Make Some Noize: Rap as a Form of Political Protest in Russia

April 28, 2020   /  

Student: Daphne Letherer
Majors: Global and International Studies (History), Russian Studies
Advisors: Dr. Peter Pozefsky, Dr. Tatiana Filimonova

Daphne LethererWithin the last few years, opposition against the Kremlin has been on the rise. During the summer of 2019, record-breaking protests took place across Russia. While the crowds consisted largely of young people, another voice stood out among the opposition, both in the crowds and on-stage: rappers. Part of one of the most popular music genres in Russia today, rap artists are more frequently releasing political songs, videos, and even entire albums. Some of most notable artists associated with activism are Noize MC, Face, and Oxxxymiron. Government officials attempted to control the popular hip-hop artists, but such attempts at censorship and concert cancellations angered rappers and their fans alike, who in response mobilized to protect their freedoms of speech and expression. Because of the increasing politicization among Russian rappers and their capability to inspire their fanbases to also become civically active, this project argues that rap in Russia is an effective form of political protest and that rappers engage politically in three primary ways: releasing songs, advocating issues on social media, and direct participation in protests.

I have always had a soft spot for rebels and been drawn to opposition movements. Although I did not listen to rap music before this project, the rappers’ performances and participation in the 2019 Moscow summer protests caught my attention and drew me into the story of their ongoing battle with the state. The more I learned about Russian rappers—in particular, Noize MC and his cover of “Everything’s as It Should Be”—the more I wanted to share the story of their politicization. Because of this project, I found a new appreciation for hip hop and deepened my appreciation for cultural protest.

 

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Daphne will be online to field comments on May 8:
2-4 pm EDT (PST 11am-1pm, Africa/Europe: evening)

58 thoughts on “Make Some Noize: Rap as a Form of Political Protest in Russia”

  1. Daphne. What an informative and enlightening presentation!! So we’ll done. Congratulations on graduation and May you have continued success. Jan woods ( parent of Emma Nathanson COW 16)

  2. Excellent and eye-opening…Congrats! One has to think that given the current situation, with the oil crash, unrest would really be growing in Russia. What is a good online resource to follow the rap and protest movement there?

    1. Thank you! Personally, I like Meduza. They’re an independent news source that posts in English and Russian. The Moscow Times also provided me with quite a few English-language sources. Both sources cover all kinds of news, so keep an eye out for rappers making headlines!

  3. Hi, Daphne. This is so cool! I would like to ask, how do you think these rap groups draw inspiration or have grown out of the rebellious punk scene in Russia with bands like Pussy Riot formerly taking this role? I know you mentioned that Noize MC covered a song from Civil Disobedience, but do these connections extend further?

    I also wanted to ask if you see similarities between this political rap movement and the American political rap movement of the 80’s and 90’s.

    Great job on your presentation, very eye-opening! I hope you come back and visit Wooster soon!

    1. Thanks, Sydney! Some people believe that the current rap movement mirrors the Soviet rock movement. There are plenty of parallels to see between Soviet rock and Russian rap, especially in the youth subculture surrounding these music genres: popularity with youth, government censorship, and the artists’ willingness to challenge the current social and political systems–to name the broad, overarching themes.

      However Pussy Riot is an interesting case. The rappers I discuss are first and foremost entertainers. Their primary goal is not to make political statements. The same can be said of many Soviet rock and punk bands. In both music movements, there is a hefty amount of entertainers who do not touch on politics in their music, and for the rappers I analyze in my research, the majority of their discography does not criticize politics. Pussy Riot on the other hand was formed for the purpose of making political statements. Thus, some of these musicians do not consider Pussy Riot to be the same type of artist that they are. They may support Pussy Riot’s causes, but I’d say the majority of rappers do not consider the group to be musicians in the traditional sense.

      The question of American political rap is an important one! Unfortunately, I did not touch too much on the American rap movement–apart from its origins–in my project. But this is definitely something that is worth looking into when continuing the research on Russian rap’s politicization. One major difference that I know is that the development of rap in the US and Russia was reversed. Hip hop began as a counterculture in the US, whereas in Russia it took about fifteen years to politicize.

