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!

Analysis Hip-hop Husky

Mini Russian Rap Analysis: About Love (Husky, 2023) Pt. 2

This is part two is a two-part series which will be looking at Husky’s newest track “About Love” and the relationships between music, text, and music video aesthetics. Check part one for “theory,” “textual life,” “musical life,” and “musical life.”

Buryatian rapper Dmitry Kuznetsov, otherwise known as Husky, released his first 2023 track entitled “About Love” (O Lyubov). In this post, I will conduct a preliminary analysis of the music video, text, and musical of Husky’s new song and musical aesthetics in-line with the theories of multi-semiotic analysis (Baltar et al, 2022), music video analysis theory (Baxter et al. 1985, Cook 1998, Taylor 2007), as well as multimodal discourse analysis, or MCDA (Cara 2017).

Table of Contents [to find each section, use your browser’s search function]

  1. Video Life
  2. Collective Analysis
  3. Final Conclusions

Video Analysis

As per the trend recently in many of Husky’s work, there is a growing trend to orient the rapper towards his far-Eastern heritage, distancing himself from the conventional, Western-colored rapping circles which most Russian rappers find themselves within. Hailing from Ulan-Ude, the capital of Buryatia in the far-Eastern regions of Russia, Husky shares more of an ethno-cultural relationship with Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and China then he does with Europeanized Russia. This relationship also extends to India as evidenced in one of Husky’s tracks, Revenge, where the usage of the harmonium and Hindustani musical tradition finds itself embedded into the very fabric of the musical texture itself. This, of course, is not made public and it took quite a bit of work for me to figure that out. Thus, a much needed investigation into the reasons and aesthetic dimensions of Husky’s choices are needed, as well as what it means (STAY TUNED…This will eventually become an article but a blog post will be made first).

The music video, as noted in the description, was shot in Ulan-Bator, the capital of Mongolia. This is heavily significant because some of Husky’s closest relationships are with far-Eastern personalities like Yosef Minor (@yosefminor) among many other people. Further, one of the main elements in many of Husky’s songs are rooted in calling out his home, something that clearly holds a great deal of significance for him. The American hip hop scholar Murray Forman in his 1997 book, “The ‘hood comes first,” goes to great lengths to argue for the centrality of spatial connections and the family (or hood) in the delineation of rap identity and personas via hip hop aesthetics. Not just space however in terms of geographical dimensionality but the very idea of space itself. By decentering, but not isolating, himself from the main epicenters of the Russian hip hop machine, Husky confirms Forman’s thesis:

“The prioritization of spatial practices and spatial discourses underlying hip hop culture offers a means through which to view both the ways that spaces and places are constructed and the unique kinds of space or place that are constructed..”

Forman 1997, pg. 3

Of course, this can extrapolated but it’s most important to focus on the centrality of ethno-cultural individualism along the lines of Eurasianism and the purposeful distancing of the Russian rapper from the European and Western hegemony. For a later time. It would take far too long to deconstruct every single semiotic of meaning in the music video right now but the Eurasian Steppe is the location of the music video, with Husky playing the part of demon and narrator as the life of this baby develops. You can see the clash of culture, the traditional versus the modern, and the desire for happiness with the slow but continuous march of life’s battles. Husky plays the part of the grim narrator, a Virgil-inspired character who presides and leads the viewer through the tumultuousness of life. The child grows up from infancy, gets his hair cut, marries a woman, and they have their own child as the sun sets of the Steppe. What does this all mean? With the credits written in traditional language, we are met with the evening sky, the progression of life well spent. More research is needed to decode the music video but one gets a sense of existential peace and harmony.

Collective Analysis

What immediately strikes me as odd about the video and the track itself is the lack of utilization of any folk music, textual references, or any overt symbolic or aesthetic elements in the track itself to what is depicted in the video itself. This disparity in orientation could be explained by the dependency of the music video on the comprehension of the music, as both the music video and the track seem to stand on their own two feet and are capable of telling independent narratives that are not intertwined with each other to such a degree that one cannot be understood with the other. That being said, the liturgical nature of the track’s intro does gain a new dimension with the visual narrative being drawn out. However, as a critic I would have wanted more integration of the Mongolian culture into the musical aesthetics, either instrumentally or musically in order to compensate for the appreciable gap between the video and musical life. But perhaps this is intentional, Husky making a track which is contextualized one way with the video but capable of standing on its own without the video for a more generalized application in the lives of his listeners and fans?

