‘This is my rap scene’ Life for the women of Russian hip hop
Hip hop is a musical genre rooted in the empowerment of racial minorities, but its motifs are often simultaneously founded on sexism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination. In Russian hip hop, this issue is all the more prominent: if, in the United States, rap is steadily becoming more diverse, Russia still hasn’t found its Erykah Badu or Nicki Minaj. Nevertheless, the number of women involved in Russian rap has grown in recent years, both in the rap battle scene and outside it, and new players are emerging literally every month. In a special report for Meduza, Evgeniya Ofitserova spoke to a group of women rappers from Russia to learn more about how they're building their careers in a male-dominated genre.
Warning! The videos below are loaded with Russian obscenities, and a few jiggling posteriors. If that kind of thing upsets you, try this story instead, about a Russian rock musician who says Radiohead stole his music video.
A jewelry designer, a popular Instagrammer, and the ex-wife of the rapper “Guf,” Aiza Anokhina had been releasing pop and soul compositions for a few years, but in October 2017 she debuted in hip hop. She made the transition after her former spouse released a “diss track” targeting her current husband. Aziza has already posted two rap songs and promises there will be more.
I got into music not very long ago. I had such a strong urge to answer the man [her ex-husband, Guf] in his own language. I’ve always written poetry, but I never thought that it would be so easy for me to write such a complicated track. But I had a chip on my shoulder, and I wanted to say what I had to say. The track resonated very widely, and it would have been stupid for me not to keep going, so I did.
It was actually one of my girlfriends who tossed me the idea of writing a diss after Guf put out his diss on my husband. At first, I thought it was a silly, stupid thought. I started to make fun of her — she said, “Hey you, write a diss!” and I said, “Yeah, right.” Then, I thought about it — hey, why not. I wrote the track myself, and I am very proud of that.
I love to sing, but I love to sing most for my own children, when no one else can hear me, in an intimate setting, because I don’t have a good voice. I have the self-esteem to look the truth in the eyes. And rap is really a genre for people who don’t have a good voice, but they’ve got ideas.
It blew the rap scene's fucking mind — sorry for the language — when I broke through. It was really unexpected, and a lot of people were shocked. No one knew how to react. The rap artists I know showed me respect. They did this in private, not on social media, because, I guess, it’s not very cool to show respect to a girl who decides to diss her ex-husband. There were loads of haters. Even people who showed me respect in person were haters online. But I have no doubts in my music. No matter how many people hear it, I believe in what I do now for the first time. For the first time, I am not ashamed because I know that what I made was really cool.
Sexist comments were definitely the kind I saw the most. Unfortunately, we live in a world and in a society where that kind of stuff flourishes. Lots of people wrote me: “Stay home, cook borsch, and raise the children,” and “I feel so sad for the children of this whack job who decided to write rap in her old age.” I think it’s all so stupid! In general, sexism is somehow an especially stupid thing. Of course, I agree with the fact that men are better at some things, that they’re stronger physically, but they’re definitely not stronger morally. I think even smart, self-confident men recognize that. But in a world where men always rule, it’ll always be very tough for women.
I probably also have a sexist view on women’s rap. I can honestly say that I don’t listen to women’s rap, but I would like to hear some awesome Russian girl rap in a way that really sticks. At this point, that niche is open, so I can throw my own hat into the ring.
I think women want to be some Russian rapper’s chick more than they want to rap themselves. There probably aren’t many talents out there who can write a really hot track. There are some girls who rap well, and there are some girls who write great bars but can’t rap. But I can do everything.
Rap is a state of the soul. Rap is a mood. Rap is a lifestyle. I don’t live it, actually, but I like writing, and I like rapping. I rap a lot at home, just because. I never thought I’d say it, but I like being a rapper.
Alina Mkrtchyan was born in Armenia and moved to Vladivostok as a young child. She first became involved in rap battles when she was 12 years old and soon gained the attention of the local group Vulgarny tonn (Vulgar Ton). At 17 years old, she dropped out of school and moved to Moscow to make music, and at 18, in her own words, she made her first million. Now, she is 20 years old and has already released several EPs. She is currently preparing her first full album.
