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Reining In Russia's Rappers

Russia's police and self-described "patriotic" groups have unleashed a campaign to shut down performances by rappers and experimental musicians, who, they claim, are bent on corrupting the country's youth. But despite the concert-crackdowns, many young Russians show no sign of staying away.

The temperature was 21 degrees below zero. Yet still, 18-year-old Anya Makrusheva and her friend, Misha, kept waiting outside. Makrusheva had carpooled a few hours to Siberia’s regional seat of Krasnoyarsk for a performance by the experimental electronic band IC3PEAK and an intervention by Russia’s Federal Anti-Extremism Service would not turn the two teenagers away.

An hour and a half later, after the police finished interrogating band members, the show began. Misha Kamishev ultimately ended up in the hospital with an acute case of pneumonia, but the 19-year-old university student said his ice-cold wait was “totally worth it.”

That appeal worries the Russian government and the various “patriotic” and parents’ groups that have demanded a national ban on the music genre. They claim rap undermines the morals of Russia’s young, by encouraging “antisocial behavior,” “interest in sexual activities,” and even suicide. Over the past year, a wave of concert cancellations, police interrogations, and public complaints about wrongdoing have targeted rappers and alternative-genre musicians.

Some commentators see this as a shorthand for controlling freethinkers and those who may challenge the government; a throwback to Soviet censorship of authority-defying Western rock music.

In December 2019, Putin described rap as about “sex, drugs, and politics,” and asked a state commission to devise a plan by September 2019 that would let the government play a role in “controlling” the genre.

But for many young Russian rap fans, with instant online access to global youth culture, rap is just about entertainment. And for the Kremlin, that might prove the biggest challenge yet.

Youngsters interviewed by Current Time question the alarm over hip-hop performances.

“You can find any information you want on the Internet,” stressed Misha. “You don't need anyone's songs for this.”

"If you are so worried about your child, talk to her, discuss her problems, listen to her,” agreed Nikolai Bolshov, a student from the southern Russian city of Novocherkassk. “[I]f your child takes music as a call to action, it's not the musician's problem; it's yours and your child’s.”

Such arguments do not sway groups nostalgic for the Soviet past that have pushed police and the Russian federal communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, to shut down the rappers’ concerts.

Among them is For Our Brethren, a St-Petersburg-based umbrella group of 13 veteran organizations that regularly lectures at public schools on topics such as “The History Of Slavic And Russian Crimea” or the history of Russian military intelligence.

"We are bringing youth to the bright side and turning kids into patriots,” asserted chairman Valentin Botzvin, an Afghan War veteran who teaches a course on bravery in St. Petersburg’s public schools. “All these rappers are turning them into vegetables.”

When Roskomnadzor in 2017 found no legal grounds for veterans’ demand that social-media platform VKontakte and St.Petersburg FM station Radio Record be prosecuted for organizing the VK Fest rap festival, For Our Brothers took action themselves.

The veterans say they visited one of the festival’s concerts, where they pushed security guards to check the documents of all visitors and bar entry to those under the age of 16. The guards, they claim, complied.

Botsvin stated that his group is considering a lawsuit against Roskomnadzor for “inaction” against rap groups.

A few thousand kilometers to St. Petersburg’s east, in the Siberian oil-industry hub of Tyumen, an organization called the Tyumen Parents’ Committee shares Botsvin’s concerns.

In October 2018, the Committee asked city prosecutors, the Federal Antimonopoly Service, and the regional Commissioner for Children’s Rights to prevent performances by several Russian entertainers.

“In Soviet times, these rappers would have had tomatoes thrown at them,” underlined Andrei Generozov, a representative of the group. “Because this is not art. This is b---.”

In today’s urban, Internet-centric world, he believes, young Russians are more interested in entertainment than work and are vulnerable to manipulation. Only by the age of 30 do they acquire “a sober worldview,” he observed.

"Young people used to be educated as patriots with a Soviet background, and it was not easy to shake these foundations,” Generozov reminisced. “And now they have been living in a delinquent culture for two decades already. Even their parents have lost their solid patriotic and moral education.”

Instead of rappers, Generozov advises Russians under 30 to listen to Igor Rasteryayev, a 38-year-old signer-accordionist who performs patriotic ballads. Soviet singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky and performances of folk, classical, and “symphonic” rock music also pass muster.

To enable activists like Generozov and Botsvin to act on their concerns, the online publication Katyusha recently published a five-step list for getting officials to cancel a rap concert.

Complaints to police, though, tend to be acted on only if they have been “talked about or highlighted by senior officials,” noted retired police officer Vladimir Vorontsov, head of The Police Ombudsman, an online watchdog group.

Russia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has denied press reports that it keeps a list of undesirable musicians whose concerts should be banned.

Rap critics, though, do not appear to have tackled a larger issue: In Russia’s regions, far removed from the diversions of Moscow and St. Petersburg, rap concerts are often the only form of youth-oriented, live entertainment available.

"We don't have a lot of opportunities for fun things to do in our town,” elaborated Bolshov, the student from Novocherkassk, a city of about 180,000. “There’re as many shisha lounges, bars as you would want. But no concerts. You can go to the movies or theater, but some people need more action.”

To the east, in the slightly smaller city of Achinsk, Makrusheva says that young people not old enough to get into a local nightclub just hang around in front of the town’s cultural center or a supermarket.

"You can go to a cafe, but you need money, so my friends and I just walk around. If it's not too cold, of course.”

Getting to popular rap musicians’ concerts from regional towns, though, can cost more than the price of a ticket – hitchhiking or sharing rides are often the norm.

To see a concert by cult rapper Husky in Rostov-on-Don, Bolshov hitchhiked with a friend to Rostov-on-Don, about 40 kilometers away from Novocherkassk.

At the club where Husky's concert was supposed to be, he felt something was wrong.

"The musicians were asking to turn the microphone on for a long time. Then, it was finally switched on, but just for one track. There were some people in the crowd … they didn't look like concert-goers; they were filming everyone. When a freaked-out soundman said he couldn’t turn anything on, I realized that you couldn’t expect anything good to happen today.”

The rapper’s managers later announced that police came to the club before the concert and cautioned them against so-called radicalism and violations of the requirements for the organization of the public events. Husky performed with his drummer only.

He was detained at his next stop, Krasnodar, after police broke up his concert and he read his song lyrics aloud from atop a car. Police accused the rapper of organizing a public event without permission, petty hooliganism, and refusing a medical examination.

Still, though some young Russians say they conceal their love of rap from their parents, others insist that these crackdowns will not stifle their passion for the genre.

"All this mess unites us in the end," said Bolshov.

-Translation by Virginia Vargolska

-This story is based on translations of «Последние деньги на "музыкальных вырожденцев". Кто воюет с музыкантами и кто страдает из-за отмены концертов» and «Патриоты против рэперов. Как люди, которые пишут заявления на музыкантов, связаны с российскими школами, "Единой Россией" и между собой» by Nika Repenko. It has been condensed.

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