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Taking the rap. How Russian rappers found themselves at the cutting edge of protest during the war in Ukraine

Even before the war, popular Russian rappers, who had been garnering stadiums of fans and millions of views online, warned their audiences of the impending disaster. After February 24, many of them took an uncompromising anti-war stance, went abroad, or ended up on the lists of politically unreliable persons, including the ambivalent Morgenstern. Oxxxymiron, Ic3peak, NoizeMC, Face, and others found themselves at the cutting edge of anti-war protest.

  • Emigrees

  • Those who stayed

  • Husky and Morgenstern

Читать на русском

Rap took shape in New York in the 1970s and 1980s and developed as creative expression imbued with social and political meaning. Tupac Shakur was born into a family of Black Panthers political activists. Within two or three decades, hip-hop culture had permeated every corner of the world. Today it is an industry - Kendrick Lamar wins the Pulitzer Prize, Dr. Dre makes a multibillion-dollar deal with Apple, and Keith Haring's work is in the collections of the world's biggest museums.

Russia is no exception. With the beginning of the perestroika, Russian rap quickly absorbed American style and aesthetics. It took a little longer to generate local meaning, but in the early noughties the likes of the group Bachelor Party, popular in those years, was replaced by social protest rap, which quickly became an integral part of Russian mass culture.

In the nearly forty-year history of Russian rap, many authors have turned to sharp social and anti-utopian themes. Separately, I'd like to mention the conceptual rappers from the early noughties - the famous Moscow art anarchists and anti-fascists - PG Dveri. Their art of that time was permeated with a sharp, radical self-irony, and their art objects and video art are included in the collections of Russia's leading collectors and art institutions. The artists witnessed both the arrival of Putin and the rise of an authoritarian regime. PG Dveri's «self-made» rap was one of the first diagnoses provided to our generation.

PG Dveri - Ilya Muromets

Their statements, both in the form of music videos and exhibition projects, became so provocative at one point that Center E (the counter-terrorism department of the domestic security service) became interested in them. In 2008, the group had to leave the Russian Federation and formally ceased to exist. Soon the persecution of political artists gradually became the norm, and the state returned to the Soviet style of rigid suppression of freedom of thought.

The artists of the band Krovostok had a subtle premonition of all this. You could say that their 2018 song Moscow-Oblast was an epigraph to all that is happening these days.

Krovostok - Moscow-Oblast


Oxxxymiron found himself in Istanbul as early as the beginning of March 2022. The rapper cancelled the previously planned and sold-out Russian spring tour dedicated to the release of his long-awaited album in a matter of hours. Miron heavily criticized the Russian military aggression in Ukraine and announced a series of concerts called RAW - Russians Against War. The tour took place in three cities - Istanbul (March 15), London (March 24) and Berlin (April 6). Every venue was packed to capacity, and at each concert Miron campaigned against the war in the clearest possible way and collected donations for the Polish NGO St. Nicholas Foundation, which helps Ukrainian children who suffered because of the war.

Such musical mastodons as BG (Boris Grebenshchikov) and Zemfira traveled to support the rapper at his concert in London. A joint photo of the three of them was spread all over the news outlets publics that evening, and BG even performed a few of his songs on the stage. In total, the rapper and his audience raised $195,000 during the three concerts.

Stream of the London show:

Oxxxymiron's London show

It is worth noting that with the outbreak of the war, the main hits from Miron's last album - Agent, Organization and Russian Road Rage - came to sound completely different.

The band Ic3peak can be safely called the prophets of our time - they are singing an ode to the harsh Russian reality, where instead of blood, black oil flows through the veins of the country, and every other man in uniform reeks of death. Their concerts have been tacitly banned in Russia since 2018, but despite attempts by the security forces to disrupt them, the guys have not stopped performing and have continued to do their thing at their own risk. Unfortunately, in recent timessince recently, Russian cities have completely disappeared from the band's tour calendar, while the number of European concerts has increased.

Their song No More Death has become an anthem of sorts for the 2019 Moscow protests – the corresponding video has been viewed 119 million times in three years. These, and those are very impressive numbers.

Ic3peak. "No More Death."

