ZOiS Spotlight 34/2021

Rap in Tatar: Turning Away from Russian?

by Aleksej Tikhonov 29/09/2021
Tatar band Aigel at a concert. Elena Mkrtchjan

My boyfriend is Tatar / His love is authoritarian / He has a bullet in his gun / And he has set his sights on you

Aigel – Tatar [1]

In 2017, the Tatar electro hip-hop duo Aigel released their debut album 1190. Their part-Russian, part-Tatar rap Tatar and the music video that accompanied it promptly went viral in Russia. An invitation for Aigel to appear on Russia’s premier late-night show followed – the first time that a modern song performed partly in Tatar was heard on the state-run TV Channel 1. Since then, Tatar has had more than 73 million views on YouTube. In this chart-topping rap, the use of Tatar was limited to a few isolated passages, with only one song Kötä (I’m Waiting) on the same album performed entirely in Tatar. It was the exception which, four years on, has become the rule. 

From language freedom under Yeltsin to Crimea under Putin

In the autonomous republic of Tatarstan in the east of European Russia, both Russian and Tatar are spoken. In the 1990s, during Boris Yeltsin’s time in government, legislation was put in place to promote the rights of the Tatars, Russia’s largest minority. Among other things, they were granted the right of self-determination in relation to the teaching of Tatar in the republic’s schools. Under Vladimir Putin, however, the power to regulate minority languages was transferred to the centre. As a result, Tatar largely vanished from the school curriculum.

It is the Tatar population of Crimea that currently features most often in the media. Russia’s annexation of the peninsula in 2014 sparked a debate about the nationality of the Crimean Tatars. Attempts by other Tatars to show solidarity with the Crimean Tatars were swiftly quelled and sanctioned, along with criticism of the government over the Crimea issue. Even today, there are often conflicting messages in the coverage: while the Russian media report that the Tatars have an aversion to Ukraine or that radical Islamist activists are allegedly present on the peninsula, Ukraine’s media portray the Tatars as Ukrainian patriots and victims of the occupying power. Meanwhile, the US broadcaster Radio Free Europe consistently focuses on persecution and trials of Tatars in Crimea, where Tatars have lived for more than 500 years. In Russia itself, Tatar culture has flourished mainly in the republic of Tatarstan and its capital Kazan, but in recent years, Tatar voices have become increasingly audible outside Tatarstan as well, with some artists now attracting international attention.

Russian brings in more listeners, but not more love

One of the most commercially successful rappers in Russia is Timur Yunusov aka Timati. It’s no secret that Yunusov comes from a Tatar/Jewish family, but it is not a topic that features in his lyrics. For this artist, rapping in a language other than Russian has never been an option since the start of his career in the early 2000s. And since 2010 or thereabouts, he has been an active supporter of Vladimir Putin. In his Lutschschij Drug video, released on YouTube in 2015, he raps about his “best friend” – by which he means the Russian President. The video has attracted a great deal of feedback from the public – least 15 million views, including more than 150,000 likes, but also 213,000 dislikes.

While Timati was rapping in Russian in Moscow in the 2000s, Tatar rap was emerging in Kazan. Among the first on the scene were the still-popular musicians from Ittifaq (Unity). Their Yummy Music label has attracted other Tatar hip-hop artists as well, including Radif Kashapov, qaynar (Hot) and Said Olur. The new generation includes #shikernye (Chic), entertainers who experiment with Tatar culture with awareness and humour. After legal curbs were imposed on the promotion of the Tatar language in the 2000s, restricting interest to the local level only, the Y and Z generations sparked a revival of Tatar beyond the borders of Tatarstan. Before Aigel, the artist known as Tatarka (“Tatar woman”) turned Tatar rap into a transregional success. The music video for the song Altyn (Gold) reached around 51.5 million views and is the first video of a track in Tatar to go viral. Afterwards, the artist released several hits in which she switches between Tatar and English.

Silence in Russian, rap in Tatar

Aigel Gaisina has now relocated from Tatarstan’s second largest city Naberezhnye Chelny to the republic’s capital; she tends to keep her distance from Moscow. In 2020, she released her fourth album, Pyyala (Glass) – her first in Tatar. In December 2020, Gaisina gave an interview to the arts website sobaka.ru in which she talks about how fortunate she was to learn Tatar as a child in school, when there were compulsory courses for different levels. Today, she says, classes are optional and her daughter has to attend a course outside school. As for her current relationship with the Russian language, Gaisina says: “It [the Tatar language] is all about conveying meaning. You can say whatever you want without having to worry about sounding polished. I had a dramatic break-up and it was then that I realised that it just wasn’t possible for me to write about emotional experiences [in Russian] any more in the way that I was used to. It was like I’d fallen silent. In Tatar – that’s where I’m at home.”

Most Tatar rappers don’t say this out loud. However, Gaisina seems to speak for the majority of Tatar artists. The emotional distance to the Russian language and culture is steadily increasing, while the rediscovery of their own – Tatar – culture is gaining significance. Through music, literature or other forms of artistic expression, the young generation is working through its history in an effort to find and understand its identity. However, the current developments around the Tatar language and culture are less the direct result of political clashes – over Crimea, for example – than a way of dealing with the past that reflects the last 100 years of Tatar-Russian relations.

[1] Original: А мой парень - татарин // В любви - авторитарен // У него пуля в пушке // Ты у него на мушке

Aleksej Tikhonov is a postdoc on “The History of Pronominal Subjects in the Languages of Northern Europe”, a joint linguistics project between Humboldt University Berlin and the University of Oxford. His postdoctoral thesis explores the influence of Slavic languages in Deutschrap (German rap).