, or at least I’d like to think so] are tasked with understanding and ultimately documenting, and researching, what happens. In this ongoing research project, which I hope to formalize into a book at some point, I am keeping eyes on the censorship and shaping of this culture. One must remain vigilant in their documentation of culture as it is being shaped.

If you would like to look at the database, you can visit this link!

commentary Hip-hop

Hip Hop as a Material and Immaterial Reality

I apologize for the long hiatus from posting blogs. It seems that it is easy to fall out of this habit for the academic, as writing seems to be the action that generates the most nervousness. Researching be damned, it’s the writing your thoughts out in incomplete formations, clunky sentences, and ridiculous claims that seems to cause me to question myself.

Yet, as the great and practical philosophy of Stoicism denotes, one must persist and resist lest be a needless victim of your own mind. In that vein, as I currently work on an article centered around decoupling the culture of hip hop from the artform of rap (if that’s even possible), I want to briefly talk about one of the points that has come up in my literary reading. Namely, hip hop as both a material and immaterial reality.

What do I mean when I say this? Well, I am referring to alternative knowledge (or epistemology as Wanda [pronounced V] Canton adeptly writes about in her recent article) versus the material culture that has been born from the hip hop movement. When I speak of hip hop and knowledge, I am mostly referring to the “fifth element” of hip hop culture (i.e., knowledge). This facet has been widely talked about and develop by hip hop researcher Dr. Justin Williams (Bristol University) and Dr. Sina Nietzsche (international researcher and educator). Their collective edited 2022 special issue, “Knowledge Reigns Supreme”: The Fifth Element in Hip Hop Culture” with Global Hip Hop Studies (GHHS) goes real in-depth on the issue but I’ll do my best to summarize with my available understanding of the topic.

Because hip hop culture was born from a very specific set of socioeconomic, cultural, and political conditions, the communities that hip hop touched and was cultivated by inscribed hip hop with community knowledge. Not only community-based knowledge did they create but the very infrastructure to support the passing of this ‘knowledge’ (or epistemology) from person to person, community member to community member. Because of this, the nature of hip hop culture can be thought of as an alternative method of culturally-specific communication between community members based upon their alienation from the wider society, the hegemonic consensus of what societal relations should look like. As mostly minority communities were being pushed out of life itself, they needed to communicate to stay alive. But communication was too being “colonized” from the outside in and there was little that could be done to stop this relentless domination.

Thus, hip hop became a way to communicate, to survive under harsh conditions, and ultimately to create alternative family networks that could thrive under extreme persecution. We all need connection and a place to belong, and for persecuted black, Latino, and minority communities in the south Bronx in the 1960-70s, that what hip hop promised them. A home, even if it was illegal, vilified by the world, equated with violence, dangerous, financially precarious, and misogynistic. It was somewhere to belong to, to call their own. Graffiti was a way to reclaim territory lost to the postmodern colonizer, rap was a way to speak without being understood by the masses, breakdance was a way to talk with the body, and DJing was unique reclaiming of predominately white-dominated disco.

As Travis L. Gosa notes in the Cambridge Companion to Hip Hop (2015), thanks to Afrika Bambaataa, hip hop shifted away from simply being party music (cultivated by DJ Kool Herc) to what is called “edutainment.” This term, however benign, had long-lasting implications upon the evolution of hip hop culture, and more specifically rap. Hip hop was no longer just a cultural pastime but something that symbolized the liberation of the African-American from the legacy of slavery, racism, and “othering” around them. Hip hop represented the control of the narrative of the decrepit urban environment. The Universal Zulu Nation was ultimately the outgrowth of Bambaataa’s mission to uplift the future generation of African-American hip hoppers, becoming a strong and influential political organization against the war-loving, slavery-upholding external forces. Essentially, the humanist drive to better oneself and in the process the world at large. This was the true intention of hip hop, not aggression.

As Gosa notes,

“Knowledge of self, according to the Zulu Nation’s literature, can be derived from the critical and self-reflective study of anything in the universe, as long as knowledge is deployed toward peace, unity, love, and having fun.”

Gosa (2015)

This is the immaterial core of hip hop culture, the part which cannot be touched. What CAN be touched is the turntable, the rapper, the microphone, the clothing, the graffiti can (balloon), the wall, the breakdancer, the floor, the MC, the recording. These things are the material world of hip hop but the immaterial (knowledge) is what gives these material realities meaning. Without hip hop’s epistemic underpinning, a can of spray paint is just a can, a rapper a loud and obnoxious performer, and a graffiti artist a vandal who should be arrested. Without stepping into the shoes of the worldview of hip hop, there is no ability to truly understand why hip hop looks and sounds the way it does. This extends to contemporary practitioners as well. Despite their fame, many may not be aware of what hip hop actually means, what it truly means to the disenfranchised, the oppressed, the socioeconomically downtrodden. In these spaces, a different way of making knowledge exists which is alien to the priviledged.

