MOSCOW -- The Russian opposition is hailing it as modern-day poetry. The top broadsheets are pondering its business potential. And a pro-Kremlin lawmaker is mulling legislation to keep a lid on it, denouncing it as “moral squalor.”
This week, the chattering classes were scratching their heads over a newcomer to Russia’s hectic news landscape: freestyle rap battles.
The profanity-laced underground music form -- in which lyricists duel by trading creative, rhyming insults -- barged into the national conversation this week after a much-anticipated rap battle published on YouTube on August 13 garnered staggering online audiences overnight.
The hourlong rap face-off recorded on August 6 pitted Oxford University-educated Miron Fyodorov, 32, under his stage name Oxxxymiron, against Vyacheslav Karelin, performing as Gnoyny (The Rotten One). Karelin, who also goes by the name Slava KPSS (Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), won the encounter by unanimous vote.
The aggressive lyrical sparring saw opponents making eclectic allusions to dystopian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, George Orwell, and notorious NKVD police chief Lavrenty Beria, as well as modern political references to, for instance, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s corruption allegations against Prime Minister Dmitry Medvdev.
The video on YouTube gained over 3 million views overnight and has been watched more than 14 million times since it was posted.
As state news agencies and the independent press wrote about the huge viewership and the scope for advertising, public debate rapidly began on what constitutes contemporary Russian culture and whether the expletive-laden lyricism of rap qualifies.
Meanwhile, opposition figures made overtures to the rap battlers whose enormous viewing figures illustrate how Internet platforms such as YouTube can connect sprawling constituencies in a country where the Kremlin has traditionally controlled the public narrative through state-dominated TV.
Writing on Twitter, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the tycoon turned Kremlin critic, praised the rap battle as “poetry,” describing Oxxxymiron as an “intellectual” and calling Gnoyny “too good for that crowd.”
Navalny, who is mounting an improbable bid for the Russian presidency in March’s election, dedicated an entire blog post to it.
“This is a real poetry competition. I’m sorry, but there isn’t really rap in it," he said. "The guys write poetry and shout it at each other. And 30 million people watch it. That is to say, all the young people in the country.”
Navalny continued: “Isn’t that wonderful? Yes, there is bad language. Yes, there is fairly often quite base humor. Nonetheless, this is a competition of Russian poets. But as they really are. And in Russian. As it really is in its modern form.”
During his presidential election campaign, the 41-year-old opposition politician has made transparent attempts to woo young people who have formed the vanguard of both his mass antigovernment protests this year.
The rap battle, meanwhile, angered conservatives in the State Duma.
On August 15, lawmaker Gennady Onishchenko proposed legislation punishing state media for publishing news items about the rap encounter, accusing them of “unaccountably” “promoting” what he called "this miserable language.”
In comments to the Govorit Moskva radio station, Onishchenko said: “The Internet today reflects the moral squalor of our society as this [clip] received such broad popularity.”
Despite this short shrift in the Russian parliament, strongman President Vladimir Putin has himself made overtures in the past to Russia’s young hip-hop lovers.
In 2009, in a bid to shore up his then-sagging popularity, he appeared in a polo shirt at a rap and break-dancing contest where he spoke of the need for healthy living.
Putin has also received support from Russian rappers.
In 2015, Timati, one of the most famous Russian rappers and a friend of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, performed in a music video, rapping “my best friend is Vladimir Putin.”