On 16th December 2018, Vladimir Putin was speaking at a meeting of the Presidential Council for Culture and Art in St Petersburg. However, the most prominent comments were those Putin made about rap music, saying it was time for the government to “take charge” of rap music and “navigate” music of the youth. In essence, Putin is calling for an expansion on the government control of culture, in what is just the newest phase of the Russian state’s clashes with musicians.
Putin stated the need to control rap music based on its promotion of bad values and they damage they could cause to Russian society: “Rap and other modern [forms of art] are rested upon three pillars – sex, drugs and protest… I am most worried about drugs. This is the way towards the degradation of a nation.” It has not been lost on critics that Putin listed ‘protest’ as a key problem with rap music. In recent years, rap music has become wildly popular with young Russians, racking up millions of views online. This is despite the fact that state broadcasters do not broadcast it and tend to only mention the musicians if and when they are arrested, often on dubious sounding charges.
Putin made the comments after a series of rappers across Russia had their shows cancelled and were even arrested in some cases. Most prominently, the rapper Husky (real name Dmitry Kuznetsov) had a show cancelled in Krasnodar after local prosecutors warned the venue that his music contains elements of “extremism”. The “extremist” elements in question? Lyrics with themes such as mocking the authorities and protesting police brutality.
Husky found a new venue for the gig, but the power was shut off, forcing his fans to leave the venue. Unphased, Husky took to the roof of a car, and chanted his lyrics with his fans in the street. After finishing a song, police arrested Husky for “hooliganism”, and he was later sentenced to 12 days in prison. Husky was willing to pay for any damages to the car; but stated in court that he had been forced to perform on the street when his show was cancelled without explanation.
However, Husky’s sentence was revoked after only 4 days. No explanation was given as to why, but he was released just hours before a sold-out rap concert protesting his arrest was due to start in Moscow. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny believes the reversal occurred after “the Kremlin’s surprise at such unified outrage over Husky’s arrest”.
Husky isn’t the only artist to face problems recently. The duo IC3PEAK have also had gigs cancelled across Russia. For them, it has become so extreme that they have started to do tours in secret, yet still often expect their gigs to be shut down part-way through. They have likened the current situation to the Soviet Union era, and now say they view even a half-finished show as “a victory”. Similar stories are told by many other artists, showing a clear sign that any music perceived as vaguely ‘anti-establishment’ is under threat.
Russian authorities being tough on musicians is by no means a new development. For many the recent arrests are reminiscent of the band Pussy Riot’s ongoing battle with Putin’s government, who have been arrested multiple times; often for widely publicised acts of protest. Most famously, in 2012 they were wrestled out of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for performing their ‘Punk Prayer’ to denounce the Orthodox Church for its ties to Putin. A week later, 3 members were arrested, and then held for 6 months before being tried for “hooliganism”.
Protests broke out worldwide calling for the band’s release. Ultimately though, the judge threw out the defence’s evidence, and sentenced all three women to 2 years in a labour camp. Following their release in 2014, two of them, Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova were both rearrested multiple times in the build-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics for repeatedly protesting against the government. More recently, three members were arrested for invading the pitch during the World Cup Final in Moscow last July. They were held for 16 days, and upon release, were immediately arrested again for other offences. Then in September, another band member, Pyotr Verzilov, fell ill after a court hearing, which was later declared by the hospital to be suspected poisoning. Verzilov firmly believes Russian intelligence services were responsible.
This history of conflict begins to show why Putin has now shown an interest in controlling rap music. Despite Russian authorities already going to great lengths to stop protest music, Russian artists refuse to stay down, the music remains wildly popular, and protests break out each time an artist is arrested. It seems then that Putin is finally realising that outright banning certain types of music may be impossible to ban.
Yet in a country where the state has such a firm grasp on the media, music remains one the few places that is independent from Putin’s control. Now, Putin is looking to change that. By appealing to conservative values, pointing at the swearing and drug references in rap music, Putin is hoping to drum up support for the government to remove that independence. If he succeeds, the result will not just influence the music business, but may well signal another death knell for the prospect of free speech in Russia.