As Canton notes,

Rather than objective or universal truths, so-called ‘rationality’ and ‘knowledge’ are themselves constructions which shape how we live in and through the world.

Canton (2022, p. 62)

Hip hop is everywhere, both physically and culturally but without attuning yourself to the fifth element, you got a lot of work to do.

commentary Hip-hop Russia

Did you Know? Ambiguity in Russian Hip Hop’s 1980s Constitution

In this blog post, I’m working through a piece of information that I read in an article about Russian graffiti culture. Namely, that the constitution of Russian hip hop culture in the 1980s was constitutionally different than America. Although that goes somewhat without saying, skateboarding playing a far larger role than that in the American contexts,[1] it is important to note that although DJ and discotheque culture did usher in the awakening of Russian hip hop culture’s beginnings, it really wasn’t until the late 80s into the early 90s that DJing and rapping coalesced into what is understood as the culture of hip hop. This, obviously, is not a definite position and one with exceptions everywhere but I want to provide the quotation and work through it to see if there is some validity in there. The passage goes as follows in its full form:

“Through acquaintances who were in America, they got photographs, videos, magazines – everything that had anything to do with a new hobby. Thus, the documentary films “Wildstyle” and “Beat Street” and “Stylewars” [three films about American graffiti and breakdancing] formed among the Soviet youth the idea of ​​hip-hop culture as a symbiosis of three parallel existing independent cultures: rap music, break dance and graffiti.” [my bold]

Andrey Tseluiko 2007, “Street Art in Russia Part 1”

I’ll mostly be ruminating on the subject rather than using a great deal of sources. Think of this post as thinking out loud. Take what I say with a grain of salt. My thinking primarily lies in the “lack of terminology” idea and as I will try to work through, this may be a convincing argument.

A Bit of Exploration

This is the first time I’ve read, in any available sources, what cultural actors at the time thought of as hip hop culture in the context of the Soviet 1980s. More research, and potentially interviews, are needed to clarify this from a more first-person perspective, but seeing as by the late 1970s foreign media and culture was flooding into the country abreast the popularization of disco and club-culture, how could this be true?

One factor could lie with the fact that based on the sources available for graffiti culture and my own hunch, I suspect that the terminology wasn’t there either. Perhaps there was no understanding of what rapping was just yet. The account of Alexander Astrov, legendary Soviet DJ and developer of the first Soviet ‘rap,’ explains that even though groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were known in the country, it was far too divergent from the accepted aesthetic at the time to be replicated. This Western funk/disco rap, the record that radically changed the course of rap in America, was so new that audiences didn’t really know how to react:

“Yes, I have said more than once. I heard the familiar “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. But one must understand that the same Grandmaster Flash for the Soviet public was a transcendent record. We, who were engaged in discos, listened to it among ourselves, understood that it was cool, but no one would ever dare to put it on in the evening, because everyone knew that people would not dance to this music.”

Nikita Velichka, The Flow (2016)

Further icing on this cake is that fact that Rush Hour, as a group (I’ll bring them back for another point), were not the only group at the time innovating upon this new style. Based on the VKontakte post by Ivan Demidov, really as early as 1985 other groups were trying their hand at the burgeoning style with varying degrees of success.[2] What does this say then? While I am unconvinced that the term “rap” was not understood in the early 1980s, the relationship between the hip hop community and discotheque culture (and MCing) is a major point I’m no certain about. Based on Tseluiko’s comment, DJing and MCing was not yet considered part of the hip hop community although many DJs like Lika Star got their start in DJing. Is it accurate to say that DJing was understood as hip hop culture within the context of the Soviet 1980s? I’m not yet sure.

Another problem I have is with the term “rap.” Should we be led to believe that rap here is being used a synonymous term with DJing or did Tseluiko really mean only the rapping that is commonly understood? This present an existential dilemma because DJing, MCing, and rapping are all very different and cannot be synonymized. How, then, is research into Russian hip hop studies supposed to proceed? There is an expressed need for researchers to accurately talk about the topic, paying attention to the discrepancies between these cultural expressions without watering down their similarities as well. Alexander Astrov had noted that the “rapping” of the Rush Hour group was not so much rapping in the standard context but rather a furthering of the MC style which had pervaded the dance halls of the time. If this is true, then a closer study of the MC techniques of Soviet dance halls is needed to understand where Russian “first-wave” rap really came from in an aesthetic and cultural way.

