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!

Analysis Hip-hop Research Russia Skateboarding

A [Brief] History of Russian Skateboarding and Its Ties to Rap

In preparation for my Doctoral studies, I am taking the time to seriously investigate the nooks and crannies of Russian hip hop culture. One of those interesting areas is the role of skateboarding in the gradual development of the culture and the unique positionality it took in both aiding and being aided by the growing rap scene, especially in the early 2000s with the rise of R’n’B and pop rap. In this post, I want to go through my research and summarize the development of skateboarding culture in Russia since its beginnings to the turn of the 21st century, focusing specifically on the influence of rap when it arises. Of course, more research is needed and someday this will inevitably turn into a formal article. But for the sake of time, this post will only include the main points that I think are really important and a synthesis of all the other things I’ve neglected to include. The skateboarding culture of Russia is one that has yet to be connected to Russian rap culture and so the possibilities are truly endless. One thing can be said and that is that skateboarding, while it has gradually developed in a full-on sport, started as a way to engage youth in healthy activities rather than succumbing to violence, criminality, drug use, and alcoholism. Our narrative starts in the 1920s with rollerblades, although really the 1970s.

1920s Soviet Rollerblading

Admittedly, I know very little about this having just stumbled upon it one day but here it is. The roots, somewhat, of the Soviet skateboarding culture can be traced back to the 1920s, a time of great innovation and transformation in post-October Russia. By the looks of it, rollerblading was seen as a Socialist-friendly pass time, although I can assume that by the rise of Stalin the context may have changed. I won’t dwell too much on this topic but will say that the rise of “aggressive rollerblading” grew during the 1980s, the same time that skateboarding and rap was gaining its cultural moment.[1] Out from the shadow of the Stalinist regime, however, the rise of discotheque culture in the 1970s helped to give rise to the phenomena of skateboarding culture, although exact dates as to when the culture began is unknown right now.

The 1970s Birth of Russian Skateboarding Culture

At the time, skateboarding is not really understood and those participating in this strange, imported culture are seen as weird youth, the entire culture considered a “yard circus of freaks.”[2] As the decade goes on, the culture begins to form a more formalized conception, and by the mid-late 1970s with the rise of disco, skateboarding is becoming a thriving cultural reality. By the late 1970s, skateboarding was now a prevalent, sociocultural phenomena but it wasn’t understood as connected in any way to hip hop culture just yet as hip hop in Russia wasn’t yet a thing, although Sofia Rotaru’s 1979 song “My Country” would signal the first sound of “rapping” in the country. Further, the name of “skateboarding” wasn’t even conceived of either, the common name being “rolling boards/scooters” rather than skateboarding. Slowly but surely, most prevalently within the Baltic states of the USSR (i.e., Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), skateboard culture began to arise. Referred to as “asphalt surfers,” these first wave skateboarders were simply attempting to copy what they saw in the best way they could. In 1978, one of the first models of skateboards were created, the Estonian “Rula,” ushering in the first signs of acculturation.

[For a video of early Soviet skateboarding culture, see Rewolda (2019)]

The 1980s and 1990s: The Two Decades of Growth

Picture Credit: Avito

Much like Russian rap culture, the 80s and 90s proved to be seminal periods for the burgeoning culture. Having not only established itself within Soviet cultural life but also having begun the process of localization and national infrastructural development via board creation, the ad hoc nature of the culture would soon change dramatically. The 1980s Summer Moscow Olympics were a huge turning point, not just for Russian hip hop culture for the entirety of Russian life itself. Unmitigated access to Western culture, worldviews, thoughts, conceptions about life, and capital of all kinds pushed many to begin experimenting with the cultures that were now flooding the Russian scene. A well known outcome is the rise of Soviet breakdancing, one of the first “official” elements of hip hop culture to develop within the Russian space, while the group Rush Hour would create their famous album, “Rap,” thanks to the help of Olga Opryatnaya and DJ Alexander Astrov.[3] An interesting turn of events that brings skateboarding intimately close to hip hop culture was the valorization of skateboarding as a social good, a healthy pass time for Soviet youth. Skateboarders could earn the ability to travel for competitions and the whole thing itself was seen as a positive outlet for temperamental youth energy which was being channeled into “unhealthy” forms like rock and punk at the time. Around this time, the domestic creation of different boards was fueling the rise of skateboarding culture, the Virage and the RPOM/APOM among the brands available for purchase.

