Rap artists who reflect everyday life and popular culture in Russia in their lyrics find themselves at odds with Kremlin.

In December 2019, rapper Ivan Dryomin spoke at a public rally in Moscow, calling for the restoration of "freedom of speech and freedom of choice" in the country. Known by his stage name Face, he was among many celebrities speaking out against Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's stifling regime amid protests against the exclusion of opposition candidates from the Moscow city council elections. 

Just over a year later, news emerged from Russia that Ivan Dryomin, 23, had left the country, ostensibly to escape constant hounding and persecution by the authorities. “Unfortunately, Vanya no longer lives in Russia,” his aunt, Kristina Nedorezova-Dremina, said on Facebook, referring to Ivan in an affectionate term.

“He loves Russia very much and wants to live here. He was forced to leave the country,” Kristina, the deputy chairman of the public chamber of Bashkiria, added in a damning indictment of the government. The official later deleted her post. 

Rappers and hip-hop artists have long been facing a clampdown in Russia for articulating the angst and frustration experienced by a large section of the population. Since 2019, scores of concerts have been cancelled across the country and the debate around alternative music even reached Russia’s lower house of parliament when Putin famously dismissed rap as the music “of sex, drugs, and protest”.

In September last year, Ivan Dryomin said as much in an interview to Meduza

“We have a purely personal problem—between me and the authorities.” 

At the same time, he noted that several of his concerts were cancelled at once due to pressure from the authorities, and suggested that all of this was a punishment for his statements in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, now in prison. 

File: Russian rapper Ivan Dremin also knows as
File: Russian rapper Ivan Dremin also knows as "Face" has been one of the leading voices against the shrinking freedom in the country. (AP)

Forced to flee

Other musicians, like Noize MC, have faced the same problem for publicly speaking out in support of the country's main opposition. And rap artist Oxxxymiron was even detained last winter for taking part in protests.

In November 2021, rapper Alisher Morgenshtern, 23, also urgently left his homeland. This happened the day after the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, during one of his most eccentric speeches, called for a probe against Morgenshtern for alleged drug trafficking through social networks. 

Morgenshtern, after reaching Belarus via Dubai, released a video clip for his song “Home”, in which he responds to the charges. “This is wrong,” he said, insisting that he only sold his face on the internet. The rapper denied any wrongdoing even when the Zyuzinsky District Court of Moscow fined him 100, 000 rubles for the video.

But the main reason for the action against Morgenshtern was his comments asking why Putin’s regime spends so much money on the annual May 9 Victory Day celebrations, which Russia marks as the anniversary of the Red Army’s victory against Nazi Germany in World War II. Critics accuse Putin of using the celebrations as a prop to shore up his political fortunes amid growing public distrust and dissent. 

The Veterans of Russia, an organisation of war heroes, also took up arms against the star, known for his heavily tattooed face, urging people to boycott his concerts. 

Morgenshtern's performances in St Petersburg were cancelled, and concerts in Krasnoyarsk and Kazan were threatened. As a result, on January 10, Morgenshtern announced his own publication from Dubai. In his Instagram post, he mockingly said: "Since Morgenshtern is almost a foreign agent and an enemy of the nation, we decided not to associate with him in any way, so I am proud to present to you the media 'Not Morgenshtern'."

Another rapper to hastily leave the country is Aljay, real name Alexey Uzenyuk, who also faced charges of promoting drugs. He was threatened with a fine of up to 1.5 million rubles for a video and suspension of activities for up to 90 days. While Aljay was in Cyprus, the Zyuzinsky District Court fined him 100,000 rubles in absentia.

Another star that the Russian authorities unexpectedly took on is the hip-hop singer Instasamka (Daria Zoteeva). First, the deputy of the Surgut City Duma in the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug Dmitry Nechepurenko demanded the cancellation of her concert in Ugra. Then an organisation named Ivan Chai, claiming to work “for the protection of traditional family values”, took up arms against the artist. It accused Instasamka of promoting debauchery and prostitution among children and youth. In a complaint to the Prosecutor General's Office, Ivan Chai said minors were attending the profanity-filled concerts of the rapper. 

Agenda of persecution

Critics note that the government’s agenda for persecution is predictable — from "drug propaganda" to someone insulting war veterans and sometimes even as harsh as "justifying terrorism", as the famous blogger Yuri Khovansky found out, according to Echo of Moscow. The Russian online portal Snob said: Intimidating society is one of the main tasks of the Kremlin".

Another Russian online portal, Lenta.ru writes: “The fight against the mention of substances in the songs of modern musicians may look like an active anti-drug activity, but in fact it rather demonstrates a complete lack of understanding by the authorities of what modern culture is, which, as history confirms, ordinary people are always ready to connect to, but the ‘domestic guardians of morality’ are not. With the same success, the authorities may begin to ban articles that talk about the drug epidemic in Russia."

Experts believe that attempts to target rappers are actually not a fight against debauchery or a drug epidemic, but a banal and unjustified censorship, which some artists have begun to obey by turning to “self-censorship”.

Are the authorities afraid?

Journalist and publicist Konstantin Eggert notes that “stability” has been proclaimed in Russia. Of the country's opposition leader, he said: “Navalny is in prison, his team is in exile, independent media have been crushed or tamed."

Eggert argued that while human rights defenders are being labelled as “foreign agents”, the Kremlin's control over Russian society is becoming increasingly suffocating with even "completely loyal and apolitical leaders'' becoming vulnerable to state persecution. 

Source: TRT World