In the beginning, I was obsessed with poetry, not rap. That happened when I was nine, after my father passed away. A few years later, when I was around 14, I decided to try myself out on the beats. Back then, I wrote my own beats, put together the song myself, made the cover images — everything from beginning to end. Now, my people do all that for me. I do ghostwriting for rap and for vocal compositions. I’ve also got a couple of investments. I just own a percentage of them — my friend opened a business a while back, and I put some money into it. We also transport and sell Bashkir honey wholesale to mosques and churches.
At first, I listened to Tupac — my late father brought me to him. It was Tupac who introduced me to hip hop. Nicki Minaj inspired me too — I covered her tracks when I was really little — something like 11 years old. I’ve always been inspired by her speaking, her performance style, and her sass.
I dropped out of school only for the sake of my music — I was a good student. After tenth grade, I got a one-way ticket and left for Moscow. At first, things were pretty complicated because I only had a little money — 30 or 40 thousand rubles [$550-700] — and I spent almost all of it on rent right away. I had to hustle for a while, do ghostwriting, work odd jobs at the same time, help out friends, just to make it through.
It’s funny how it all worked out with [one of Russia’s best-known rappers] Oxxxymiron. He was arguing on social media, negging women’s rap, and that caught my eye. He said there aren’t any girls rapping on a high level, to which I responded, “Maybe the problem isn’t with the girls — maybe it’s that people don’t want to listen to them?” and I attached a link to my SoundCloud. He listened, appreciated what he heard, retweeted it, and praised me publicly. And then a bunch of people caught on and started showing off my music on [the Russian social network] Vkontakte.
[My group] has a track called “Neplokho dlia baby” (“Not Bad for a Girl”). It’s about how, no matter how legit your work is, people will say, “Well, it’s fine for a girl.” It’s like you might write trash or you might write super well, but in any case, your boyfriend probably wrote it for you. It’s a funny topic. But I don’t sort rap by gender — it’s music. Like any art, it shouldn’t be set against the background of someone’s sex. Either make something legit and measure up against everyone or don’t make anything at all. It’s not that hard to be the best in women’s rap when there are only two or three really strong girls out there onstage.
Nobody in the Russian industry hates women rappers more than women rappers. I’ve got my own scene. We respect each other, we support each other, we try to connect each other with the right people and give each other advice. Other girls try to ruffle our feathers. I think it’s just some banal sense of envy. Because we can, and they can’t.
I always wanted most to write music, not rap. I don’t listen to rap very much. I love Amy Winehouse, Tati, Kristina Si, Rihanna, Jhené Aiko. I like Radiohead — they’re the soundtrack of my depression. I know recording house tracks is a huge risk, and my fans might reject them and turn away from me. But I don’t need fans if they’re going to limit me and keep me from growing as a person and as a musician. I’m not planning to stay in place. In rap, I can already do a lot, and now I want to do something in pop.
I used to be very ashamed of my depression and my panic attacks. I was afraid that people wouldn’t understand me. I thought that it was a serious mental illness, that my case was unique. I started talking about it openly when, thanks to my friend Lema [Emelevskaya], I realized that a lot of my peers are living with the same problems. I want people to find support in my persona.
For me, everything started when I was nine, when my father passed away. It was extremely difficult. He was my best friend. When he passed away, I was alone with him — Mom was out somewhere relaxing. He seized up, asked me to bring some water. When I came into the bedroom, he was already unconscious. I called the doctors, and I guess they thought some little girl was just playing a prank, because they only came two hours later. And I was with him that whole time. Since then, I’ve had terrible claustrophobia, panic attacks — I’ve become apathetic.
At first, I drank weak depressants like glycine, and then I moved on to stronger ones. In the end, I was taking Lyrica and Xanax. Now, I’m totally independent from them. The only problem is that I smoke a lot because of my nerves.
