Vladimir Putin recently proposed the government take control of rap music—and it's hardly his first hip hop rodeo.
In Russia, rap has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. At a recent press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the music is based on three subversive pillars —“sex, drugs, and a general protest against everything”—and suggested rap would be infinitely better if the government took control of it. “If it is impossible to stop it, it should be taken over and navigated in a particular way,” Putin said. Shortly after, one of the country’s biggest rap stars, Pharaoh, posted on Instagram supporting the president’s vision for the future of Russian hip-hop.
In a country where rubbing the authorities the wrong way can land you with a prison sentence or worse, criticizing the government is risky business. Russian rapper Husky, long opposed to homophobic laws enacted by Putin, was arrested and jailed for 12 days last month after his street gig was shut down. Husky had been spitting lyrics from the roof of a car because his venue pulled out at the last minute, thanks to pressure from authorities concerned that Husky was promoting “extremist” values.
But it wasn’t always this way. The post-Soviet motherland—and Putin himself—has a love-hate relationship with modern music. In 2009 Putin handed out an award at the “Battle for Respect” ceremony hosted by Muz-TV, saying he wasn’t worried about salacious lyrics, because break dancing promotes a healthy lifestyle. “I do not think that ‘top-rock’ or ‘down-rock’ breakdance technique is compatible with alcohol or drugs,” Putin told a crowd of delighted young rap fans, according to Reuters. Heck, their culture minister even tried to claim rap was a Russian invention.
According to the Russian streaming service Yandex Music, hip hop is now one of the most popular music genres amongst Russian youth. When the country went to the polls at beginning of the year, some of the country’s biggest stars, including a former Eurovision winner and the rapper Timati, rallied together to release a music video singing Putin’s praises. Timati has previously linked up with Snoop Dog and Flo Rida, but one of his biggest collaborators is Putin himself. He’s sung songs for the president, claimed they were best friends, and even released videos for his birthday. Black Star, Timati’s streetwear brand, even sells t-shirts featuring Putin’s face.
If the affiliation between the president and rapper wasn’t clear enough, last year, even the Russian Orthodox Church suggested the government utilize Timiti as a way of getting young people into Russian classics. In an interview with Russian GQ back in 2016, Timiti (who was raised in America) was asked about U.S. rappers and their admiration for politicians like Obama. “For rapper Timati,” said interviewer Roman Super, “Putin is his Barack Obama.
The administration’s affection for artists who toe a strict political line has parallels with the Soviet-era approach to curtailing culture. Communist Party officials drove rock musicians underground, and only records released by state label Melodiya were legally distributed throughout the country. Although some Western records were accepted, the label preferred to promote homegrown talent. Home to Soviet psych/funk/jazz and disco, Melodiya was once one of the largest record labels in the world. A mix of Western-influence and homegrown funk, the label released a plethora of records, including a wealth of disco in the guise of exercise music; discotheques were organized by branches of the Communist Party and the records were even certified by the USSR Sports Committee. Regimented slogans (“Let’s dance to keep our body fit!”) were slapped across records and DJs needed to obtain official approval for their sets.
Controlled by the Komsomol, the youth arm of the Communist Party, discos began popping up in all sorts of the places, including the former bicycle stadium “Velotrek” in Moscow’s Krylatskoye neighborhood. But as the country started to witness Western influence, the clubs were also the frontlines of counterfeit counterculture, with cheap alcohol for sale and Western clothes sold under the radar. Just as state-sanctioned disco got out of control in the 1980s, it seems, Putin’s government is just as worried about the course of contemporary music.
In 2002, Russian techno-pop act Poyushchie Vmeste released the track “A Man Like Putin,” which rocketed to the top of the Russian charts. Subtlety is not the name of the game when it comes to this unique strain of propaganda. With lyrics like, “I want a man like Putin, who’s full of strength / I want a man like Putin, who doesn’t drink / I want a man like Putin, who won’t make me sad,” it’s an obvious attempt to please the president.
Putin understands that in order to appeal to young people he needs to be seen as modern. He previously admitted that adopting Western-style music is a good tactic for rallying young voters. In a conversation between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Putin in 2009, ahead of Moscow hosting Eurovision, the Russian leader expressed his admiration for the competition and its pan-European roots. “I very much hope that millions of people in Europe and in Russia, especially young people, will listen to good music and it will become part of their education,” he said. “They will see modern means of expression.” When Lloyd Webber pointed out that Eastern Bloc countries tend to vote only for each other, Putin seemed unmoved by the idea of rigged voting. “There is no need to overcome it. This is not Eurovision’s problem.”
In the Soviet days, before the internet, music could be crafted by the state. But the world of SoundCloud rappers and music bloggers is a harder force to control. One of the most prolific female rappers in Russia today, Tatarka, also has a popular YouTube channel where she does makeup tutorials and talks about life with her husband. Influencers hold force over the population and it makes more sense for Putin to get them onside than to work against them. Last Saturday, when Putin’s comments about rap were made, Russian Pop producer Igor Matvienko likened attempts to reverse the influence of the internet to “standing up with a net and trying to reverse the river.” Instead he advocated for state-led rehearsal centers and studios in a bid to beat streaming services to it.