As local bands recently performed at an opposition rally in Moscow, other pop stars were simultaneously invited by the government to play at 'spoiler' festivals that some say aim to distract the public from politics.
"I am not good at politics. But I can say one thing: freedom of speech and freedom of choice are the most basic, most fundamental things that everyone should have and I hope that we will have someday."
These words by 22-year-old rapper Face were delivered at a large rally for fair elections in central Moscow on August 10. His face partly covered in tattoos and wearing a black hoodie, Face spoke to a crowd of more than 50,000 that gathered that rainy Saturday afternoon.
'One big prison camp'
A year ago, the rapper who is extremely popular among teenagers, and was previously apolitical, released his new album, Mysterious Ways. This time he sang about political corruption and social issues in Russia. In one of his tracks he compared the country to "one big prison camp." At the August 10 rally he also performed a song about censorship: "I am a comedian," he sang. "One wrong joke — and you are on the blacklist."
Face's performance was even announced on Twitter by high profile Russian-Canadian activist Piotr Verzilov, part of anti-Kremlin protest band Pussy Riot and former husband of member Nadya Tolokonnikova — Verzilov was allegedly poisoned last year after invading the pitch during the football World Cup.
The August 10 protest for fair elections were sparked when in early July Russia’s central election commission refused to register several independent candidates for city council elections. As the ensuing rallies, many participants were beaten and detained. Criminal proceedings into "mass unrest" were launched.
That has sparked major outrage in the capital and other Russian cities. Every Saturday for the past two month, Moscow has seen a protest.
Alternative music crackdown
Following Face, the leader of gangsta rap group Krovostok, Anton Chernyak, took the stage and thanked "all the brave people for coming." Electropop duo IC3PEAK also performed their political songs but did not address the audience.
Last autumn, a crackdown on Russia’s alternative music scene saw more than 40 concerts by young bands cancelled across the country. IC3PEAK were among them. “We certainly won’t censor ourselves,” Anastasia Kreslina, the band singer, told DW at the time. The discussion about rap music even reached the Russian Parliament with President Putin calling it music "of sex, drugs and protest."
At the recent rally for free elections, the authorities also attempted to forbid musicians from performing. They said the event was registered as a protest and not as a concert. But the performances took place anyway.
And then on August 29 it was reported by the BBC that posters promoting a Face concert on November 2 that were a parody of election posters were taken down across Moscow. Meanwhile, Face concerts in two other Russian cities scheduled for August 23 and 24 were cancelled by organizers following pressure from authorities. The rapper claims that these are acts of censorship that stem from his performance at the opposition rally.
Political action — or free music?
As people in the front rows sang along to the music at the August 10 protest, many said they came out of solidarity to support independent candidates. Some pro-Kremlin critics, however, like to point out that it was the free music that attracted so many people.
"Many of the passersby came to see their favorite artists live and for free. It is interesting, when famous rappers promise to perform," political commentator Alexey Martynov told DW.
Others say that it is more than just a chance to see a free concert. "It is a political gesture, artistically decorated and very emotional," political scientist Ilya Grashchenkov said.
"Music in Russia starting from the underground rock of the 80s is the artform that is connected to the protests movement the most," said Grashchenkov. He says that engaging young artists in current protests is an attempt to revive the movement that existed during the fall of Soviet Russia when hard rock bands such as Motley Crue, Ozzy Osbourne and Scorpions performed at the Moscow Music Peace Festival in 1989.
Protest as musical inspiration
A dozen of other musicians supported the free election protest online. Some, like the well-known rapper Oxxxymiron,invited their followers to join the rally. Others made the protests the inspiration for their art.
"Thick smoke in the center of Moscow — anyone who breaths it ends up in jail," is how well-known Russian pop musician Vasya Oblomov describes the mood in the Russian capital in his new song, "Smoke."
For Oblomov, all art should be contemporary, which is why he reflects the current social struggles in his songs. He is renowned for his activism, and was one of the few musicians to perform at the opposition rallies in the end of 2011 when fraud was alleged during Russian legislative elections.
"We are all citizens. It doesn’t matter whether we are musicians or not," Oblomov told DW. "Rallies are not for singing, not for having fun, not for looking at famous people. Rallies are society's attempt make their voice heard by the authorities."
Read more: Russia accuses DW of inciting unrest
‘Spoiler’ festivals distract from politics
While some Muscovites have been rallying in central Moscow, others have been enjoying meat and free music at Gorky Park, where music festivals and grill parties took place on the days of the protests. They were announced by the Moscow city government with surprisingly short notice — so short that some bands only found out they were to perform in the press.
"It was a clear attempt to distract people from the protests," said Ilya Grashchenkov of the events, one of which was billed as Meat&Beat. He admits that the first such festival was a success with many people attending, inspiring the authorities to replicate the party.
People gathered at 'last minute' Shashlyk Live Festival in Moscow that coincided with protests in the city
"But they made a mistake," he added, believing that the last-minute organization and refusal by many artists to "sell-out for a piece of meat" meant that ultimately "the festival was seen negatively."
Maksim Pokrovsky, front man of rock band Nogu Svelo!, was also invited to perform at the spoiler festival. But after realizing "what was going on," the musician cancelled his show and joined the rallies instead. Several other bands also refused to play in Gorky Park.
Many Russians, however, see nothing wrong with performing at a free music festival on a weekend in a park. "When it comes to art — whether it is music, painting, books — it should be detached from politics, the two shouldn't mix," said a lady walking not far from the stage where yet another "shashlik party" was taking place.