It was somewhat curious when Vladimir Putin came out, sort of, in defense of Russian rappers whose concerts have been canceled in cities across Russia in recent weeks. Curious, because Putin’s image in the West is not of someone who would be sympathetic to angry, obscene, uncensored rap viewed by tens of millions of youths and despised by parents and local authorities.
Yet when the canceled concerts were raised at a meeting of his Council for Culture and Art, Putin — who has himself borrowed on occasion from Russia’s rich lexicon of deletable expletives — argued that obscenity was part of the culture, and that, in any case, it would be counterproductive to try to block a form of poetry and music that was all over the internet.
The “sort of” interjected above was from the president’s argument that of the three pillars on which, he said, rap rests — sex, drugs and protest — drugs are indeed worrisome. “That is a path to degrading the nation,” he declared. “If it is impossible to stop, then we need to lead, and in an appropriate way, direct.”
Putin did not elaborate on what forms that might take, which is unfortunate, since it would be interesting to hear some authoritarian rap cooked up in the Kremlin. Actually, there is existing material he could use — one macho hit by the rapper Slava KPSS (“Glory to the CPSU,” the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) has as its refrain “Vladimir Putin.”
Russian rap is enormously popular with the new generation of Russians. In August 2017, Slava KPSS (Vyacheslav Mashnov) beat the veteran rapper Oxxxymiron (Miron Fyodorov) in a keenly awaited rap battle that got more than 10 million views on YouTube within 24 hours. Last month, the arrest of the rapper Husky in the southern city of Krasnodar prompted mass protests. After his concert was canceled because the authorities deemed his lyrics offensive, he climbed onto the roof of a car and tried to do his show there. He was arrested and sentenced to 12 days for hooliganism, but the public outcry was so big that he was quickly released.
These are not forces the Kremlin wants to take on, at least so long as Putin himself remains relatively unscathed by the rappers, even if they are anti-establishment and raw. His response to the council smacked more of letting a sleeping dog lie than any appreciation of hip-hop.
Putin’s “lead and direct” suggested that authoritarian delusions die hard. It didn’t work then, and it would be far more futile in the age of the internet and social media.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES