After a crackdown on live music in Russia, artists are asking what’s next
Months after a series of concert cancellations, the country’s underground subcultures have reached an uneasy truce with authorities
In Russia, the end of 2018 was marked by a crackdown on popular music. A number of concerts and festivals were shut down at short notice, with officials citing vague reasons for their closure. Musicians like Husky, IC3PEAK, and Frendzona made international headlines when their Russian tours were interrupted, but they weren’t the only artists to suffer: throughout the year, new and emerging pop acts including Monetochka, Allj, GONE.Fludd, and T-Fest also faced cancellations or other disruptions to their concerts.
The shows were affected in different ways, and for different reasons. In September, in the Republic of Dagestan, Russia’s Muslim federal subject, pop singer Egor Kreed was threatened by locals over a common belief that he is gay, an allegation based primarily on his looks, behaviour, and male friendships (Kreed has never come out, and has previously participated in a heterosexual TV dating show). Electronic duo IC3PEAK also saw some of their autumn tour concerts axed, but this time by the siloviki, a term used to describe politicians who are closely tied to the military and security services. Regardless of who caused the cancellation, there’s been one recurring element in every situation: no official, clear, or consistent explanation has been given.
While the cancellations have, for now, mostly stopped, Russia’s music scene is currently asking what might happen next, and whether it’ll happen again. To understand this, it’s important to look at the context that led to these cancellations in the first place.
HOW DID THE CRACKDOWN BEGIN?
Although the concert cancellations were widely reported as a “rap crackdown” in the international press, hip hop wasn’t the only genre that faced censorship – more than any one particular style, a whole wave of youth-oriented Russian popular music was affected. Still, some of the loudest stories really were about hip hop. In recent years, Russian hip hop has become more talked about than ever, particularly after a rap battle between the artists Oxxxymiron and Slava KPSS went viral in August 2017. Given the genre’s newfound popularity, it’s not surprising that many Russian rappers were so heavily affected by the crackdown.
26-year-old rapper Husky, real name Dmitry Kuznetsov, is adored for a unique flow that’s surreal and straightforward at the same time. Born in the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, he poetically raps about poverty in the regions, drugs, and other relatable experiences. During his last tour, titled Prokaza (“Leprosy”), he joined a list of artists whose concerts were cancelled or indefinitely delayed. The reason? A letter sent by an unknown (and possibly non-existent) woman who claimed she represented a “group of parents” concerned that Husky promoted alcohol and drugs, suicidal behaviour, sadism, lechery, and, most bizarrely, cannibalism (Husky’s song “Poema o Rodine” uses the line “Remember, you died, and we ate your meat that smelled like a mummy left in the mausoleum,” an allegorical reference to the concept of ‘the Motherland’ rather than a real person).
This wasn’t without precedent. The young rapper FACE was one of the first artists to experience problems with his concerts. As early as 2017, his explicit lyrics were being criticised by parent groups and reported to authorities, and FACE himself has said that he started experiencing trouble after he refused to partner with the government on his music.
In the recent case of teen band Frendzona, whose fans are predominantly aged between 11 and 17, parent committees, individual parents, deputies, children rights’ commissioners, and prosecutor office representatives all initiated raising the gig entrance age from 12+ to 18+. At the same time, their concerts were cancelled in ten different cities, which venue owners said they did under pressure from authorities. When they perform, Frendzona’s members portray fictional heroes, with one of the members always wearing a crocodile costume – the band doesn’t seem particularly threatening from outward appearances, but their latest video, “Devstvennitsa” (“Virgin”), might give a hint about what these groups found so disturbing. It features scenes of youths kissing on the Metro, smoking, and drinking, with lyrics about losing their virginity and watching pornography; they also have other songs discussing suicide and same-sex relationships.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
After Husky’s concert in the city of Nizhny Novgorod was stopped from going ahead, he faced cancellations in seven more towns, all with the participation of police, prosecutors, and siloviki. In the city of Krasnodar, Husky attempted to perform in a secret venue, but the electricity was cut off. In the end, he performed on the roof of the car parked by the club, where he rapped an excerpt from his song “Ai” to a crowd of fans: “Stop the party, I will sing my music, the most honest music.”
Husky was quickly detained and sentenced to 15 days’ imprisonment. Many other rappers expressed solidarity, despite their political differences (Husky is a controversial supporter of Russia’s military actions in Eastern Ukraine, a view that’s at odds with the pacifist leanings of much of the hip hop scene). On November 26, in Moscow, superstars Oxxxymiron, Basta, and Noize MC organised a concert, I Will Sing My Music, titled after Husky’s impromptu performance. Before the show, Oxxxymiron told the audience that the concert is not only about Husky, but about “the freedom of creativity”. Part of the revenue generated from it was given to Husky, who in turn said that he’d share the money with other artists who’d suffered from cancellations. Just hours before the show, news emerged that the court had decided to release Husky early.
