‘Standing on your own’: Ukrainian rapper Jockii Druce leads youth rejection of Russian culture

When the invasion started, young Ukrainians were glued to their phones. The high volume of internet traffic, says 22-year-old Ukraine rapper Jockii Druce, led to his satirical song about Russia’s invasion becoming wildly popular.

Thousands of TikTok videos have been created in Ukraine using Jockii Druce’s music, racking up millions of plays.

His most viral song, entitled What Are You Brothers?, addresses Ukrainians but is an obvious play on the Russian president, Vladimir Putin’s, assertion that Ukraine and Russia are “brotherly nations”.

The song, released in early March, vents anger at Russia through its satirical lyrics, telling Ukrainians to let go of the idea that they can convince their “brothers” across the border to stop their invasion. Like an estimated one in four Ukrainians, Jockii Druce has relatives, albeit distant, in Russia.

The song ends by listing the historical and recent tragedies that Ukrainians have survived – serfdom, genocide, revolutions, coronavirus – and poses the rhetorical question of whether they should weep because of the full-scale invasion, followed by the final line: “No way – Russian warship go fuck yourself”, which has become a rallying cry of Ukrainian resistance.

Jockii Druce’s viral song What Are You Brothers? He is represented by Khvylia Records, a Ukrainian label established during the war.

His music represents a trend of Ukrainians turning to Ukrainian culture as a way of connecting with one another and, ultimately, as a source of strength, say academics.

Young Ukrainians are the trailblazers in reflecting on Russia’s colonial legacy, they say, a topic little studied in the west or Russia in relation to the former Soviet and Tsarist empires. But the recent rejection of Russian culture in Ukraine has led Russian cultural figures to argue that Russian culture is being cancelled and its role misunderstood.

Jockii Druce is not the only Ukrainian artist to gain popularity after creating a song about the invasion. However, he is one of the few to do so with nuanced and stirring irony – a talent that makes his music stand apart from the mainstream and has made him popular among younger Ukrainians.

“I’m not really an emotional person. [My work] is mostly about understanding different contexts and things people tend to manipulate,” said Jockii Druce, at a cafe in downtown Kyiv, wearing a monochrome Adidas tracksuit.

“When you realise what they think about us, that we’re some filthy fucking pigs that are just quick to riot and storm [buildings], and you just started to be ironic about it,” he said, in a reference to the lyrics of another of his songs, We’re Going to Have Breakfast.

For Jockii Druce, there is no point in trying to change Russians’ minds, because their state propaganda machine is too strong. “You could send them a photo of dead children in Bucha or anything,” he said of the site of an infamous Russian massacre. “And they’re going to make 100 million fucking photos or get people to say that [Ukraine] did it.”

Jockii Druce, who grew up in the south-central city of Dnipro, said he grew up as a Russian-speaking Ukrainian and started rapping with his friends after school for fun. He said he was not really interested in politics or geopolitics but after a while it became “impossible not to be into it because people massively fucking died”.

He switched to using Ukrainian several years before the war when he was tiring of rap, he said, and found rapping in Ukrainian allowed him to explore uncharted territories and renewed his enthusiasm for creating music.

“I figured it out a long time ago that it kind of had a more organic and more authentic vibe to it when I do it in Ukrainian,” said Jockii Druce. “I quickly realised that no one could do it like I could do it. The Ukrainian language itself, and cultural context and all, gives a great fucking field of experience to experiment in, to observe and to work with, that nobody has done.

“The Russian language is across the world,” he said. “There is a lot that has already been said and written in Russian and there is a lot to be said and written in Ukrainian.”

On the question of Russian artists, Jockii Druce said he listens to more electronic music than rap, but he liked some Russian artists before the war and will not go back on that.

“Would I support them? No. But to say that they are talentless or they are bad because of the war would just be hypocritical. This kind of logic feeds into the Russian narrative against Ukrainians – that we’re Nazis or hateful,” he said. “It’s not about pushing down others but standing on your own.”

The role of Russian culture has been a hotly debated topic since February in Ukraine and in the west.

Figures in Ukraine’s music scene say they have stopped trying to communicate with Russian peers since the invasion.

“[Our Russian counterparts] don’t understand why we are so radical. They don’t want to process what is happening and understand that they are an imperialistic country and they as cultural figures need to do something with that and reflect on that,” said Maya Baklanova, who has been active in Ukrainian electronic music since 2014.

Baklanova put forward the example of Russians who have fled to Georgia and Armenia and held events without listening to the views of people in their host countries. “They promote it as ‘Armenia is the new Russian rave scene’. They are trying to Russify the scene.”

This week, Mikhail Shishkin, an exiled Russian poet living in Switzerland, penned an op-ed for The Atlantic in which he argued that Russian culture had been oppressed by successive Russian regimes and was being unfairly associated with Russia’s war crimes.

If Russian culture had been freer, wrote Shishkin, the invasion may not have happened.

“The road to the Bucha massacre leads not through Russian literature, but through its suppression,” Shishkin wrote, adding that he hoped Ukrainian poets would speak up for the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin, whose statues may be removed from town squares in Ukraine.

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Shishkin’s article has been criticised by some academics specialising in the region as “tone deaf”.

“There is very little evidence that Russian culture has been relegated into oblivion,” said Uilliam Blacker, an associate professor in comparative Russian and east European literature at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies. “Russian culture has had hundreds of years of great prestige in the west.”

Blacker said that in the current context, replacing a Russian composer in a concert programme with a Ukrainian one was a small gesture that “would correct a very long and very deep imbalance in our perception of culture from that part of the world”.

Ukrainians are distancing themselves from Russian writers not just because of a particular writer’s views but because they see the way it has been weaponised to colonise them, according to Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic literature at the University of Kansas, in the US.

“[Pushkin] was a talented poet … but he’s also somebody who had a very imperialist and condescending attitude towards Ukraine,” said Chernetsky. “This was something omitted in the past. [Ukrainians] always had certain aspects of [Russian] writers highlighted and others obscured.

“The war has prompted a lot of reflection,” he added. “The younger people are much further ahead than the older generation.”

The Guardian