      Thank you for your questions, and I will definitely stop by the German Suite if I come back to Woo!

  4. Looks great Daphne! Exactly the quality of work I’d expect from you. Like a YouTube video!

  5. This is such engaging research, Daphne! You did a great job using video and images to communicate your findings. Excellent work.
    As a double major in Global & International Studies and Russian, how do you think your project reflects an interdisciplinary approach?

    1. Thank you, Prof. Holt! I really appreciate it.

      As a double major, I certainly had the blessing and curse to pack a lot into my project! In justifying the study of Russian rap, telling the its narrative, and exploring its cultural significance, I adopted historical, political, and cultural lenses in an attempt to paint the full picture of Russian rap as a political force today. I did not focus on solely the historical narrative or a song analysis, but synthesized these things in order to provide an overview of the politicization of Russian rap. There are many questions that can be posed in historical, political, and cultural frameworks to continue my work, and I hope to see more academic attention on Russian rap in the near future!

  6. You bring light to an important topic of protests and rap in Russia! Outstanding project on cultural protest!

  7. Amazing presentation and insight. I was wondering if you had any ideas on influence politically motivated rap from the United States had any impact in shaping the stylistic elements of Russian Protest Rap?

    1. Thank you so much! My project did not explore the musical styles of the artists, but that is a great idea for future research! I do know that Russian rap artists heavily imitated American rappers for a very long time. Today, they still retain that influence, but Russian rap is now considered to be more distinct and fans largely only listen to Russian artists.

  8. Daphne: What an interesting topic and well developed presentation! You’ve done a nice job of integrating politics, history, and popular culture in this study. Was this inspired by your time abroad in Russia, perhaps, or has it always been of interest? Great job!

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Lantis! I really appreciate it. I have always been interested in opposition movements, but studying rap was certainly not on my list of potential IS topics. After going abroad, I did see that rap is just as popular in Russia as it is in the US. But more importantly, the connections I made while abroad proved to be priceless. It was because of them that I even learned about Noize MC and “Everything’s as It Should Be,” to which I devoted an entire chapter of my I.S.! One of my friends participated in the August 10th protest and showed me Noize MC after I asked about political Russian music.

  9. What a great interdisciplinary analysis of the way in which this global cultural trend has played such a unique and important role in Russia. You may not have focused on this, but I’m wondering whether there explicit connections made by opposition protest movements in Russia to music’s (and rap’s in particular) role in other protest movements around the world? Or did the Russian experience deliberately eschew connections to these global dynamics so as to avoid criticisms of being connected to outside forces?

    1. Thank you, Dr. Krain! I did not find anything where Russian rap referenced global opposition. From my study of cultural protest, I would say this is because cultural protest is usually rooted more locally. Current opposition movements tend to draw from past movements in that country, though they can find solidarity with global opposition movements occurring at the same time. As far as Russian rap today is concerned, you make a good point about wanting to avoid criticisms for having external connections. This is certainly a huge factor when studying Russian NGO’s, so perhaps the same can be said for music and cultural protest? Artists may not want to be seen as being less Russian than others because they have stronger feelings for non-Russian movements.

  10. Daphne: What a great presentation and video! I was captivated!

    I was wondering if anything you read discussed why the rap genre seems more appealing in this context rather than punk rock or folk? (I really like the connections you made to other music both contemporarily and historically) Do we have data on the preference for certain types of music genres in Russia? Has this changed over time? Is there something unique about this genre that supports protest at this current moment?

    1. Thank you so much, Dr. Moledina! What I read about hip hop as a global phenomenon is that there is something about it that makes it easily adaptable to other cultures. Rap’s emphasis on the use of language and lyrics makes it accessible to most people, without needing to play an instrument. Hip hop tends to be political because it has political origins, but then again so do other music genres.

      That would be very interesting to see hard data about the trends the popularity of music genres in Russia. I do not have numbers, but music preference in Russia, as in all places, does fluctuate. Rap became mainstream in the early 2010s and is now just as common as pop music.