As one can see, the discourses that emanate from this quote are many, as it holds the possibility of reorienting how researchers think about the constitution of Russian hip hop culture. Whether or not DJing was seen as part of hip hop culture is an interesting question but one that cannot be easily answered without interviews and first-person accounts. More research is needed to identify just what was the constitution of hip hop culture in minds of participants during the 1980s and what was considered part of hip hop, more specifically when did “hip hop culture” actually begin.

commentary Hip-hop Russia

What the Self-Censorship of Instasamka Really Means for Russian Rap Culture

If you don’t keep up with the news within the Russian hip hop world, thanks to the war and years of censorship, artists are now having to make concessions in order to continue their careers. One such case involves the female rapper Instasamka (Daria Evgenievna Zoteeva) and her recent announcement that her upcoming tour will not be including salacious content nor swearing, along with a myriad of other things. Why is this significant you might ask? As this post will show, her public statement that she will refrain from openly sexuality and swearing is a tell-tale sign of the repression of free expression, anti-hegemonic articulations of self, and the continual repression of non-normative ideology within the Russian nation.

Although the proliferation of drug usage, alcohol abuse, sexual immodesty, and other superficially troubling content does pose a potential threat to minors the young of society, if America is any model the policing of such things only make the issue worse. Rather than aiding youth in making the more productive choice, youth are encouraged to seek out alternative spaces whereupon access to this publically banned content can be accessed more surreptitiously. Look at Soviet jazz culture, rock culture, disco culture. The enforcement of censorship along content-concern lines does little to address to the fundamental reasons youth are seeking out this content in the first place. Nevertheless, let us take a look at Instasamka and the recent developments in order to answer the question:

What was censored, why, and what have been some effects?

[Summarized: Instasamka’s censorship and self-censorship is a worrying turn of events, as dubious allegations and the vilification of embraced sexuality within lawful parameters poses a significant threat to the freedom of expressions encased with the Constitution of the Russian Federation]

Allegations Against Her

On the 10th, Ekaterina Mizulina (current head of the Safe Internet League, a practically governmental body created for the sole purpose of policing internet content), released the following statement:

This is significant for a plethora of reasons, most notably the exploitation of the dissemination of drug-related content to the Russian youth as a pretext for overt repression and/or suppression of content. We have already seen this tactic used with Morgenshtern, and while it may or may not be true, the point here is that the usage of anti-drug laws proves to be a convenient method to regulate Russian culture as a whole. The third paragraph is the most important, although study is necessary to gauge the truthfulness of the first paragraph’s claim. The article that is being claimed to have been broken is Article 228.1:

Illegal acquisition , storage , transportation , manufacture , processing without the purpose of sale of narcotic drugs , psychotropic substances or their analogues in a significant amount, as well as illegal acquisition, storage, transportation without the purpose of sale of plants containing narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances, or parts thereof containing narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances, in a significant amount

Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (Article 228.1)

There are two allegations here but I will deal with the first.

The obvious next step is to find evidence of the drug statute being broken. It is not a secret that rappers in Russia are notorious for their consumption of alcohol and sexual promiscuousness. But drug use and drug-related content? That is something that is rarely, if ever, seen in the aesthetics and lyrics of Russian rappers. Ekaterina argues that Instasamka was publically endorsing drug stores, although provides no evidence in her Telegram post. Upon further inspection, and I do mean inspection as the missing context is really unhelpful here, there is little to no evidence for such a claim. Further research will be needed to figure the legitimacy of this claim. However, the second one is far more interesting as it opens the door towards the criminalization of sexualization itself. Just because someone is openly sexual, does that also mean lewd behaviours are being endorsed? By embracing sexuality, does Instasamka endorse others to copy in her footsteps?

The persecution (and I do mean this literally) of Instasamka’s sexual antics goes back quite far. In the fall of 2021, she was accused of promoting prostitution due to her unconcealed way of expression. Allegations of these kinds came from a myriad of regional and national voices it seems, although I will add that this seems to only be one way as other rappers (male I should add) are also sexually brazen yet receive different treatment (i.e., Timati and his rap “family”). Nevertheless, having only risen to fame in the past 4-5 years following her departure as a YouTube blogger to the world of rap and social media content, her public image has always been of a more sexualized nature. Moreover, in an article from 2019 (only a year or two after her transformation), it was revealed that her overt sexuality and exaggerated antics are purposefully orchestrated to garnish a reaction,

“Of course, this is an image”

Pushka Interview, 2019 (Timestamp 6:27)

