A new inquisition Banned artists and Chechnya's fight against ‘uncultured’ music
One does not simply “musician” in Chechnya. This article looks at the “expert council” tasked with filtering the local music scene. These gatekeepers have the authority to crush local singers' careers, whenever they feel their lyrics or melodies are insufficiently “cultured” or excessively foreign. Want to perform at a wedding? Hoping to attain stardom on YouTube? If you're living in Chechnya, you have to impress these officials, or else.
On July 15, the Chechen state television network Grozny aired a segment titled “Pseudo-Artists in Chechnya Take on ‘Creative Work.’” In the report, several musicians who uploaded their songs to YouTube were summoned to meet with Chechen Cultural Minister Khozh-Baudi Daayev, and the minister publicly reprimanded three of these performers: Ayub Vaxaragov, Iman Temirbulatova, and Makka Damayeva. “Gone are the days when people sang what they wanted, danced how they wished, and did what they felt like. Order has been established, the republic has a leader, it has authority, it has discipline, and we won’t allow anyone to fool around,” Daayev told the artists.
The Chechen YouTube stars then apologized for their songs
In the same news report, Daayev informs the musicians that “a song has the right to reach the people” only after it’s been approved by “a special commission.” After the segment, Daayev continued the meeting in private, adding another three singers: Khava Elmurzayeva, Khava Ustarkhanova, and Zareta Magomedova. Three of the six musicians later went before TV cameras and apologized for their songs. Public apologies like these are often circulated on Chechen television and YouTube.
The Caucasian Knot translated excerpts from the artists’ televised speeches into Russian. Iman Temirbulatova said, “I’m not a cultural worker; I work elsewhere. To those who write and arrange music however you want, I urge you to stop defiling our culture.”
“I performed songs incorrectly. From this day forth, we won’t sing anymore. To become a cultural worker, you have to go through a special commission. [...] A plea to everyone singing songs: this isn’t allowed and they won’t allow it,” said Ayub Vaxaragov.
Permitting public performances by Chechen musicians
The special commission mentioned by Daayev and Vaxaragov is the Chechen Culture Ministry’s Public Expert Council, created in 2010 by the previous culture minister, Dikalu Muzykayev. At first, the group was charged with rendering advisory decisions on creative activities carried out under the Culture Ministry’s jurisdiction. In 2014, however, Daayev expanded the council’s powers, requiring all “theater and concert institution” directors in Chechnya to get approval for their repertoires.
Abu Utsiyev, one of the council’s members, told Meduza that the Chechen authorities are angry about the number of musicians performing in the street and at markets, who then upload footage to YouTube and Instagram. The new songs feature grace notes that are alien to Chechen folk music, and traditional ethnic themes have generally receded into the background of these songs. “During the hostilities [Russia’s Chechen Wars in 1994–1996 and 1999–2009], people were in Ingushetia and people were in Georgia. After they returned, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and other sounds started appearing in our music,” Utsiyev explains. “We were faced with the threat of Chechen folk music’s disappearance, and the council was created to prevent this.”
Utsiyev says the council also emerged to halt the flow of “uncultured” music. “People started writing [poems], whether they knew how or not,” he says. “And then they started composing music based on these words. And sometimes the text was so illiterate that it was impossible not to blush when reading it. What would have happened if [Soviet music icon Alla] Pugacheva’s [songs] had been written by uneducated villagers who didn’t know the rules of Russian grammar?”
Chechen’s Public Expert Council currently has six members, Utsiyev says: accordionist Ramzan Paskaev, poet and State Center for Folk Art director Ramzan Daudov, composer and poet Ismail Mushabov, Honored Artist of Russia Aymani Aidamirova, Republican College of Culture vocal coach Margarita Sergeyeva, and Abu Utsiyev, who is a poet and a writer.
Initially, when there were more people who hoped to attain “artist” accreditation, the council met every weekday. Operations have slowed lately, however, and the group now meets only on Mondays and Thursdays, when it reviews and considers different musical materials. Council members read the lyrics of songs and listen to whatever music is provided. In the past five years, according to Abu Utsiyev, the council has examined 12,122 compositions, approving or sending back for revisions all but 539 songs.
