About

A Brief History of Russian Rap

Hip-hop music emerged in Russia shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian Rap grew in scope and popularity until by the late 90’s it had formed its own distinct genre, characterized by social commentary and melancholy lyrics describing the harsh realities of urban life. Low recording costs and independent distribution gave Russian-speaking youth an uncensored medium to express their ideas and blame corrupt politicians for their economic hardships. Most artists presented drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms for these troubles until a new sub-genre known as “Healthy Lifestyle” rap developed in the early 2000’s to counter that.

Healthy Lifestyle Rap

As of 2013, Healthy Lifestyle Rap is immensely popular all over the former Soviet Union, with the Top 5 chart of Russian Rap featuring two groups in this sub-genre: Grot and 25/17. These artists advocate the cultivation of a healthy body and soul, primarily through abstinence from drinking and recreational drugs. Underneath this apparently positive message, however, lurk themes suggestive of a doctrine of Slavic Nationalism—as a Slav, you have a duty to preserve your health in order to continue the tradition of your ancestors. Thus individual self-improvement serves chiefly to strengthen the collective Slavic people.

Slavic Nationalism

While the term “Slavic” traditionally includes most of the peoples native to Eastern Europe, many Russians, including these artists, use it to refer to just the Eastern Slavic peoples: Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians. They consider themselves descendants of the Great Rus’ people from around the 10th Century, idealized as selfless warriors who courageously defended the Motherland from countless invasions. Slavic Nationalists regard their people as inherently superior to other races, and some even believe that they are the true Aryan race. Like neo-Nazis and Skinheads, they condemn tolerance, promoting instead militant practices of xenophobia, homophobia, and racism, with the aim of maintaining ethnic purity.

With growing influence in Russia, nationalist agenda currently seeks two main goals: (1) stopping immigration, especially from the Caucasus; and (2) reuniting the Slavic people to form a great world power once again. In light of the current EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine as of December 2013, these arguments for Slavic Unity coming from Russia and Eastern Ukraine are the main ideological opposition to the Ukrainian protesters’ desire to break political ties with Russia and join the European Union. However, desperate appeals to a “Slavic Brotherhood” don’t seem to be having much of an effect on the millions of people camping out in Kiev’s central square.

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Research Question

Healthy Lifestyle Rappers do not openly identify themselves as Nationalists on the internet, using milder terms such as “patriotic,” “right,” or even “ultra-right” to describe themselves. However, a cursory examination of their songs reveals harsher themes of militant intolerance, suggesting a stronger ideological affiliation. This website will examine the lyrics of the most popular Healthy Lifestyle rap songs in order to discover:

  1. Is Healthy Lifestyle rap really just conveying Nationalist propaganda? If so, how strongly?
  2. What values and actions are being promoted by some of the most popular and influential Russian music?

Methodology

In order to address these questions, we chose three artists representative of the sub-genre: Grot, 25/17, and Misha Mavashi. Using the popularity sorting on the social media site vk.com, we copied the lyrics for each artist’s 20 most popular songs to examine. We marked up each song in xml, coding metadata and subject references. Our research primarily examines the information in our reference element, which contains a “type” attribute that identifies the subject being referenced (alcohol, strength, religion, etc.) and a “value” attribute that notes whether the reference presents the subject in a positive, negative, or neutral light. For example, a statement advocating alcohol prohibition would be marked as a reference to alcohol with a negative value, whereas a complaint about Russians these days being weak would be a positive reference to strength.

Even though we marked up all the lyrics in the original Russian, you can find a sample mark-up in English attached to the translation of Grot’s song “I’m Russian.”

Links to the xml files for the rest of the songs are on their individual pages.

We then explored our data using social network analysis of co-occurring references, bar graphs, and analyses of each reference subject.

About Us

The research team consists of three students at University of Pittsburgh: Andrew Nitz, the technical specialist, Minas Abovyan, a native Russian-speaking former resident of Moscow, and Kristina Miller, a Russian-speaking American who has conducted ethnographic research in Eastern Ukraine on Underground Russian Rap.

Please feel free to contact Kristina at kfm287@gmail.com, or Minas at abminara@gmail.com, or Andrew at acn23@pitt.edu with questions or comments about the site!

This project was completed for LING 1050: Computational Methods in the Humanities. A special thank you to David Birnbaum for his guidance along the way.

Prior Research by Kristina

I discovered Healthy Lifestyle rap while conducting research in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine during the summer of 2013. I visited recording studios, attended concerts, and conducted interviews among artists in the large local community of Underground Russian Rap in order to discover how and why rap is such a popular medium for self-expression among young people. Among a wide variety of sub-genres and topics in the rap they composed, Healthy Lifestyle rap struck me as unique: the content could not simply have originated in the artist’s experience, as in love songs and social commentary. The complex ideas had to come from some other influence, drawing on historical animosities and pseudoscientific proof of ethnic superiority.

Although the people I interviewed usually asserted that they came up with these “patriotic” ideas on their own, I eventually discovered popular rap groups like Grot and 25/17 expounding similarly dangerous ideas that most likely inspired the young rappers I met as well as many other young people all over Ukraine and Russia. I was determined to expose the origins and implications of this music about which no English sources exist, and that few people, even in Russia, are willing to talk openly about.

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© 2013