Russian rap is praised by fans and admirers as reflecting the sentiments, and often the disillusionment, of the country’s youth. It’s also this element, critics say, that is increasingly bringing unwanted attention from the authorities.
In recent years, law enforcement agencies have focused increased scrutiny on popular performers whom senior officials have described as a corrupting influence on society.
Last week, they went further.
On December 5, reports surfaced that the head of Russia’s powerful Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin, had ordered a probe into the work of Oxxxymiron and Noize MC, two of the country’s most popular rappers.
An unnamed “patriots’ group” had filed a complaint, claiming that their lyrics contained extremism and “efforts to rehabilitate Nazism,” as well as promoting a “negative attitude toward employees of law enforcement organs,” the Investigative Committee said.
The alleged text of the complaint was first published on December 2 by blogger Dmitry Yakushev, and it referred to previous investigations into other Russian rappers as an instructive precedent for reining in their work.
In particular, the letter cited a case against Morgenshtern, a popular rapper who in a controversial October interview said that President Vladimir Putin’s government spends far too much on annual World War II-themed celebrations.
Amid an uproar over those comments in Russia, a country where victory in World War II is widely considered sacred, Morgenshtern issued an apology. But Bastrykin had already issued an order for Morgenshtern’s remarks to be checked for violations of the law, and soon after, Morgenstern reportedly fled Russia.
The “patriots’ group” that allegedly stands behind the latest complaint thanked Bastrykin for “drawing attention to Morgenshtern and leading him to quickly leave Russia,” the news outlet Meduza reported. And online commenters began voicing concerns that Noise MC and Oxxxymiron may also feel pressured to leave.
The campaign targeting Russia’s rappers accelerated during protests in Moscow against the exclusion of opposition candidates from city council elections in 2019.
Rappers were among the celebrities speaking out against a perceived purge of the political field. Among them were Noize MC and Oxxxymiron, who attended court cases against participants in the demonstrations and publicly called for their release.
They were praised for their public stance at a time when protesters were facing long jail terms, and some rappers later participated in other anti-government rallies, most recently in support of imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny in April.
On his latest album, the first release in six years, Oxxxymiron sings about the mounting campaign against people declared “foreign agents” by the state, rapping that a foreign agent in Russia is anyone “who isn’t either protected or a policeman.” He also mocks Russian officials accused of plagiarism, saying that his university diploma is “so bad that I could become culture minister.”
The probe ordered by Bastrykin is short of a formal criminal investigation, and it’s unclear whether it will lead to charges against the rappers. But the story with Noize MC and Oxxxymiron took a bizarre turn late on December 5, when the blogger Yakushev published a post saying that the alleged complaint by a “patriots’ group” had actually been a prank.
“This was a joke,” he wrote. “A fabricated complaint, deliberately written in an idiotic way, a satire of our times.”
The logic of the system, critics say, means that such a confession may be too little, too late for the rappers accused of violating the law through their use of words.
But in later comments to the news outlet Meduza, Yakushev said, “I had no idea that things would be perceived this way.”