Why Saying Russian Rap is “Too White” Makes No Sense

Griby: Ukrainian group that raps in Russian

This is a response to The Calvert Journal’s opinion piece titled Russian rap needs to kick its addiction to America. Now, this isn’t an attempt to eviscerate the author, but rather to detail a specific phenomenon amongst white liberals and in so doing attempt to quash it. For the record, I’m a white liberal too. This phenomenon is the manifestation of a combination of American white guilt and lack of true understanding of race. In its reduced form: We white Americans spend a lot of time on the internet (e.g. twitter/tumblr), we learn the atrocities we have committed -- namely being the perpetrators and maintainers of systems of oppression from the beginning of the nation’s conception -- and then internalize this new knowledge as white guilt.

Unfortunately, our ability to identify racism often doesn’t extend past pattern matching. That is, we are able to identify instances of racism, or subjective violence (e.g. appropriation, asking to touch someone’s hair, microaggressions), without being able to identify the underlying systems, or objective violence (e.g. othering, fetishization, classification), that actually make those instances racist. Asking to touch someone’s hair is not intrinsically racist. Rather it is the centuries of sexual fetishizing and othering of black women that makes it so.

Armed with this underdeveloped racial tool kit and a self-nurtured white guilt, we young white liberals cope in different ways. One large sect chooses to publicly self-flagellate, signalling -- mostly to other young white liberals -- that we’re not racist. One good way to signal to other young white liberals that you’re not racist is to write an article about Russian rap in which the crux of the article is that Russian rap isn’t good because the artists aren’t black. I have for this article -- and I recommend you go read it before you read this -- three main grievances. One, it assumes an American racial paradigm when discussing Russian and former soviet ethnicities. Two, it falsely characterizes the use of black vocabulary as appropriation. Three, it values literalism over symbolism.


One: Race in America is not the same as race elsewhere and it is irresponsible to uniformly use the American paradigm

For the sake of this article I am going to focus primarily on the black-white race paradigm in America as that is what is used in the Calvert piece. Of course, I recognize race in America is multi-faceted and white Americans have perpetrated oppression on pretty much every race; but here, I am talking about race in the black/white context. I will also not try to define the Russian race paradigm, though of course there is one, because I don’t know or feel it.

As I see it, the race paradigm in America is most heavily (not all, there are certainly cheerier components of American race, but I’m not talking about those here) defined by the fact that anglo-Americans enslaved millions of West African people and then continued to perpetrate iterations of that same oppression on black American descendants. We’ve all read The New Jim Crow and watched 13th, but those iterations of oppression are broadly: lynching, jim crow laws, segregation, discriminatory practices like red-lining, and mass incarceration. These years of oppression of black Americans by white Americans greatly determine the way in which we interact with and think about race in America. This is often what people mean when they talk about the great American experiment. Not only is democracy viable, but can a nation built on slave labor (and also indigenous genocide) successfully assimilate the descendants of that labor (and genocide)? More to the point, can this sort of trauma be healed in any meaningful way? The point of this article is not to answer that question, obviously. Mostly cause I don’t fucking know and there are a lot of smarter people talking about it already and this article is supposed to be a rebuttal to a piece about Russian rap and not about solving the race question in America.


Okay, basically what I’m saying here is that the race paradigm in America is so so so specifically American. Race in America has got to be one of the most American things, second only to maybe that way that people can be really nice to you but not mean it. Sure, there are components of other systems of oppression that resemble the race paradigm in America. Colonialism for sure, Apartheid in South Africa, even the CIA meddling in foreign elections. And yet the
Calvert piece fails to address this at all. Instead preferring to open with this,

“‘They’re too white,’ says my dad at the kitchen counter. I’ve explained to him that listening to Russian rap for the past two hours has brought me no closer to pinpointing exactly what’s wrong with it.”

And then, “But in three words (one contraction), my dad exposes my circular reasoning. The carelessly aped beats, gangster rap choreography, hollow-eyed women fluttering unconvincingly and the parade of sneering, skinny white dudes taunt me.”

What does it mean to call Russians “too white”? Surely it doesn’t mean the same thing as calling a white American too white? How could it, when Russians have lived for centuries with drastically different political systems, a different set of traumas, and a culture often obfuscated from The West? Whiteness, does not, it turns out, have anything to do with the actual color of your skin. Race is arbitrary. That is, there isn’t a gene that makes someone’s skin white and also makes their demographic commit systemic oppression. Whiteness then means something different. It’s used to describe a certain set of norms, behaviors, and actions by a certain demographic (those with white skin). Our skin tone is the easiest thing to identify someone and so the color of our skin get conflated with our actions (I say “our” here to mean all people, not just whites). This is fine as long as you understand that mostly these two things are actually separate. But when you equate American Whiteness with Russian Whiteness you run into a problem.

Namely, you’ve now assumed that a white Russian (lol) must assume the role of a white American. Then from there, all your assumptions are predicated on the notion that white Russians participate and are responsible for the American race paradigm. A paradigm that is greatly defined by the legacy of American slavery, in which I’m pretty sure Russians were not partaking. To be clear, I am talking about white Russians living in Russia and not white Russians living in America, for which there is an argument that they now assume the role of the white American because they benefit from the privileges of being white in America. What’s more, at the same time the Atlantic slave trade was happening, Slavic peoples were being enslaved as well via the Slavic slave trade (note: the word slave is derived from Slav). Yes, the number of people enslaved in the Slavic slave trade is dwarfed by those enslaved via the Atlantic slave trade. But comparing atrocities has it place (a very limited place, I think), and this is not that place.