The second-half of the 1980s saw the regionalization of skateboarding culture, much like the early-mid 1990s for rap culture. Touching the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, skateboarding permeated the farther regions as well, Saratov becoming one of the most important places, much like Ufa for contemporary Russian trap. It’s referred to as the “Capital of Soviet Skateboarding” for good reason, as in this city was founded the first skateboarding zine called “Skate News,” as well as the skating club “Fantastika Club.” In 1989, a famous report by the American magazine Thrasher was published which documented Moscow skateboarding culture for foreign audiences. This was one of the most historically important points in Russian skateboard history.[4]

The 1990s is a period of extreme growth but one that is intrinsically connected with the creation of a substantive Russian hip hop culture. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, more accurately Perestroika in 1985, the blossoming of Russian youth culture began in earnest. It was 1991, however, when the flood gates were opened and the “first wave” of Russian hip hop truly began in its fullest capacity. By this time, breakdancing was just one element in a larger network of hip hop elements, rapping the most popular form at the time, with graffiti just as popular and DJing taking its place as well. Likewise, notable skateboarders began establishing their recognition, Denis Markhasin and Dima Belyaev two in a huge ecosystem of riders. In 1991, the Saratov “Union Cup,” an annual international competition for skateboarding, would begin, again expanding the reach and popularity of this culture. However, youth-against-youth aggression mired the 1990s as many had no idea what the future held for them, the Western-styled “informals” too much for conservative “normal youth.” Attacks by skinheads and radical nationalists against atypical and Westernized youth were common, the rise of Russian gangsta rap coming out of this highly dangerous period. Russia hadn’t yet gotten its socioeconomic feet.

Our story must end here. Thank you for reading and until next time!

[Cover Photo credits: Skaters at Risk, 2019]

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.

Hip-hop Research Russia

The Curious Subgenre of Russian “Thrash Rap”

I came across this rap-based subgenre during some research for another conference paper and it got me thinking about its presence in Russia. Are there thrash rappers in Russia and if so, what kind of music are they making and what is their history? To answer these questions, in a somewhat, simplified manner given the time, I will first define what thrash rap as a subgenre is and then its presence in Russia.

What is Thrash Rap?

Thrash rap can be understood as as the convergence of thrash metal (a harder variation of rock) and rap. Thrash metal is identified in its high levels of aggression and fast tempi, with excessive usages of riffing and virtuosic displays of technical prowess. There’s also an emphasis of the bass register and the downbeat, meaning lots of drums and bass-focused instrumentation. From a scalar point of view, chromatic scales and lots of semitonal movement is used as a way to increase the tension/resolution feel, although it’s mostly connected with the atraditionality of the metal genre. It’s one of the more technical subgenres in the metal universe, and when coalesced with rapping, becomes something very interesting.

Thrash rap is but one element in the larger genre of rap metal. Finding its roots in the 1980s, tenish years after the emergence of DJing thanks to DJ KoolHerc in the Bronx, metal was picked up pioneers of rap including the Beastie Boys, Cyprus Hill, and even Run-DMC. Rap rock was already a thing by the time but thanks to innovators like Urban Dance Squad and then more commonly Rage Against the Machine, rap rock was getting harder as a genre. Towards the end of the 1980s and early 90s, rappers like Public Enemy and the group P.I.D formalized the rap/metal synthesis. The golden era of rap metal, however, is the twenty year period from the 1990s to the end of the 2000s. During this time, rap metal had successfully entered the charts and become a desired genre. Groups like Rage Against the Machine were now joined by other groups and artists like Faith No More, Biohazard, Sepultura, and even Kid Rock (a major influence on the rap metal scene at the time). Towards the end of the 90s, the genre of rap metal began to change a bit as teen pop and nu-metal started to gain traction.

Starting in the 2000s, genres like pop punk and alternative metal were changing the scene entirely. Nevertheless, rap groups like Cyprus Hill used metal textures alongside their ‘Old School’ rapping (Skull & Bones). Other rappers like B-Real and Sen Dog also split off to make their own rap-metal/alternative metal groups, further cementing rap’s influence in the metal and rock space. P.O.D would release their 1999 album, “The Fundamental Elements of Southtown” to critical acclaim, while other groups like Linkin Park and Crazy Town shook up the scene with their nu-metal sound. The former’s albums, “Hybrid Theory” and then “Reanimation,” were instrumental in showcasing the potency of the rap/metal convergence. By this time, however, there was genre splitting all over the place and any attempt to given an accurate reading on one genre is to do a disservice to them all. Nu-metal had shaken up everything and come the 2010s and 2020s, the lines between rap, metal, and rock are as unclear as they ever before. The Suicideboys and even Kendrick Lamar are accredited with using metal in their sound[1].

