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No-Flow Zone: Are Russian Pop Stars Afraid To Play Daghestan?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) poses for a photo with rapper Timati during a meeting with his campaign activists in Moscow in March 2012.

MAKHACHKALA, Russia -- Considered home to one of Russia's most conservative societies, the predominantly Muslim republic of Daghestan could turn into a no-go zone for rappers and other pop singers viewed as immoral or insensitive to Islamic ways.

The latest entertainers to scratch appearances there are rapper Allj (El-Jay) and pop star Yegor Kreed, who canceled his September 9 concert in Makhachkala on the eve of the show after a storm of social-media insults and threats.

The vast majority were about the entertainers' looks and lifestyle in an online dispute that involved mercurial Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Daghestani-born UFC world champion fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov.

It seems many Daghestanis object to Allj's scary, dead-eye look and videos full of scantily clad women, blood and gore, and sex.

The decidedly more wholesome-looking, Justin Bieber-like Kreed apparently offended the same segment of Daghestani society with his amply tattooed body (conservative Muslims disapprove of tattoos) and music clips rife with women, opulent living, and violence.

The brouhaha over the concerts ramped up considerably when Nurmagomedov -- who grew up in Daghestan and is currently that Caucasus republic's biggest celebrity -- weighed in by joining with those opposed to Makhachkala hosting the concerts, adding that it was "not a great loss" that the shows were canceled.

That prompted Russia's answer to Kanye West -- singer-producer-actor-entrepreneur Timati -- to issue a video in which he criticized Nurmagomedov, who praises Allah before and after his fights while wearing a "papakha," the furry sheepskin hat popular in the Caucasus.

"I know you don't like our songs, but you have to respect other peoples' opinions.... You shouldn't support [a ban] on someone just because you don't like them," said Timati, who is a friend of Kadyrov.

Nurmagomedov, the undefeated world champion lightweight with a multimillion-dollar megafight with former champion Conor McGregor on October 6 in Las Vegas, reacted angrily to Timati on Instagram.

"Each one of you is going to answer for what you said, though I don't have the time right now.... I'm not forcing anyone to do anything," Nurmagomedov wrote, also using a vulgar Russian term for gay men in his post before adding, "I have my own opinion and it's funny that some dumb ass [like you] is going to tell me what I can and cannot do."

Khabib Nurmagomedov
Khabib Nurmagomedov

He concluded with a message: "I want to say something to our Daghestani men: ...we are responsible for the future of our republic and not some rappers...."

Other UFC fighters from the Caucasus offered videos and online comments to support Nurmagomedov, with one predicting that Timati would never perform in Daghestan

In addition to the canceled Allj (aka Sayonara Boy) and Kreed shows, a concert by rapper MC Doni -- who is an ethnic Uzbek -- scheduled for September 8 in the Caspian Sea city of Kaspiysk was also called off.

"In view of the turbulent situation on the ground, we do not want to risk the safety of people who want to get to the concert," an Instagram post by Kreed said.

Daghestan's Interior Ministry said the comments against the concerts being held were "extremist" and announced that a Daghestani native was detained and transferred to Makhachkala for threatening Kreed's life if he came to Daghestan to perform, RIA Derbent reported.

The whole imbroglio was too much for Kadyrov to ignore.

Addressing Timati and Nurmagomedov, he called for the two to calmly resolve the situation.

Kadyrov also urged his "Daghestani brothers" "not to offend each other" and suggested that Nurmagomedov was trying to get his weight down for the McGregor fight and "is nervous, so be understanding toward [his comments]. Let's live amicably, my beloved Daghestanis."

But his appeal failed to stop the online insults and criticism, particularly from the music fans who were angry about the canceled concerts.

The furor over the rap concerts is nothing new for Daghestan. Pop singer Boris Moiseyev -- who is openly gay -- has also scrubbed a concert there.

And passions seethed a few years ago when the erotically racy film 50 Shades Of Grey was screened in Makhachkala and even when a Festival of Colors was held -- some angry locals protested when they thought it was an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) event.

Other places in Russia have also had problems with entertainers whose lifestyles were viewed as "controversial."

Five years ago, protests erupted in Kazan, Tatarstan, when rock legend Elton John was scheduled to perform.

Written by Pete Baumgartner based on reporting by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service freelancer Zulfia Gadzhiyeva in Makhachkala and correspondent Valery Dzutsati in Prague