1 Music and Black Identity in the Soviet Union
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33 People who move to former Soviet spaces from the African continent face specific challenges that cannot be compared with experiences of other immigrants , due to the historical relationships between the Russian Empire (and later the Soviet Union) and Africa that continue to influence attitudes toward blackness and race. This chapter offers a brief overview of the changing attitudes toward Africans and African Americans in the Russian Empire and the SovietUnion.Itanalyzestherootofcertainstereotypicalrepresentationsand ideas relating to the construction and performance of black identity through music.DrawingontheexperiencesofpublicartistssuchasIraAldridge,Taras Shevchenko, Alexander Pushkin, and Mark Twain, this chapter analyzes the ways in which the spoken and written word codify and embody certain attitudes regarding blackness, slavery, and an imagined Africa. Significant attentionispaidtotheexperiencesofPaulRobesonandtherolehismusicaloutput andpoliticalideologieshadinshapingattitudesregardingAfricanAmericans in the Soviet Union. It also draws on personal memoirs of African Americans living in the Soviet Union to point to the disparities between official Soviet rhetoric on racial equality and the realities of being black in the USSR. SLAVERY AND SERFDOM IN THE RUSSIAN EMPIRE: IR A ALDRIDGE AND TAR AS SHEVCHENKO By the time Peter the Great ascended to power, the Atlantic slave trade had beenactiveforwelloveracentury.ColonialexpansionsintheRussianEmpire differed from those in Europe in that they did not extend into the Americas or the African continent. Russia’s attempts to establish a relationship with Madagascar grew out of Russia’s commercial and strategic interest in India O N E MUSIC AND BLACK IDENTITY IN THE SOVIET UNION 34 Hip Hop Ukr aine andtheFarEast(Wilson1974).ThesearchforalliesagainsttheOttomanEmpire alsoledtotsaristinterestinEthiopia.However,Russiansdid notsucceed inestablishingcoloniesontheAfricancontinentduetothealreadydominant presence of European colonial powers. The Russian Empire opposed the African slave trade, although it reinforced a similar structure of peasant servitude at home (Blakely 1986, 28–29). Russian serfdom would be abolished in 1861, four years prior to the abolition of slavery in the United States. Russian revolutionaries such as Alexander Herzen and Nicholas Chernyshevsky, the radical publicist of Sovremennik (The Contemporary), spoke out against African slavery and the slave trade. Copies of the U.S. Constitution were circulated secretly, because it was censored by the tsarist regime. The parallels between African American slavery and serfdom in the Russian Empire were apparent. In 1858, Chernyshevsky published sections of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the antislavery novel written by abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852, in two issues of Sovremennik. This publication would influence early Soviet rhetoric on racial equality as the Soviet Union strived to position itself as a country free from the kind of racial discrimination evidenced in the United States. Soviet films and short stories highlighting racial discrimination in the United States often featured a black male protagonist named Tom, pointing to the broad influence in the Russian Empire of Stowe’s publication, which appeared in book and serial form for Russian-language readers (Roman 2012, 77–81).1 From the mid-1800s, Russian audiences became increasingly familiar with representations of African Americans through translated literature and theatre productions featuring actors such as Ira Aldridge. Ira Frederick Aldridge (1807–67), an African American Shakespearean actor born in New York, moved to London with hopes of developing his career in the British Empire. He was a novelty on British stages but had difficulties gaining audience acceptance in London due to a sustained press campaign motivated by racism. He toured Europe with great success and accepted an invitation to perform in the Russian Empire in 1858. Despite discourses regarding the end ofserfdomandRussianoppositiontoslaveryintheAmericanSouth,Aldridge experienced similar kinds of racial discrimination from Russian critics as he had in London. Certain reviews of Aldridge’s performances are particularly drenched in discourses of biological racism. In a letter to the editor of Den´ (Day), N. S. Sokhanskaia, a writer who submitted her editorial under the pseudonym N. Kokhanovskaia, wrote: 35 Music and Black Identity in the Soviet Union Not the Moscow Maly Theatre, but the African jungle should have been filled and resounded with voices at the cries of this black, powerful—that it is genuinely black, so naturally un-white does it howl—that savage flesh did its fleshly work. It murdered and crushed the spirit. Our aesthetic feelings made the mistake in its expectations. . . . This blatant flesh introduced into art, this natural black Othello, pardon me, causes only . . . revulsion. (Blakely 1986, 65) Discourses of African American “savagery” and difference find parallels in Russian and American narratives of the mid-1800s. In the above quote, the description of Aldridge as “naturally un-white” reveals the biological nature of race discourse rooted in binary oppositions of nature versus civilization. Whiteness is equated with culture...


Subject Headings

  • Rap (Music) -- Ukraine -- History and criticism.
  • Hip-hop -- Ukraine.
  • Blacks -- Race identity -- Ukraine.
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