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FACEPhotography Ira Lupu

Meet Russia’s most controversial rap star

FACE has transcended viral rap infamy to become a leading voice in post-Soviet youth culture – and the conservative establishment aren’t happy about it

TextIra LupuPhotographyIra Lupu

“My son would die if he saw I did a selfie with you,” a 50-something woman says, pulling out her smartphone. “He’d just literally die!” In her teacher glasses and long grey puffer jacket, she looks like a typical Russian mother, the last sort of person to be so eсstatic to meet the lean 20-year-old with an emo haircut and face tattoos stood before her.

For Ivan Dryomin, it’s no longer unusual to be recognised on the street. As FACE, he has millions of young fans across Russian-speaking online communities, while his album No Love set the 24-hour reposting record on, the most popular post-Soviet social network. Fans and critics praise his catchphrase-generating skills, and for having a charisma of a true ‘People’s Artist’ (an honorary title in the Soviet Union and modern Russia), though detractors call his music and lyrics too simplistic. Dryomin first caught the internet’s attention in 2016 when he released a viral video about Gosha Rubchinskiy, the fashion designer who popularised Russian street aesthetics. Last August, a minimal trap banger, “Burger”, extended FACE’s popularity far out of the underground circles and demonstrated his provocative sense of humour. “I’m coming to a Gucci shop in Saint-Petersburg, she eats my dick like it’s a burger”, he raps in Russian. Although aged just 20, Dryomin is at the forefront of a new wave of Russian hip hop. As he puts it, he’s “the face of youth.”

In person, Dryomin is more serious and pensive than his sometimes clownish media image might suggest. He politely stops and lets the woman take his photo against the backdrop of the Izmaylovo Kremlin, the lesser-known of the city’s landmarks, while dressed in an outfit of Gucci shades, Gucci sneakers, and Gucci socks. The word ‘Numb’ is tattooed across his face – not just a reference to Linkin Park, who Dryomin grew up listening to, but also to the “numbness” he says he’s felt throughout his life. In his more intimate songs, FACE touchingly tells of his fear of death and mental health problems, and recalls his thorny teenage years in a poor, half-criminal environment – a reality still felt by many post-Soviet kids. On-stage, between some of his most extreme songs, he preaches love and sobriety, while his Twitter and Instagram feeds are filled with words of wisdom, support, and protest. He even encourages his fans to send him direct messages about the hard times they’ve experienced in life, and many of them get a warm response back.

At the same time, FACE’s lyrics have proven controversial in a deeply conservative country. Before a performance in Minsk, capital of the Republic of Belarus, one mother went straight to Prosecutor General’s office, who issued “An Official Warning on the Inadmissibility of Violation of the Law”, describing FACE’s art as “utterly destructive”. Previously he’d faced problems with police, who doubled their presence at his concerts, while he was the subject of a critical television feature that aired on a state-owned channel. In his new video “Я РОНЯЮ ЗАПАД” (“I’m Dropping the West”), he ridicules the sacral Russian feeling of patriotism – an eloquent answer to authorities.

It’s maybe no surprise that Dryomin has the words “Love” and “Hate” tattooed on his face – he gets a lot of both. We caught up with him to discuss the “Я РОНЯЮ ЗАПАД” video and uncover his life struggles, views on love, hip hop, and what youth culture really needs.

‘Я РОНЯЮ ЗАПАД’ makes people go wild when you perform it live. Do you expect the video to be similarly successful?

FACE: Sure, the whole world can discuss this video. The idea is to exaggerate and mock Russian pseudo-patriotism, which exists in a quite silly and blind form in our country. We brag about fictitious victories over the USA, old military exploits, but today we have nothing to be proud of. People are stuck in the past.

What problems in modern Russia are the most tangible for its citizens?

FACE: There are a lot of problems up here. Policemen should protect the people – and here, when you see them, you get fucking scared. There’s no freedom of speech, too. Even when people want to say something, they get scared and keep silent. There’s no change among authorities – Russia is moving back to the USSR, the Stalin times. Poverty is still the main problem.

You’ve already had troubles with police control during your performances. Are you concerned that after this video, things might get even more problematic?

FACE: I try not to get scared of anything in my life. It’s stupid. Whatever happens, happens. I don’t think I’m doing something bad or illegal – I just make fun of people’s mentality in our country, and I want it to change.

