As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, the Kremlin continues to crackdown on Russians who speak out against the war. In a surprise release, the Russian rapper Morgenshtern stands tall in his recent song “12”. As the song wraps, a woman’s voice rises above the fray, an angry mob surrounding the rapper, hands banging on the Bentley. “My dear son, well yes, here, right here, in the morning the roof was almost blown away,” she says with a calm urgency. “Right now we are sitting in the cellar, we have prepared a bomb shelter.” It’s the voice of a Ukrainian woman, the mother of rap producer and longtime Morgenshtern collaborator Palagin, who endured Russian strikes in Odesa. Putin’s media clampdown means she will not be heard on Russian airwaves any time soon — she may be the Ukrainian voice most widely encountered by Morgenshtern’s millions of die-hard Russian fans on YouTube.
“12,” named in honor of the rapper’s younger brother’s birthday, is the first serious missive from a normally apolitical Russian rapper against the war. For the Dubai-based Morgenshtern, who was Spotify’s top artist in Russia in 2021, it is a serious broadside in what has been a slow but steady increasing frustration with the Kremlin. It could suggest that others may soon follow suit, and a handful of luminaries have already begun. “The big bosses will send [you] to the slaughterhouse,” Morgenshtern raps, in a likely nod to the already high casualty rates Russian forces are suffering in Ukraine. “Bosses never gave a fuck.”
A handful of other prominent Russian rappers have been slowly but steadily voicing their opposition to the war. It’s a change for a scene that has often walked a delicate balancing act between being critical of the government and retaining the ability to perform publicly. Some, like Oxxxymiron, are established opponents to Putin’s government. Known for narrative-driven and socially conscious tracks like “Who killed Mark?” , Oxxxymiron has opposed the war since its beginning, canceling Russian shows in protest. The dissident rapper hosted a concert in Istanbul on Tuesday, one of first of several planned Russians Against War shows, with the goal of raising money for Ukrainian refugees.
With Morgenshtern and Oxxxymiron openly on allied sides for the first time, the historic wall between Russia’s more subversive, government-critical music scene and the country’s more popular Top 40 apolitical mainstream may be eroding. No longer is open critique limited to outsider artists like IC3PEAK, whose controversial 2020 single “Boo Hoo” might have nearly landed the experimental duo in jail. With protest songs unable to gain airtime, artists must stick to social media. Much of the scene has quickly moved from Instagram, which Russia recently banned, to Telegram. Although officially also restricted in Russia, the platform is rapidly becoming the digital shelter for Russian rappers.