The most recent video of the band's song Dead But Pretty came out just after the war began. In it, the musicians, as if in the afterlife, break out of their graves and start performing right at the cemetery, but the police come after them even there. The cops take the guys to Red Square, where right under the Kremlin walls the band signs rap to the crowd of spetsnaz from the roof of the paddy wagon. It seems incredible that Ic3peak managed to film and release this video without putting anyone on the team at risk.

Dead But Pretty

The music video has had nearly 5 million views in just a month and a half. On all their social media pages and at all their concerts, the artists call for help foring Ukraine.

Noize MC was also one of the rappers targeted by the Russian guardians of “patriotic morality”.

His recent album, Coming to Town, both delighted the liberal Russian-speaking public and made it sad: the songs, played in the current repressive context, reeked of melancholy and hopelessness. In spite of the interference from government officials, at the end of 2021, Noise managed to pack two stadiums in one weekend. The video for the song The Hundred Years' War is from his last Russian concert:

Noize MC - The Hundred Years' War

Almost immediately after the war began, the artist flew to Europe, where he actively performed at various anti-war concerts - almost weekly, if not more often. Here, for example, is one of his first anti-war performances in Berlin at the Sound of Peace concert, where he sang three songs with pain and tears in his eyes. The picture is completed by his most recently composed song «Ausweiss,» performed at a concert in Warsaw on April 21.

Don't whitewash yourself - you're to blame as well:
In your ausweiss is a multivisa to eternal hell.
And we'll be diving here into the same cauldron with you,
Bubbling bubbles, we'll have a talk about evil
You are among them too...
In the bomb shelter, the child makes his last squeak.
You thought it over, weighed the factors, and didn't take the risk:
Your fat ass on a warm couch is lulled by a lie -
You owe a lot more than you'll ever get back.

Liza Monetochka, who can often be seen on the same stage with Vanya Noiz, has also left her home country and has been an active opponent of the war - together with Noiz the musicians take part in the anti-war Voices Of Peace tour.

Just days after the war began, Liza released a concert video for her song Burn Burn Burn, and it was not her only protest song.

Liza Monetochka - Burn, Burn, Burn

Her poems reflect her pain over the domination and omnipotence of bureaucrats, security forces and censorship in Russia in recent years.

Another example of an artist musician with a responsible attitude is Manizha.

Last year, Manizha unexpectedly took part in the Eurovision Song Contest. That performance caused a strong wave of hatred from the conservative community of viewers, but her performance itself, as well as the song Russian Woman, imbued with the ideas of feminism and women's equality, made a decent impression. The number was directed by the cult hip-hop music videographer Lado Kvatania, and hundreds of women and activists from all over the country took part in recording the video for the song. At the end of January 2022 Manizha's was projected onto the facade of one of the skyscrapers in Times Square as one of the female faces of the global Equal campaign, launched by the streaming platform Spotify, a great honor for a musician from Russia.

At the beginning of the war, Manizha was already outside of Russia. This did not stop her from releasing the anti-war song Soldier with a gorgeous dance video. The video was directed by Manizha herself, with the choreography by street dancers Sasha Tronov and Anya Deltsova.

Manizha - Soldier

The rise of Ivan Dremin, who performs under the pseudonym Face, has taken place been happening before our eyes. His protest album, Mysterious Ways, released in 2018, alienated many young fans, especially those who loved the rapper for tracks like I'm Dropping the West and Burger. In 2019, his participation in a major rally on Sakharov Avenue led to the cancellation of a tour planned for the fall of that year. Unfortunately, it can be said that a civic-minded rapper is a rarity in 21st century Russia. Yuri Dud's recent interview with Face is a good confirmation.

Face said goodbye to Russia in a thoughtful and measured manner. Two weeks after the start of the war, Ivan published a series of posts on Instagram, literally waking up from his stupor and coming to a rather disappointing conclusion about the current situation in the country; he announced his decision to leave the country.

«Who is to blame for what has happened? I want you to know my opinion. First of all, the Russian state is to blame. I know what kind of people they are. For almost seven years I fought the authorities for the survival of my musical project in my own country. I lost, I lost the battle, but not the war. Those people have never been able to tell me to my face that I am their enemy. They call themselves bearers of the Russian spirit, but they are cowards stuffed with foreign banknotes. They go around behind your back, throwing sticks in your wheels, threatening organizers and venue owners, and then telling the media that you're a liar. I'm a musician, I just tried to make music and perform it, but in modern Russia it's practically impossible without looking over your shoulder every day.»