She quickly shot to (in)famy and caught the attention of the Russian public. Shortly after, she released her first two albums, BORN TO FLEX and TRIPLE BABY, and her career in rap was secured. But the argument comes down to the policing and castigation of sexuality, and most prominently female sexuality (Muggleton et al 2018, Schneemann 1991, Escofett and Allende in Zoila 2019). Because of the conservative and Orthodox nature of Russia, the regulation on what the woman is and is not allowed to do permeates the very fabric of contemporary Russian culture. Thus, to be unremorsefully sexual as a female in Russia is itself a political statement. Commanding space and attention, Instasamka has revealed herself both physically and emotionally to hatred from her own countrymen and for what? Staying away from Susan McClary’s gendering of the musical form, her work in uncovering the hidden agenda of music’s sexual politics is a necessary frame in which to view the vilification of Instasamka in Russia today. In her landmark work “Feminine Endings” (2002) in speaking about the operas of the 19th century, specifically Strauss’ Salome

The increasingly paranoid and masochistic cultural agendas of the late nineteenth century tend to give full rein to the perceived horror of female sexual power, flirting with the possibility that it cannot be stopped except by exerting closure violently from without...The monstrosity of Salome’s sexual and chromatic transgressions is such that extreme violence seems justified—even demanded—for the sake of social and tonal order.”

Pg. 100

I quote this passage because I think it speaks to something very potent in the aspersions cast upon Instasamka. If a woman such as Instasamka is allowed to exist, then the dominant (mostly matriarchal) fabric of Russian society will be destabilized. The idea that a woman can be forceful in her sexuality and command space, attention, AND then receive it is a horrid development and an example of the degradation of moralist societal standards. To make music is male-dominated industry requires a touch of capitulation on the part of the male. The woman must be willing to give in, to succumb to the standards expected of her, in order to rise in the ranks. As McClary eloquently writes,

To create music within a male-defined domain is a treacherous task. As some women composers of so-called serious or experimental music are discovering, many of the forms and conventional procedures of presumably value-free music are saturated with hidden patriarchal narratives, images, agendas.

Pg. 154

What Now?

Having already had the scare of concert cancellations back in 2021, Instasamka (the day after Ekaterina’s post) released the following message,

Lots to address here but given the length already, I’ll refrain for here. I want to mention however that as a result of this there has been two updates that are seminal to add this final point. That is the cancellation of one concert in Pyatigorsk and the potential cancellation in Krasnodar. These two cancellations, while banal in the grand scheme of things, continues the trend of concert cancellations in Russia which has a long and winding history beginning in 2010 all the way up to the present (that is 12 years of cancellations, relatively speaking with some missing years in between). Check out my ongoing database for exact figures, but it should be concerning that such cancellations have not been curtailed even with the governmental intervention that was supposedly launched to help squash such regional overstepping.

It is also significant that the pushback against Instasamka in Krasnodar is coming from local residents which then is prompting local officials to respond. This is blatantly wrong and should be stopped as the “cleansing” of culture by the masses is nothing short of the resurgence of eerie Soviet-styled censorial practice. Cultural tailoring gone rouge! We’ve already seen Putin state (albeit back in 2018) that he desires the state to get involved in the censorship of rap music. Without a free cultural sector, draconian mundanity will quickly spread to places of power if it hasn’t already. What can be done to repudiate such a development? Leaving the country? Tailoring your expressionary voice to ensure wider acceptance?

There is no easy answer but the future for Russian rap is a grim one if artists continue to capitulate and leave the country. I fear for the art form.

commentary Hip-hop history

Rap in Rusia Began In 1978, Not 1984 and Here’s Why!

Conventionally, scholarship on Russian hip-hop has agreed upon the emergence of the disco-funk group Rush Hour (Chas Pik, 1984-1986) as the primordial beginning of rap’s presence in the (then) Soviet Union and future Russian nation. However, my research has uncovered a track that invalidates this claim. Rather than Alexander Astrov (Soviet DJ) and his personal involvement with the group being the catalyst for the Russian rap scene, a small inclusion in a 1979 patriotic song may have served as a the original catalyst. In this blog post, I’ll explore the song, “My Country” (Maya Rodina) by the singer Sofia Rotaru (1947-) and how its conclusion could be considered the true beginning of rap in Russia.

As part of a larger research project I’m currently working on, Sofia Rotaru is but one of the many hidden women of Russian hip-hop culture who have been overlooked by scholars. It is the job of scholars to find these figures and demonstrate their centrality to hip-hop’s legacy in Russia.

A Bit of Context

Around the late 1970s, aesthetics were rapidly changing and the constitution of late-Soviet popular culture was undergoing a massive restructuring thanks to the continual influence of Western culture (both legally and illegally).

