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. 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, 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), 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 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. 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. 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, 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, 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)
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.