[This post was prompted by The-Flow’s article, published on December 12, 2022]
For those who know Russian hip-hop, there several canon figures that come out of the woodwork when one thinks of “conscious” rappers. People like FACE, Oksimiron, Mnogoznaal, Legalize, Master Sheff, Timati, Guf, Husky, Eljday, and Scriptonite are just a handful of rappers who have chosen to weave themselves into the sociopolitical chaos that is Putin’s Russia. Yet, within this swirling cosmos of rappers (women included as current research shows), it is clear that to be a popular musician in Russia today means involving oneself with politics regardless of your beliefs. Since the late 2000s (really the return of Putin in 2012), Russian life has “politicized,” and one is hard-pressed to find anything outside its purview.
While 90s and 2000s rap oriented itself first of the model of American gangster rap then diversified quickly in a plurality of stylistic and textually pursuits with the advent of what I call the “commercial turn” in the 2000s, it was the 2010s when “Russian” hip-hop would receive its hellish baptism. Putin’s return to the Presidency was infamously marked by Pussy Riot’s 2012 protest in Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. This set the tenor for the decades to come, yet a year earlier the four-year Bolotnaya protests would again upturn Russian life. In 2015, Russian hip-hop would reach an impasse colloquially known as “The Coup of the Game,” a period marked by an expansion and quick stagnation of Russian hip-hop’s development encompassing three artists: Oksimiron, ATL, and Scriptonite. It was thought Russian rap was going somewhere, could do something tangible, yet it was failing to enact real-world change as it was once thought. Flash forward to 2018, and nearly five months of censorship would only politicize Russian rap even further. As the last nine months have shown, Russian hip-hop has only become even more connected with the sociopolitical climate of the country, releases, choices, and statements by numerous artists exemplify this extremely uneasy relationship.
Alexander Gorbachev makes a very interesting point,
” […] in the following years, Russian hip-hop successfully absorbed more or less all popular music in Russia. No matter how hard it is to admit this to a person who thinks that February 24 completely and forever changed life in the country, this is true even now. Russian rap during the war remains an adequate cast of its society – and this cast confirms the data of opinion polls: the majority more or less don’t care. It is mainly those who have already taken to the square that speak – Noize MC, Oxxxymiron, Vladi, Lokimin; some atmosphere of dark times can be heard in the last EP of Miyagi and Endgame.”Alexander Gorbachev, The-Flow (2022)
Russian hip-hop mirrors the societal construction that it inhabits, and whether one thinks this is a beneficial thing or not, popular music is just “people’s music” and is a cultural artform intrinsically connected with the tastes of society. Therefore, the conventionally “political” will always be a sister to the conventionally “entertaining” and “easy.” It is idealistic to think that such things would change just because of another international conflict. Yet, it poses an interesting question as to whether Russian rappers have an obligation to speak against the war or whether their status as ‘popular’ musicians force them to follow the tides of public opinion or even opt out of politics all together, as some Russian rappers have done. While artists are continually asked about politics and bring up such considerations in interviews and music, whether there is an “obligation” on their part to do so remains an unanswered question.