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More Young Russians Discover Rap As A Form Of Self-Expression

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Other than the warm relations between the two presidents, tensions between the United States and Russia remain high. A national security strategy marks Russia as a major concern. Investigators are still exploring Russian meddling in the 2016 election. International media in Russia have been told to register as foreign agents, but an artform born in America has found a home in Russia. NPR's Lucian Kim reports on Russian rap.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Russian poetry has come a long way. This is a country that has long revered its 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin. But if you ask young Russians what excites them, they'll rattle off names like Johnyboy, MC Moonstar and, of course Oxxxymiron.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOROD POD PODOSHVOI")

OXXXYMIRON: (Rapping in Russian).

KIM: Oxxxymiron is Russia's rapping superstar. His epic rap battle with a rival this summer racked up almost 30 million YouTube views.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OXXXYMIRON: (Rapping in Russian).

KIM: In real life, he's a 32-year-old native of St. Petersburg named Miron Fyodorov. The Oxxxy in his stage name refers to the University of Oxford where he studied medieval English literature. In October, Oxxxymiron brought Russia's rap battle fever to the U.S., hyped up in this YouTube video.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Everybody talks about views, but nobody knows one of the highest-viewed battle rappers isn't even American.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The guy's from Russia and his views are [expletive] crazy.

KIM: Oxxxymiron faced off against Dizaster, a Los Angeles-based battle rapper.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Oxxxy, Oxxxy, Oxxxy.

KIM: For 45 minutes, the two traded rhyming insults with the requisite dose of cursing.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

OXXXYMIRON: I got brothers in this club that would love to rush ya. I’m going to turn Mount Rushmore into Mother Russia.

(CHEERING)

KIM: Battles like these get millions of views on YouTube where rappers can make full use of the Russian language's wealth of swear words that no TV channel could ever broadcast. Like American rap, Russian rap was born on the street with gangsters and drug dealers and guys running away from the police. But now it's so mainstream that it's even attracted Moscow's middle class. For $90 a session, kids can learn how to freestyle at a special rap school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Woo.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Woo.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Woo.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Rapping in Russian).

KIM: The owner is a 27-year-old rapper who goes by the stage name SunRay.

ANTON KUDRIN: My name is Anton Kudrin, and I'm a rapper and businessman.

KIM: He says Oxxxymiron's blockbuster rap battles have helped fill his school with teenagers and kids as young as 7. The teacher is an up-and-coming rapper called Alex-ike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEX-IKE: (Rapping in Russian).

KIM: Alex is 26 but says he's been rapping since he was 13.

ALEX-IKE: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Alex says rap is the most intellectual form of popular music. The words, he says, are everything. Aliya Pogorelskaya agrees. Her 9-year-old son Dima is one of the students.

ALIYA POGORELSKAYA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: She says Dima is reading and speaking on a higher level. He's become interested in the history of the Russian language, and he wants to learn English so he can rap in it. Pogorelskaya says she was a fan of heavy metal, but now her son has converted her to rap. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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