      Rap in Russia is unique because of its ties to both American hip hop and Soviet rock. Not only does it pull on the counterculture origins of American rap, but it is very similar to the Soviet rock movement because of its popularity with youth, battles against government suppression, and the artists’ willingness to challenge the status quo (where many artists do not). Additionally, rap has a strong connection to poetry, which has a very rich history embedded in cultural protest in Russia since the 1800s.

  11. Daphne,
    What a great presentation! You did a wonderful job of exploring popular culture as a voice for political protest. I am not familiar with the rap culture of Russia, butI noticed that you presented male voices. I am curious, does gender play any role in political protest in the rap culture of Russia?

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate it! I would love to see continued research on women in rap or cultural protest in general. Rap in Russia, as it is in the US, is very male-centric. While the rappers I presented in my research do support the people’s right to the freedoms of speech and expression (making them seem more liberal), the objectification of women is common in Russian rap. The study of female artists would certainly bolster my research and provide a much-needed gendered lens.

  12. Your video is fantastic, Daphne! It is a very effective way of presenting your scholarship and really conveys the popularity of the rap artists you discuss in your IS. Have there been any new developments in the Russian rap scene and its relationship with the Russian government since you’ve submitted your IS?

    1. Ah, Lynette, thank you so much! I cannot repay you for all your help with pulling my project together! Because of the current pandemic, the focus on rappers has, sadly, diminished. But artists (including our one and only Noize MC) have released more political tracks. I eagerly await to see what they’ll do next, especially in the next presidential election!

  13. Daphne, your project is fascinating, useful, and so well done. Like you, I don’t have a history of liking rap, but your skillful presentation makes me rethink my future listening. I’m interested, too, in what one of your other viewers asked (above), why is this demographic choosing rap and why not punk rock or folk?
    The 2018 statement from Putin that you cite in translation, “Rap rests on 3 pillars: sex, drugs, and protest, and therefore should be guided by the government,” says it all.
    Congratulations to you from a parent of a ’13 Wooster alum.

    1. Thank you, Moira! I would be lying if I said I haven’t added some Russian rap into my Spotify playlists haha. I don’t know much about Russian folk, but as far as punk rock is concerned, it’s an old genre. Rock and punk came and went, and now it’s time for a new genre, that genre being rap. One piece I read argued that punk rock went out of style in the 90’s because it was no long prohibited to listen to it, so it lost its edge as a counterculture. Therefore, the crackdown on rap from government officials today makes it seem like something the youth shouldn’t be listening to, so naturally they want to listen to it.

      I agree, that quote from Putin is powerful. If you’re interested, your question and Putin’s reactions to rap are also addressed in the Vice documentary on Hulu, “Russia’s War on Hip Hop.”

  14. Hi Daphne! I know that you are a History home department, but given the focus of your project on political protest do you think that the other dimensions of your Global & International Studies major influenced your project development?

    1. Hi, Prof. Kille! I certainly pulled from my studies of political science. My introduction pulled heavily from political science sources, discussing nonviolent and cultural protest and recent opposition trends in Russia. I think this project would really benefit from a deeper dive in the political science side, such as the comparison of Russian rap as a cultural protest movement to those in other countries.

      1. Thanks Daphne! Agreed that it would be interesting to bolster even further the Political Science dimensions of this project since there is a lot of literature and ideas there that could be drawn upon, but since you were already juggling two majors I am sure that your advisors did a good job of keeping you focused where you needed to be for Senior year 🙂

  15. Daphne,

    Congratulations on a very well-produced video and on an even more engaging topic.

    You’ve done a great job pointing out how art – music specifically – always seems to break through to its audience despite (because of?) political and “official” opposition. Rap’s roots as protest music continue to grow, decade after decade, and they now reach all the way around the globe. Thank you for sharing with us some of these very important Russian artists.

    Do you have any thoughts about how Russian rappers have been influenced by Pussy Riot? Or by specific rappers or spoken word artists in the US?

    Congratulations on your IS!