Another obvious through-line is the blurring of technological advancement, modernity, and traditionality, indigenous culture, ethnic practices, and cultural divides. At one point, the superhero Spiderman shows up as the costume the small child chose. This produces a myriad of questions which would need to be contended with by the researcher. Namely, where did the boy learn about this character, why did they pick this one, and most importantly, where did they purchase the costume? Other questions arise with the presence of cars, the location itself, the isolated nature of the location, the mythology that Husky’s character is embodying, and especially the haircut scene. Why was the style chosen, where did the blade come from, and what is the significance of hair in the cultural biome which the video takes place? These questions seem to be unanswerable if one focuses on the music alone, nor does the text offer any clues. This is why an analysis of the music video seems to be complicated, as the musical aesthetics and the text give you nothing to work with. Perhaps this is one of Husky’s many elements in his codified ambiguity which seems at the heart of his image as a rapper? One cannot accurately understand his motivations or intentions behind his art, and instead one must read between the lines, evidenced in his track, “God of War.” The music is a repeated melody and ostinato essentially, with the text offering little by way of ethno-cultural articulations. However, there must be a relationship there. Perhaps the video really is made to recontextualize seemingly antithetical, and relatively generic, music and text. But there is nothing generic, one must admit, about Husky’s artistic identity which begs the question,

“What was Husky trying to accomplish here?”

Final Conclusions

A minor-tonality, relatively simplistically designed, track about the desires and complexities of love, Husky’s relationship to love and life itself, which accompanies a video that focus on Mongolian indigenous life. An enigma of the highest order, I sense that the idea of fate, existentialism, amor fati, and live the good life seem to be at the heart of Husky’s new track. As if to say, “This is how one lives a good and meaningful life,” Husky’s focus on uplifting his audience and raising their consciousness seems to strike again. By focusing on the provincial pleasures brought about by a good family life, strong social connections, and a one-to-one relationship with the Earth, Husky suggests an alternative way to live in modern society. Dipping in only when needed but maintaining your distance at all times, Husky provides us with an alternative image of modernity itself. The preservation of indigenous and ethnic practices in the face of quickly developing and relatively frightening post-modernity is displayed in the music video with esoteric obscurity. By focusing on love instead of life or something more general, Husky is opening the door to a deeper, all around more profound, type of love. A love which is far more interpersonal in nature, one which focuses on the other as much as self.

A double-edged sword, love threatens to consume us if we are not careful. Yet, we must not scorn or ignore love’s potent call either.

Husky on set, PC: VKontakte.
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.

Wiki With Me

Wiki With Me: The Kazakh Father of Battle Rap (Aytysh)

Although battle rap’s African origins are well understood, I want to understand the global roots of battle rap. To do this, I have begun looking at a Kazakh father of the battle rap style in form of the ‘Aytysh‘ (in Kazakh Aйтыш). This style finds its roots in several different folk music styles, and recently it was included in UNESCO’s list of intangible world history! Taking place between two improvisational poet/singers called akyn, these Kazakh bards duel in exceptional skill and mastery. Not only in music and oratorical poetics but in local and national history, incorporating their heritage and epics into their battling. However is able to showcase themselves as the master of text and music is the winner of the event. Finding primordial roots in the folk music style of the Kazakh zhar-zhar and the Kazakh badik, battle rap is incorrectly associated only with Africa.

In a general definition, Aytysh is the name for the style of primarily oral folk music culture emanating from Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, although more accurately many regions across central Asia and the far East. The relationship between Turkey and Russia is widely studied but the musical synthesis between these two countries within the world of Russian rap culture is not yet. Olcay (2022) looked at the phenomenon of first-wave Russian emigres and their emigration to Turkey, of which many well-known composers and musicians were a part of but there is a significant lack in transfers of culture in terms of popular music.

