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Straight Outta Moscow? Culture Minister Stakes Claim To Rap As Russian Art Form


OG rapper Vladimir Mayakovsky

Russia's culture minister is no stranger to controversy.

Known for public statements that often veer toward the hyper-patriotic, Vladimir Medinsky has frequently found himself at the center of debates over artistic expression, as well as Russian cultural history. He's helped lead the charge against art that, in the eyes of conservative activists, touches on so-called "gay propaganda." He's wondered aloud if the online streaming service Netflix was a U.S. government plot to take over the world's television sets.

Medinsky added further to his notoriety with this pronouncement on October 16:

Rap is Russian.

And Soviet-era poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was the first rapper.

At the Valdai Discussion Club -- a Kremlin-organized, invitation-only annual meeting of Russian and foreign experts held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi -- Medinsky joined a panel of Russian culture figures to discuss the subject of Russia's "national identity in a changing world."

He argued that whereas Russia did not invent ballet as an art form, it is now very much a Russian art. Same with rap.

"It's bothered me for some time now, I wanted to say, it infuriates me: this fascination of modern urban youth with rap, but when I try to dig into this business more closely, I'll chat with my son, listen to what he's listening to, and read, and I get the feeling that soon we'll be saying that rap is Russian art," Medinsky was quoted by Russian news agencies are saying. "Of course, it was born somewhere in America, but its flourishing occurred with us, of course."

Medinsky also said he told his son that Mayakovsky -- whose avant-garde poetry in the 1910s and 1920s made him a darling of the new Bolshevik leaders of the Soviet Union -- was in fact the first rapper.

"And now he's going around in class telling everyone that. And they're reading Mayakovsky and they all agree," he said.

It wasn't immediately clear how Medinsky's comments were received at Valdai.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has is a polarizing figure.
Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has is a polarizing figure.

Controversial Figure

Since his appointment in 2012, Medinsky has become a polarizing figure, lauded by social conservatives and often mocked in liberal artistic circles.

In 2016, he accused the United States of expropriating the legacy of celebrated Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, who fled Russia after the 1917 revolution and was buried in the United States in 1940.

The following year, his academic credentials were questioned after an academic council called for stripping him of his doctoral degree. Also that same year, he suggested in an interview that Netflix -- whose political drama House Of Cards is reportedly a Kremlin favorite -- was a secret U.S. mind-control plot.

In July 2017, Russian news reports linked Medinsky to a decision by the famed Bolshoi Theater to cancel a highly anticipated biographical show about legendary Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

The show highlighted Nureyev's sexuality -- he was gay, a fact that was an open secret but was almost never publicly discussed during his lifetime -- and close observers of Russian cultural trends linked the decision to the 2013 law that criminalizes "gay propaganda."

The director of the show, Kirill Serebrennikov, had repeatedly clashed with government cultural figures, and participating in antigovernment protests, denounced what he saw as state censorship efforts. Serebrennikov was later arrested, accused of embezzlement related to a film studio, and placed under house arrest.

In January, meanwhile, the Culture Ministry banned the English-language black-humor film The Death Of Stalin from Russian theaters, after conservative figures, and a major Russian tabloid, called it insulting to Soviet war heroes.

Medinsky has also criticized renowned filmmakers like Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose Oscar-nominated film Leviathan painted a bleak portrayal of life in Russia.

But he's also defended other controversial films like, Matilda, a movie describing the love story of last Russian Tsar Nicholas II and a ballet dancer. The film was deemed offensive by Orthodox religious believers, many of whom consider Nicholas to be a saint.

Rap, and hip hop, are thriving musical genres in Russia, with stars like Oxxxymiron, Timati, Noize MC, and Basta all regularly topping Russian music playlists and selling out venues around the country.

"Rap battles" are also hugely popular, and one that pitted Oxxxymiron against another artist named Gnoyny and took place in August 2017 drew 37 million views to its YouTube clip. (The face-off also drew a denunciation from a conservative lawmaker, who called it "moral squalor.")

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