A.k.a. Mama Stiflera. Aisha Lageeva, a 22-year-old from Kazan, rose to fame thanks to her diss on the singer Tatarka. In the diss, she raps dashingly in Tatar (and in the music video, she pours Bugulma, a popular alcoholic drink from Tatarstan, over twerking backup dancers). Then, she joined the new battle league Punch Club Fidelio, which was founded by Gabonskaya Gadiuka, a former judge for the online battle league “Versus.” So far, Aisha has won one battle and lost two. She plans to release a mini album by the summer of 2018.
When I was four, I started going to a school that was run by a conservatory, and then I went to a specialized music school. For the past two years, I’ve been studying at a conservatory in the theory and composition department. I have a big merit-based scholarship, and every once in a while, I get a president’s prize or a minister’s prize for my performance in competitions. I can let myself take time once a year to go to the seashore or go tripping with my friends in random cities around the country. I can buy pink Air Maxes for 13,000 rubles [$225], and not a single bitch in town will have the same ones because they’re a single-issue pair. I also write reports and essays on music theory for pay. I like making people’s lives easier for their own money, and I like writing at night with my headphones on anyway. In those moments, I feel alive.
I also get money for battles. It’s the usual sum they pay any participant, but it’s so much money that my parents were shocked when they found out, and they gave me permission to keep at it. Now, they even watch my battles — they’re real fans.
I’ve got a plan that will let me stop working altogether. After I graduate, I’ll go to grad school in St. Petersburg. Then, I’ll pass my comprehensive exams, I’ll choose a dissertation topic. I’ll use my research to write some textbook, and I’ll talk about it everywhere, and everyone will cite it, because it’ll be awesome. After my defense, I can get another advanced degree. At the same time, I’ll get married, have kids, and work somewhere in the department, and maybe run a Twitter account too. And then I’ll retire. It’s great to be part of the intelligentsia.
I was eight when I got third place in a city-wide art contest and won an MP3 player. I started listening to music constantly — while I ate, while I slept, during class. Only my daily piano lessons caused me trouble, but I always plugged my earholes again right after I finished them. At first, I listened to the stuff that everyone passed along to each other through Bluetooth — a standard selection, you know what I mean. Then, my brother dug up a flash drive somewhere that had the complete discography of Fifty Cent on it, and I was totally swept away.
After about two years, a new girl joined our class who was older than everyone else and listened to super cool music — at least I thought so. Our peers listened to Ranetka, Tokio Hotel, Stigmata — all that shit for morons. The kids who studied with me practiced their instruments for days, went to the opera with their parents, hated pop music, watched the Kultura channel, and the only rapper they knew was Detsl. And then I was thrown into the world of Russian rap: Drago, ST, Gidroponka [Hydropunk], Zloi Dukh [Evil Spirit], Basta, Dimasta, those guys from the Urals, the TsAO label. I remember how the tears started flowing. My parents were horrified.
After [Tatarka’s] track “Altyn” came out, it seemed like all of Tatarstan was going nuts, but nobody did anything about it. And I thought: if not me, then who? I wrote a rap in Tatar to show Ira how it’s done if you decide to mess with a language when you’re not a native speaker. It’s the same thing as if I decided to put out a song in English in the West unironically, but with a Russian accent. I mean, are you serious? The Bugulma and the ochpochmaki [a Tatar pastry filled with meat, onions, and potatoes] were just there for decoration. Like, hello from Tatarstan, you little bitch.
I understand that rap came from the West — it would be embarrassing not to know something like that — but my heart just doesn’t go out to black people. I can’t do anything about it, I’m sorry. But I know Spanish folkloric music and Basque music in and out! And I know all 15 Rimsky-Korsakov operas by heart. You can’t say I’m some narrow-minded, dark woman.
My rap scene is the drunk, thirteen-year-old high school kids I walk to the metro after Russian rappers’ concerts. I’m usually the only legal adult there, and the events typically end at curfew. Those poor kids could get caught and put in the drunk tank, and they didn’t actually do anything wrong — they just like Russian rap. In general, I just sit around here in Kazan, study at the conservatory, walk my dog, and once or twice a month I go to Jambar to drink Bugulma with a bunch of electricians and dance to whatever the local DJs have going. When I get bored, I pawn all my gold and bring in some Russian rapper who’s on tour. Then, we get drunk on the same old Bugulma in the place they’re renting, sleep until dinnertime, and go around visiting all the attractions in Kazan. Does that count as a rap scene? If it does, I haven’t noticed any sexism in it.