During the aytysh (a competition between two akyns sitting opposite each other), each opponent strums a folk instrument and goes back and forth with rhymed lines. The winner is based upon who can come up with the most ingenious text attacks while showing a high level of competency on their respective instrument. Typically, themes will be based around several key areas including boy/girl relations, current events, historical stories and epics, personal and domestic conflicts and arguments, as well as the incorporation of religious and spiritual themes. More often, however, is the usage of satirical aggression in order to one-up the opponent. Politics is also a major theme that is often used, tying the genre to the world in which it inhabits. Researchers have noted that the aytysh is a reflection of the life and worldview of Kazakh nomads and folk experience, who use this form as a way to deal with and make sense of their environment and society.

The style has been protected since 2008 when the Aytysh Public Fund was created in order to encourage the continued legacy of the aytysh tradition. Contemporary competitions have also been held, the first occurring in Bishkek in 2008 followed by a competition in Kyrgyzstan in 2009.


Wiki With Me

Wiki With Me: The Phenomena of “Democratic Satire”

A satirical French cartoon on the subject of Tsar Nicholas II (Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov), the last Emperor of Russia, with a reference to the peace treaty which ended the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). – Year: circa 1905 (Source: Alamy)

A newer concept to me, when I learned of “democratic satire” (in Russian демократическая сатира or demokraticheskaya satira), the equally as complex term of “stiob” (стиоб or stiob, surreptitious irony mixed with biting social commentary) became instantly understandable. The Russian style of humor is often laced with deeply rooted cultural affiliations and politically-motivated allusions. At times, Russian humor takes the troublesome elements of Russian culture and the Russian worldview for a satirical joyride while other times the spiritual moralism at the heart of Russian culture is put on display. Whatever the case may be, to be funny in the Russian context is to pierce holes in the seriousness of all aspects of the Russian system and the myriad of paradoxes, mishandlings, blunders, and inequalities which the system is built upon and upholds. A relatively young genre (emerging only in the 17th century), humor has come a long way in Russia. Yet, as I will show, to understand the existentialist humor of Dostoevsky or the searing transparency at the heart of the Soviet anecdote, one must first comprehend the concept of “democratic satire.”

In this post, I’ll explain what this concept is and some examples for you to read.

A Little Bit of Context

While the “funny” in Russian literature didn’t begin in earnest until after the Times of Trouble (1598-1613), it was because of this period that parody of social conditions, government officials, the church, and tradition would begin. As the hegemony of the Church began to be critiqued and the “new” world of religiosity began, what could and could not be publically said defrosted a bit (think Khrushchev Thaw but medieval). Literature became far more critical of its surroundings rather than staying quiet on the impropriety and duplicity of clerical leaders and the church itself. Finding solace in the growing secularist nature of Russian society (thanks to Peter Ist/The Great), the exploitation of literature for propaganda and fierce political reprobation was common. Literature was one place where authors could be as biting as they wanted, as “freedom of expression” within the confines of text was allowed. As a result, harsh attacks on Orthodoxy and the ideological attachment of the Russian people to it was a popular topic, along with a pessimistic outlook on the future of the Russian nation. It would only be in the late 18th-century (circa 1770-1780s) when a Russian national consciousness / national identity would begin to be conceptualized for the Russian people, but right now a completely new path was opening up for the Russian writer, one decoupled from religion and imbued with Enlightenment ideals and fed on the notion of “liberation.”[1] Upon this foundation of self-development and caustic realism, the genre of a people-oriented, ground-up style of humor emerged.

