ZOiS Spotlight 19/2022

The War Divides: (Un)Equivocal Statements in the Russian and Ukrainian Rap Scene

by Aleksej Tikhonov 18/05/2022
"Silence is a synonym for lies" is written in the background at a concert by Ukrainian rapper Monatik in Offenbach, Germany. Veronika Monakova, www.jetsetter.ua

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

He has no idea who he’s fighting here / I am defiant, I crush his tanks / I knock his teeth out, he don’t bite no more / He don’t even see that his tanks are scrap.

MONATIK – ART Oborona (ART Defence)

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra has won this year’s Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) with a record number of televote points. It was an impressive demonstration of overwhelming public support from all the participating countries, showing that even music is influenced by the current political developments. During the otherwise non-political contest, the members of the electrofolk band, who take their name from the town of Kalush in Western Ukraine, also took the opportunity to draw viewers’ attention to the current situation in Ukraine. Their song, which has strong elements of hip hop, was performed entirely in Ukrainian.

Rap at Eurovision is nothing new for Ukraine: Ukrainian rapper Monatik opened the Eurovision Song Contest in Kyiv in 2017. Like Kalush Orchestra, his position on the Russian invasion of his country is unequivocal. Until a few months ago, he mainly rapped in Russian, but with ART Oborona in mid-April 2022, he made the highly symbolic switch to Ukrainian. His description of the accompanying video – which features an animated collage of sunflowers, Ukrainian cityscapes and a gun-toting soldier (presumably Ukrainian) – starts with an uncompromising statement in Russian: Previously, my heroes were fictional characters from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse Comics. etc. All that was turned upside down a long time ago. The heroes became real. It continues with an expression of gratitude to the Ukrainian troops and a link to an online platform for donations to the armed forces.

From a rap prayer to an expression of hate

There are equally clear words and actions from Ukraine’s rising star Alyona Alyona (Alyona Avranenko), who is signed to the same record label as ESC winners Kalush. During the Orthodox Easter, she released the song Рідні мої (My Loves), featuring pop singer Jerry Heil (Yana Shemaeva). The lyrics are an appeal for peace: My Loves, My Loves, // The dog doesn’t bark any more, // And the cat is not purring on the porch, // There should be no more children weeping. The song has already reached more than two million views on YouTube. This female rap artist also uses her account as a political platform, like many other musicians from Ukraine who have the Ukrainian flag as the background to their profile pictures and preface their videos with the following thumbnail: STOP IT! While you are watching this video, ukrainian people are dying from russian attack [sic!]. Alyona Alyona is a volunteer as well, sorting and distributing humanitarian aid. She has cancelled most of her live performances.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has not only been a catalyst for new songs; it has also sparked new music projects. The rapper/nu metal artist хейтспіч (Hatespeech) from Odesa only started releasing tracks in early April, but his song руzzкий мир (Ruzzian World) has already been streamed more than 30,000 times on Spotify and has received around 50,000 views on YouTube. Unlike Alyona Alyona, his songs are not primarily intended for Ukrainians; instead, Russians are his target audience. He has some harsh words for them: Like cowardly rats without a clear idea, // You dropped bombs while everyone was sleeping, // Mothers and children were weeping, // Everyone who could – ran away, // Very manly of you, // To sit in a bunker and tell lies, // I am half-Russian myself, // But I hate them all. The lyrics are as hard-hitting as the artist’s name and the title of the song, which alludes to Russia’s symbol of war – the letter Z. It continues: Didn’t you know what was happening? // Goddam it, let me tell you, // Keep praying, // Fear the leader, // Get used to surviving, // Feed the dragon, // Your hands are smeared with blood, // Yet there’s an icon in the corner. Here, the artist is not only alluding to the war itself; he is also pointing out the double standards in Russian society and government, which see no contradiction between the invasion and Orthodox faith. The rapper also draws attention to the possible information gap left by Russian propaganda when he asks the audience if they really had no idea what was happening.

Big in Russia: Ukrainian rappers in the neighbouring country

In Russia, reactions from rappers with Ukrainian roots are much more divided. Here, the three most popular artists are T-Fest, Kyivstoner and GeeGun. Kyrylo Nezborestkyi aka T-Fest, whose music videos – produced by the Moscow-based major label Gazgolder – have received close to 115 million views on YouTube, is one of the best-known rappers in Russia. Despite that, the musician left Russia after 24 February 2022. Since then, he and various other Russian and Ukrainian musicians have been performing benefit concerts in countries across the EU. The proceeds are donated to Ukrainians in need. Gazgolder had previously ended its association with the musician.

The Ukrainian-born rapper and entertainer Kyivstoner (Albert Vasiliev) is another Gazgolder. He initially posted stories against the invasion of his homeland, mainly on his Instagram account. A few weeks later, all that was left was the profile picture – a Ukrainian flag; he had apparently stopped commenting on politics. Kyivstoner emphasises his connection to his homeland, not only in his artist’s name – he uses the Ukrainian and not the Russian spelling of Kyiv – but also in his public appearances. In contrast to T-Fest and GeeGun, he does not rap and speak entirely in Russian; sometimes he switches to Surzhyk, a Ukrainian-Russian language mix, or uses obvious Ukrainian pronunciation when speaking Russian. Despite what appears to be a patriotic stance towards Ukraine, he has opted not to adopt a clear position for the time being and refrains from making overtly political statements.

Odesa-born Denys Ustymenko aka Geegun has remained conspicuously silent. In 2007, he was signed by the Moscow-based label Black Star Inc. and relocated to the Russian capital. Until summer 2020, its former CEO Timur Yunusov aka Timatia Tatar-Russian rapper with close political links to the Kremlin and the Russian cultural scene – was the face of the label. On 25 March 2022 – a month after the outbreak of the war in his homeland – GeeGun released the song Prime Time on his YouTube channel; it was sung in Russian and included no political references. Judging by the posted comments, fans’ reactions vary – some hope that GeeGun will still find his way home; some swear that they will never forget his decision to remain silent; and others express positive feelings about the new song. One can only speculate about the reasons for his decision not to speak out.

Musical isolation

The war is creating obvious divisions within East Slavic rap. There are clear choices to be made: either pro-Ukraine or loyalty to Russia; remaining silent or making generalised statements about peace in the world. However, one thing is clear: making music for both a Ukrainian and a Russian audience is no longer possible. On top of that, the Russian music industry is becoming ever more isolated: Western social networks and streaming services have been pulling out of Russia since the outbreak of war or have been banned. This means that Ukrainian voices – in whatever language – will no longer be heard in Russia, whether they are performing a prayer or preaching hate.

The lyrics quoted in this article were initially translated from Russian or Ukrainian by the author.

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).