Russian hip-hop : rhetoric at the intersection of style and globalization
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In this work, I describe Russian hip-hop as a uniquely fruitful site of investigation of cultural cycles (innovation, commodification, dissemination, consumption, and further innovation) of style as communicative practice. The sudden Transition to market democracy—the expansion of the universal market into Russia and the Eastern bloc—allows us to see exactly what is at stake in a discussion of style, rhetoric, and agency. That is, the style subcultures before the Transition—though borrowed—operated locally, communally, and with an emphasis on ideas. After the Transition, the style culture defined around hip-hop was mostly a matter of imitating forms in a way designed to garner fame and profit. In an inversion of the cultural cycle, hip-hop arrived more as the sound of neoliberalism than as a rhetorical resource for resistance. I argue that style is a form of communicative practice, a union of form, ideology, and activity whose elements cannot be separated. Style is the language of the universal market. It is the cultural currency we use to express ourselves, experience leisure, even engage in politics. Styles are also characterized by cultural cycles, which are frameworks for capturing styles at particular historical moments with each moment’s particular social and economic characteristics. Attending to specific historical context for cultural cycles is important, because each style has a history that continues to leave traces upon it. It is increasingly through style that people identify themselves and each other as denizens of a single planet, interconnected. And it is through style that those living in advanced capitalist nations connect with other regions of the globe. Globalization is also the basis for the borrowing of styles worldwide, including into Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. In Post-World War II Soviet style subcultures privileged youth were special sources of Western commodities and information, while ordinary youth often cobbled together copies of Western styles. Soviet youth consumed the West, they imitated it, and they often innovated upon it. In innovating, they created their own versions of styles, most notably Russian rock. Style subcultures in the Soviet Union were de facto political, given that the very act of diverging from the official culture was treated by the state as a kind of dissidence. Following the fall off the Soviet Union, style cultures were mostly rendered irrelevant or folded into the developing market in popular and youth culture. For example, Russian hip-hop in is a product both of Soviet style culture and of the universal neoliberal market. The political and economic ambivalence of hip-hop as a whole and of other styles in Russia provides a lens through which we can view the effects of the development of the universal market in that country. Style is a means for people to negotiate their relationships to each other and to the state and market. The universal market is eager and quite able to take advantage of style, to package it, market it, and enforce its boundaries. Russians must go to market for the necessities of life and for leisure; it is also primarily through the market that they come to know and practice style. Still, even within hip-hop, there remains a kernel of resistance in the culture-making of ordinary people.