We explore the rapper’s sudden obsession with Russian culture and why the unassuming silk scarf went from Russian grandma staple to hip hop and hypebeasts alike
Last week A$AP Rocky released his new single “Babushka Boi”. In the first release since being released from jail in Sweden, Rocky makes reference to his now-trademark headscarf, with its aesthetic confirming that hip hop is at the forefront of a new, global, digitally-powered cultural exchange with the country. Naturally, a whole lot of Russian kids were pretty excited.
It comes as no surprise to see Rocky further developing his style, taking it in an altogether new direction. The rapper has long been a trailblazer when it comes to fashion: from the avant-garde choices seen in his videos, to his deep, unfaltering love for Raf Simons. But it’s the ‘babushka’ scarf, which the rapper first showed off at LACMA’s annual art and film gala at the end of 2018, which has truly impacted the way a new generation is dressing, and in an unfathomably short space of time.
Among the largely streetwear-dominated rap industry, it’s a bit unexpected that such an avant-garde look kicked off in the way it did, though it seems that the ‘babushka’ look has resonated so deeply due to its oxymoronic nature. In the days after Rocky’s LACMA appearance, Instagram was swamped with endless posts which juxtaposed the rapper with Russian grandmas, Queen Elizabeth II, or glamorous, upper-class ladies in matching scarves.
Pushing the boundaries of gender, class, and race in fashion, Rocky demonstrates how wearing something which belongs to a different cultural code can be incredibly powerful, while ushering in something new entirely. Now, eight months on, it’s common to see emerging rappers and hypebeasts alike combining a headscarf with their uniform of tracksuit and trainers.
The scarf was the first surface indicator of a new direction for Rocky, but what has developed in the time since goes way beyond – as was confirmed when “Babushka Boi” was released. With the name of the emerging trend taken from A$AP’s post-LACMA interview, in which he explained that he “just wanted to show off my babushka today, honestly”, his misuse of the word (which simply means ‘grandmother’) immediately became yet another local reference comically distorted in the global context.
“Babushka Boi”, however, shows Rocky is keen to delve deeper into Russian culture. While the video itself draws more from retro Dick Tracy aesthetics, the trailer had both Russian subtitles and Russian musical references. The Russian trailer is a take on “Murka”, one of the pivotal songs of Russian chanson: a criminal folk music tradition. The instantly recognisable tune has sent the Russian internet into a frenzy, with Rocky’s Russian fans quick to show their support for the rapper in the video’s YouTube comments. “We’ve always known A$AP Rocky was one of us,” said one, while others wrote “This fucked me up so much, I have no idea how to live now” and “Finally I can show a cool video to my grandma”.
Russia’s rap scene also had something to say. One of its biggest new rap stars, Moscow-based Big Baby Tape, discovered that he was mentioned in the video. “I see it as a funny shout out, nothing negative at all,” he commented on Instagram. The Russian criminal tune was actually written by lildozzzhd, producer PADILLION, and rapper MATXX, with the latter swiftly releasing his own version in Russian. Moving further into the rabbit hole of related Russian content, there is also a cover version of “Babushka Boi“ recorded by actual Russian grandmas.
The escalating Russian interest in “Babushka Boi” highlights an interesting example of cultural hybridity. The history of Russian rap dates only as far back as the 1990s, and its existence in the predominantly white environment is precarious. A$AP Rocky’s take on Russian culture flips a narrative of cultural appropriation that underpins contemporary Russian rap, which frequently copies tropes of American rap – its mannerisms, style, obsession with luxury brands, and jewellery.
At the same time, in the contemporary context, chanson is often perceived as the most uncool and corny thing ever; nevertheless, it has started catching the attention of a new generation of upcoming Russian creatives. Rap collective Praztal Fractal have sampled chanson tunes in a number of their tracks and connect Flacko’s interest in both chanson and Russia with “riding on the hype” of the recognisable babushka fashion phenomenon which has taken off in the West.
Hip hop culture has always been a space of complex cultural dialogue. Its lengthy obsession with Japanese and Chinese cultures is a good example: from 1993’s “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” and 1999’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”, as scored by RZA, to more contemporary examples like Nicki Minaj‘s “Chun Li”, Kendrick Lamar‘s alter ego Kung Fu Kenny, and Migos’ “Stir Fry” video.
The roots of the obsession lie in pop culture: kung fu films have long played in the cinemas of Bronx and Harlem in the 1970s, the birthplace of hip hop, and many iconic video games and manga rely on the same narrative. Foreign aesthetics offer a possibility to redefine yourself beyond the story of one’s heritage and oppressive social environment. With chanson historically borrowing from the gypsy and Jewish musical heritage, the seeds of A$AP Rocky’s current fixation could have been sewn with a trip to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighbourhood – where a huge number of Russian, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European diasporas have made their home – before he even realised it.
A$AP Rocky’s ‘babushka’ affinity relies on well-known stereotypes, like the Russian mafia, and the cool cache it has acquired in fashion in recent years. Without resting on tired old tropes, it features authentic Russian creativity and local artist input, and has been widely approved by the Russian audience. For them, the cultural exchange is an endorsement which transcends their political isolation, however surface-level it may be.
In the end, being mindful of cultural appropriation is a cornerstone of contemporary creativity, but “Babushka Boi” proves that we need cultural fluidity too – in much the same way as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” clashed trap and country (and became a runaway, record breaking success in the process), “Babushka Boi” proves even further that obliterating the boundaries between gender, culture, and geography makes for the most interesting stories. Will Rocky continue in his exploration of Russian culture in coming months? Kto znayet!