Pussy Riot are just getting started

© Teddy Fitzhugh

Words by:

“You can clearly see an anarchist discourse,” says Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova. She’s speaking of My Sex, her collaboration with Brooke Candy, and she’s audibly pleased with how receptive the subversive LA artist was to merging pop music and politics.

It’s June and Tolokonnikova is in Paris, speaking to me over the phone along with musical and performance partner Nikita Chaika, gearing up for one of British star Charli XCX’s Pop 2 performances that night. “My sex is unconquered/ Not the church, not the state/ My own fate,” Tolokonnikova recites. “That’s super cool, to bring political, social, human rights, feminist, and queer agenda, into popular music and popular culture.” This is one of Pussy Riot’s main objectives: to infiltrate pop culture with activism.

Tolokonnikova doesn’t consider herself a musician – she’s a conceptual artist – but believes music is a powerful medium. She works with Dave Sitek and cites Death Grips, Ho99o9 and Kim Gordon in conversation. “I like the idea of a song,” she tells me. “It’s something very concentrated and laconic. You have to be clear and short. That’s a good challenge.”

© Teddy Fitzhugh

And Tolokonnikova has always loved a good challenge. Now a reserved, focused, and good-humored 28-year-old, she was born in Russia’s most polluted city, Siberia’s Norilsk, dreamt of becoming an artist, and left home at 16 to study philosophy at Moscow State University. In Moscow, Tolokonnikova became involved with an activist group called Voila, which in 2011 morphed into Pussy Riot, the “fake punk band” that shook the world. Various members of the collective have been arrested and jailed, including Tolokonnikova – who spent almost two years enduring horrendous treatment in Russian prison, but was undeterred in her fight for justice upon her release.

Technically, Pussy Riot is an art and protest collective of mostly anonymous members. Musically, and performance-wise, right now the band’s core is Tolokonnikova and Chaika, who is gangly and sweet and doesn’t speak much English. The two met about a year ago, when Tolokonnikova was first considering doing live shows – something relatively new for Pussy Riot – and needed a DJ. At first, Chaika worked only on interludes and effects, but after some time he and Tolokonnikova ended up making songs together. Harsh, freaky, political songs, always accompanied by an in-your-face visual.

Though Pussy Riot’s sound was “punk” at the outset, Tolokonnikova thinks of the genre conceptually – it’s an ideology, a state of mind, a method of surprise. Agree or disagree, Tolokonnikova believes that for music to be truly punk in 2018, it shouldn’t resemble the four-chord riots it originated from. (“We are dead if we are using the language that was given to us,” she stated in her talk with Marina Abramovic this past May.)

© Teddy Fitzhugh

Right now, Pussy Riot is all about what they call “digital punk.” They cite influences like the light-performance artist Ryoji Ikeda and experimental electronic musician Alva Noto. As Chaika explains (Tolokonnikova translating real-time), it’s “based on provoking the audience with new mediums, messages, and approaches. We are trying to provoke this horrific effect on the audience.” This is evident in Elections a cutting track about illegitimate imprisonment, which they made as a kind of PSA in advance of Russia’s March special presidential election. The song is a brooding, eerie take on trap, a sound Tolokonnikova and Chaika are currently moved by. They say they use the genre’s gutsy, visceral nature to talk about the things that matter to them: “elections, power struggle, resistance, solidarity.”

Pussy Riot have always focused on the power of the image (you know the masks), and this new work is no different. The video for Elections is gritty, filmed under a highway junction at SXSW. Transposed on the dark shots are drawings by current Russian political prisoner Oleg Navalny, who’s serving three and a half years for being the brother of Putin critic Alexey Navalny. Alexey runs an anti-Kremlin campaign called Foundation Against Corruption, whose goal is to reveal how much Russian oligarchs steal from the Russian people. On tour, they show the video for Chaika’s remix of Pussy Riot’s track Make America Great Again, 2016’s unheeded Trump warning. It’s black-and-white and interspersed with icons and barcodes that link to environmental websites, to slogans like “inclusivity is what we need”, and to the Pussy Riot-founded media outlet Mediazona.

"Anybody – man, woman, a person who can not identify with any binary gender - can be Pussy Riot"

© Teddy Fitzhugh

Tolokonnikova once said in an interview with Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, “What pop culture could teach you, as a political activist, is how to be understood by people outside of your community.” And that’s exactly what Pussy Riot is doing with this particular pop medium – bringing their history, activism, and humanity to a sphere that might not otherwise care.

