Once a Gucci-wearing party boy, Russian rapper Ivan Dryomin, also known as Face, released a politically charged new album after authorities shut down his concerts.
But the 21-year-old, who has “Love” and “Hate” tattooed under his eyes and has fiercely criticised Russia’s ruling elite, has recently secured some unexpected fans.
Vesti Nedeli, state television’s main political news show, interpreted a jokey music video called Breaking the West, which features Mr Dryomin riding a bear in front of a burning Capitol Hill, as a sign that “rappers are no strangers to patriotism”.
The recent broadcast comes as the Kremlin seeks to build a relationship with Russia’s rap community. The government is concerned about dissent, particularly among a younger generation that have come of age under President Vladimir Putin.
“If we can’t shut it [rap] down, we should take the lead and guide it,” Mr Putin told his culture council this month. He has ordered an inquiry into the concert shutdowns that angered Mr Dryomin. Foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin has suggested issuing government grants to support “rappership”.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has likened the outreach to a scene in US sitcom 30 Rock in which actor Steve Buscemi, then 55, tries to go undercover as a teenager. “Putin’s wearing a baseball cap backwards, he’s got a skateboard, he’s read up on [social network] VK, they told him some popular things to say, he’s vaping, and he’s started to love rappers,” Mr Navalny said.
The Kremlin’s move comes as it struggles to win the support of young Russians, who are particularly vocal on online platforms that the government has yet to fully co-opt. Last year, Mr Navalny released an anti-corruption investigation on YouTube that helped draw thousands of students and schoolchildren to nationwide protests against the president. Shocked by the video’s unexpected resonance among young people, the Kremlin’s spin-doctors have since sought to engage with youth culture.
Some of Russia’s most popular video bloggers were invited to speak in parliament, while several musicians released songs criticising the protests. Mr Dryomin and his girlfriend Marianna Rozhkova — one of Russia’s most popular YouTube personalities — said they have turned down several offers to produce content for the Kremlin. “I’d be ashamed,” Ms Rozhkova said.
Previously apolitical, Mr Dryomin’s stance changed when he was forced to cancel a string of concerts after authorities complained about him swearing and making references to drugs. “I remembered how much I hate law enforcement when they started messing with my shows,” he said.
He responded with a sudden political turn on his new album. Initially, this alienated his young fan base so much that he abandoned a new tour. “They [young people] say: Everything sucks already, so why rub salt in the wound? Let’s shut up, look at memes and laugh, forget everything and go into escapism,” Mr Dryomin said.
But even the most apathetic fans sat up last month when the “anti-extremism” police banned concerts by artists including the gothic electronic duo IC3PEAK, rapper Allj and indie band Frendzona. This followed a school shooting in Crimea and an unrelated suicide bombing elsewhere.
“This was when the issue moved from domestic politics to the secret services,” said Pavel Chikov, head of Agora, a human rights group. “It was a very powerful trigger to try to get some sort of workable information about young people, and since all they know how to do is punish people, this is what happened.”
Police shut down a gig by the rapper Dmitry Kuznetsov, who performs as Husky, then arrested him for starting an impromptu performance outside on top of a parked car. But hours before a sold-out solidarity concert in Moscow, Mr Kuznetsov was released in a sign the Kremlin wanted a detente.
Mr Dryomin is sceptical the thaw will last. He declined an invitation from two rapper friends to take part in a panel discussion in parliament this month, which ended disastrously when the rappers concluded the lawmakers were deaf to their pleas and stormed out.
“I knew it’d be like that. They show up, sit down, talk, realise something’s not right, and they wonder why they came. They don’t even know why they came,” Mr Dryomin said.
The need for artists to make money from touring could force some of them to collaborate with authorities, Mr Chikov said. But Mr Dryomin still hopes the political tension will work in rappers’ favour.
“If something bad happens to Russian people, we always look for a positive,” he said. “Censorship is pushback and pushback makes you work harder. So censorship could make some artists legends.”
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