In the next post he adds:

«Who else is to blame? Most of the people are to blame. Those people who don't think with their own heads. Those people who now praise the letter «Z». If my great-grandfather, who came all the way to Berlin and was awarded the Order of Suvorov, had seen you all. If he had known that 75 years later you would proudly invent your own swastika and consider yourselves the liberators of Europe, treacherously attacking a brotherly country 28.5 times smaller than your own in the small hours, he would have shot himself rather than go on fighting for you.»

He ends with the third post:

«And a third thing, which concerns me specifically and my career. I practically don't exist now as a Russian musician, or as a citizen. I'm not going to pay taxes to Russia anymore, I've left and I'm not coming back to Russia anymore, I'm not going to play concerts in Russia anymore. Why? Because my loved ones and I have been forced out of my own home, forced out of my own land, the state forced me out, the state that I henceforth definitively refuse to recognize as my own, forced out by our people, who absolutely don't give a fuck about anything as long as they have enough money for a butter sandwich. Someday, Russia will be a decent state, with people who will have a modern and reasonable mentality, but unfortunately that's not the case today. I hope one day to see my family again, to see my audience, to sing in Russian for my people. And I believe it will happen. Because whether you all like it or not, the future of Russia is with people like me, not people like you. The future of Russia is people with paintbrushes and microphones, not machine guns and grenades. The future of Russia is in thinking and freedom. We are the future of Russia. No to war. Freedom to Ukraine. Freedom to Political Prisoners. FACE.»

Face continues an anti-war dialogue with many of his followers on Instagram. Apparently, his actions infuriated Roskomnadzor officials, and right on his birthday the rapper was given the status of a “foreign agent”.

In a recent interview with Gordon (Dmitry Gordon, a very well-known Ukrainian television journalist, interviewer and politician), Face told him he had left Russia two weeks before the war began because of bad premonitions. He planned to come back and sort things out, but now Ivan has no idea when thisit will happen. The rapper has not yet released any new songs or videos, his next concert will take place in Tel Aviv on May 13. A charity anti-war tour has been promised, but it's still in the works.

If you look at his rap prophecy from 2018, all you can add is, «And don't say we didn't warn you.»

Those who stayed

Among those who stayed and did not hide their heads in the sand, there are several names: the freedom-loving musicians from the band Krovostok already mentioned in the epigraph, the legend of the Moscow old school - rapper Legalize, the Rostov folk rap group Kasta and the Tatar-Peterburg hip-hop duo AIGEL.

These brave musicians continue to play gigs and openly declare their anti-war stance - some, like Kasta, directly at concerts, and some on social media. The fact that they are not silent, like most of their colleagues on the domestic hip-hop scene, has won them great respect.

Here, for example, is what the AIGEL group wrote on their Instagram page on March 9:

A fragment of their song, posted on social media on February 24, though sung in Tatar and without translation, gives off anxiety and war vibes.

During the Belarusian protests, the band Kasta supported them with their poignant video Come Out to Walk with Me. They had planned a tour in three cities of Ukraine on February 24-27, but it was cancelled, although the organizers of the tour didn't lose hope until the last moment and the tickets soldwere selling well.

In Moscow, despite their anti-war stance, Kasta played two concerts in March. Yet, one of the band members, Shym, refused to come out on stage in protest against the war. Later Shym wrote on his Instagram page he had left Russia, adding, «I will rap in Russia again when Putinism is over. See you soon!».

The band started their Moscow concert with a song recorded with Ukrainian musician Sunsay, who was in a bomb shelter in Kharkiov at the time of the concert. Everything went well - the crowd chanted «No to War» and the artists read protest rap in the best traditions of high culture.

The posts of Vladi, one of the band members, speak for themselves:

«What's it like in Moscow? Quiet misery. I feel the need to spend time in a paddy wagon, in jail. To clear my conscience. Due to impotence. Mostly for my own comfort. To make sure I'm not on the sidelines. I saw the tears on the faces of passersby. But all this is nothing compared to those who were actually affected.»

In 2019, the veteran Moscow underground rapper Legalize, together with director Pavel Bardin, released a music video for the song Stagnation 2.0, where ballerinas fought the riot police in an empty stadium. Right now, Lega can't find his place either.

