Russia's Most Raucous Rapper Is Also One of Its Most Thoughtful Social Critics
At a small shelter in New York City’s serene Central Park a knot of close to 70 people gathered for an unusual hip-hop show. Russian rapper Noize MC performed an impromptu acoustic set, just him and a guitar. Joined by his wife, their toddler, and Russian and Russian-American fans, the atmosphere was one of warm fellowship. His audience danced, clapped and sang along in Russian to jams about, among other things, hypocrisy and issues back home. As the sun began to set, some people got out their cellphones to provide light.
The 27 year-old father of two, whose real name is Ivan Alekseev, was in the US to play a music festival, but he tries to do one unplanned street performance wherever he goes, putting the word out through the grapevine and social media. Last time he was in New York he did a pop-up show in Brighton Beach, where there is a large Russian community. It’s a good way to get to know the people in the city he’s visiting.
The element of surprise and grassroots approach is typical the artist, who is a gadfly in Russia and best known abroad for upsetting some thin-skinned police officers at one of his shows and ending up in jail. “They locked me down for ten days,” He related in a phone interview following his New York show.
Passing the hat at a performance in Volgograd, as he often does during a certain song, the officers tried to make him stop. He responded with some choice words and then dedicated the next song “Kuri Bambuk/Smoke Bamboo,” about police corruption and brutality, to them. As a result, he and his band went to jail. While in custody he wrote “Ten Days in Paradise” and read the lyrics, which if taken at their most literal could be seen as an apology, on camera, escaping a harsher sentence.
“As soon as I could get a phone call, I wasn’t supposed to, I called my producer and told him the lyrics. As soon as I got out we went into the studio in Volgograd. We had the video up on YouTube the next day. People thought it was all a PR stunt because we got it up so fast,” he said. It wasn’t a PR stunt, nor was it an isolated incident. It was the usual for a musician who often uses sarcasm and humor to weather or even escape difficult situations.
For instance, the inspiration for his recent song “Our Movement” came when a pro-Putin youth party of the same name, Nashe Dvizheniye in Russian, asked him to write an anthem for them. Alexeev’s manager suggested that it might be a good idea to accept the invitation to avoid any trouble and the emcee agreed, penning a song that heaps scathing criticism on the group’s disingenuous nature with an ironic smirk. His manager liked the song but thought it would be best to put it on his next album and maybe not submit it to Nashe Dvizheniye.
Apart from its practical applications, Alekseev’s talent for satire also helps him reach out to kindred souls and generally just deal. ”It’s like my radio signal to everybody who has the same or a similar position. Sometimes we are about to lose hope that anything can become better, but when we find each other we become stronger. I want to believe it’s like that,” he wrote in an email subsequent to our interview. As Joan Baez once said, “action is the antidote to despair.”
His actions sync up with his radio signal too. Though he’s a beloved figure and a solid draw in his home country, the rapper has no record label and only works with his manager. He self-released his fourth album, New Album, online this year using the “pay what you wish” model.
An unlikely rap star, Alekseev started his life in music as a young boy playing classical guitar and listening to the Beatles and Nirvana in Belgorod. (He’s originally from Yartsevo in the Smolensk region.) As he remembers it, there wasn’t much of a hip-hop scene at all in Russia until after the release of 8 Mile. Later on, he got into hip-hop and started, as he puts it, “winning rap contests” to make money. “I was a freelancer. For a while that was my only route to finances,” he said with a note of pride.
Today he plays with a full band, composed of friends he met on his dorm floor at RSUH University in Moscow and doesn’t have a strong identification to Russia’s hip-hop scene. With a style that draws as much on rap rock and alternative as on mainstream hip-hop, he’s musically and personally closer to rap rock bands like Mexico’s Molotov and New Jersey’s Dog Eat Dog. In Russia he rolls with rap groups like Kirpichi, Anacondaz and Kasta.
As for the larger hip-hop community: “I feel a part of it but I don’t know if everyone would see me as being a part of it,” he said. Indeed, both for his content and spirit, he may be standing more squarely in the Russian tradition of dissenting guitar poetry, which arose in the Soviet Union of the 1950s.
