Songs about hardship are timeless phenomena. Whether it be unrequited love or a personal struggle, songs about the trials we face between the crib and grave are popular around the globe. A good example is Psalm: 137, as although less than 2% of the UK population now attends church on a weekly basis, a surprising number of people will be familiar with the song that begins, “By the rivers of Babylon…“.
Despite often incorporating themes of struggle and survival, rap music can be a little more contentious than the spiritual Psalm. From ostentatious displays of wealth to misogyny and recreational drug use, rap has its die-hard followers as well as its staunch critics.
It was one of the latter that I found teaching a Russian language course at the University of Cambridge.
“He’s not really Russian“, she said, in reference to the Russian rap artist I’d mentioned.
“No decent pop music has been produced in the past 10 years in Russia“.
One could say that the issue is merely generational, that it’s no surprise ageing academics don’t connect with an incredibly modern cultural phenomenon. But the repercussions of that attitude are much more persistent.
The world of academia is small and parochial, where the professors of today are responsible for anointing their successors. Creating an environment that shuns a certain genre will often give rise to another generation who follow in the same blinkered footsteps.
Like a scene from Orwell’s 1984 (or a certain Apple commercial in 1984), PhD students were nodding in agreement. “It’s just disguised American culture” one chimed.
Despite its gaudy façade, post-Soviet rap, and popular music as a whole, can provide a profound insight into the region.
Just like their American and European counterparts, disillusioned young men immortalise their everyday urban struggles through music. Neither oligarchs nor the literary intelligentsia, their interests, hopes and dreams are expressed through an accessible medium such as rap or hip-hop.
This disillusion is often political, like that found in the songs of protest on both sides of the simmering Ukrainian conflict. Surrounded by arms-laden militiamen, a pro-Russian rapper-turned-militant ‘Rapper Donskoy‘ sings about the struggle to ‘liberate’ Donbass. Meanwhile for those leading the pro-European revolution, the Belarusian rock song “Warriors of Light” became the anthem of the Maidan movement. Shortly after the revolution that song would silence nightclubs in Kiev and elicit a single unified chorus.
Popular music also provides an insight into how post-Soviet societies see themselves. Central Asian nationalism has spawned a collection of “Straight Outta Kazakhstan”-style Russian-language patriotic would-be P-Diddies. Even President Putin’s sky-high ratings have generated mainstream rap songs of praise, with grassroots parodies springing up overnight to mock them.
From a spornosexual obsession for bodybuilding to combatting corruption, across the Soviet Union a generation of young men (and increasingly women) are expressing their dreams and realities through rap.
Oxbridge elitism has hindered generations of working-class British students, but it also hinders our diplomatic efforts. By dismissing the stories of young, urban working class Russians in academia, we fail to recognise that it is Putin and his supporters we have to engage with, rather than Pushkin.
The fact that they’re shunned in the hallowed halls of Cambridge is no surprise; if they weren’t they may not rap.
First published on The Huffington Post UK Young Voices.