The Rapper and the Foreign Agent

After opposing the Ukraine invasion, Oxxxymiron can no longer perform in Russia, but his shows for the diaspora still resonate

The Rapper and the Foreign Agent
Oxxxymiron performs in support of the jailed Russian rapper Husky in Moscow, 2018. (Maxim Zmeyev/AFP via Getty Images)

On a Monday in March at the O2 arena, a generic entertainment complex in Greenwich, southeast London, the rapper known as Oxxxymiron marked his transformation into the troubadour of the Russian diaspora.

A line of mostly very young people speaking Russian extended through the ground floor — indifferent to the emptying Starbucks to one side and the All Bar One filled with loud drinkers on the other — well into the sprawling plaza outside. The mood was palpably communal: They fed one another, shared drinks and goofed off.

Born in St. Petersburg in 1985 to a Jewish family, Oxxxymiron (real name Miron Fyodorov) had an itinerant early life, moving to Germany at 9 and then England at 15 before studying at Oxford University. After returning to his country of birth, he established himself as one of the pioneers of the Russian rap scene, ultimately becoming perhaps its biggest star. His 2017 “IMPERIVM” tour, which was billed as ranging across the “12 largest stadiums of the post-Soviet space” (extending to Kyiv and the Belarusian capital of Minsk), included a show in front of 22,000 people at the Olympiyskiy in Moscow. His albums are pored over like literary texts: “Beauty and Ugliness,” his latest, was 10th, and the only non-English language entry, in a top 10 list of the most widely read lyrics of 2022 on the American annotation website Genius, just below entries by Beyonce and Drake.

But this concert, for both Miron and his audience, was no mere celebration. Miron has been labeled a “foreign agent” by the Russian Justice Ministry for his opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, under a law that has ensnared hundreds of individuals and organizations critical of state policies and President Vladimir Putin’s regime, including the recently imprisoned opposition leader, Vladimir Kara-Murza. While Miron has not spoken publicly about the effect of the decision, the open-ended legislation — which Putin signed into law in 2012 but has since expanded in scope — entails various restrictions and reporting requirements, and increases the legal and financial vulnerability of those it is used to target. The prospect of concerts in Russia appears to have been ruled out indefinitely. His current world tour, encompassing Bali, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Chisinau, Dubai, Pattaya, Sydney, Tel Aviv and Yerevan, reflects his own return to wandering, along with the global dispersion of much of his Russian audience.

Miron is of average height and build — with a protean face, capable of seamlessly expressing quickly shifting energies: soulful melancholy; an egoless, objective anger devoid of aggression; and different tones of laughter, from warm to mocking. Alone onstage throughout the O2 show, he stood in a variety of outfits in front of a background screen flowing with constantly evolving imagery, returning periodically to a dreidl, the spinning Jewish top, with different prosthetic faces on each of its sides. His voice was distinct over an unusually low backing track for a rap show; the crowd reinforced its supple modulations.

Periodically, Miron darted off stage, leaving behind a screen playing video monologues in flickering black and white, in which he appeared as a theatrical, stylized version of himself, his face covered in white makeup, with blackened lips, against a black background. The style of the performance appeared to be inspired by the antic gesticulations and chiaroscuro palette of German expressionist cinema. Within that aesthetic, Miron played an impish trickster who darkly inflected the show with provocative commentary.

Even as he defies the Russian state, at great personal cost, Miron remains an artist who seeks support to survive. While the proceeds of his European tour last year, under the banner “Russians Against War,” all went to Ukrainian refugees, he is explicit about this global tour being a commercial enterprise.

“Jewish wisdom awaits you, German precision and Spanish shame,” said his alternative persona. “You can laugh; laughing is allowed. But if you want to cry, then cry — cry because if you don’t cry or laugh, then it’s your money that will have cried. And your money, between you and me, wasn’t insignificant.”

Through this alternative character, Miron dramatizes his own position, and that of his audience, in relation to the war. As his hybridized name attests, Miron has always thrived on embodying contradictions. This impish trickster persona exhibits Miron’s awareness of the dubious morality of entertaining during war and the absurdity of performing anti-war songs to a crowd increasingly distant from the country prosecuting that war.

“Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen,” he announced in one of the opening film vignettes. “We have seats for every taste. Right, left. Those who left earlier and those who left later. For our Western partners. … And these seats,” he pointed ominously, “are exclusively for good Russians.” The last term, which has been deployed across the spectrum of earnestness and sarcasm when assessing the response of Russians to the actions of their state, reflects the bitter fragmentation of perspectives engendered by the war.

Miron draws seamlessly from the wide-ranging inspirations that have combined providentially in the course of his life. A writer of great verbal dexterity, he composes raps — a form dominated, of course, by English, which he learned partly through the American rap that inspired him starting in his early teens. “Rap saved my life, and not only J Dilla / Little Jew in a Black genre: Bob Dylan,” he reflected recently on “All of Us Will Die.” He developed the language at Oxford, graduating with a degree in English literature, with a focus on medieval studies. Yet he raps in Russian, and his flows, rhyme patterns and emotional and dramatic range are steeped in the possibilities and literary heritage of that tradition. “People really didn’t see the potential that rap had in Russia; because Russia is a very language-based culture — we are very verbal-centric, if that word exists. … So it was only natural that as soon as hip-hop grew a bit, it became the main music of the country,” he said in a 2018 interview with DJ Vlad (founder of the Vlad TV outlet), an American hip-hop media entrepreneur born to Jewish parents in Kyiv.

Battle rap, a subgenre in which MCs attack one another in verse and are judged competitively, had always been part of Miron’s independent growth as an artist, including ramshackle, text-based early affairs he conducted online. He was particularly inspired by a North American variation developed in the late 2000s, represented in leagues such as the Toronto-based King of the Dot, in which MCs exchanged elaborate, extensively researched tirades in packed rooms with no accompanying music. As Miron told DJ Whoo Kid (a presenter best known for being a long-term associate of the rapper 50 Cent) in a 2017 interview, after years spent observing this particular style of a cappella battling with pre-written rhymes from a distance, Miron and his peers built Russian leagues inspired by the example. In the course of helping advance the battle rap scene in Russia, Miron battled for free, nurturing the larger ecosystem through which he could draw a touring audience.

His battle with Slava KPSS, an artist from Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia, went viral in the summer of 2017 (the video currently has 57 million views on YouTube). The gripping contest cut uncomfortably close to the bone in exposing the open, yet suppressed, question of what Russia really is. Slava played the part of an unpretentious Everyman puncturing Miron’s patronizing elitism.

“I don’t hang on Echo of Moscow,” Slava sneered, a reference to the now-banned liberal radio station. He mocked Miron as effete, bookish and alien — a man whose geographical mobility and detached intellectualism meant he could only relate to Russia through navel-gazing, hypocritical sanctimony and literary artifice. Slava’s attacks on Miron connected viscerally with the audience: “But when there were protests here, where were you sitting? In England! / London, London — teach us how to live! How are we ‘Rebuilding Russia’ without you?” These lines seem to allude to Miron’s time away from the country from 2011 to 2013 (and also refer to an expansionist manifesto written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as the Soviet Union dissolved). Miron’s paternalistic assertions of his seniority in the pantheon of Russian rap were limp by comparison, and Slava was overwhelmingly perceived as the victor of the battle.

In the wake of that encounter came a spectacular, if short-lived, overture to the West. Miron would now go from being targeted by Russian rappers for not really being one of them to being questioned by Americans as a representative of Russia.

Miron’s first, and so far only, English-language battle came later in 2017, against the volcanic Lebanese-American MC Dizaster in Los Angeles. The racially fraught yet hilariously sporting encounter turned into a laboratory for the negotiation of national rivalries, layering an Arab-Jewish axis onto the already tense frame of American-Russian relations. Seeking the fissures in his opponent’s “American-Muslim-Arab” identity (“how does it feel to hold up a flag that’s covered in the blood of your own people?”), Miron argued that Russia, as opposed to the timid West, remained charged by blunt speech (“The shit you say in battle rap, we say in actual life”), Russians’ long condition of serfdom leading to permanently sharpened wit (“Russians have been peasants for centuries / that’s why we have the most haymakers”). He pulled off a stunning coup at the end in which he brought the room together through a rousing speech which celebrated mutual insult as a way to subvert the duplicity of state-level conflict.

