Putin Copies China, Calls for Plan to ‘Guide’ Content of Rap Music

Russia's President Vladimir Putin holds the first major press conference of his third term in power in Moscow, on December 20, 2012. Putin denied todayplaying a role in the surprise reduction in the jail sentence of former oil tycoon and opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovsky. AFP PHOTO / NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA (Photo …
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced during a government meeting this weekend that he would seek to “take charge and guide” the content of rap and hip-hop music, lamenting that banning the genre complete was “impossible.”

Putin’s remarks followed a series of government actions to shut down rap concerts and silence artists in the past two months who have embraced the genre to criticize Putin, after years of the Russian leader enjoying relative popularity in the nation’s hip-hop community. His remarks, which suggest that the government will allow the distribution of rap music that does not clash with the values of Putin’s oligarchy, also follow a growing trend of state action against rap music under communist regimes, particularly in China and Cuba.

Putin attended a meeting of the Presidential Council for Culture and Art on Saturday where the issue of unregulated hip-hop content arose. He expressed grave concerns over the content of much of rap music and suggested the government would take a stronger stance against lyrics it disapproved of, but rejected the possibility of banning the entire genre.

“The manner ‘to grab and do not let go’ is the most inefficient, or the worst to be thought of,” Putin argued of an outright ban, according to the Russian news service TASS. “The effect will be quite opposite to expectations.”

Instead, Putin suggested that since rap culture is “impossible to stop,” “this should be led and somehow guided.”

Putin accepted the premise of one of his senior officials that “rap is based on three pillars: sex, drugs, and protest,” arguing that “drug propaganda” was the issue most concerning to him because “this is a path to the degradation of the nation.” He also announced that he had discussed the issue of profanity with a linguist, who lamented “that it’s a part of our language. It’s just a question of how you use it.”

The UK Telegraph called Putin’s remarks a “surprising softening towards an art form at odds with Mr. Putin’s professed aim of restoring traditional values.” Yet in an extensive look at Russian rap published last week, Bloomberg argued that Putin previously had little to fear from Russia’s rap community because many of the most popular rappers openly admired him and supported his policies, even when they violate international law.

Several outlets noted the recent arrest of the rapper Dmitry Kuznetsov, stage name “Husky,” following an incident last month in which authorities abruptly canceled a concert of his and the rapper refused to stop his performance. Deprived of a stage, Husky stood atop a car and delivered his rhymes before being arrested, spending four days in jail despite being sentenced to 12 because the federal government intervened on his behalf.

Some outlets have noted that Husky has been critical of the government in some rhymes; his lyrics often mention illegal drug use and police corruption. Yet he has not personally criticized Putin and supported Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, performing in the war-torn Ukrainian Donetsk region, which Russians have declared its own republic. Husky is not the only rapper to embrace performing in occupied Ukraine. Others, Bloomberg notes, have chosen to use their craft to disparage pro-democracy dissidents like Alexei Navalny rather than take on Putin, or have compared themselves to Putin in boasts.

The issue of pro-Putin rappers has resulted in a split within his government. Some officials, particularly on the local level, have taken to shutting down concerts like Husky’s or fining rappers for engaging in rap battles with other artists, a traditional part of hip-hop culture. Others have compared silencing rappers to “herding cats,” Bloomberg notes, suggesting a stance closer to the one Putin himself unveiled this weekend.

Rap censorship appears to be in its nascent stages in Russia, nearly a year after China implemented strict controls on rap music. In early January, the Chinese Communist Party announced a push to promote only “patriotic hip-hop,” or “rap with Chinese characteristics.” Beijing had been releasing rap songs praising Communist Party chief Xi Jinping for years with little success but had since outsourced the job of producing rap music to rap groups favorable to the regime. “China hopes to transform local hip-hop into a positive influence but will punish those who cross the line,” the Global Times initially announced.

The Chinese people wholeheartedly rejected the government’s rap music, instead listening to independent artists and making The Rap of China, a reality television program to choose the nation’s best rapper, one of the nation’s most popular programs in recent memory. By the end of January, Chinese authorities had banned all rap music from television (The Rap of China continues to produce new episodes on the streaming service iQiyi).

A similar push to ban rap music has become the focus of the government of Cuba, where the genre has been popular for years. Recently, however, Cuban dissidents have increasingly embraced the artform as a means of criticizing the regime. To ban such expression, Havana passed “Decree 349,” which went into effect in a “gradual” manner this month and bans the creation of any art, visual or performative, without explicit permission from the government. Multiple Cuban rappers are in prison for protesting the law by organizing illegal concerts; at least two are at press time undergoing a hunger strike.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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