There’s plenty out there for girls to do in Russia. You can be an Instagram model, a sugar baby, an online sex worker, a tutor, an entitled mom, a feminist, a blogger. To be a rapper, you need to stretch a little, try a little, do something special as a person. Among Russian women rappers, I only like Natasha Scott. She should be a canonized saint. Hearing about the end of her career was a real blow, but I accepted it as an inevitability. Our civilization just doesn’t deserve her music. That funny girl, Devika Shawty, just stole my little heart with her track “Veter” [“Wind”]. The rest of the girls are either lazy or untalented or ugly or nice on the outside but fake and paid off. In any case, everybody’s got to work on themselves. The niche still isn’t filled — anyone can still get into this game. There’s room for me too.
The Severodvinsk naval school graduate is currently finishing her master’s at St. Petersburg’s Russian State Pedagogical University while working as a system administrator at the same university — and doing rap battles. Yulia earned her fame after placing third in the second season of Petersburg’s #SlovoSPB league. She has not yet released any songs of her own.
I started listening to rap in elementary school. Sometime around sixth grade, my friend and I started listening a little and following the battles on Hip-Hop.Ru — that was really popular back then. In my school, there were goths, emos, and rappers just starting out. Then, when I was about 15, I wrote some tracks, but then I got too busy, passed my exams, and got into college. I quit music entirely, but I still followed it, and when battles started getting off the ground, I was interested. At first, I just watched from the sidelines, but then I saw girls in there. There were very few of them, a handful at most, but they were there. I thought that if I got involved, even if I did badly, it couldn’t go any worse for me than it did for them. That’s what inspired me to start. From there, everything seemed to keep going on its own.
[In rap battles], people do treat women differently. It’s an advantage and a disadvantage. Sometimes, they indulge us a little: someone might feel benevolent toward you in advance because you’re a woman. That’s a bad thing because in battle rap, you need to show what you’re worth from the start, and when your competitor is already treating you well, you can come off as a little fake. And then there’s the second category — the people who tell you, “You’re a chick. There’s no place for you here.” You’ve got to maneuver between those two extremes to find your own path.
We had a break between battles. We were sitting around, not really doing anything. That Shurygina girl was getting on everybody’s nerves, and we decided to get in on that whole topic. Plus, it was April 1. We sat down for a second, thought something up, had a great time. They even poured me a free cognac at the bar so I wouldn’t be so nervous. And I had a ton of makeup on — I looked like [the pop singer Filipp] Kirkorov.
People treat me just fine. At least, I fit in with my scene, with #SlovoSPB, and the guys there are all right, we’re all in it together, and nobody counts me out. All my coworkers are men, too — I’m used to being around guys. I’m less comfortable in a team of women.
There’s no getting away from the division between men’s and women’s rap, but there’s no point getting hung up on it either. If you’re a woman, you have to constantly put that out of your mind. There will always be some guys who go crazy because women are getting into what they think is their territory or their genre.
In the second season of #SlovoSPB, some people thought Cheney [the organizer of #SlovoSPB] was helping me out somehow, but that’s all a fantasy. It got to me, and during a battle, I said, “Yes, Gnoiny writes my bars, and I'm fucking Cheney.” The fans liked it, I guess, and they started joyfully fanning the flames and actually believing that we’re dating. Then, people started looking in the video for evidence. My whole inbox was full of fanfics, but I don’t take all that too seriously — I don’t have anything against fanfics. I read them myself when I was in school.
A certified P.E. teacher born in the small southern town of Tikhoretsk, Lema Emelevskaya moved to St. Petersburg and started making hip-hop music. She has been participating in rap battles for eight years and recording with such high-caliber musicians as Harry Topor and Jubilee. Other than that, she hosts a YouTube show interviewing Russian rappers for the rap interest group Ryfmy i Panchi (Rhymes and Punches). She is planning to release her first album and a music video for the song “Dushno i Sladko” (“Steamy and Sweet”).