Following the 2000s, the emergence of many subgenres were seen:

  1. Trap metal
  2. Punk rap
  3. Emo rap
  4. Soundcloud rap
  5. Industrial hip hop
  6. Digital hardcore
  7. Crunkcore

Russian Thrash Rap

Without more research, I won’t be able to say for certain when thrash metal began in Russia nor how the genre of thrash rap ultimately came about. Such topics are for a separate research project but what I can say is that there are numerous artists who are accredited with being thrash rappers. Some names include Daboor, Chevy Baby, Klara Unitasova, Lil Angel$, and Kapitan Demo. One basic plot point is the year 2009, the year that (at least notes) is the beginning of Russian thrash rap.[2] As they note, the reasons why rap became so popular during the 2000s and in to the 2010s was the accessibility of the genre among youth. While rock needed a large amount of knowledge and expertise in order to make a song, rap was a low-tech art form. In their words,

“much lower threshold for entering it: to play rock, you need to at least acquire a musical instrument to record rap – a microphone is enough”

Coming out of this ease of access thinking was the genre called childish rap (or patsansky rap). However, the way Russian thrap is thought of, it is more synonymous with childish rap than a stand-alone genre. Several names belong to MC Anyuta, the group Bad Boys, Sland, and Dan-B. It must be stressed that whether Russian thrash rap can be identified or not, it was a child of digitalization and the supremacy of the Internet in mediating cultural communication and subcultural development. Rather than blossoming from the musical world, Russian thrash rap is more so a byproduct of the mainstreaming of rap and the continued accessibility of the genre and the lifestyle via online portals and community infrastructure. What’s even more interesting is that the pop rapper Morgenshtern is considered in this article to be a thrash rapper, leading to a need for closer interrogation of what it means to be a Russian thrash rapper at all.

Apparently, there is a Russian thrash rap series, “Bonus.” Whether it really is thrash rap who knows but the quality is associated with it regardless.


Graffiti Hip-hop Russia

The [Brief] History of Graffiti Culture in Russia

Unlike rap culture, Russian graffiti culture grew into itself by the 2000s. However, my research (aided by an online friend) has shown that the 80s and 90s were an instrumental period for graffiti. As I work on a research project dedicated towards understanding the development of Russian graffiti culture, this blog post will look at the barebones of the history that I have so far in order to make sense of the key players in its historical legacy. Films, groups, and publications were dedicated towards graffiti, much like rap culture. I’ll share some photos as well so you can get a sense of the changing landscape and aesthetic of Russian graffiti culture through the years. So let’s go as I tell you the history of Russian graffiti culture.

Period One: The 1980s

Graffiti culture is said to have been introduced into Russia by two main individuals. The Russian graffiti artist named Basket from Moscow and a Latvian individual named Kris.[1] Basket is accredited with being one of the first graffiti artists to make a name for himself in the rap world, having designed cover art for many albums during the 1990s. Among his many accomplishments, his creating the “crew” or group RUS in 2000.[2] Basket was also integral in an early Russian hip hop journal called “Hip-Hop Info,” coming as the art director from 1990 to 2000, whereupon soon after the website was formed, an online version of the journal.

Tag of the group RUS (2000-), PC: Not Found Gallery “Names

Period Two: The 1990s

Much like rap, it was during the 1990s when graffiti culture in Russia really took off, aided by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Yeltsin’s pro-European/pro-progressivity stance (much like Peter the Great).

During this time, the lexicon of Russian graffiti was beginning to be formed, and nationally-specific words and terms for beginners, experienced taggers, bombing, and the like further substantiated the culture of Russian graffiti.[3] The first-half of the 1990s was a time of experimentation and development, Basket taking up his place at Hip-Hop Info, while in the rap world groups like Bad Balance, Bachelor Party, Black Economy, Black and White, and many others were defining the atmosphere of “first-wave” Russian rap. Festivals like White Nights and others helped to cement the community of Russian hip hop, while venues, music videos, publications, and distributive channels were transforming the landscape. Channels were also being created to further disseminate hip hop culture to the masses like Hip-Hop Info.[3] The second-half of the 1990s is when the real party started, however. The first graffiti-infused festivals and dedicated graffiti festivals were held, “Colorful City” one of the first in Moscow. Outside of RUS, other Russian crews began to form including the famous group ЗАЧЕМ and НЕМЫ.[4]

The official tag of the WHY group, PC:

As the 90s went into the 2000s, again graffiti culture in Russia underwent a massive explosion in its size and diversity. According to the account of Larri, who was directly involved in the scene, the second-half of the 90s was punctuated by inspiration from abroad and domestically. Around the time, in 1999 the first graffiti dedicated journal called Outline was formed.