He’s certainly something of an anomaly in Russian rap. “There aren’t a lot of rappers talking about social issues here. Most hip-hop in Russia is about living in rough neighborhoods and doing drugs,” he said. It’s not that there are restrictions on free speech. Specifically topical lyrics just aren’t a part of the mainstream culture right now. “A lot of musicians think it isn’t cool,” he adds.
“The freedom of speech in modern Russia, of course, can’t be compared to what we had in the Soviet years. But the habit to be afraid still stays. People prefer to keep silent. Speaking of problems annoys them. In USSR people were afraid of going to jail, now they’re afraid of losing the root of earning money. Or afraid, just in case,” he wrote.
Protest music might not be hip, but ordinary Russians spoke up loudly this year. Widespread anti-Putin protests broke out in anger following the 2011 elections, which were widely perceived to be flawed. Alekseev participated and spoke at one of the rallies. Tens of thousands of Russians participated in the rallies against political corruption and, though the government cracked down on them heavily, the protests remain ongoing.
“The main reason for the protest actions being so widespread was the elections turning into to a bad comedy. Putin and his party just wrote the digits they wanted to see. It looked like they just considered that we were blind, stupid or maybe didn’t even exist at all. I took part in some of these protest actions and I saw tens of thousands people that I would never imagine to be ready to leave their homes to show their disagreement,” Alekseev wrote of the demonstrations.
Still, this doesn’t mean he’s aligned himself with any particular party. “To be honest, the total majority of opposition leaders and parties are the same evil we have at the moment. So, I don’t know who I can trust, but I know for sure who I can’t,” Alekseev averred.
The career of Noize MC sometimes seems like one of picaresque adventure and heroic rebellion, but he’ll tell you he’s just pursuing his art, not trying to bait the authorities. “Look, we aren’t the Sex Pistols. We aren’t trying to cause controversy. We do what we do and sometimes people have problems with us,” he said. He’s not looking for trouble and, while he might have a passion for hard charging rap rock, his political outlook is often fairly nuanced.
There have been two rap songs written in Russia about Pussy Riot. One, titled “Pussy Riot” by G-Wylx and Crip-a-Crip, holds the performance artists sentenced to two years for performing an anti-Putin protest song in a Moscow cathedral got what was coming to them. While Alekseev isn’t a fan of Pussy Riot’s art, he released a song of his own from a very different perspective. Roughly translated, it’s called “In the Name of the Godfather.”
“I wrote “In the Name of the Godfather” being inspired by such people’s reactions but it’s not only about the Pussy Riot case. It’s a metaphoric story about a man beating his daughter in a church after she said “Holy shit!” The rest of the people don’t try to stop him, and many of them even begin to beat her too. And in the end the court decides to impose a $100 penalty on him. I tried to show the cruelty of some people meant to be Christians, meant to excuse easily, to be kind. And also it’s about our justice system which so often decides to forgive real killers and to punish maximally somebody like Pussy Riot.
I didn’t like the video they did at all. It was horrible shit. Yes, I understand what they wanted to say doing this, and I agree with that, but the way they chose to do it was awful. But it doesn’t matter if we talk about justice. They don’t deserve the punishment they got. It was the protest action against amalgamation of church and government (the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill publicly asked all the Orthodox Christians to vote for Putin during the spring elections), so the main reason to lock them down was absolutely political,” he wrote of his song and the trial.
After our initial phone interview he called back dismayed, saying he’d just gotten word that his headlining concert in Moscow’s Gorky Park was cancelled due to apparent concerns over his explicit lyrics. “We do have explicit lyrics, but I said we could censor the lyrics, but they don’t believe us. I don’t know why they waited so long to tell us,” he said.
He was allowed to play in the end when the cancelled concert became a cause célèbre in Russian media.”They had to let us play! Three hundred publications during two hours. the journalists just ate them alive. It was a great gig,” he wrote in an email. And the battle continues for Noize MC.