I’ve noticed you’ve started feeling responsible for your fans. In your tweets and Instagram Stories, you tell people that the things you recently rapped about  drugs, alcohol, depression, suicidal thoughts – are not what they need.

FACE: I’m growing up. My views change, and I really feel my responsibility. It would be cool if I could influence young people in our country and change at least one person’s life. The youth will grow up and rule our country, becoming its heart and soul. I know that inexpressible feeling when someone important comes into your life and changes it, gives you a touch of hope. I’m depressed by nature and I have suicidal inclinations, so I know how that feels too. With my music, I want to be a pillar of support for young people – I already am. I want them to lead a more healthy lifestyle. Yes, (as I rap in ‘Мне похуй’), ‘I smoke, I drink, I take pills and I don’t care.’ I really lived like this and I understood that it was bullshit. Living like this won’t make things any good, especially if you’re prone to having mental health problems.

I want to be the epitome of truth. I want people to know that drugs are bullshit, booze is bulshit, cigarettes are bullshit. Even money and clothes are bullshit, and school too. I want to reflect the youth who are fucking tired of leading that life. I know what it means to grow up in Russia – I grew up on the outskirts of a provincial city, Ufa, so I have a right to talk about it. I know what it feels like when you survive on your grandparents’ tiny pension, what it feels like when your mother gets religious and literally loses her mind because of it.

“I want to be the epitome of truth... I want to reflect the youth” – FACE

You’re against the church but not faith, right?

FACE: That’s it. I think people need to believe in something – not in God necessarily, but at least in something. But your faith doesn’t have to harm you.

Your mother is very religious. What does she think of your music, and the fact you shout  ‘666’ on-stage?

FACE: Of course she urges me to delete these songs, not to sing them. But I can’t ignore singing about 666 if it is what I see around. It’s not that I hate God, I’m tolerant and I respect all the religions if they don’t bring violence, wars, terrorist attacks, crusades… When I shout ‘666’, I don’t go satanic. I only show this evil number rules the world.

You sometimes claim you’re not a hip hop artist, but let’s say that were 90% true for now. Why do you think hip hop has been one of the most important genres in post-Soviet countries for the last 20 years? What’s in our local culture that means it resonates so well?

FACE: I don’t think hip hop is a major genre here for now. It’s in America where trap rap tracks conquer the Billboard charts. Here, people still love dumb club music. Initially, hip hop was a music of suffering. It’s very close to a post-Soviet psyche – ‘Fuck it, everything’s really bad.’ Russian hip hop bands I was raised on, like Mnogotochie, they never said: ‘Fuck them, and them, and them.’ They were only like, ‘Holy shit, my bro has drunk himself into death, my bro has shot up heroin.’ People get it here. Against a backdrop of such martyr rap, people see me and don’t get what’s happening. But ‘Burger’ is a simple trap video, in the end. People got mad I’ve done something according to a new western trend so fast and not two years later, as it usually happens here.

“Russian pseudo-patriotism... exists in a quite silly and blind form in our country” – FACE

You listened to trap from an age of ten. What did you like in it back then?

FACE: I was a poor kid, mentally and materially. I got to know about T.I. and Young Jeezy from my brother – and also Lil Wayne and Rick Ross, although they’re not really trap. I didn’t know English back then, but I somehow felt these luxurious gangster life vibes. In fifth grade I dreamed to be like them, not some broke scum leeching off his granny. So I started to smoke, drink Blazer (a low-alcohol drink popular with Russian youth for its cheapness and ability to get you drunk quickly) and sell naswar (a cheap drug containing everything from tobacco to slaked lime to menthol). I would buy it for 20 rubles and sell for 40. Only in Russia can you start your route (to success) selling naswar.

You talked about your suicidal ideations and depressive tendencies. How did you learn to cope with this?

FACE: The main method is love. There are so many songs written about love, because it really saves the world. I have the power to cope with things thanks to the fact I now have a person in life that I love, and who loves me back. I think about my girl and her happiness first. A real love can be experienced only by a very small number of people, I think.

Your girlfriend is a popular vlogger Maryana Ro. How does the publicity affect your relationship?

FACE: The publicity gets on our nerves a little. We recently went on vacation in Thailand, and that was a fatal error. There were a lot of our fans, and they knew no limits. They were terrorising us, screaming, jumping, coming to our room, knocking on the doors. It annoys us, but at the same time, it unites us. We feel like Sid and Nancy, two people against the world.