In mid-November, YouTube blocked Husky’s music video for “Иуда” (“Judas”) in Russia. In January, Husky’s lawyer, Alexey Avanesyan, appealed to The European Court of Human Rights over the rapper’s treatment, writing in a Facebook post that he believed the court was biased. Earlier this month, Husky was in court challenging the blocking of “Иуда”, where it was revealed that courts in Krasnodar had in fact designated four of his music videos as “prohibited information”, despite neither the artist nor his representatives having been informed about this at the time.
WHAT METHODS DID THE AUTHORITIES USE TO SHUT DOWN OTHER EVENTS?
Before their autumn tour, titled Skazka (“Fairytale”), IC3PEAK released “Smerti Bolshe Net” (“Death is No More”), a video openly criticising the contemporary social and political reality for many Russians. It features macabre but metaphorical scenes of Nastia and Nick drinking blood and eating raw meat on Red Square, and sitting on the shoulders of riot policemen equipped to suppress the anti-government protest in front of the FSB (Federal Security Service) building. In interviews, Nastia has stressed that she wrote the grim song after last spring’s presidential election, in which Vladimir Putin was returned to power with a huge 76 per cent of the vote.
Nastia and Nick believe it was this video that got authorities so vexed. Throughout the month of their tour, IC3PEAK faced threats from venue owners, bomb threats called in to where they were set to perform, electricity blackouts, sudden health inspections and dog handler visits, had direct encounters with policemen as they arrived in different cities, and were tailed by FSB cars. In Novosibirsk, Nastia and Nick were detained for three hours, and threatened with having drugs planted on them, all to make them cancel their show. They held on.
“The presence of cops always spices up the rave,” Nick says, “but on the other hand, that wasn’t nice at all. Every time, there was a different kind of mentovskoy bespredel (a slang word meaning ‘cops’ mayhem’, or illegal police activities). The most horrible part is that by the moment we reached Minsk, we already got used to it all and were like, ‘Okay, here’s a policeman trying to disrupt the show, nothing new, let’s continue. It became a kind of routine – which was alarming, because you must not get used to it.”
During the tour, IC3PEAK obtained legal support from international human rights group Agora. Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora and a member of The Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, felt it was essential to help the band. “The cancellation of concerts on the obviously far-fetched grounds is a direct violation of the constitutional freedoms of speech and expression,” he tells Dazed. “I don’t even (need to talk) about the fact that the artists were prevented from legally earning their living. In some cases, a deprivation of liberty took place, like in Novosibirsk, when Nick was detained with the use of handcuffs. So there is even no question of whether the rights were violated.”
WHO LED THE CANCELLATIONS?
The cancellations have been blamed separately on parents, moralists, and the state. In truth, it’s all kind of tied together. On January 16, Husky’s lawyer Alexey Avanesyan wrote on Facebook that the Krasnodar city branch of the Russian organisation Obshee Delo (“The Common Task”) had reported Husky and IC3PEAK to the prosecutor’s office. Obshee Delo says it aims to “prevent alcoholism, smoking, and drug addiction, particularly among youth”, to “enhance moral and ethical values”, and to “popularise a healthy way of living”. In his Facebook post, Avanesyan wrote that the organisation has close ties with the authorities, and that Husky’s songs were immediately checked for extremist content, leading to several Official Warnings on the Inadmissibility of Violation of the Law (documents informing that the authorities that a law is believed to have been violated, and that if the person blamed fails to comply with the requirements, they could be prosecuted) being sent to Krasnodar clubs, leading to Husky’s concert being shut down. Avanesyan also suspects it was Obshee Delo who reported Husky’s videos to the court.
Musicians can be reported to local authorities by organisations like Obshee Delo or the notorious anti-drug movement Antidiler, but also by parent groups, a single parent, or literally any citizen who follows the detailed instructions of “how to cancel a concert of an amoral band in your town”, posted on the What is Good project’s website. Sample texts appealing to the content rating law (“On Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development”) are there, too. A successful case would be celebrated, like the cancellation of dance/hip hop artist Allj’s January 2019 concert in Voronezh, which was initiated by a local family rights group.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING NOW?