Utsiyev says he works with musicians to remove words from their songs that are inconsistent with Chechen traditions, and helps them find “more appropriate” expressions. For example, he says it’s too vulgar to say, “I kiss you and hug you.” As a member of the council, Utsiyev says he’s reviewed roughly 2,000 song lyrics from young people in Chechnya who came to him for permission to use their texts in their music: “And I open the books and I say: ‘Look at how beautifully this [other] person wrote about this same topic.’” Chechen’s Public Expert Council isn’t censorship, Utsiyev insists, but a group to assist those who want to work in culture: “Here’s a song where the singer says in the first verse that he’s cool, and in the second he says, ‘Motherland, I still love you.’ What kind of nonsense is that? He’s so cool that the Motherland should be proud that he loves her?”
More often, however, the songs for consideration come to the council from Grozny City Hall’s Culture Department and other state institutions. Based on the council’s decisions, entertainers are then advised whether or not they should work as “artists.” “We can help people develop their voices, but if [singers] have no record, they have to be told to find another occupation,” Utsiyev says.
The songs so upsetting to Chechnya’s Culture Ministry
On YouTube, Meduza found videos featuring some of the most famous musicians chastised by Chechnya’s culture minister. With roughly 3,400 subscribers on YouTube, Ayub Vaxaragov is the most popular of these performers. His autotuned song “Because I’m in Love” has more than 172,000 views, and the comments on the video are generally positive. Critics, meanwhile, have written Vaxaragov letters of damnation, while some Internet users have expressed surprised that he’s “still alive.”
Iman Temirbulatova’s songs in Russian and Chechen are available at different North Caucasian and Chechen music channels. For example, her Russian-Chechen song “His Eyes Entrance” got more than 22,000 views. The lyrics include phrases like “My life in his hand, I’m on a leash.” Some Internet users support the singer, while others have thanked Chechnya’s culture minister in comments on YouTube for “putting a stop to this.”
Makka Damayeva has performed at various public events and sang Chechen songs, mixing lyrics in her native language with the melodies of other artists, like the song “Demobilization” by the Russian punk band “Gaza Strip.” In comments, some YouTube users have written that Damayeva “sings well,” while others call her a “scammer” and celebrate the fact that she was criticized on state television.
“If I sing, ‘I love you, and you love me,’ these words go against our [cultural] mentality. [Artists’] repertoires should be verified,” one Chechen Culture Ministry official told Meduza, explaining how the musicians summoned to the meeting with Khozh-Baudi Daayev were selected. Abu Utsiyev confirms that the council never examined any songs by the musicians who were shown on TV: “They didn’t filed anything with us. We never met with them.”
Meduza was unable to reach any of the musicians from Grozny’s news segment, who ignored phone calls and messages on social media.
Who’s allowed to perform in Chechnya
After the creation of the expert council, the authorities started going after individuals who falsely claim to be stars of the Chechen stage and formally “national” and “honored” artists. In order to achieve “honored” status, performers have to have a decade of experience in culture work, and “national” status requires an additional five years, says Honored Artist Beslan Dakayev. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, personally bestows these titles.
Despite these requirements, Kadyrov sometimes makes exceptions in special cases, like in January 2019, when he conferred the title of national artist to Amirkhan Umayev, a member of the Grozny Philharmonic’s Theater Troupe and Orchestra, for finishing second on the TV singing show “Golos” (The Voice). Kadyrov also gifted the musician a black Mercedes.
Artists in Chechnya must conduct themselves in accordance with “Chechen traditions,” always obey the law, sing songs about “permitted” topics, and serve as an example for the people, says an official in the local Culture Ministry.
Utsiyev stresses that many seek these titles, but success requires diligence: “Cultural workers are given [national] status when they receive recognition from the people. If you work in your community center, take part in festivals and concerts, and in larger events at the republic and inter-regional level, then you’re putting yourself out there, and others will notice you. Then your supervisor files the necessary documents [to be awarded the title of national artist].”