The long and the short of it is that while Soviet rock culture was still heavily popular, its cultural centrality was slowly being rivaled with that of the burgeoning Soviet discotheque culture (thanks to Artemy Troitsky’s famous involvement in the mid-70s) and more radical forms of rock including punk, heavy metal, hard rock, and everything in between.[1] Further, hip-hop culture was slowly beginning to make its way into Russia at this time as well through the mediums of clothing and skate-boarding,[2] although the larger culture of hip-hop was not yet a thing.[a] Moreover, as the drip of Westernism gradually became an underground torrent through the illegal channels of cultural trade (fartsovka) and the boom of Soviet discotheque culture (their influence was potent and their presence ubiquitous[3]), by the late-1970s there was little Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982) or his contemporaries could do little to stop the fate that was coming.

However, the controversial 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics would prove to be a monumental step in destabilizing the Soviet Union and eventually setting the groundwork for the emergence of a Soviet/Russian hip-hop culture. Boycotted by many countries around the world, the 22nd Olympic games came to be the premiere venue for not only the proliferation of breakdancing (one official arm of four-armed hip-hop culture) into the country[4] but set the tenor for what was to come (in 1985, some of the first hip-hop related films would enter the country although we can assume that American hip-hop culture was already in the minds eye of Soviet youth thanks to b-boy and b-girl culture).[b] For the 1980 games, there was huge pressure on the Soviet Union (Russia) to show how good Socialist living was in the country, how advanced Russia could be without the West, and how developed its culture had become after its negation of Western influence (although such negation is a fallacy of the highest order). One antonymous commentor noted as much.[5] While more research is needed to confirm this, given the Soviet Union’s track record of leaders and ideological thinking (i.e., Stalin’s Socialism In One Country policy or Socialist Realism and the infamous Zhdanov Doctrine), it is not hard to see how this could have been a very possible reality. One that could have gone so far as to cultivate a cultural presence. One that could have gone so far as to adopt the aesthetic modes of the West for their own gain.

Does this sound familiar? This happened in the 19th-century with a group called the “Mighty Five” (or the Balakirev Circle), a nationalist group of composers and idealogues who sought to define the ‘Russian’ musical sound, thereby negating Western (i.e., German) influence upon their own cultural development.[6] With this being said, let me bring in the main element of our discussion, the song “My Country,” accredited with being the first rap track in Russia,[7] although not by academics (at least yet).

“My Country” (Моя Родина), 1978

Let’s say that a country is trying to promote itself on the world stage, and that at this time a style of music is becoming intensely popular to the point that miles and miles away its presence can be felt (albeit tangentially). What do you do? Do you ignore its presence or do you find someway to subsume its style into yours without polluting your own but also bolstering the usage of the foreign culture in a way that doesn’t feel overly supplicative or deferential? That is, at least what I argue, happened with Sofia Rotaru’s “My Country.”

I won’t go into too much detail about the details on its publication, those will be saved for an actual article itself. However, what I will say is that this track was made and then quickly put on the shelf of history, and I speculate that it was because this track had a very clear teleological purpose, one intimately connected to the 1980s Summer Olympics and the image (then) Soviet Russia was trying to convey onto the world stage. It is also incredibly poignant to note that just a year after this release, Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was released, although in the years leading up to 1978 the aesthetics of disco-funk and funk-rap were producing tracks, artists, and groups of incredible cultural potency. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, DJ Grand Wizard Theodore, as well as Afrika Bambaataa were all among the earliest pioneers of the hip-hop genre,[8] and if breakdancing and disco were beginning to show their face in Soviet Russia there’s no reason to believe at the higher levels awareness was absent.

The song itself is relatively melodic, with the “rapping” only coming in at the final 30 seconds of the song. However, despite its brevity the aesthetic nature of the “MCing” (rather than rapping) can be understood as a very early (or rudimentary) attempt at copying the language of American MCs which, at this time, were still using a more melodically-oriented style. The rap itself only consists of 10 lines of consonant-heavy rhythmic speaking. There isn’t really “rapping” going on insofar as we use the American model as a touchstone. Rather, it is rhythmic speaking which is contrasted by Sofia’s singing style earlier in the track. Here are the words she’s says:

you (informal ты used)
Together the
whole country
Together a
friendly family
In the word we are a
hundred thousand – I

If the track is making a political statement, then it is that the Soviet Union is a community, a unified collective where we all work together to thrive. Of course, the Soviet Union was a horrendous time for many citizens yet, in private conversation with some Academics, the 70s and 80s were a time of great richness and opportunity. This, more rose-colored, reading is what Sofia is promoting in this track. By capitalizing on the newly emerging style of rap, but make it red, the Soviet Union was arguing for its rightful place and the table of cultural modernism a la the Western ideal.

