The Latitude News Op-Ed column is a space where people from all walks of life can share their opinions on the links and parallels between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
When I read a Latitude News article a few months ago about a black female immigrant in China, I was happily surprised: the press does not give much exposure to the black experience abroad, let alone the black female experience. And the woman in that story lives not too far from where I now make my home: Vladivostok, Russia. Sitting on the Japanese Sea, Vladivostok is Russia’s easternmost port city and is often regarded as the “end of the world” in the eyes of Russians from more westerly climes.
Don’t get me wrong: I am used to being the “fly in the buttermilk.” But never before have I lived someplace where I could count the black population on both hands and have a remainder. And when you factor out men, I am pretty sure that I’m the only black female in the city, and probably the entire Primorskiy Krai region.
Thankfully I have never let my Blackness define me. It is an obvious part of who I am (the fair-skinned inhabitants of Vladivostok have made me the most photographed person in town). I believe people always have a common thread, and the thread I always follow is the longest and most durable one: music.
If there is one thing you can count on from me, it’s a song erupting from my lips. Though I try to keep a lid on it in new situations — like when I started living in the dorms of the Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service — it rarely works, as singing is a familiar comfort and effortless joy. So I was not surprised when the Russians living on my floor began to note my voice. I was surprised when they asked me to represent the floor in a university-wide dormitory competition. I felt silly performing an old American standard (“At Last” by Etta James) in front of a large Russian audience, especially trussed up like a Christmas turkey. Russians do love their pageantry. But after the performance, I was overwhelmed by invitations to perform for dignitaries at the university and even to sing regularly at a restaurant in town, which I now do on Fridays. The most unexpected result was an invitation to work with a local rap group called Double. They were looking for a little R&B influence and I seemed to fit the bill.
The infiltration of the West and all its cultural accoutrement is currently at its zenith in Russia, so rap is more popular over here than you might think. Rap lends itself especially well to the spirit of Russia’s youth, who grew up in or were close to the events of the 90s — a time of dire uncertainty and hardship at every level of Russian society — and who in many cases continue to live a life racked with financial woes, dissatisfaction with the social status quo and uncertainty about what tomorrow will bring. Much of Russia’s rap is close to what Americans would label “conscious” rap, the moral-of-the-story style that has departed from much of America’s hip-hop scene, now replaced with fat butts and bling. The song I co-wrote with Double is about the wonderful feeling of being home, a place where every street corner holds cherished memories and you feel as if you can reach for the stars.
But rap is not big everywhere. It is largely an urban phenomenon centered in Russia’s official capital, Moscow, and her unofficial capital, St. Petersburg. This should sound familiar to American rap fans: U.S. rap started as a product of the big city with two major hubs — New York City and Los Angeles — before spreading around the country. In Russia, smaller groups like Double are trying to put their own hometowns on the map. Many cities already have their local favorites and the underground movement is vibrant thanks to musical platforms like Vkontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook.
My experience in Russia has been very “meta”: a black urban chick participating in the Russian appropriation of an art form that originated among people like me. There have been some uncomfortable moments, such as explaining why using the “N-word” is inappropriate, even though every American rapper that Russians hear uses it. They have no historical context in which to frame the argument.
But Russia isn’t a homogenous society. Their empire once spanned one-sixth of the globe and the country’s census form lists an astounding 1,840 ethnic options. The problem in Russia is more complex than simple racism; in most cases, the issue is xenophobia. With the incursion of the West, and now the perceived incursions of foreign migrant workers (e.g. from Uzbekistan) and students (e.g. from Nigeria), all mixed up with a healthy dose of government propaganda and Cold War nostalgia, there is still a deep of mistrust of anything that is not “ours.” But the younger generation is embracing more and looking farther afield than any before it. If Russia can somehow incentivize those young people to stay, reducing the crippling brain drain to which the Russian Far East above all has fallen victim, I am optimistic about the possibilities of further collaboration, not only musically but in the most basic human sense — a warm understanding of our similarities and a friendly respect for our differences.
Jordan Bryant is a recent graduate of Harvard University, where she specialized in both Slavic languages and literatures and the Classics. To study Russian language and culture from a perspective different than her experience in the “two capitals,” she has journeyed to Vladivostok. After returning to the U.S., she hopes to matriculate into law school and work in the field of international corporate law in Eastern Europe.