MOSCOW — Putin in da house? Da! He's tracked Siberian tigers wearing military camouflage, sat in the cockpit of a fighter jet, and shown off black-belt judo moves. Now Vladimir Putin is adding another groove to his tough guy persona: hip-hop idol.
Since the Russian leader popped up last week on a music TV show surrounded by rappers, some in the Kremlin elite are following his lead. On Tuesday, lawmakers and musicians staged a "rap battle for justice" that included a freestyle message urging President Dmitry Medvedev to fight corruption and other problems faced by everyday Russians.
Putin, a self-described "jungle" kid hardened in fights on the mean streets of St. Petersburg, appeared on Muz-TV to hand out awards and declare that Russian hip-hoppers can help fight drugs and other problems of the youth.
He joked that the mix of hip hop, break dancing and graffiti could be more entertaining than Russia's stereotypical combination of vodka, caviar and nesting-dolls.
And he suggested that Russia — which has excelled at Western art forms like ballet and classical music — could take rap into new realms.
"I have to say that young people involved in these arts in our country give them their own Russian charm," Putin said in televised remarks Friday night. "Because rap ... is being filled with social content, discusses problems of the youth."
Putin did not technically rap — but he did deliver his speech clutching a mike to the backdrop of a hip hop groove. He clapped his hands while listening to the rappers, standing by the stage with the show's mostly teenage audience.
Rappers meanwhile sang Putin's praises and declared they would welcome the chance to record a track with the Russian prime minister, who has cultivated a bad boy image over the years with cutting wisecracks and occasional rude language.
"For this is Putin, he is our idol," rapper Roma Jigan said in one improvised flow. "Let's give him a shout out so that the whole world hears it."
Man of the people
Putin's embrace of hip-hop fits in with his efforts to cast himself as a blunt-spoken man of the people. The prime minister has previously been filmed hanging out with motorcycle club members, hunting, fishing and skiing — in contrast with the professorial Medvedev.
Medvedev was the focal point at the hastily organized event Tuesday night, when five finalists selected after a showdown each made 30-second contributions to a freestyle "address to the president." The president — a self-declared Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin fan — was not in the house.
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Video: Putin salutes Russian hip hop Medvedev won some accolades, but also faced a note of criticism.
"You have to start building roads instead of wiping your feet on the people below you," Fyodor Shardakov of the group 50 Kopeks — a play on the better-known 50 cent — rhymed in the address.
50 Kopeks won the first prize along with teenage rapper LK — short for "lyrics and kung-fu" — a skinny kid with dreadlocks who called on his peers to stop using drugs and said his mission was to "change stereotypes about hip-hop."
In the address, the rappers deplored crime, drug abuse among youth and Russia's pervasive corruption — all problems Medvedev, who is Putin's protege and is seen as holding less power — has vowed to tackle.
Rap has only recently become part of mainstream pop culture in Russia, and purists still snub local rappers as copycats who clumsily adopt the gangsta appeal.
Russian rappers are trying to fuse freestyle rap with a traditional Russian genre of songs about jailed criminals, their grieving mothers and abandoned children.
Art has always been a tool of propaganda in Russia, and now the Kremlin seems to have decided to strengthen its appeal to youth through the culture of hip hop.
Trying to win younger audiences
Tuesday night's event, organized by the pro-Putin Just Russia party, is just the latest effort by the Kremlin to win younger audiences. Anton Belyakov, one of three Just Russia lawmakers on the jury Tuesday night, said he would sponsor recordings for four of the rappers.
Just Russia, which won 8 percent of the vote in recent parliamentary elections, vigorously backs Putin but opposes United Russia, the dominant party that is led by Putin.
For years, the Kremlin has enlisted young people in a variety of pro-government organizations, using them as shock troops in efforts to challenge and sometimes intimidate opposition artists and political leaders.
In recent years, those movements have participated in mass pro-government rallies, laid siege to foreign embassies whose diplomats criticized Russia and sued writers, public figures and journalists who criticized Putin's government.
The Kremlin has also financed a string of patriotic films that glorified law enforcement officers, including in the KGB, Putin's former employer.
Several Russian politicians have dabbled in music.
Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's seldom-glimpsed political strategist, wrote lyrics for a gothic rock band, and several members of parliament have hit the airwaves with their pop music projects.
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