As shown in his Vlad TV interview of early 2018, Miron adopted a diplomatic rhetorical approach when doing press during this period. “People are trying to push Russia in a certain direction,” he said when discussing the Dizaster battle with DJ Vlad. “There’s a phrase where I criticize America from an anti-globalist perspective. But I add that I don’t like the Russian government. It’s only fair for a rapper to be critical of the powers that be — in any country — and to be skeptical of what the government is pushing.” He acknowledged in another discussion with the BBC that he was walking “a thin line,” making it clear that he understands there are “problems with how Russia is operating as a state and how the country is run” while being “skeptical about Western demonization about Russia.” But Vlad asked him point-blank: What would happen if you started to come out with songs against the government?

“I’ll be honest with you,” Miron replied. “When I speak to you right now I should be choosing my words carefully if I don’t want repercussions.”

The margin of expression would soon shrink further, leading Miron toward overtly dissident activity. In late 2018, amid widespread cancellations of concerts around the country, the rapper Husky was given a 12-day jail sentence after he had a Krasnodar show canceled by regional authorities and, in response, led his fans in a chant of “I will sing my music” from a car roof outside the venue. Miron organized a concert on his behalf named after that chant, which was attended by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Another bold step came when Miron took part in the Aug. 10, 2019, rally in Moscow, during a period of widespread protest. The next month, he organized an event called “Get Jailed for a Text” in support of Yegor Zhukov, a student critic of the government, and others like him detained and sentenced during that period. On a stage emulating the apartment from which Zhukov recorded his influential YouTube political commentary, cultural figures read passages of Russian literature relating to past eras of censorship and persecution by authors like Vissarion Belinsky, Ivan Bunin and Alexander Herzen. Miron was then among those detained at a rally protesting the arrest of Navalny upon his return to Russia in January 2021 after receiving treatment abroad for his poisoning.

In these years before the invasion, despite increasing repression, Miron’s career reached new artistic heights. “Beauty and Ugliness,” Miron’s first full-length album in six years, which finally came out in December 2021, is a lavish display of literary excellence. A sense of gloomy paranoia pervades the album, which even contains an eerily prescient reference to a world being “reshaped by private military companies.” But while “Beauty and Ugliness” drew praise, as expected, from hip-hop fans, it also attracted the adoration of Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. In an interview with RTVI a month before Russia invaded Ukraine, Ryabkov celebrated Miron’s skill with word combinations and associations, the way he “carries out qualitative leaps, like an electron jumping within an atom, utterly suddenly, from one orbit to another.” The surprising admission from Ryabkov — which even came with a fantasy Russian-American collaboration (“If Oxxxymiron’s rap was put over the music of Mr. Ye, that would probably be good”) — represented a bizarre moment of rhetorical ambiguity.

On Feb. 24 last year, the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Miron put up an Instagram video — shot within the cavern of his hoodie as he walked the streets — declaring his opposition to the war. He canceled his forthcoming sold-out shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg and instead soon announced the “Russians Against War” tour in support of Ukrainian refugees. After the final gig of that series in Berlin last April, he wrote that he would be withdrawing from public activism and returning to his craft. (There has indeed been a total absence of media engagement from him since the invasion.)

Around that time, new opportunities emerged for pro-regime artists. The singer Shaman released the self-referential smash “I’m Russian” (“I’m Russian, in spite of the whole world!” is one line from the chorus). The rapper Timati (who has 20 million followers on Instagram), one of whose classics is called “My Best Friend Is Vladimir Putin,” became the face and part-owner of Stars Coffee, the rebranded version of the coffee chain Starbucks, after the company withdrew from the Russian market following the invasion.

Miron’s musical comeback, by contrast, took the form of the September track “OYDA,” which abhorred the normalization of the war, lamented the exile of activists and pledged to reimagine and rebuild a new Russia. The song featured a video in which he roamed the streets of St. Petersburg, shaking hands with fans. (A close-up shows Miron having his “IMPERIVM” knuckle tattoo removed, a reference to a motif established through the song “What is an Empire?” and his 2017 tour.) The follow-up track “Made in Russia” is a gruesome diagram of the industrial machine of the war and how it besmirches even tender and formative personal experiences.