This first grievance is the grievance on which all following grievances are predicated. So I do hope you agree with my logic so far.

Two: Not every exchange of aesthetic, cultural, or contextual information between a group of black people and a group of white people is appropriation

As I mentioned in the intro, there’s nothing young white liberals with white-guilt are better at than identifying instances of appropriation...or at least labeling things as appropriation. The thesis of the Calvert piece is that Russian rap is bad because it is inauthentic and has simply taken from American hip-hop,

“Russian rappers pick and choose the aspects of mainstream American rap culture that they believe correspond with their own reality. Imitation is the highest form of flattery. Why can’t I admit it? Because it’s ugly, and reveals an uglier truth: that Russia has never had an organic tradition of rap besides that which it has appropriated.”


I will leave alone the fact that the author concedes that Russian artists incorporate aspects of American rap that reflects their reality and the use of the phrase “organic tradition of rap” (-__-) and instead focus on this presumption that Russian rap is inherently appropriative. Erroneously labeling transfers of information from a group of black people to a group of white people as appropriation is lazy. Again, the author is speaking from an American paradigm (she is American after all!) and assumes that because transfers of information from black people to white people in America are often plagued with appropriation so too are they in Russia. I’m not trying to get into a debate about the natural growth, trajectory, incorporation of art movements vis-a-vis race. I think it’s pretty clear in America that everything from country to blues to rock and roll to punk to modern dance is result of a confusing mix of appropriation, consensual transfer, physical proximity, and a whole host of other things.

So why is calling Russian rap appropriative wrong? Appropriation implies a power imbalance, implies a taking of a thing from one group (black Americans) by another group (white Russians). Appropriation connotes a lack of agency in the group from which the thing is being taken. I think it should be obvious that the spread of aesthetic forms is not so clear cut as this. This is all the more true in hip-hop, which has a specific counter-narrative to appropriation. In 1982, in the early years of hip-hop culture, Afrika Bambaataa, often dubbed the godfather of hip-hop, Bronx-raised, brought a group of DJs, graffiti artists, b-boys, and double dutchers (side note: read The Games Black Girls Play, all about how black girls influence hip hop) to Europe on hip-hop’s first international tour. The explicit goal of the tour was to promote the art, culture, and values of hip-hop globally. Hip-hop slowly started finding its way into the Soviet Union. First through b-boys and fashion and finally through rap, which has grown exponentially in the past decade. This is not the work of appropriation (though like any transfer of information there is likely a bit of appropriation in the mix) but rather a concerted effort and success by hip-hop artists, black hip-hop artists, to spread their work.

Afrika Bambaataa

Three: the author is a literalist and I have no time for literalists

Alright, almost there.

When I first read the title of the Calvert piece I was hopeful. I thought, perhaps, the article would argue that Russian rap could find more traction if it turned to Russian culture instead of Western culture, specifically black American culture. I think this was the general ethos of the article, but the execution was poor. Devolving instead into quibbling over whether or not post Soviet Union economics (which were vvvv bad) created an environment equivalent to the economic, racial, and class oppression of black people in America. As if anyone was trying to draw such a literal equivalency.

The author goes on to express her discomfort at her Russian friend’s proclamation that “he liked Tupac because he himself grew up in the ‘ghetto’” and that she “began to question why my local Russian friends felt so comfortable using the word ‘hood’.” May I suggest it is because they are not laden with the same racial paradigm as you? May I suggest that ‘hood’ reaches past its original black American context enough that a kid from Almaty, growing up in economic devastation, could actually say ‘hood’ and know what that means emotionally? May I suggest that you, like me, as a white semi-affluent American have little emotional understanding of ‘hood’ and therefore no right to dictate if a person who grew up in post-Soviet Kazakhstan can say, or feel,  the word ‘hood’? To tie these words so literally to their origins is stingy and unimaginative and more a reflection of our own white-guilt sensitivities than a betrayal of literal meaning. Shall we give the Jewish ghettos a new name while we’re at it?

Some final thoughts

As I stated at the outset, the aim of this article was more to critique a certain manifestation of white guilt rather than demonize the author of the Calvert piece. Mostly because I think the Calvert article is fluff and therefore not deserving of direct critique. When presented with the opportunity to address how Russian rap can improve by abandoning its reliance on American culture it failed to deliver, instead choosing to score culture points with fellow white liberals. The conclusion of the article gives us a glimpse of what could have been,

“Russian rap isn’t wholly unsalvageable: the malaise of the post-Soviet male, dissatisfaction with the state and exclusion from the mainstream deserves to be expressed. But the pursuit of authenticity in Russian rap (and a lesson from which we can all benefit) should begin at an engagement with the influencing culture on more than just an aesthetic level.”

Note: I’ll be talking more in-depth about Russian rap on two upcoming episodes of my podcast She’s In Russia. If you have thoughts on this post, hit me up on twitter @shesinrussia.