In our first Kollektiv Longread, Tom Waugh looks at how Husky, a rapper from a small town in Siberia caused a political scandal and changed the face of Russian rap.
Dmitry Kuznetsov, better known by his stage name Husky, is a 26-year-old rapper from the Siberian city of Ulan-Ude, closer to Mongolia than to Moscow. He’s also the most important performer in Russia right now. With a devoted following among young Russians, he was meant to spend the back end of 2018 performing throughout the country as part of his Leprosy tour.
As often happens, however, things didn’t go quite as planned. In the space of one hectic month, Husky saw the video for single Judas blocked on YouTube without explanation, had concerts across Russia raided and cancelled amid accusations of “extremism”, and found himself imprisoned – and subsequently released four days later – for giving an impromptu performance on the roof of a car after yet another gig was called off.
Almost a year on, it’s still unclear what exactly Husky did to incur the wrath of regional authorities. His arrest for “hooliganism” came after, not before, several of his concerts were cancelled at short notice for no apparent reason. True, he’s never been afraid to speak his mind: back in 2011, his debut track October 7th criticised a certain Russian politician (yes, him) as a “tsar … drinking the blood of the oppressed, abused and abandoned.” The track was well-received in Russia’s hip hop community, but barely raised an eyebrow outside of it.
But while many Russian rappers are all too happy to just ape their American counterparts, what Husky does is take a historically American genre and inject it with a bleakness and melancholy that has defined Russia’s literature since the days of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
It’s Husky’s “gopnik” image – his shaven head and stereotypically Slavic penchant for Adidas tracksuits – that has led many to write him off as just another rapper, but the unassuming facade hides a wit and honesty unparalleled in the Russian rap scene. This is, after all, a man who trained as a journalist at Moscow State University, who has confessed his love for classic Russian poetry and the films of Ingmar Bergman, and who litters his tracks with references to the Bible. His lyrics are literary, dense and often difficult to decipher in between his slurred flow and oppressive beats.
This literary streak has won Husky universal critical acclaim and even comparisons with legendary poet Sergei Yesenin, famed for coming from a sleepy provincial Russian town and opening the eyes of Moscow elite to the sometimes shocking realities of life beyond the capital. Yet it would be banal to say that Husky’s 2017 album The Favourite Songs of (Imagined) People examines some gritty reality of life in modern Russia, which is on the whole a pretty pleasant place to be.
But while many Russian rappers are all too happy to just ape their American counterparts, what Husky does is take a historically American genre and inject it with a bleakness and melancholy that has defined Russia’s literature since the days of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. The result is something very unique and very Russian.
Since his album’s release, Husky hasn’t exactly shied away from the limelight. He’s written and then publicly deleted a whole second album – following a precedent set by iconic Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, who burned the second part of his epic Dead Souls (although admittedly he didn’t do it live on Instagram, unlike Husky) – staged his own suicide by hanging a mannequin out of the window of a hotel on Red Square and, at the “funeral” that followed, marked the “death of the rapper Husky” by lying in a coffin for a bit before announcing his reincarnation as a punk. Obviously.
Russia’s more conservative politicians … apparently unaware of the concept of a metaphor, accuse them of corrupting Russia’s youth through references to an array of horrors including sex, drugs and even cannibalism.
It’s perhaps not a massive surprise, then, that Husky’s antics have been met with a cool reception from some of Russia’s more conservative politicians. The 2018 campaign against him seems to have been the initiative of Saint Petersburg politician Vladimir Petrov, who criticised the rapper as promoting “suicide and drugs” and called for rap music as a whole to be monitored by the government “until normality is restored among young people”.
It’s not just Husky who suffered from this moral crusade. Fellow rappers Allj and Egor Kreed, as well as electronic group IC3PEAK, also had concerts raided or cancelled as the likes of Petrov, apparently unaware of the concept of a metaphor, accuse them of corrupting Russia’s youth through references to an array of horrors including sex, drugs and even cannibalism. These tenuous accusations, then, provided an easy pretext for Husky’s arrest late last year.
Happily, the politicians’ attempts to cleanse Russian society of the evils of hip hop completely backfired. While Husky was well-known in musical circles before, his arrest – and the massive public outcry that ensued – became national news. A Moscow concert in protest against his imprisonment was a huge success, selling out in under 24 hours, and led to his release several days later.
What happened next was unprecedented. Russian state TV, known for its pro-government stance and tendency to claim the moral high ground, started running features on rap and the scene that surrounds it. People who had never heard the expression “hip hop” before, grandmas in Siberia who would otherwise have thought that a rapper is a type of turnip, were suddenly exposed to this strange and unfamiliar culture. The sight of a group of rappers visiting Russia’s State Duma to discuss their music with politicians was the culmination of a very surreal few weeks. Whether he meant it or not, Husky had provoked a reassessment of the place of rap music in Russian society.
He could complete his transformation into fully-fledged punk. He could transcend onto another plane of existence entirely. Or he could be thrown in jail, again.
This is not to say that the publicity the rap scene gained as a result of the Husky affair was all positive. Far from it – the rappers’ attempts to get MPs onside were predictably fruitless, and the state news coverage predictably condescending. What it did do, though, was lead to a sort of grudging acceptance from above that rap in Russia is not going to disappear any time soon. Even Vladimir Putin concurred that, while it would be desirable for the state to “control” rap music somewhat, banning it outright would not be possible.
So the persecution of Russian rappers has stopped, at least for now, and Husky’s 2019 has been positively peaceful, devoted mainly to the production of the evocatively-titled Lucifer, a short film detailing his artistic and existential crisis. In it, Husky recounts the events that have caught the media eye over the past year and expresses his desire to escape the image the press have created for him. Or, it could be argued, that he has created for himself. Either way, Husky the rapper is “dead”, and his “rebirth” is imminent.
His next move, unsurprisingly, remains hard to predict. Despite the talk of reincarnation, he could yet drop the best album in Russian rap history. He could complete his transformation into fully-fledged punk. He could transcend onto another plane of existence entirely. Or he could be thrown in jail, again.
The politicians who accuse Husky of leading young Russians astray paint him as a deviant whose only goal is to portray Russia in a bad light. They couldn’t be more wrong. Husky is a patriot. He doesn’t sugarcoat things or pretend that Russia doesn’t have any problems. But he does love his country and everything that comes with it. And while it’s impossible to say what he’ll do next, one thing is for sure: whatever happens, he has already left his mark not only on Russian rap, but on Russian youth culture as a whole.