Are Russia’s female rappers finally winning their battle for respect?

Hip-hop is big business in Russia, but female rappers have traditionally struggled for respect and recognition. Today, though, fierce MCs are smashing stereotypes with songs that are crude, funny, and politically charged.

10 April 2019

In 2013, Kristina Si became the first female rapper in the 10-year history of Russia’s famous record Black Star label, quickly exploiting the lack of competition to become the most popular repersha (female rap artist) in the country. Producers fashioned the diminutive girl into the very image of a self-assured heartbreaker. In her tracks, Kristina mocked glamour girls and staked her own claims to greatness. At heart she was little different from her male counterparts: her aggressive lyrics (penned by songwriters) overflowed with insults and assertions of her own coolness. After five years, Kristina quit Black Star and revealed that she had always wanted to sing, not rap — the label’s management, however, decided otherwise.

Kristina’s story is a telling one. The history of women in Russian hip-hop is one marked by exploitation and ignorance. Hip-hop arrived in Russia during perestroika, but in the last five years or so, it has become the dominant genre. Battle clips and the music videos of popular domestic rappers garner tens of millions of views on YouTube; their recordings shoot to the top of the streaming charts; they’re covered by mainstream media and screened on federal TV channels; their concerts fill out stadiums. And, of course, they make more money. Or at least the men do.

Russian artists have always tended to cater to western tastes, but despite the country’s awareness of the likes of Lil Kim, Missy Elliott, M.I.A., and Nicki Minaj, women working in the genre were not taken seriously for a long time. When they made an appearance, it was usually, as with Kristina, as a mouthpiece for tracks written by others; otherwise they played the role of backing vocalists, or simply remained underground. It wasn’t uncommon for repershi to disappear back into obscurity after releasing only one or two tracks. Russian women are already often exposed to gendered discrimination, so it’s unsurprising that in hip-hop, where misogyny levels are often ramped up to the highest degree, the obstacles should prove even more arduous.

The history of women in Russian hip-hop is one marked by exploitation and ignorance

For one thing, women are simply expected to be bad at rapping; as a result, they are either treated with condescension or subject to more intense pressure. As the rapper Mozee Montana has put it, even when a female artist makes good music they are met with the response, “not bad for a girl”. (She even wrote a song by that name, together with two other repershi, Masha Hima and Emelevskaya.) Rather than rap being delineated according to gender, these women would prefer to be defined first and foremost as MCs. For Mozee, the only way forward is to stay patient, put out strong material, and wait for the public to catch up.

That the public has some catching up to do is not in doubt. Many still presume that women are incapable of writing good lyrics themselves. This was the case, for instance, with Gidroponka, who knowingly referred to herself as “a rapper with tits, not balls”. She was lauded by influential MCs, reached the semi-final of the Russian TV show Battle for Respect (where she competed against male rappers), and carved out a niche as one of the hardest-touring musicians of the late 2000s, all without the backing of a label, producer, or manager — and despite all this, her detractors still insist that she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the help of her boyfriend. Little has changed since then. The battle rapper Yuliya Kiwi, for instance, made a name for herself in 2014, only for people to claim that she was in a relationship with the presenter of the #SlovoSPB league in which she competed. Rap battles, which are organised and staged by local “leagues”, are a huge part of the Russian hip-hop scene, and #SlovoSPB is one of the biggest in the game. The dispersions faced by the likes of Kiwi are a serious hinderance.

Conventionally attractive female rappers are also criticised for “exploiting” their sexuality, either to attract attention or to mask their supposed lack of talent. Emelevskaya, who raps about sex and appears in music videos in revealing outfits, points out that there’s nothing wrong with using your body in this way — as long as the music itself is worthwhile.

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Mozee’s emergence did indeed represent a turning point for women in Russian hip-hop. She stood out for her willingness to talk about the kinds of problems that women usually didn’t engage with: depression, panic attacks, substance dependency. As Masha Hima has noted, most female MCs either rap about men or unthinkingly rehash “masculine” themes — wealth, drugs, sex, and so on. Hima herself has made an effort to move away from “female” subject matter towards more universal content. Another standout example is former poet Aigel Gaisina, who performs with musician Ilya Baramia in the AIGEL ensemble, one of 2017’s most exciting discoveries. Their songs feature lyrics written by Gaisina after her partner was sent to prison, and have struck a chord in the face of growing awareness of police brutality, unjust court proceedings, and life behind bars. It should be pointed out, too, that artists from Ukraine are also finding an audience in Russia — for instance, Alyona Alyona, a body-positive kindergarten teacher who has drawn comparisons with American rapper CupcakKe.

As their popularity slowly grows, encounters between prominent repershi are becoming notable events in themselves. In 2016, Masha Hima and Yuliya Kiwi faced off in the first all-female battle in the history of #SlovoSPB, the second-most popular Russian battle league after Versus Battle. They didn’t stray too far from the conventions of the genre — Masha mocked Kiwi’s appearance, while Kiwi accused Masha of having too many sexual partners — but the battle was still a game-changer, proving that contests between women could be just as ferocious as those served up by men. In the aftermath, more female battlers began to emerge. The Fidelio Punch Club battle league welcomed the sharp talents of Stifler’s Mum, who made her name with a diss on fellow repersha Tatarka. Elsewhere, the Tear Up The Beat league featured a team battle in which Mozee and Hima took on Petersburg stalwart Lena Rush and Nizhny Novgorod talent Ira PSP.

While this kind of girl-on-girl competition can spill over into female misogyny, collaboration is more common that conflict. Mozee and Hima took to the stage on Tear Up The Beat under the team name Mamin PodruGun — an all-female collective created by Hima and Emelevskaya in 2015. For her part, Kiwi recollects how she used to view all female battle rappers as threats, before growing ashamed of that attitude and committing to support other women in the game.

The unstoppable rise of rap, combined with the popularisation of feminist ideas, means that Russia can expect to see more and more repershi in the coming years. It might be too soon to speak of a fully-fledged Russian-language female rap scene, but women are starting to stake their claim to territory and find their own voices; people now approach them with curiosity rather than prejudice. That’s precisely what makes this an exciting time for the domestic music industry. In Masha Hima’s words, there’s a desire for quality women rappers in Russian society. The moment is here, as she puts it, for talented girls to “stop wasting their time on men and get to work.”

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