Can a simple pop song change the way most Russians look at their African residents? Mudio Mukutu Pierre Narcisse -- the sensation behind one of Russia's top summer hits of 2003 -- thinks so. "A lot of people called me, a lot of people thanked me," he said. "This one friend from Cameroon said, 'Thank you!' I asked him 'What for?' He tells me, 'Well, they used to call us niggers and now they call us chocolate boys!'"
Narcisse says that when he goes to a restaurant he makes a point of greeting the kitchen help -- usually African students earning meager wages to wash dishes. He says a cook once told him his visit earned the staff a lot of respect, so now he does it all the time.
A single song can hardly root out years of entrenched racism, but "Chocolate Bunny" -- a standard pop tune with ska underpinnings -- has been a playlist staple in restaurants and clubs throughout Russia for months.
This in a country that has been severely criticized by human rights associations for its racial discrimination. Africans in Russia are often the target of skinhead beatings and random police detention. Insults are hurled at them nearly every day. At best, they are ignored.
Compared to that, being called a "chocolate bunny" is a pleasant change, says Gabriel Kochofa, an instructor at Moscow's Oil and Gas Institute who heads the city's Foreign Students Association.
"Anything to create a different image," said Kochofa, a figurehead for Russia's African community. "You have to know that Russia is not a country that is used to other cultures, they were closed up on themselves for years, for centuries. And now, thanks to songs like this, they can begin opening their eyes. They can say, 'Hey, Africans can sing, and not only in their traditional language, but even in Russian!' The second thing is that now that Africans are being talked about, it gives [African] people [in Russia] some attention."
Kochofa laughingly says he even gets anonymous text messages on his cell phone calling him a "yummy chocolate bunny."
And it's all thanks to Narcisse, a man who describes himself as "made for show business." Sipping a vodka-and-Coke in a posh Moscow cafe, the 26-year-old certainly looks the part, wearing fashionable club clothes and yellow-tinted frameless glasses.
Growing up in a well-to-do family in Cameroon, he tried modeling before settling for a more traditional education in business. He then decided to become a fighter pilot, and in 1996 came to Russia for training. But a two-hour trip to the training center, traveling past drab suburbs and impoverished villages, changed his mind.
He returned to Moscow and began to study journalism at People's Friendship University, where a third of the student body is foreign. He earned money working as a DJ at a local radio station and spinning rap albums in Moscow clubs.
Narcisse got his big break last year when he was chosen to participate in "Star Factory," a Russian reality show that forces 12 would-be pop stars to spend a month sharing an apartment and studying music under the constant scrutiny of TV cameras.
As with many reality shows, a weekly call-in session with viewers would eliminate the participants one by one. Narcisse, who made it nearly to the end, says he was surprised by how well it went, despite being the only African on the show.
"I started getting messages from the parents of the other [kids] living in the house, saying that I was behaving the best of everyone, that I did some of the housework and helped the girls. So actually I got a lot of sympathy from the audience. From the whole cast, I'm the one the audience liked best," Narcisse said.
Narcisse says he also used his time on "Star Factory" to teach the Russians on the show to be more tolerant of Africans. For example, when each of the participants was asked to create a special performance, he chose an African song with traditional Burundi drums and female dancers. But when he decided half the dancers should be black and half of them white, the director balked, saying the white women wouldn't dance as well.
"After a lot of quarreling, they finally let me do it my way. The Burundi balafon drums were on front stage, with two white girls and two black girls. It was cool, it was a song that really touched everyone. The director came to see me, and he said, 'You were right.' They understood. Those white girls were swinging their hips just like the black girls. It was impeccable!" Narcisse aid.
Narcisse seems to entertain few illusions about the nature of his fame, and says he fully intends to remain in Russia where his novelty gives him more of a career boost than he'd likely find elsewhere. Still, he says that many Russians he meets have a hard time understanding the benefits of mixing different cultures, and gives an example that may hit some Russians especially hard.
"I tell them it's like football! You can't have football without a Brazilian! Look at the French football team -- it's a mix, [that's why] it works so well! In Russia, they haven't understood that in football you need a mix," he said.
Narcisse says his budding stardom and a busy performance schedule protect him from much of the racist insults he used to endure in Russia. But certain negative stereotypes still stick -- for instance, that many Africans are drug addicts and dealers.
"When you're black, you can't take a step without someone asking you for drugs. And even my [Russian] friends, when I tell them I've never done drugs, they say, 'What? -- you're black and you've never done drugs?' I tell them it all depends on how you were brought up," he said.
So has the Russian attitude toward Africans really changed? Narcisse, the "sweet chocolate rabbit" that has taken Russia by storm, shows a bitter irony as well. "The situation has changed. Seven years ago, [when I came to Russia], you were black, you got beat up, the police stopped you, asked for you papers, put their hands all over you," he said. "Now, no. Now it's the guy with the black hair [who looks like he could be from the North Caucasus] who gets stopped, and the black guy just walks on without a problem."