By Khalida Sarwari
Hip-hop has gone worldwide, Murray Forman proclaims.
He should know. A professor of media and screen studies at Northeastern, Forman has dedicated his career to examining hip-hop history and culture. He recently returned from Moscow, Russia, where he spent a week taking the pulse of the local hip-hop scene.
What he found was… not all that different from what one might find in the U.S.—or anywhere else. Many of the elements that are commonly associated with the hip-hop culture at-large seemed to be present in the Russian capital.
The break dancers, known as b-boys and b-girls, showed off their moves, and their knowledge of the fundamentals of the dance form. Graffiti adorned the sides of train tracks in the same familiar bubble and block lettering that is reminiscent of so many cities in America and Europe. And, Forman discovered that the beats used in Russian hip-hop revealed technical skills on par with producers and deejays in the U.S.
The most salient difference between American and Russian hip-hop seemed to be the language.
“We got a sense that hip-hop is in the major cities across Russia, that they understand the history, and in some cases, they’ve done their homework even more assiduously and with more rigor than I see among young people here in the U.S.,” says Forman. “So they know the roots. They know the culture. They haven’t experienced a lot of the African-American and Latino kind of influences in a direct way, but they understand that that’s where hip-hop comes from.”
So what do hip-hop artists the likes of Basta, Oxxxymiron, and Big Baby Tape rap about exactly? For the uninitiated, many of the themes featured prominently in American rap are also common in Russian rap—well, sort of. Forman found that there is less of what he called the “bling-bling” and “gangsterism” motifs, and more of a focus on what he characterized as everyday concerns: happenings in the neighborhood and observations about Russian culture. Sometimes it is about politics. One prominent rapper, Timati, features overtly pro-government performances (that aren’t always popular.)
“There was a sense of political engagement,” says Forman. “A lot of times it was at multiple levels, as you see here as well. I didn’t get a clear sense of if they were making larger pronouncements against the wider state. A little more time would maybe provide a sense if that was allowed, if it was forbidden, if it was suppressed or marginalized.”
It’s definitely popular. In Nov. 2018, rapper Big Baby Tape released “Dragonborn,” his first studio album, and posted it on social networks and streaming platforms. Tracks from the album got more than 300 million plays on VKontakte, the main social network and streaming platform in Russia, the New York Times reported.
“The impact of hip-hop has been massive,” the rapper Oxxxymiron told the Times in May. “Through music, visual art, movies, dance, clothing styles and more, key values of hip-hop have spread through contemporary Russian culture.”
In 2017, Oxxxymiron was one of three rappers who, in separate concerts, filled the Olympic Stadium in Moscow, Russia’s largest indoor venue, the Times reported.
During his time in Russia, Forman gave lectures to diverse audiences— scholars and students as young as 6 alike—on the history and culture of hip-hop, the way the genre has evolved, and its significance in the national and global context. Joined on the trip by DJ Boo, from New York, and Mic Crenshaw, an artist and activist from Portland, Oregon, Forman also attended a jam session featuring rappers, beatboxers, and break dancers that left an impression on him.
“As soon as we walked into the room, we knew we were at home,” he says. “This is often what I find whenever I go anywhere in the world. If you walk into a hip-hop situation, it’s immediately evident where you are, and what you’re surrounded by.”
The objective of the program, which was organized by the Forum for Cultural Engagement, and Forman’s colleague, Sergey Ivanov, a scholar of cultural studies in Moscow and a co-founder of Hip Hop Union, was to convene artists and scholars to talk about hip-hop as a creative, cultural, political, and social mechanism, and an apparatus for wider outreach and engagement.
Having authored and co-edited books on hip-hop, and studied and taught the subject since 1989, Forman was the guy to go to for rumination on: How do you academically engage hip-hop? And, how do you advance the culture of hip-hop in and through academic study?
The study of hip-hop is important, Forman says, because the music, and the culture that has sprung up around it, touches and affects millions of people worldwide. It is little wonder that it has become a multibillion dollar industry. Creatively, it is a vehicle through which people articulate their concerns, fears, passions, love, and mourning, he says. And, it is a driver of political activism.
“We almost take it for granted, but it’s very easily connected to youth agencies to get kids off the street, or to engage them in the arts and creative expression,” Forman says. “It’s very quickly part of a certain kind of activist and political emphasis. There are rallies, parties or projects of some sort, hip-hop is often a part of it when they’re trying to bring people together to maybe articulate something of a political or social concern.”
Reflecting on his observations of Moscow on his return trip to Boston, Forman couldn’t help but mull over the question: How does a culture start, and how does it take root in a place where there are significant barriers, political and otherwise?
He likely will continue exploring this question as he travels to other cities as part of future programs with the Forum for Cultural Engagement, along with DJ Boo and Mic Crenshaw.
“One of the most fascinating things for the field is the expansion of global hip-hop studies as it takes root, and really expands and takes on its own kind of character in all these different places around the world,” Forman says.