The ever-present moralism in Russia today seems to be aggravated by the ongoing political mood. The country has suffered a decades-long decline in democracy, which accelerated after the end of Yeltsin’s presidency, and was more recently exacerbated by the 2014 economic downturn and Russia’s ongoing military activity in foreign countries. The result? State-fueled nostalgia for the Soviet era, a revival of traditional Russian family values, the strengthening of the Orthodox Church’s role in the country, and government initiatives that have led to more authoritarianism. By comparison, at the peak of their popularity from the mid-90s to early 00s, Russian goth rock band Agata Kristi often referenced death and heavy drugs in their songs, but no serious limitations were ever imposed. In 2006, two teenage girls in Ukrainian town of Blagoveshchensk committed suicide, leaving quotations from Agata Kristi songs in a note and written on the wall, but the band did not get censored in any post-Soviet country, including the band’s motherland.
Non-state media has said that the music crackdown is political. The TV channel Dozhd reported that pressure had been exerted on venues and artists by middle managers in the security forces, but the initiative has since been halted – and, as the channel’s anonymous source in the Kremlin said, the authorities wanted to “stop this idiocy”. Both Mediazona, an outlet launched by members of Pussy Riot, and Znak, pointed to information from anonymous sources suggesting that the crackdowns were the result of two high profile acts of violence by teenagers: on October 17, an 18-year-old killed 20 people in a school shooting in Kerch, a town in the Crimea peninsula annexed by Russia, while on October 31, a 17-year-old suicide bomber targeted an FSB building in Arkhangelsk. The FSB reportedly decided to analyse the music tastes of teenagers who might be influenced by radical ideas, and concluded that the concerts of selected artists should be stopped.
WHAT DOES THE GOVERNMENT’S REACTION MEAN FOR THE FUTURE?
On December 6, a roundtable on the crackdown was held at State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia. The participants were different members of Youth Parliament and deputies of United Russia and LDPR parties, a Main Directorate for Drugs Control representative Vitaly Khmelnitsky, and rappers Ptaha and Jigan. The initial idea was to ignite a dialogue between the state and the artists, but after less than an hour, it became clear that the two parties were speaking different languages. Vitaly Khmelnitsky claimed the cancellations were an “extreme” but “legitimate” measure, and that he sees a difference between “censorship” and the “protection of moral values”. Ptaha and Jigan, who never actually faced cancellations themselves, were more hopeful about finding direct solutions to the problems.
The meeting felt like a PR exercise, to give the illusion of real dialogue taking place. Still, at the end of January, it was reported that as a result of the meeting, the Prosecutor General’s Office had assigned regional subdivisions in Dagestan, Yakutia, Tatarstan, Krasnodar Krai, Belgorod Oblast, and Nizhny Novgorod Oblast to explore why the concerts were cancelled. Soon after the roundtable, Sergey Kiriyenko, the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, stressed the need to work with youth culture. “When somebody by chance doesn’t get it or like it, it ends up with cancellations. It’s nonsense,” he said. Vladimir Medinsky, Minister of Culture, underlined that his department did not cancel concerts, and would never do so. Dmitry Kiselyov, a host on the state-run Channel One Russia, aired a story urging people to stop threatening artists, and even rapped a little himself – about sanctions against Russia. He also said he’d welcome a summer rap festival as a gesture of reconciliation – although in a video interview that aired on February 5, he was unable to name any popular artists who said they’d be happy to participate.
The situation reached a point where even President Vladimir Putin was commenting on it. He stated that it’s better to “chair and lead” the artists “in the needed direction”, but “grabbing them and not letting them through is the worst, most dysfunctional method possible”, and that it would only bring “the opposite” effect. Putin said that explicit language is part of the Russian culture, and promised to think about full legalisation of it, but stressed he is not happy about lyrics about drugs. (In his words: “Obviously, (singing about drugs) leads to the degradation of a nation. If they like to do it somewhere abroad – God bless and let them do what they want. But here, we should think what to do to prevent this”).
After all the meetings and roundtables, the censorship seemed to stop, but as no concrete legislation resulted from the debate, it’s hard to say whether this halt in concert cancellations is permanent. There’s another pressing question that’s yet to be answered, too: what do Putin’s words about leading artists in the “needed direction” really mean?
After the events raised a storm in the media and were widely criticised, IC3PEAK’s last concerts went ahead smoothly. “When the general public saw the ways in which the local authorities decided to ‘fix’ the culture, they got outraged, reasonably,” Nastia says. “It’s obvious that the approach is outdated and ridiculous.”
In the age of social media, IC3PEAK believe it will be hard for the government to get away with this censorship for long. “We get the feeling that the authorities have absolutely lost connection with reality and they live in their imaginative world of USSR nostalgia,” Nick says. “Here and now, in this information era, they try to bring back the same management tools that worked 30 years ago. They do not work anymore, and look absurd.”