    1. Thank you so much! Pussy Riot really has no influence on rap in Russia. I believe rappers would be doing and saying the same things now regardless of Pussy Riot’s performances. The key difference is that rappers are first and foremost entertainers, while Pussy Riot is first and foremost a political statement. American rappers, on the other hand, heavily influenced Russian rap, and many of the big names in Russian rap today were influenced by American artists, such as Wu-Tang Clan.

  16. This is a great presentation, Daphne! I was captivated. It’s always great to see our former FYS students thrive here at the College of Wooster and do amazing research. I enjoyed having you in class and I wish you the very best after graduation! Toutes mes félicitations…

    1. Thank you, Prof. Duval! If you had told freshman me that I would be writing my IS on rap, I would’ve laughed. My FYS with you set the tone for my amazing (and hard-working) time at Wooster. Thank you so much!

  17. Fascinating stuff! Your project is really interesting and I’m glad that you were able to present on your topic in my Russian history class in the fall. Congratulations!

  18. Daphne, thank you for such an enlightening presentation. I clicked through some of the links at the end of the downloadable version and you are right – no Russian language experience is required to appreciate the powerful statements these artists are making. Thank you for the nicely curated collection!

    Since you were not a rap listener prior to your research, what surprised you the most about the music?

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed them! I still get chills when I watch Noize MC’s “Everything’s as It Should Be.” Not understanding the lyrics enables you to pay more attention to the images, and it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words.

      I think what surprised me the most about the music was how much I could enjoy it (and how it makes really good workout music). The artists’ powerful emotions really come through despite not knowing the words, and I think that is a testament to them as artists and to the power of rap as a music genre.

  19. Great topic and wonderful presentation! Two questions, Daphne. Some languages are more amenable to being utilized in the genre of rap than others. Does Russian fit pretty well into rap?

    And beyond Russian YouTube, are there other platforms through which Russian rap artists get their work out to listeners, both at home and abroad? Spasiba, Mark

    1. Thank you! Oh my yes, I think rap fits wonderfully into rap. Russia is famous for its poetry, and poetry translates so easily into rap. Also, I think the sound of Russian overall meshes very well with the tone of a lot of rap. English rap has yet to grow on me, but I am a fan of the Russian!

      Just like in the US, Russian artists use social media in general to promote their work. Instagram in particular is extremely popular for music promotion (and, as I found, for advocating social and political issues). And the convenient thing is, many of these social media platforms are used internationally, so they receive attention at home and abroad. Спасибо, Марк!

  20. So cool! I’d love to see how this relates to the birth of rap in the US. Nice work Зоя

    1. Ваня, спасибо большое. That is something worth studying for sure! All I can safely say is that the birth of rap in the US and Russia are very different. In fact, there may be more similarities between American rap and Soviet rock than with Russian rap.

  21. What an amazing presentation, Daphne! You’ve done a wonderful job
    Good luck with all your future projects.

  22. Such a wonderful and engaging piece Daphne! As an advocate of American rap I can certainly say I might have to start listening to more Russian rappers! Maybe I will find a Russian XXXtentacion or maybe a Russian lil Uzi Vert!
    I wish you luck with all your projects in the future Daphne!

  23. Congratulations Daphne. Your presentation–the whole production and design–is pretty impressive. My sincere respects for your genuine and sophisticated approach to music and politics. / H.

  24. This is such a beautiful presentation, I could barely figure out how to play audio over a power point let alone all of this! I think of rap as such a political form of expression and it is so interesting to see how that plays out in other cultures! Really nice job!

  25. Such a well-done project! Congrats! My questions echo many already posed & answered, but I was so struck by the political focus here-curious if rap in Russia started immediately in that vein, or did it have a period of copycat of some U.S. rap that could be devoid of explicit politics (more focused on money & pleasures)?

  26. How interesting and captivating! So when do we hear about your entry into journalism, товарищ?

  27. Great presentation Daphne! Your hard work and passion is shown through this video. Music is a powerful form of art and can be used in such different ways. Please send more song recommendations and artists to listen to!

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