We are just as modern as the West, listen!

Take a Listen!




a. At this time, hip-hop culture in America was just beginning and in its first wave thanks to DJ Kool Herk and his parties in the Bronx, New York.

b. Films like Courier and Dancing on the Roof would enter the country (officially) in 1985 as a result of the 12th World Festival of Youth and Students. This highly politicized and curated event was designed to promote Socialist activism and ideology among global youth populations.

*The spelling of hip hop is not the same as hip-hop. See Iglesias and Harris (2022) for more.


Russian Hip-Hop and Contemporaneity

[This post was prompted by The-Flow’s article, published on December 12, 2022]

For those who know Russian hip-hop, there several canon figures that come out of the woodwork when one thinks of “conscious” rappers. People like FACE, Oksimiron, Mnogoznaal, Legalize, Master Sheff, Timati, Guf, Husky, Eljday, and Scriptonite are just a handful of rappers who have chosen to weave themselves into the sociopolitical chaos that is Putin’s Russia. Yet, within this swirling cosmos of rappers (women included as current research shows), it is clear that to be a popular musician in Russia today means involving oneself with politics regardless of your beliefs. Since the late 2000s (really the return of Putin in 2012), Russian life has “politicized,” and one is hard-pressed to find anything outside its purview.

While 90s and 2000s rap oriented itself first of the model of American gangster rap then diversified quickly in a plurality of stylistic and textually pursuits with the advent of what I call the “commercial turn” in the 2000s, it was the 2010s when “Russian” hip-hop would receive its hellish baptism. Putin’s return to the Presidency was infamously marked by Pussy Riot’s 2012 protest in Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. This set the tenor for the decades to come, yet a year earlier the four-year Bolotnaya protests would again upturn Russian life. In 2015, Russian hip-hop would reach an impasse colloquially known as “The Coup of the Game,” a period marked by an expansion and quick stagnation of Russian hip-hop’s development encompassing three artists: Oksimiron, ATL, and Scriptonite. It was thought Russian rap was going somewhere, could do something tangible, yet it was failing to enact real-world change as it was once thought. Flash forward to 2018, and nearly five months of censorship would only politicize Russian rap even further. As the last nine months have shown, Russian hip-hop has only become even more connected with the sociopolitical climate of the country, releases, choices, and statements by numerous artists exemplify this extremely uneasy relationship.

Alexander Gorbachev makes a very interesting point,

” […] in the following years, Russian hip-hop successfully absorbed more or less all popular music in Russia. No matter how hard it is to admit this to a person who thinks that February 24 completely and forever changed life in the country, this is true even now. Russian rap during the war remains an adequate cast of its society – and this cast confirms the data of opinion polls: the majority more or less don’t care. It is mainly those who have already taken to the square that speak – Noize MC, Oxxxymiron, Vladi, Lokimin; some atmosphere of dark times can be heard in the last EP of Miyagi and Endgame.”

Alexander Gorbachev, The-Flow (2022)

Russian hip-hop mirrors the societal construction that it inhabits, and whether one thinks this is a beneficial thing or not, popular music is just “people’s music” and is a cultural artform intrinsically connected with the tastes of society. Therefore, the conventionally “political” will always be a sister to the conventionally “entertaining” and “easy.” It is idealistic to think that such things would change just because of another international conflict. Yet, it poses an interesting question as to whether Russian rappers have an obligation to speak against the war or whether their status as ‘popular’ musicians force them to follow the tides of public opinion or even opt out of politics all together, as some Russian rappers have done. While artists are continually asked about politics and bring up such considerations in interviews and music, whether there is an “obligation” on their part to do so remains an unanswered question.

Spotify Playlist “Russian Rap 2022”

Timati’s Art Collection: Thoughts on Taste

Perhaps one of the most controversial rapper within the Russian hip-hop mainstream, Timati is a thoroughly Slavophile rapper whose affinity for state politics and homogenous aesthetic characteristics cast him in a very…particular light. However, it’s wrong to assume that there are no more dimensions to his personality nor his interests as an artist (yes, an artist). Thus, when the article, “What Timati’s contemporary art collection looks like“, I realized that this was an opportune time to look at the aesthetic preferences of Timati from a much different perspective than before. Rather than look at him as a hedonist rapper mogul, whose sole interest in life is to create capital for himself and live a life of affluency, one can see Timati as a strategic musician whose cultivated a very particular type of aesthetic taste, one that is just as valid as other, more nuanced individuals and intellectual personalities. In this post, I am going to explore the article above, and take a closer look at Timati’s aesthetic tastes and art preferences through the lens of Dalhaus’ writings on music aesthetics, applicable in the determination of what someone’s aesthetic opinions says about them and their mindset.

