“They’re too white,” says my dad at the kitchen counter. I’ve explained to him that listening to Russian rap for the past two hours has brought me no closer to pinpointing exactly what’s wrong with it. What I’m trying to avoid, I explain, is the rhetoric constructed by western tastemakers, benign but ultimately sanctimonious, used to dismiss Russian contemporary music: forever in the shadow, Russian production is good only by virtue of its failure/success to adhere to a western original.
But in three words (one contraction), my dad exposes my circular reasoning. The carelessly aped beats, gangster rap choreography, hollow-eyed women fluttering unconvincingly and the parade of sneering, skinny white dudes taunt me. Russian rappers pick and choose the aspects of mainstream American rap culture that they believe correspond with their own reality. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Why can’t I admit it? Because it’s ugly, and reveals an uglier truth: that Russia has never had an organic tradition of rap besides that which it has appropriated.
A friend in Kazakhstan once told me that he liked Tupac because he himself grew up in the “ghetto”. It was in Almaty that I began to question why my local Russian friends felt so comfortable using the word “hood”. Throwing up a mangled gang sign, he laughed at my raised eyebrow. They explained to me that they weren’t “racist” (in Russian, a term often ascribed with the same tone one uses to discuss unicorns) or ignorant: they connected with the music because growing up after the fall of the Soviet Union was similar, in their opinion, to institutionalized oppression and violence against minorities in the U.S.
Comparison of the post-Soviet condition and the reality of American minority oppression is misinformed
The period after the fall of the Soviet Union is widely considered to be a terrifying vortex of social, political, and economic uncertainty; the ordinary post-Soviet citizen understands, literally and existentially, the thin border between order and anarchy better than most. My friend’s outerlying neighborhood, without electricity or clean water and run by local mafia, might as well have been South Central as far as he was concerned. But it was not, which is a critical distinction. An inconsistent comparison of the post-Soviet condition and the reality of American minority oppression is misinformed, and the result is culturally appropriative (we should know — white America is as guilty of it as anyone else): from casually adopting the n-word or ripping off any and every Dre beat. Russian rap isn’t bad simply because it’s not good, but because it has adopted parts of hip-hop culture while explicitly failing to address its origins.
Recently mentioned in another piece on The Calvert Journal is the Russian-speaking Kazakh rapper Scriptonite. From a tiny neighborhood outside of Pavlodar, Kazakhstan, Scriptonite is the post-Soviet millennial cheated by the social collapse of his childhood. Often heralded as the saviour of Russian-language rap, he portrays only what he knows: his production is uniquely local and his videos devoid of the usual sad mimicry of American excess. I fell in love immediately. But even he takes the same trope bait, as a friend pointed out in a heated discussion on the topic. A lyric from the song VBVVCTND, an early song about the desolate reality of the post-Soviet suburb, relies heavily on the word “trap” — a term that describes black American music originating from Atlanta in the early 1990s, centered around the recidivist nature of drug trade culture. “So the cultural appropriation of Russian rap as a whole is a problem but his blatant lyric ‘you wanted trap, so this is real trap’ is okay?” asks my friend, defiant.
In search of a means to acquit the future of Russian hip-hop, I came across an interview with Scriptonite on Afisha. In it, he denounces the Russian “trap” movement and his former use of the word, condemning widespread misunderstanding of the real etymology of “trap” and its reference to the systemized oppression of the African-American community. Satisfied, I deliver this logic to my friend from the “hood”. Bemused, he promises me that he wouldn’t say “n****r” in front of me henceforth, but he still doesn’t see what I was so worked up over.
Russian rap isn’t wholly unsalvageable: the malaise of the post-Soviet male, dissatisfaction with the state and exclusion from the mainstream deserves to be expressed. But the pursuit of authenticity in Russian rap (and a lesson from which we can all benefit) should begin at an engagement with the influencing culture on more than just an aesthetic level. Otherwise their audiences will stay Russian, their lyrics watery reproduction, and their 808s hollow.