My first taste of fame came at age six after I danced in a colorful dress to “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja.” And to be honest, I have an extremely rare name, and I lived in a small town, so strangers have always been able to recognize me from somewhere or other. In the era of online battles, I participated a lot and won sometimes, but I always felt that I was just having fun and writing for myself. I never thought I was famous anywhere. When I met my current boyfriend, I introduced myself by saying, “Hi. I'm Lema.” He answered, “Hi. I know.” I couldn't help but be surprised.
I had to work for a long time to feed myself and buy clothes after I moved to Petersburg. Sometimes, it would be hard labor for days on end. Rap wasn’t profitable, but now, everything’s changed. This year, I’m planning to release my first album and start earning my living through music.
I have a battle collective called “Мамин подруGun” [“Mama’s girlfriend”]. I put together this team almost by accident five years ago, and the name I thought up was really a joke — it’s a reference to the name of the team “Папин миниGun” [“Papa’s Mini-Gun”]. Our membership shifted, like it did for the group “VIA Gra.” We didn’t have any principles — we just invited people who, in our opinion, knew how to rap. It all started out as something we did just for fun, but it turned out pretty epic.
In general, I don’t listen to a lot of rap; I like Radiohead, for example. Their instrumentals inspire me — they’re very beautiful. I read a lot when I was little, but now I don’t read much, and it’s all junk anyway. Remarque calms me down a lot, and I love Bukowski. In terms of poets, it’s just Mayakovsky. I like that line about how “at night, the block wants to hide its ringing in something soft, something womanly.” It's funny, but in some portraits he looks a little like Eminem.
It turned out that you can count the women in Russia who can produce even halfway decent rap on two hands. Just kidding, on one hand. Why? Simply because making rap isn’t easy. First of all, women’s voices have to give voice to women’s problems, but without sounding stupid. Second of all, some girls think that if they have good vocals, then they can rap whatever nonsense they want. Nobody can write well, nobody is interested in rhyme construction and rhythmics and so on. Young ladies usually want to show off their own beauty, not to write sick beats. There aren’t too many people out there who really care, who get into it and try to make something really cool. Girls count on getting a discount for their gender, and then they write garbage. I’m not going to justify them — they’re total bullshit. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are legit ladies out there.
Being pretty doesn’t get you discounts in rap, but if you’re worth something, that builds loyalty. I shot the music video for “Vrat’” where, in the first few frames, I’m walking in full view in a bodysuit, displaying — ahem — my tush. That’s a way of getting attention, nothing more. I deliberately attracted attention to my awesome track. A lot of people decided that I’m a fallen woman — they heckle me and judge me. That makes me happy — this is creativity. I take myself as a foundation and deliberately exaggerate things to make the whole picture stand out. I’m a cutie in real life. I have monogamous relationships and dress a lot more modestly.
“Four years ago, when I followed rap, I would have thought that Masha Hima would be judging me someday, not that I would be judging her,” said Gnoiny in Masha’s battle with Yulia Kiwi. Masha started out as a hip-hop singer and then began participating in online battles. In 2015, at twenty-three years old, Masha moved from her hometown of Moscow to St. Petersburg. A year later, she participated in a much-discussed battle with Yulia Kiwi, and another year later, she joined a battle in “Rvat’ na bitakh” along with Mozee Montana in which the pair defeated Ira PSP and Lena Rush according to an audience vote. Hima plans to release her first solo album soon.
In the summer of 2015, I moved to Petersburg. I lived with Lema, and we had loads of fun. Lema always yelled at me for not turning the lights off, but otherwise, we didn’t bother each other much. But then it was fall. I couldn’t find work because I wasn’t registered to live in Petersburg, and nobody wanted to hire me. I applied at McDonalds, at [the Russian fast food restaurant] Teremok — and even they didn’t all me back. My friend Dalgat and I performed on Sadovaya Street, on Dumskaya Street. We stood by a column near the metro and rapped our own tracks. In the summer, we could get a lot of people together, and we could make enough money to get by in a couple of hours. But in the winter, we’d sometimes stand out in the freezing cold, and God willing some tourist would toss a ruble to the both of us. It was a really difficult time.
