Russia’s rap scene: No place for politics

A camera man films two rappers battling.

A generation of young Russians has embraced rap. It’s become an ever-present soundtrack in the country. So what are today’s young Russian rappers writing about? What’s on their minds?

Pretty much everyone seems to have strong feelings about Russian President Vladimir Putin — but not rappers. This is wildly different from hip-hop in the West, where politics are deeply ingrained in the music and culture. 

Related: Russia’s next generation is ready to remake their world

So what are rappers in Russia talking about in their lyrics? They have a platform and a microphone. So why aren’t they speaking out about real issues? Well, some of them are, while others have tried. But most just won’t go there. 

“I think for [rappers], it’s [a] kind of self-expression,” explains Russian music journalist Nikolay Redkin. “There are not so [many] youth culture institutions in Russia. So battle rap is one of them. You need to express yourself. But, for example, you can’t write songs, you can play guitar or piano — you think [is] battle rap good for you? You watch these battle rap videos on YouTube [and] you see how they get millions of views and you think, ‘I can do it also.’”

Related: Russia’s youth flex their political power

The World’s Marco Werman and Daniel Ofman recentlyspent time in Moscow at a rap battle. Here’s what that looked like. 

Two men stand next to each other and watch a rap battle.
Dmitri Kapranov (left), watches a performance in the Alibi Club in Moscow. Kapranov is the Moscow coordinator of the Slova Project, an organization that hosts and judges rap battles all over the Russian-speaking world.   Daniel Ofman/The World
A group of young men stand outside in Russia.
Vitaly Kobziv (center), from Ukraine, has been rapping for about five years. Daniel Ofman/The World

“I’m rapping about some positive sides which are in our life,” Vitaly Kobziv, who has been a rapper for about five years. “I prefer to concentrate on some really uplifting things in our life to underline, to make people be more attentive to such things which make our life better. Not on something sad, not on something depressive, but something uplifting.”

A man poses in front of a red wall.
 Ilya Mazellov, aka MZLFF, poses for a portrait before the rap battle begins.Daniel Ofman/The World

“In my music, I like to entertain,” says Ilya Mazellov, who goes by the moniker MZLFF. “I like to make sure I cover my bases. I want people to hear the music, to hear my disses, to hear the lyrics and not just the sound. Most importantly, I’m trying to use humor to really dish out some disses.”

Two Men talk outside while one smokes in Russia.
Several people wait outside the Alibi Club before the night’s rap battle. Daniel Ofman/The World
Young men talk outside while preparing for a rap battle.
 Rap is now the most popular music genre in Russia amongst teenagers and people in their 20s. A group of rappers and spectators hold sidewalk freestyle battles outside the Alibi Club before the event.Daniel Ofman/The World
A woman with tattoos stands in a crowd outside a club.
People gather before the rap battle. The crowd filled the Alibi Club.Daniel Ofman/The World
A rapper raises his hands at a crowd.
 A rapper takes the stage at the Alibi Club before the rap battle.Daniel Ofman/The World
A man raps on a stage.
Rappers perform at the Alibi Club in Moscow Russia. When they perform covers, the crowd raps along with them, hands in the air.Daniel Ofman/The World
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