Democratic Satire is…

Social commentary covered in a façade of humor, wit, and touchy coarseness but never crosses the line into genuine insult or chastisement. Most of the literature that is associated with the genre of “democratic satire” (also called folk satire due to the close relationship of folklore with the style) comes from two centuries, the 17th and 18th centuries. Further still is the anonymous nature of many of the authors, although given the subject matter and the time period it’s not entirely unsurprising. Utilizing common tropes and narrative plots found in folk stories and fairy tales, these stories contain allegories, parodies, satirical jests, and ironic twists that exemplify the real world conditions and situations that they were written within. Democratic satire also in indebted to the tradition of oral narration (i.e., oral history), the oral storytelling device and tradition of Skaz (short for skazka) an example of its cultural significance. But the genre of “democratic satire” is also intimately connected with the desire to make sense of one’s surroundings and/or escape them completely. Under pre-Petrine rule (i.e., Muscovite rule), life was very hard for those not at the top. Thus, early humor writers were conceiving of a world that was becoming too connected to reality. Thus, to cope with this they started embracing this interpolation and poking fun at their own situation with acidic results. Notions of utopia were shattered with brutal scorn masked in jokes, the fear of cultural stagnation hidden behind the laughter at the drunken man, the fat and lazy clergy a symbol of religion’s dwindling efficaciousness (or the putrid ambivalence of mankind to screw things up, even in the divine context). Prior to Peter’s secularization of Russian society, people were still led to believe that God’s kingdom was the purest goal, while corruption in the church was to be ignored, poverty all around them ignored, dirt and disease passively allowed into their homes. If anything, the Russian satirical tradition awakened the masses to the abject dismalness of life and instead of silently allowing it to come and overtake one’s mind satire allowed the public to finally have some type of power, if only on paper.[2]

Three Examples

  1. The ABC of a Naked and Poor Man (1663)
  2. Service to the Kabak (17th c.)
  3. The Tale of the Hen and the Fox (17th c.)
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.

Wiki With Me

Wiki With Me: Antonio Bononcini’s “Sesostri re di Egitto” (1716)

[Picture: First page of the libretto of Sesostri re di Egitto]

Within the world of Baroque opera, there are far too many operas to be cognisant of them all, let alone a handful of them. Nevertheless, because I’m fascinated by unknown and lesser-known operatic works, Wikipedia is a wonderful venue for low-commitment research. Therefore, venture with me as we discover the opera “Sesostri re di Egitto” by Baroque composer Antonio Maria Bononcini (1677-1726).

Who Was Bononcini?

Born in Moderna, Italy, Antonio is the little-known brother of much more known Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), composer and cellist (among other things). He’s most widely known for his impressive catalogue of operatic compositions but particularly his opera “Xerxes” (1694). This was modeled of earlier Italian versions (Francesco Cavalli’s Il Xerses, 1655), and included the aria “Ombra Mai Fu,” although the opera would be later adapted and the aria transformed by G.F. Handel. But back to his brother!

Having been born to a musical family, his father Giovanni Maria Bononcini a violinist and composer by trade. In his youth, Antonio studied with Giovanni Paolo Colonna (1637-1695), Italian composer and organist, praised for his sacred music and stellar ability to navigate between classical sophistication and the baroque stylized sensibility. He started his musical career in the orchestra of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, although he’d begin to compose his first works in the late 17th century (around the 1690s). Interesting is that he would go onto write 12 cello sonatas, a historical event given the fact that only one other composer had written solo material for the instrument, the famed cellist Domenico Gabrielli having written quite a few works.

In 1700, he moved to Vienna with his brother and played at several venues before settling into service with Emperor Joseph I. He was even acquaintanced with George Telemann, a contemporary of J.S. Bach and criminally undervalued. In 1705, he became Kapellmeister (Chapel Choir Master) for Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, although returning to Italy in the early 1710s with his brother to become the maestro di cappella (Italian version) of Moderna. He lived a small bit in Rome but moved back in 1716 where he set up shop as a cellist and composer with the Molza Theater. It was during this time when he would write a good amount of his operatic works.

He’d go onto get married and have five children (four sons and one daughter), although none would continue the bloodline of musicians.

Now The Opera!

Premiered on February 2, 1716 at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan, Bononcini’s opera tells the story of the fictious king of Egypt named Sesostris who is alleged to have explored Europe. Modern research notes that this mythical king is most likely Senusret III, a very real individual and the fifth Pharaoh of the 12th Dynasty of Egypt. The libretto, in the old Italian language, was written by two individuals,  Apostolo Zeno, a journalist turned poet, and Pietro Pariati, a well-known poet and librettist who created other works such as Orfeo ed Euridice (set by J. J. Fux in 1715)

The opera is in three acts and is modeled after the melodramma, in the 17th-century this term was synonymous with opera (it’s not the English over-the-top thing until the 19th-century). Featuring seven parts and a seven-instrument orchestra, the work could be considered a chamber work by today’s standards, although not a wise choice. Interesting still is its dedicated person, Prince Eugene of Savoy and Piedmont (a highly successful military commander of the Hapsburg Dynasty). He was known for his patronage of the musical and intellectual arts, aiding persons such as J. J. Rousseau and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

I hope you found this post interesting. Until next time!