The article begins by echoing a sentiment that will be clear as this post unravels and Timati’s collected art is identified. Namely, Timati notes his taste in contemporary art as, “a classic taste of a Tokyo hype beast“, and this refers to a person whose aspirations include acquiring fashionable and trendy clothing items and other material items deemed valuable due to their sought-after (and usually rare) nature and general allure as fixed by its price, popularity, and aesthetic draw. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the term as “a person who is devoted to acquiring fashionable items, especially clothing and shoes“, although the term has evolved to encapsulate more than clothing items and refers to one who collects all manners of accessories, art, and other exclusive items that hold high aesthetic appeal and social interest.

Timati’s Art Collection

However, the “Tokyo” element comes in after he talked with his friend about his trip to “Toy Tokyo store” in New York (owned by Lev Levarek). After this, he began making his first purchases at Sotherby’s, and eventually began to create his own taste modeled around this initial peak of curiosity. However, as he notes in the Telegram article, his “hypebeast” aesthetic taste is not widely accepted, and instead is relatively looked down upon. He expresses doubts as to his collection’s popularity not connected to Timati’s name but rather as a genuine collection of artistic pieces:

“In our country, it is shared by a few, it is specific. Therefore, I see no reason to exhibit my collection anywhere – who will be really interested in seeing it, not just because Timati collected it? [Italics my own] If I had Russian impressionism or a serious classic, for example, it would be another matter. Louis Vuitton asked for my collection of chests for the exhibition, I have rare ones with color monograms, but they were also refused.”–o-svoej-kollekcii-sovremennogo-iskusstva-08-02

Overall, his aesthetic preferences for art seem rooted in pop-art, whimsical cartoons, and other forms of highly exaggerated and comic-based modalities, evidenced by the pictures of his collected works. Pieces like an Invader Pixel Mosaic, and art work by Guzman and Murakami, along with a large collection of Karimoku “Bearbrick” figures, demonstrate his tastes stem from a place of childlike whimsy and sincere enjoyment of aesthetic ‘fun’. Other pieces include a Kanye West stained glass window created by Misha Libertee, a life-sized statue of Mario by artist Ron English, an abstract expressionist triptych by Russian contemporary graffiti artist Misha Most, as well as more conventionally and recognizably ‘luxury’ items like Louie Vuitton suitcases, Supreme handkerchiefs, and collectable Hermes bags. But he expressed his interest in acquiring a painting from graffiti artist-turned international icon Jean-Michel Basquiat, the eminent 20th century African-American figure whose regarded as the main instigator of graffiti art’s rise in social prominence in the American 1970s in conjunction with hip-hop’s development. Basquiat was excoriated by critics then and still today for being nothing more than the product of “hype” and commercial greed.

Having briefly introduced Timati’s eclectic aesthetic preference, I will now interpret such a dichotomous view through the perspective of Dalhaus.

The Aesthetic, Functional, and Historical

Dalhaus specifies that there are three kinds of aesthetic tastes, the aesthetic, the functional, and the historical. However, the teleology that he lays out is applicable here to the understanding of how Timati is understanding and conceptualizing his aesthetic tastes. A brief understanding of each step is key before applying the teleology to Timati’s aesthetic tastes itself.