Magomed Dombayev's career demonstrates how this is supposed to work. A student of Public Expert Council member Ramzan Daudov, Dombayev’s songs won the recommendation of the council, and in 2018 he was awarded the title of honored artist. Today, he works at Chechnya’s Folk Art Center, writes music for the choir, and performs at major holiday celebrations, like Grozny’s “Happy Birthday, Beloved Capital!” festival.
On YouTube, Dombayev’s most popular songs include a Russian-language tune about a local highlander (32,000 views) and a performance in Chechen (178,000 views). In comments online, fans praise the singer and his music, and complain that other ethnicities have stolen his melodies: “It’s offensive when they cover our music, substituting their own words. Still, nobody sings better or more beautifully than Magomed.”
After the expert council has approved an artist’s repertoire, the musician has to coordinate their performance with the local community center. In the process, the Culture Ministry sends a “cultural worker” to the community center with a list of permitted artists. The official supervises and confirms that the musician’s song list conforms to the list approved by the expert council, according to Zelimkhan Saidov, who works in the Culture Ministry’s press service. It’s only after all these steps that performers are allowed to “reach the public,” Saidov explains. When Minister Daayev expanded the expert council’s authority, he assigned these “Supervisory Desk” representatives to Chechnya’s cultural institutions.
An anonymous source in Grozny’s Culture Department told Meduza that people without the government’s permission lack the right to sing their own music, even at friends’ weddings: “Just singing at weddings, where people are gathered, without the council’s approval, is prohibited. In your family circle, anyone can sing what they like, but if you plug in a microphone where people are gathered, sing, and distribute [a recording], that’s not allowed.”
In addition to the council’s approval and permission from the local community center, artists must be officially employed in the cultural sphere at the corresponding state ministry or city department, at the community center or the state philharmonic. According to Honored Artist of Chechnya Beslan Dakayev, the average monthly salary in this line of work is between 20,000 and 30,000 rubles (about $400), and those who achieve the title of “national artist” can expect a 25-percent bonus.
If a musician is invited to perform at a corporate party, the business has to sign a contract not with the artist, but with the cultural institution that employs them and pay an honorarium of 5-10 percent to the employer, says Utsiyev. One musician who used to work in Chechnya told Meduza that these performances cost anywhere between 5,000 and 50,000 rubles ($80 and $785): “But it’s more, in any case, than the salaries in those community centers.”
Who’s not allowed to perform in Chechnya
To stop the performances of “unofficial” musicians, Chechnya’s Culture Ministry has gradually increased its supervision of local artists. “The rhetoric you saw [on television, when Minister Daayev criticized the misbehaving musicians] is one of these steps. If someone wants to sing, he should have the skill to perform. It’s not just ‘I want to. I’m singing.’ That’s not how it goes,” says one Culture Ministry official.
Abu Utsiyev stresses that members of the public write to Minister Daayev on his Instagram account about musicians planning performances that violate the state’s rules. “People turn to him, and he has to respond and react,” Utsiyev says.
Despite the restrictions, some popular artists leave their jobs at official cultural institutions to earn money at corporate events, Utsiyev complains: “[Artists] fancy themselves gold stars, and start performing at weddings without legal grounds. I was given a car and an apartment. Am I supposed to leave, once I get these benefits? And tomorrow somebody new shows up, and then a third person… The state doesn’t have the means for that!”
Some musicians caught breaking the rules later find themselves on Chechnya’s unofficial blacklist. Two years ago, one of VKontakte’s “Chechen Music” communities published the names of a dozen artists allegedly banned by the republic’s Culture Ministry. One of the musicians on this list was the popular singer Rustam Chekuyev, who now lives in Paris and tours Europe, according to his VKontakte account. His songs on YouTube attract more than half a million views. “I never wanted to leave my hometown of Grozny, but you confront all kinds of things in life, no matter who you are. [...] I’ve been away from my native land for two years now, and I miss it,” Chekuev wrote online in February 2018, without commenting directly on Chechnya’s musician blacklist, when sharing a photograph of himself passing through Russian passport control.