Hip-hop history

Cooperative “Swan Lake”: The Real and The Rap

“Yeltsin’s successor, President Vladimir Putin, has, over 20 years in power, reclaimed territories in neighboring Ukraine and parts of Georgia.

But his critics say Putin has yet to groom a successor or build democratic institutions to determine who might succeed him in the Kremlin one day, meaning whatever Russians’ opinion of the failed coup of 1991, there’s always the risk that Tchaikovsky’s swans may dance again.”

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow (Aug, 2021)

In December of 2022, political rapper NOIZE MC released a live-recorded track entitled, “Cooperative Swan Lake.”[1] (On January 12th, a studio version has now been released)[aa]. Taking inspiration from the historical (failed) coup d’etat which ousted the last leader of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev from power in August of 1991, the track talks about the event in passing. However, there are clear undertones of contemporary politics at play. To understand what this situation and how NOIZE MC contextualized the period in his track, I’ll first explain what the whole situation is and then answer a series of questions regarding several aspects before going into the rap version. It’s fascinating to note the role that Tchaikovsky’s ballet played in cementing this period in the cultural memory of Russians. Just take a look at a post by Artemy Troitsky in the beginning of this year in response to Belarus’ pro-Russian support:

Caption: Cooperative “Swan Lake.” Originally tweeted by (@aktroitsky) on March 23, 2022.

What is “Cooperative Swan Lake”?

This name was given to the failed coup d’etat by Vladimir Kryuchkov, Yuri Plekhanov, and others from August 19th to the 22nd of 1991.[2]

Anti-Gorbachevism had been building over the past few months, and by June it was extremely palpable that even the leader himself began to know that his days were limited. In July, he had a meeting with Yeltsin and Nursultan Nazarbayev about a change in ministers, although the meeting had been tapped by KGB officials. At this point, Gorbachev had begun to suspect that Kryuchkov and Dmitry Yazov could not be trusted. On August 4, Gorbachev would leave on holiday in Foros. However, as early as the 5th a collective of people including Kryuchkov and Yazov began working on how to remove the leader from office. On August 17th, the first of several critical meetings were organized to figure out just how to best remove Gorbachev. By the 20th, it had been planned.

Having caught Gorbachev in a dacha in Crimea while on vacation, publically stated to have some disease and organ failure although many did not believe this claim, in his absence this allowed the newly formed State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP, nicknamed the “Gang of Eight”) to take power. Valery Boldin, assistant to Gorbachev, was tasked with giving the dethroned leader an ultimatum. Either release power or it will be taken. A state of emergency was announced by Valentin Varennikov (many details can be found here). However, this would ultimately fail, the leader refusing to sign anything, and on the 22nd Gorbachev would return to work, quickly relieving both Kryuchkov and Plekhanov from their roles, jailing several others.

What’s The “Swan Lake” Element?

The Swan Lake component, although tangential, helps to show how Russian music culture has been used in various contexts to highlight culturally poignant moments but undergo a radical recontextualization in the process. The symbol of Swan Lake, thanks to this moment, is now associated with the  State Emergency Committee because they had arranged a “funeral program” in memory of several leaders including (Leonid) Brezhnev, (Yuri) Andropov, (Konstantin) Chernenko. These men caused a tremendous amount of suffering and created a period which, for many if not all, did not invoke happy or even safe memories for the residences of the USSR. However, the latter two (in a morbid sort of way) is responsible for the development of Russian hip-hop culture.