  1. When Dalhaus refers toaesthetic judgement” he is specifically talking about the ability of art (music here) to produce a pleasant experience through the observation of the object, akin to Eduard Hanslick’s concept of music’s true state as being one of ‘beauty’. Via this judgement, the quality of an object retains its aesthetic validity as it continues to hold its value in the unshakability of its aesthetic pleasure, however this is in large part determined not by the observer themselves but the gradual cementing of aesthetic fundamentals as created and substantiated throughout time. However, by the 20th century the idea of long-lasting aesthetic norms was being fazed out for instantaneousness, leading to inherited aesthetic judgments being less sought after for the embracement of the ‘modern’.
  2. However, the usage of the term “Functional judgment” instead refers to the reduction of an object to the utilitarian nature of its being, and the practical aspects of its structural makeup. He specifically references the forms of Umgangsmusik (colloquial music) and Gebrauchmusik (music for use) as examples of musical forms created not as a way to induce aesthetic pleasure but as a means to serve a greater, more civic purpose. However, this type of judgement is also didactic as it provides an instructive model for clearer comprehension of an object’s purpose. By the 20th century, Dalhaus noted how the idea of function was detached from music, where music was rendered “scientific” [i.e., serialism] and criticism reliant on history not aesthetics. However, as early as the 18th century with the separation of “ars” (creative art) from “craft” (technical craft), the reduction of aesthetics to pragmatic tools was begun.
  3. The third term introduced by Dalhaus is the “historic judgment”, and while axiomatic it must be noted that the latter two are formed from the influence of this tenant upon them. Essentially, Dalhaus argues that this type of judgement relies upon the epoch of the observer, and the many ways in which the past developments of aesthetic tastes have contributed to the present decisions being made. He alludes very strongly to Adorno concept of “stimmig” from his posthumous work “The Aesthetic Theory”. In this, the dialectic between art’s autonomic existence and its tie to the social reality of its creation as it was born of human labor and yet function as its own aesthetic unit, unreliant on anything other than itself. Art, in Adorno’s eyes, is not tied to the social fabric by way of theme but way of structure, and more specifically the structures that are used by the creator. Thus, Dalhaus echoes these sentiments by stating that judgments via the lens of history are colored by the imbricated and complex network of standardized frameworks.

Phew, that was a lot. But how does that actually relate to Timati you ask?

1. Behind the racing car – rare Kaws “companion” sculptures 2. living room with the Bearbrick collection

Timati’s Art Through The Dalhusian Lens

It’s clear from the article that Timati demonstrates a like for contemporary art that is aesthetically bold, structurally balanced, easily understood, and which hold considerable historical, contextual, and monetary significance.

These points are seminal in figuring out the true nature of Timati’s aesthetic preferences, and holds prominence in the deeper understanding of his musical aesthetics as well. His choice of art that is confrontational in color, texture, and timbre, as well as pieces that provide an immediate aesthetic response to the viewer, indicates that he is using the “aesthetic judgment” as a primary mode of epistemic choice when it comes to his collecting. However, it’s far too easy to argue that Timati is a recreational art collector with little to no actual knowledge of the art world nor the history of artists and the importance of the pieces which he collects. Rather, I profess it’s actually the opposite. Timati straddles two worlds without occupying one or the other.

By highlighting his interest in the works of Basquiat (seminal in the evolution of hip-hop), Libertee (Armenian-Russian artist), and Most (seminal in the realm of Russian hip-hop), Timati is connecting with deeper aesthetic principles and chronologies of taste, history, and culture. He is actively coalescing the ‘low brow’ with the ‘high brow’ by destabilizing the notion of the “popular” and the “contemporary” in the realm of art as something commodity-driven and inherently devoid of genuine artistic validity. He takes contemporary art and raises its aesthetic importance by not only utilizing his social position but bringing attention not to the ‘hype’ nature of the work but the genuine artistic achievement the work exhibits.

Further, there is a split in his aesthetic taste. On one end, he has his affinity for ‘art’ pieces that are created to be art pieces, while on the other end he has the drive to collect luxury items made to be used but have since been taken out from their functional premises and rendered ‘art’ by nature of their presentation by Timati. What are we to make of this if we consider Dalhaus’ ‘functional’ and ‘aesthetic’ judgment’s criteria? “Functionally” speaking, he is showing his appreciation of the craftsmanship that the item was rendered by, while “aesthetically” speaking the outward appearance of the item draws him in and provides the euphoria of aesthetic pressure that is desired in the collection process itself. Thus, there is this tension between his intrinsic respect for the item as a previously functioning, well-constructed item, and a luxury good made to impress viewers, enriching the lust for materiality.

In Conclusion

Timati is an odd figure, as from the surface he seems completely empty of intellectual sophistication and hellbent of pleasure and hedonism. YET, deeper under the surface and one realizes how erudite and nuanced his views on art, culture, politics, and aesthetics really are. His love of art of various contemporary kinds and rare luxury goods positions the rapper as a connoisseur of the “low-turned-high” brow and the genuine “high” brow. However, despite his tastes for immediacy and luxury he is not ignorant of historical flows and deeper-level aesthetic responses. By collecting a wide range of art pieces in various mediums, and espousing his appreciation of seminal domestic and foreign artists, he demonstrates how he is positing himself as an artistic cosmopolitan. Traversing the waters of national and international art markets, his collection forms a network of collaborating pieces that both challenges the notion of isolated, artistic geographies, and corroborates the contemporary requirement of a public figure to be a part of other aspects of the cultural mainstream from which one receives his fame.

1. Invader Pixel Mosaic 2. Harif Guzman 3. Takashi Murakami

[PC: @Vanity_case on Telegram]