In September of 2019, the Internet Protection Society warned us that Russia had made serious plans to ban YouTube. Russia’s motivations included financial and privacy interests. Yet, we might surmise a more sinister, socio-political reason: to suffocate a fantastic revolution being lead by Russian rappers on the platform.

Husky, one of the more prolific Russian rappers and perhaps the masthead of the free speech movement amongst Russian youth, was arrested in November 2018 for performing a song about drugs while he stood on the roof a car. Vladimir Putin’s crusade to restore traditional values had dubbed this as criminal hooliganism, reminiscent of the pursuit of Pussy Riot. Husky merely wrote and rapped about what he knew — a gritty life in the poor neighborhoods of eastern Siberia, “[the lyrics are] about poor people who use drugs because of their poor life; they are miserable and everything is awful”. He performed on the street after authorities pressured venues to cancel his gigs for “extremism”, likely due to many of his lyrics criticizing the police and Putin himself.

That’s the beauty of youth, though: it doggedly seeks freedom.

The same fervor that drove the Greensboro Four is the same spirit that energizes today’s youth from Greta Thunberg to Russian rappers and their fans. The Russian rap genre is not attempting to promulgate the usage of drugs or start civil wars, they are simply amplifying their voice, a voice many Russian kids have and want heard.     

Why is Russia so desperate to shut down this voice? Arguably the most impressive despot in modern history, Putin is trying to find a global ideological positioning that has been missing since the Soviet Era — something that will grab a level of international support rivaling that of the country’s Marxist era. Culture is not bred overnight and Putin is a master of social engineering; he is aware of what a more liberal indoctrination of Russian youth would mean for the future of the traditional values he has deemed as Russia’s lodestar. In some sense, this degree of unrest threatens to tank Putin’s fledgling plan to regain international backing.

“Teenagers scare the living shit out of me.” – My Chemical Romance and Putin, probably.

In the face of this government-sanctioned silencing, the genre’s momentum has flooded onto YouTube where Russian artists like Face (subscribers: 1M+) and Friendzone (subscribers: ~1M) have amassed tens of millions of views and tens of thousands of comments per video. Any of us who work in social media marketing can tell you those numbers are powerful and indicate more than a fan base — there are about as many subscriptions to each of these channels as there are people in the city of San Jose.

This is more than a fan base, it is practically its own city, its own culture.

YouTube, perhaps best known for its beauty guru drama and instructional videos, is also a cornerstone for music — a profession that society lauds as their own voice. Though YouTube’s content policies are not necessarily lenient or generous, the odds of the platform becoming a vehicle for free speech were pretty high given the format. The video functions as a stage, the comments function as an audience where individual voices do not disappear into a single, mass sound, and discourse can occur easily between who is on stage and who is in the audience. The format is not distracted much by other media, though YouTube is finding a purpose for the Community functions. 

As marketers, our takeaway is to acknowledge that platforms have evolved from a Forum Magnum to a social instrument that can be carved geographically like a map. In emerging markets, specifically, we can look at YouTube as a place where the content is energizing, as it is in developed nations, but comes with socio-political caveats. Russian rap is not the first segment in a developing country to use the platform to circumvent government censorship and it will likely not be the last. □

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