Period 3: The 2000s

The 2000s is considered by many artists as the most prolific period for Russian graffiti culture. Having had now at least ten good years of development under its belt, with domestic groups, artists, and collaboration with rap artists and the wider culture of hip hop, graffiti artists now had their own culture to be proud of. During the 2000s, many other groups were formed that are still heralded as the leaders in the culture including GO VEGAS, MDT, BTK, FACTS/SAR, and ISK. The GO VEGAS group’s leading theme is cultural distancing from the norm, creating tags and art that is only understandable to those within the group. One writer goes so far as to call them revolutionaries in their adamant rejection of endorsing the hegemonic consensus.[5] BTK, however, is understood as being one of the oldest graffiti crews in Russia.[6]

Source: Discogs

During the first-half of the 2000s, many “second wave” (if we consider the 1990s as the “first-wave”) groups were making a name for themselves like ЗАЧЕМ AND SAR, while rap’s relationship with graffiti would again expand. Many different types of festivals would feature and/or foreground graffiti like the annual Coffee Grinder festival and then later the festival called “Snickers Urbanya” (2000-2010).[7] The culture would receive another massive development when graffiti films began to be picked up by the Russian graffiti culture. One of the first American graffiti films, “Style Wars” (1983) was integral in showing the humanity of the hip hop subculture. In Russia, one of the first films to feature a Russian graffiti crew (ЗАЧЕМ) was called GOP STOP Graffiti (2004).

By the second-half of the 2000s, graffiti-focused festivals began to held like Paint Methods. But during this period, many who had joined the graffiti culture were beginning to exit the scene either due to age, criminality, or disinterest. Nevertheless, GO VEGAS were expanded their work with rap and soon began producing their own albums and tracks. In 2005, the graffiti scene was again revitalized with the release of the video game, “Marc Ecko’s Getting Up.”[8] By 2007, GO VEGAS was working with groups like Black Economy, and the subgenre of “graffiti rap” was born.

Our story ends here, but there’s more to share. Stay curious my friends!

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.

Current Events Russia

Turn of Events: Three Recent Developments in Russian Culture

Although each one of these events deserves its own post, the fact that they’ve happened in rapid succession means that they will have to be aggregated together.

January 13, 2022

Released onto Apple Music Russia, the 16-song album entitled “After Russia” feature artists who have left Russia and have used their emigration as thematic fuel for their music. Featuring well-known popular music emigres such as Noize MC (Ivan Alexandrovich Alekseev), the rock group Tequilajazzz 1993-), Montetochka (now considered a foreign agent along with others like Oksimiron), and the Indi-rock group RSAC (late 2000s-), the album is a testament to the power of displacement and the tangible influences of war upon the creativity of musicians. It also speaks to the intrinsicality of music making in the processing of complex and highly traumatic experiences, an unsettling link between first-wave Soviet emigres like Sergei Rachmaninoff, writer Leonid Pasternak, opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, philosopher Pitirim Sorokin, painter Wassily Kandinsky, and Igor Stravinsky (otherwise known as the White émigré) and the painful reality of present-day Russia (for a fascinating article, see Horowitz, 1993). The album has been given its own website and fuller project, and the poetry used by the artists stem from those from the “unnoticed generation,” first-wave émigré writers who were all but forgotten within the Russian world.

This album will have its own analytical blog post in the days coming.

January 14, 2022

In a drastic turn of events, the internationally recognized Soviet rock journalist (and catalyst for the Soviet discotheque movement) Artemy Troitsky, has now been recognized as a foreign agent by the Ministry of Justice. Joining the ranks of Russian dissidents, Troitsky’s role in arguing for the validity of rock expression stems way back, in the 1980s running up against the government for his liberal attitudes towards the genre. As reported by Fontanka (a very well-known source for reporting of social and cultural issues such as this), the list was also recently updated with the names of other cultural figures like Montetochka (Elizaveta Andreevna Gyrdymova) and five others, including an unknown organization. The original concept of the “foreign agent” status came from the Federal Law No. 327-FZ, ratified in 2017 and given the official name of “On Amendments to Articles 10-4 and 15-3 of the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection” and Article 6 of the Law of the Russian Federation “On Mass Media.” While the official website version cannot be accessed in the States, you can view the list here. On December 1st of 2022, the Ministry of Justice had begun to publically list them.

January 19, 2022

Roskomnadzor (the fancy abbreviation for The Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, founded by Dmitry Medvedev of all people), had previously released a list of qualifications to their anti-LGBT propaganda law, of which went into effect December 5th of 2022. Some context is helpful. A law such as this has been on the books since 2013, although secluded only to minors and not the general public. The definition stressed “anti-traditional” as the main element of the law. However, with the updates, not only has the age-restriction been lifted but the wording of the offense changed to include “[non-traditional] preferences and gender reassignment,” piggybacking off the gender-bending trend in the West. As reported by the Tinkoff Journal, while the bulk of the law has not changed, sex change discussion and operations are not outlawed, while two new articles were added. However, the update here is the drafting of anti-LGBT by-laws for the internet realm, of which is to be submitted by the 23rd of this month. Among the many stipulations include positive coverage of sex change among other things. This is not slated to have an immediate effect but the invocation of such measures say a lot about Russia’s current war against Western cultural development. I can’t say that I wholly disagree.