Now the Soyuz label has bought the rights to my album for five years, and I made ten tracks out of a couple of demos in literally a month. I don’t know whether this will bring in any money, but I hope it will. Now I can only make a little bit off battles, but it’s not an amount you can live on and do something with. And I have a little daughter — she’s a year and a month old now. I'm still on maternity leave and can't start work.
For a lot of people, the divide between female and male is like the divide between bad and good. I mean, what’s the problem? Until feminism came along and women started fighting and getting themselves some rights, they were considered second-class citizens. In rap, that attitude persists. So far, there aren’t any women who have seized the right to have a voice. Maybe just Cardi B, who’s had five tracks on the Billboard Top 10. She’s proven that a woman in rap can be legit. But that’s over there, in the West, and in Russia that’s still shocking for some people.
I’ve wanted to quit writing many times, but then I hear some cool music, I get some sick ideas, and I can’t not write them down. It’s stronger than me. I mean, there’s a response, people like it. How can I listen to the people who tell me I should only sing in the kitchen?
And how can you avoid violence and insults in your writing if they come from the heart? Okay, you’re a woman, but if you’re dissatisfied about something, go for it. It’ll find a receptive listener anyway — another dissatisfied woman. In the end, there’s that expression — “nasty woman.” And there’s a lot of us nasty women. Every troublesome woman is a battler in her soul.
I had a rough period, before I was pregnant, when I couldn’t get myself to write anything. I hit a dead end, and I was unemployed, and my personal life wasn’t going great. Then, two funny things happened — the one that happened just before I got pregnant, and the fact that I, a singer, agreed to participate in a battle for the first time. Around a week beforehand, I found out I was pregnant, but I had to memorize this text that I had given myself a week to work on. That whole time, all I wanted to do was sleep, smoke, and drink. I was nauseous. Yeah, it was rough.
I watched the video of that battle for the first time after a year, if not later, to prepare for the next one. I remembered how I was shaking, how much I wanted a smoke, how hard it was to know that I was pregnant, that I was battling for the first time without remembering my own text. And I was up against a girl, and I’ve been scared of other girls since I was in grade school. The girls at school bullied me; I didn’t get along with them for some reason. I don’t like girls to this day for whatever reason.
When my daughter was three months old, Cheney invited me to join “Rvat’ na bitakh.” I decided to compete on a team with Mozee Montana. I calmed myself down by thinking about how my daughter would at least be four months old, not three, when the battle came around. She would be calmer, and she’d be old enough for me to give her some kind of food, maybe a porridge. I was motivated by the thought that if we didn’t do it, then who would?
Now, my daughter is a little older, and she can stay with her dad, with her grandpa, or with her grandma. I can go to the studio. My motivation is stronger now than it has been. Where I just thought about myself before, I think about my daughter now. I want to give her everything I can. If I have to turn the rap game on its head for her to have enough food and get a good education, I’ll do it.
Natasha Scott is perhaps the most enigmatic woman in Russian-language rap, and possibly a hoax. The rumor is that Natasha’s offstage name is Alyona Kharitonova. In February 2017, she released the mini-album “Revolve” and collaborated in the recording process with the duet LSP. (Oleg Savchenko, a.k.a. Oleg LSP, told Meduza that he recorded one track — “I sat and pressed the record button.” He said, ”Roman and I advised her to throw out the rest.”) Shortly afterward, Scott released the music video for the song “Hop” with an accompanying post that read simply, “Bye.” Some media sources consider the post to be an announcement that the project is over.
I don’t say anything about myself because my husband prohibits it. He beats me and keeps me in dungeons and forces me to vote for Putin. When he goes to work, I write songs in secret. He noticed once, beat me up, and forced me to write, “Bye.” Just so you know, I’m against feminism, and I think that my situation is normal. (This is the full text of the message Scott sent to Meduza in response to a request for an interview. Afterwards, Scott deleted her personal page on the social media site VKontakte.)
Aigel Gaisina from the group AIGEL declined to speak with Meduza for this story, and Kristina Si was unavailable for an interview.