Putin's war on hip-hop may be his most embarrassing intervention yet
The past year will be remembered as a particularly bad one for Russian military intelligence. From the Novichok poisonings in the UK in March to October’s foiled attempt by four men to hack a Dutch chemical weapons watchdog, the nation’s once-feared secret services have been left looking like bumbling amateurs.
But last week offered what might be Vladimir Putin’s most embarrassing intervention so far. The Russian president has announced his intention to “take charge” of rap music, an art form that has been firmly entrenched in the country’s youth culture since the 1990s. Now, stars such as Pharaoh, Oxxxymiron and Jah Khalib rack up tens of millions of YouTube views and command large, loyal followings. However, it appears that some artists have become too well-known for their own good.
Last week, Dmitry Kuznetsov, 25, better known as Husky, was jailed for “hooliganism” after performing an impromptu show on the roof of his car in the southern city of Krasnodar. This followed the last-minute cancellation by local authorities of a scheduled concert. The rapper’s alleged involvement in unspecified “extremist activities” was cited as the reason. It was the latest in a series of censored shows, a trend that many believe to be connected to Husky’s relatively mild, anti-establishment lyrics.
Rather than continue to pursue rappers through censorship, or the courts, Mr Putin stated last Saturday that the government should instead try to control them and their music. At a meeting in St Petersburg, he told cultural advisers: “If it is impossible to stop it, it should be taken over and navigated in a particular way.”
The Russian government is not the only one to take a stand against hip-hop this year, either. In February, the Spanish rapper Valtonyc was sentenced to three and a half years in jail, owing to the political content of his lyrics, and is now on the run. Meanwhile, in London, the Metropolitan police force has compiled extensive lists of violent “drill” rap tracks, had their videos removed from YouTube and stipulated via court orders specific subjects that rappers cannot broach in their lyrics.
Even when its content appears apolitical or nihilistic, the galvanising energy of hip-hop is undeniable – and something Mr Putin has already sought to harness. In 2009, he attended a televised live rap competition that was part of a state-sponsored programme intended “to promote a healthy lifestyle among teenagers”.
After the so-called Battle for Respect’s winning performance, Mr Putin took the stage to cheers. “These youngsters bring a unique Russian charm,” he said. “Street rap can be a little bit rough, but it contains social meaning.” He went on to praise the closely linked art forms of graffiti and breakdancing as wholesome activities, comparing the latter to gymnastics, a sport that has for decades doubled as a vehicle of Russian soft power. The winning artist asked Mr Putin to collaborate on a future track, referring to him as “a legend, our icon”.
This is presumably the kind of on-message performer the Russian leader has in mind for his state-approved version of rap music. However, given that hip-hop is a culture that prizes “realness” and authenticity above all else, it is hard to imagine who a defanged, government-issue version would appeal to – certainly not the youthful underground fans Mr Putin appears to want to reach.
While formulating his strategy, Mr Putin would do well to consider the long and awkward history of politicians who have tried and failed to co-opt popular music. While on the 1984 election trail, the Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan used Bruce Springsteen’s anti-war anthem Born in the USA as his pre-rally warm up theme. The famously left-leaning rock star swiftly disavowed any connection with Reagan or his politics. In 2016, the British singer Adele lashed out at Donald Trump’s use of her song Rolling in the Deep in a similar context. But the veteran Swedish pop band Abba went one better in 2010, suing the far-right Danish People’s Party for using their song Mama Mia – which is not exactly an obvious soundtrack for reactionary nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric – at party events.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the Russian state’s tussle with the nation’s rap community is that no one really understands the motives behind it. Like Husky, the Russian rap group IC3PEAK has had concerts and music videos banned without explanation. While both acts share a broadly subversive streak, neither seem particularly radical or threatening. As one member of IC3PEAK recently told the BBC, it appears that the state is engaged in a cultural turf war with hip-hop.
In addition to viewing rap as a threat, Mr Putin has recognised it as a powerful tool to connect with young people. As a dyed-in the-wool authoritarian, he first wants to neutralise any challenges the music presents, then take advantage of its potential as a medium for propaganda. Unfortunately for him, this approach will remove everything that draws young people to the genre in the first place. Fought on these fronts, this particular Battle for Respect is one Mr Putin appears destined to lose.
Dan Hancox is a journalist and author living in London
Updated: December 23, 2018 04:18 PM