The sublime beauty of Swan Lake became antithetical to the ugliness of the leaders being remembered, and with the coup surrounding the tone-deaf programming, the music gained a completely different demeanor. However, as some of the dancers expressed, the relationship shouldn’t politicize the ballet, although the ballet itself became a mighty symbol during the Soviet Union. Dance scholar Maria Goltsman notes that the ballet became synonymous with the Russian soul during the Soviet Union and a shining example of the splendorous quality of Russian culture for foreign audiences. As she writes, “And it was considered to be loved by all the Soviet people as well. It was usually shown to all kinds of eminent foreign guests and during all international tours.”[3] Speaking about the power of the contrasting realities, Goltsman remarks on the powers of surreptitiousness that the broadcast of “Swan Lake” held, “it served as a cloak, with the television screen masking reality.[4]

The broadcast from the 18th to the 21st of August of 1991 made at the Bolshoi Theatre, was aired for three days in a row, again sullying Tchaikovsky’s music and the memories of the period with a tenuous mixture of out-of-step beauty mixed with brutal politics. Even worse was the fact that any and all other broadcasting for three days was not available, and thus one was forced to bear witness to this sour-tasting funeral service coupled with some of Russia’s most beautiful music. The performance was originally scheduled for two weeks prior to the coup, and yet miraculously it was not aired until the 19th. The airing was included on the “Musical TV Theatre,” and members of the Bolshoi hadn’t even realized the gravity of the scenario as they were on tour in Latin America at this time. In recollection, lead Natalia Bessmertnova decouples the ballet from politics, arguing it was just serendipitous that such things lined up.

The original footage is hard to find but in this video you can see some, the fragment being the “Danse des petits cygnes” from the second act, an ironic piece given the theme of the ballet, an echo of how young swans gather together for safety. 

Noize MC’s Rap Reimagining

Lots of have been said already about Noize MC and his political activism through his music, scholars of Russian hip-hop taking note of his prolific status and historical positioning.[b]

Independent research into the historical legacy of censorship in Russia has revealed that he was the first, officially, that was censored by the state due to expressionary concerns.[aa] Throughout the decades, Noize MC has involved himself (and been drawn into) sociopolitical dissention of nearly every kind, but mostly dealing with Putin and the rampant fraud within the Russian state. After a full year of warfare between Ukraine and Russia, in late December Noize MC released the track “Cooperative Swan Lake.” This came only a month after being labeled the dreaded, if legendary status, of “foreign agent.”[5] Other notable rappers to hold the title include the Oxford-educated rapper Oksimiron, FACE, and the controversial pop rapper Morgenshtern.

The Russian authorities, especially exasperated by the war, have tried to control the narrative and regulate what is and is not shown in terms of popular music within the country. Everything from radio, television, music, and journalism have faced their own types of censorship. In Noize MC’s case, given his musical genre (of which he interpolates with rock among other influences), given his political position his future in Russia is effectively over. During the summer, he relocated to Vilnius, Lithuania,[6] following a wave of hip-hop emigres like FACE, Timati, Kizaru (although he left in 2014), as well as Yuri Dud (a high-profile journalist), among other social figures. Thus, Noize MC is not afraid of talking politics through his art and is not mild in expressing his own, controversial, beliefs.

The track reads as a one-way conversation of sorts, Noize MC berating the listener for their inability to see or hear the situation at end. He is trying to wake up the populace but they are not listening, “I would like to talk to you – But the TV is too.” The first stanza is very powerful, Noize MC noting how Russia has changed but in the antithetical direction. He sees Russia changing and yet negates the way things are, “In all its negative growth – I negatively agree with everything.” The second stanza is, again, as strong as the first. Noize MC is pleading for the populace to wake up, “Where have you been for 8 years [referring to the Russo-Ukrainian War], you fucking nonhumans!” The second verse is Noize MC’s bitter acceptance of the inevitable outcome, the populace will remain asleep and entranced the swans dancing on the screen. The TV speakers have become the watcher’s mouth and they are no longer able to think or even speak for themselves.[7]

Watch For Yourself!


  3. GOLTSMAN, Maria. “Symbols of the Soviet Empire: Dying Swan,” in Eva Naripea, Virve Sarapik, Jaak Tomber (eds.), Koht ja Paik/ Place and Locations. Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics VI, Tallinn, 2008, 307-313.
  4. Ibid, 310.



aa. In August of 2010, Noize MC was censored for the crime of “petty hooliganism.” This, of course, applies to a wide variety of activities and thus, clear determination of what the crime is must be applied to each case. This resulted in a ten-day jail sentence, of which was served in full.

b. One prominent study that I reach for is Dr. Phillip Ewell’s 2018 chapter, “Russian Rap In The Era of Putin” in Hip Hop at Europe’s Edge.