Miron was officially designated a “foreign agent” in October — nearly a year after the rapper released the song “Agent,” in which he had presciently rapped: “I dreamed that I was charged with spying / after all, I change passports more often than Foma Kiniaev” (a reference to the pseudonym used on a fake Russian passport in the movie “The Bourne Identity”).

But recent tracks continue to confront the reality of the war as well as mocking the Russian state’s attempts to derail him. He was fined this January by a St. Petersburg court for advocating separatism, and the previous October by a Moscow court for extremism. In “Bassline Business,” the dual puns of “oxxx-separatist / ex-tremiron!” reclaim his name from the state, mockingly incorporating those charges through wordplay that inverts their brute inanity. “Dangerous Internet League” contrasts his own condition — precarious yet free — with that of the compromised artists who collaborate with the regime and its censorship agencies.

The opening lines of the song “Dreidl,” the closer of “Beauty and Ugliness” and the London show, are a deeply felt evocation of what he perceives as the cosmic isolation of his position. But if there is indeed, as he writes in that song, nowhere as lonely as a stadium stage, the discovery is made without self-pity or self-importance. Through a common path of honesty and imagination, he finds a pure connection to his audience, and Miron directs the power the crowd gives him back to them.

It is as if, through his early contact with other cultures, Miron developed an ingrained sense that there are many different ways of being, and that yours — he tells his Russian audience — is just one of them. But his decision to return to Russia and create himself as an artist there affirmed the specific value to be found in an experience of Russian life free of the coagulated myths embodied by the invasion. He speaks directly to the Russian youth as one of them, less by an accident of birth than by a sort of fateful decision, to say: What the state does is horrific, but we are better than the state, and there is glory and beauty in aspects of all cultures that come together and respond to one another.

In one of the few speeches he gave between the songs, Miron said:

Who was here at the Russians Against War concert a year ago? Thanks for coming and for coming today. Today, I would say, I’m happier about the occasion. It’s a very strange feeling because in a year, everything changed — but nothing changed. We are gradually starting to get accustomed to the monstrous reality that’s happening. And all year, I had lots of thoughts and doubts, like each of you did; I wondered whether I should write anything or not. What do you do in a time like this precisely about art? And then towards the end of year, by itself the theme crystallized: that I stop writing “nonstop” about the war. Because I think that in order to be able to write well about war, you have to be close to it. Honestly speaking. Everything else is just rehashing headlines. But to forget and stop writing about it is also impossible. But for now, and I don’t know what will happen next, even in my other tracks, I’ll throw in some reminders for people, so we don’t forget. But to walk around nonstop with a mournful face, I already said in my previous album that you shouldn’t do that. Therefore, now there will be — seemingly uncomfortable and out of place during war — a rap about rap. But in reality, how many Ukrainians I saw in my previous concerts, in Warsaw; more than half the auditorium. These are people who came to my concerts in Kyiv, Odessa — the first concerts I ever did in my life. … I’m saying this because the guys who were from Ukraine at those concerts, really wanted to hear rap about rap. I think that today we also have a lot of Ukrainians in the hall, right? and a lot of Russians too, I think? and I think a lot of Belarusians too? (I forgot to mention Belarusians in Warsaw and they almost ate me up because they made up a third of the auditorium.) Anyway, I see you all — and I think you are here to listen, in part, to rap about rap. And so now there will be a rap about rap from a rapper for rappers in rap.

The emphasis on artistry was easy to justify, given the cathartic adoration for Miron’s lyrics expressed by the crowd. Prior to the world tour, he noted on Instagram that given the commercial nature of the tour, he would likely refrain from issuing “direct slogans and speeches” from the stage.

But in the middle of the show, Miron performed “Organization,” which points to an eternally recurring yet forever elusive “we,” with no name or flag or collective identity, united only by their rejection of the status quo. When the song finished, the crowd spontaneously broke out in chants of “no to war.” As their voices rose together, individuals became distinctly audible in their strained efforts to keep up. Miron, nodding along silently, pointed and waved the mic across the crowd. Then he clasped his hands around it and raised it above his bowed head.

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