On the rapper's Instagram page, billboards for the club performances that have not been cancelled alternate with posts with calls to stop the war or attempts to figure out why his compatriots have so much aggression and hatred towards the brotherly people from the neighboring country. Lega tries as best he can to counter the propaganda - here is his post with a picture from the Kyiv concert and memories of how the whole crowd was singing along with him in Russian:

In the next post, he reminds us all of an old and also largely prophetic track by the band Slaves of the Lamp.

Husky and Morgenstern

What is happening to the most controversial figure in Russian rap, Huskey? Almost immediately after the annexation of Crimea he went on tour to Donbass in the company of his friend the publicist Zakhar Prilepin. Then Huskey unexpectedly «saw the light» and released the album-diagnosis Favorite Songs of (Imaginary) People with such tracks as Panel House and I'll Sing My Music. And he was even cast in Serebrennikov's production of The Little Tragedies. When he was arrested after one of his concerts, both the odious revanchist Prilepin and Gogol Center artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov wrote letters in his support. Rappers Noiz, Oxxxymiron and Basta (whose participation was quite unexpected) organized a concert rally attended by several thousand people, titled I Will Sing My Music. As a matter of fact, Husky was released on the same evening – just before the start of the concert.

On October 7 - as if as a birthday gift for Putin - Husky released a music video for a song about a GRU colonel.

Six months ago, he released a killer music video for the song Revenge:

Huskie - Revenge

The video was directed by Lado Kvatania, with whom the musician has worked on a number of projects, including the Judas video banned in Russia.

Now Husky is in Moscow and he is preparing for a series of concerts in May. To everyone's surprise, just a couple of weeks ago the rapper released a short film PMC Philharmonia on Yanedx.Zen, in which he depicted the lives of musicians fighting in the Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” (LDNR)..LDNR. Why he did it, remains a mystery. The film turned out to be ambiguous, but neither the characters nor Husky himself evoke any sympathy. But it would do as a document of an era describing the situation in the LDNR. The rest is better be left on the conscience of the author, and each of us can draw our own conclusions, as journalist Alexey Pivovarov suggests.

Morgenstern found himself in a particularly awkward situation, having recently decided to become apolitical and having even made a statement to that effect in an interview with Yuri Dud:

«The fact that you have a fucked-up life is completely your fault. Accept the rules of the game, study them, don't fight them, just use them. We have a beautiful country to build a business in; to climb up the social ladder you just need to stop whining and blaming the higher-ups. Just find loopholes and use them.»

In fact, the rapper wasn't always such a loyal person. Here's what Andrew Loshak has to say about his deplorable evolution:

Morgenstern's story is very revealing. When I filmed The Age of Disagreement, the musician was recording tracks in support of Navalny and was extremely oppositional-minded. Then some prick with connections in the Presidential Administration, whom Morgenstern called his director, appeared in his entourage, and the singer suddenly changed beyond recognition - he became «apolitical,» having decided to «live for himself,» as he told in an interview to Ksenia Sobchak. What he said in that interview about Navalny was really disgusting. It's a typical drivel consisting of prejudice, propaganda and conspiracy theories – a future Fuhrer, just like Putin, only worse, some dark forces organized the poisoning in order to make a hero out of him, and so on. It's one thing when a grocery store guard says things like that, or, say, Shnurov, who, with age, has become a hero of his own songs. Another matter is when you hear it from a youth idol, a rebel without a cause, whose every fart (in the literal sense of the word, given the history of the track El Problema) is greedily caught by millions of teenagers. This deliberate conformism, when by the time you're 23 you turn into the Wise Gudgeon, is probably the saddest thing that's happened in Russia in the past five5 years of the pre-war life. For a long time I had excessive hopes for Generation Z, they really are much better than their predecessors, it seemed that boomers wouldn't be able to corrupt them, but the evolution of Morgenstern demonstrates the opposite - if you crack down on a «soft» generation, it very quickly turns into the usual Russian victims who live by a single rule: adapt as best you can to the surrounding ugliness. I hope that Morgenstern's case is an exception to the rule, but alas, it is unlikely. There is a moral to the story: the strategy of adapting to the ugliness leads to a disaster. First a personal one - Morgenstern was canceled by the boomer government long before the war, and then a national one - when the number of opportunists becomes critically large, the country ends up where Russia is now. So, the status of a foreign agent can also be viewed from different angles.

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