The musicians added to Chechnya’s blacklist refuse to talk about it publicly. “If I’m totally open about it, it will be a scandal, and my parents will be terrorized”; “You want them to come and kill my parents?”; “Excuse me, but I’d gladly come forward, if it didn’t mean big problems for my family” — these are just a few of the answers banned musicians gave, when Meduza asked them to describe life since being blacklisted.
Meduza spoke to one banned Chechen artist who’s since left the republic to perform elsewhere in Russia. “One wrong step risks the flogging of young and experienced talents, public humiliation, and coerced apologies for imaginary sins,” the musician says, describing the Chechen Culture Ministry’s policy, calling it “a new inquisition.”
Another musician says he landed on the blacklist at the height of his popularity. He, too, moved away when he was banned from performances. “I left Chechnya after their abuse, I had heart surgery, and now I feel okay, and I’m slowly trying to adjust.”
A young woman who was prohibited a few years ago from singing in Chechnya told Meduza that there are multiple pretexts for blacklisting performers. “Usually it’s a personal grudge,” she explains. “Somewhere at some point someone says something, maybe slandering someone in person or online, and there’s indecent behavior, and sometimes someone’s wild lifestyle disgraces others.” The young musician used to perform locally and outside Chechnya, and even in televised concerts. But she says she doesn’t want to sing anymore. “Not only do you have to get off the blacklist, but you have to work in the cultural sphere, where they’ll turn on you and force you to resign,” she complains. Today, the singer says she takes whatever jobs she can find, whether it’s inflating balloons or picking flowers.
The administrator of one popular YouTube channel that features Chechen music told Meduza that even national artists are sometimes blacklisted. “The ones they showed on [Grozny] TV are just daisies,” he said. “It was an example of what the others can count on.” According to one banned musician, the punishment for continuing to perform publicly after being blacklisted is limited only by the authorities’ imagination. “That part won’t be broadcast on TV, of course,” the artist warns. “If they only put you on television, people would be competing for the publicity.”
“Have fun, but then don’t call yourself a Chechen”
One member of Chechnya’s Culture Ministry denies the official existence of a musician blacklist, but he stresses that artists whose work hasn’t been approved by the expert council “cannot represent” Chechen culture. “These individuals are prohibited from being invited to corporate parties, and information [about their ban] is conveyed to the public,” he says, explaining that the information is circulated by state cultural institutions. The Culture Ministry official says these measures are sufficient to stop unauthorized artists from performing: “They have relatives and people in their lives who are responsible for them. A key feature of our traditions is that family, relatives, clans, parents, and brothers all bear responsibility for individuals. There’s no situation where a brother doesn’t answer for his sister.”
Abu Utsiyev also says the republic’s cultural policies aren’t a matter of punishment. “If they keep singing, their relatives will be disgraced by this renegade behavior,” he says. “If you’re Chechen, you should behave properly, or have fun but then don’t call yourself a Chechen.”
One banned artist says some blacklisted musicians have retained their popularity, but now they only perform outside Chechnya, sometimes at weddings where they can earn as much as 100,000 rubles ($1,565). “But if they perform at a restaurant in Grozny, that restaurant will be shut down immediately,” he explains.
Some musicians employed at Chechnya’s official cultural institutions are also prohibited from performing at private events, albeit for different reasons. Honored Artist of Chechnya Beslan Dakayev, who works in the Grozny City Hall Culture Department, says people in his position are charged with singing patriotic and lyrical songs to inspire the young and in love. He doesn’t write the songs himself, and he gets the lyrics from his friend, Armen Grigoryan, the front man for the rock band “Crematorium.” Dakayev performs at concerts for foreign delegations, the Interior Ministry, military brigades, and soldiers, and sings in the philharmonic. With all these obligations, he’s not allowed to accept private gigs. “Probably so I don’t get photographed at some cheap corporate party,” Dakayev says.
Dakayev says he thinks the government’s ban on YouTube musicians doesn’t harm Chechen culture. “These [banned artists] were bush-league street musicians. I, too, used to sit in the courtyard, strumming and singing what came to me. It makes no difference whether or not they sing. We have national artists. And we can easily sing foreign music, like songs by Freddie Mercury or The Scorpions. What matters is the translation.”
Translation by Kevin Rothrock