“It’s not just about music for me,” Tolokonnikova says, as I try to grasp what it is specifically about the form that really works for Pussy Riot. “It’s about creating pieces of art that have a chance to shift the borders, to radically melt genres and politics that are not supposed to be put together.” Existing on the border between cultural elements is a key theme of Pussy Riot’s work; thinking of music as simply a medium for the greater agenda helps Tolokonnikova and Chaika push boundaries and examine possibilities.

It’s kind of radical, for instance, that when Pussy Riot was in Los Angeles this year, they linked up with PC Music producer Danny L Harle. In the studio, he got Tolokonnikova to freestyle for the first time. “I am not a real rapper,” she says. “I am a nerd and usually I am sitting in the corner trying to make perfect lyrics.” But Harle encouraged her, and what arrived was a flow about morning exercises in prison. “At six in the morning you have to wake up,” she remembers. “It’s really sad to go to the square in the middle of the prison. It’s really cold, guards are grinning at you, and you have to do these exercises or you will be punished.”

© Teddy Fitzhugh

Home, as well as her experience of prison, remains a deep well of inspiration. Pussy Riot’s music is better and more effective, anyway, when it’s Russian-language and Russia-centric. “When I’m in Russia,” Tolokonnikova tells me, “I feel connected, grounded. Most of us, anti-Kremlin activists, believe that we’re patriots of Russia – not Putin and his fellow oligarchs, who steal everything they can steal and destroy the rest.” She loves Russian philosophy, language, culture, history, its dissident movements, its hunger strikes, riots, how Gulag prisoners made their voices heard. “It’s fantastic and powerful that a human being always will find a way to create an alternative autonomous culture, even a system of knowledge,” she says.

It’s this tradition of resistance that Pussy Riot is following, even when it’s with a song like 2016’s clubby Straight Outta Vagina or Pimples, a new body confidence-themed track they made with provocative Texas singer Dorian Electra. “Women got our rights not that long ago,” Tolokonnikova says, when we’re talking about how sex is political. She thinks that, in Russia, women’s sexuality might be on the brink of being embraced. “It takes a lot of time to shift cultural codes,” she explains. Her sexual education, she tells me, involved a priest telling her at 13 that “a vagina has memory, so my kids will look like the first man who I was with.”

Regressive ideas like these aren’t just confined to Russia, of course – that’s why we all need to talk about it, get songs stuck in our heads about it. We need to think about Putin and Trump and the watering down of democracy, surveillance, corruption, the prison industrial complex. It all affects us all.

“Spirit is pretty much the only one thing that keeps you alive in Russian prison.”

Music, with its history of art and protest and humanising faculties, might be the best for the job at hand. Tolokonnikova and Chaika are mesmerised by Russian prison chansons – or blatnaya pesnya, traditional folk ballads written by inmates that focus on injustice – for a reason. “They belong to everybody,” says Tolokonnikova, “And they have proven to be an amazing tool of empowerment: a good old song that’s making fun of prison guards can lift your spirit in a sad moment and, thus, literally save your life. Spirit is pretty much the only one thing that keeps you alive in Russian prison. Building an alternative universe in prisoners’ folklore helps to keep valuing and respecting yourself as a human being, even if you’re living in a fucking nightmarish hell.”

Pussy Riot’s take on the prison chanson is called КОШМАРЫ / NIGHTMARES, a “creepy and nightmarish tale”, Chaika says, about endless incarceration. Paired with chilling, flashing animations by Moscow artist 9cyka, КОШМАРЫ / NIGHTMARES is decidedly not like the gentle, melancholy, sometimes humorous, acoustic sound of tradition. Instead, Tolokonnikova and Chaika wield the pummelling, strobe-y hardcore club style of gabber, turning the ghostly old song into something monstrous. And for the first time, it’s Chaika’s voice on a Pussy Riot track, because, as Tolokonnikova says, “Anybody – man, woman, a person who can not identify with any binary gender – can be Pussy Riot.” It’s a prime example of how Pussy Riot is coming at the world right now: armed with loud, trappy production and flashing lights, on an anarchic pop mission to wake people up.

Photography: Teddy Fitzhugh

КОШМАРЫ / NIGHTMARES and PONG! are out 18 July, self-released by Pussy Riot

Connect with Crack Magazine for exclusive content

More from Crack Magazine