What does Manizha sing about for Eurovision?

We are analysing the song ‘Russian Woman’ together with experts

Manizha will represent Russia at Eurovision this year. The Tajikistan-born Russian signer won the national competition to go to the contest with Russian Woman song interpreted on behalf of a Russian Woman (or the one born in Russia) pursuing her goal breaking stereotypes. Read more in Realnoe Vremya’s report.

From Dushanbe to Moscow, from pop music to independent

Manizha Sangin herself explains that Russian Woman is a “song about a transformation of the woman’s self-perception in the last few hundreds of years in Russia. The Russian woman covered a surprising road from a peasant’s hut to the enfranchisement and the right to be elected (one of the first in the world), from factory shops to flights to space. She has never been afraid to oppose stereotypes and assume responsibility”.

Manizha Sangin was born in Dushanbe in 1994, during a civil war in Tajikistan she moved to Moscow with her family. She has been famous in the music world since the early 2000s when her voice sounded at contests and festivals.

Moreover, Manizha’s whole career is a tangle of different styles. She used to sing using the pseudonym ‘Ru. Kola’, her songs played on Russian Radio, joined Assai project in the early 2000s, lived in London, worked with composer Andrey Samsonov on a soundtrack to the film Deli’s Dance and supported Lana Del Rey... As a result, Manizha got rid of contracts and started to develop her career in another area.

She released an Instagram album named Manuscript, launched a flash mob with a hashtag translated as injury of beauty, cooperated with charity foundations and did social commercials. She has lately released compositions dedicated to ethnic identification and abuse. For instance, the music video Mother shot in Georgia talks about domestic violence (in February 2019, Manizha created a free mobile app Silsila, which is an alarm button and offers a list of the nearest crisis centres and refuges where one can take shelter). By the way, in 2019, Forbes estimated her incomes at 56 million rubles (revenue is 36 million rubles).

In search of self-identification

“I don’t stay tuned for Russian music, but I am happy for Manizha,” says Dina Nurm, a co-founder of FemGirls movement from Kazan. “I know she advocates the fight against domestic violence, and such a representative of Russia with social activism looks like a breakthrough, without doubt.”

“It is a continuation of Manizha’s social projects, texts and meanings she tries to deliver,” thinks Maria Leontyeva, a sociologist, member of Whit Monday folk bank, thinks about the theme of the singer’s song. “The next text I googled is Almost Slavic, it talks about an attempt of identifying yourself between Russian and Tajik culture: “I hide my wings out of habit, I am almost Slavic, I am almost Tajik, I go by the Quran in the church. God is one, and his boundaries are unlimited. I seemed to sing something different. But I don’t know my place.” It seems to me that it is a continuation of thoughts on the same theme. The theme of women’s fight for their rights, for their right to vote, for their place now, fortunately, this sounds more often, and this makes me glad.”

“At the same time, as a connoisseur of Russian folk, Leontyeva indicates that she has some questions about references to folk culture. She puts Tina Kuznetsova as an example, she understands jazz, hip-hop and folk equally well: “Tina mastered them from the inside and looks organic. Here I see a cultural reference, but I don’t really believe it. I think a few will notice it.”

“Manizha isn’t very interesting for me as a singer,” says Dmitry Oparin, a research of the Institute for Social Policy. “But it indeed seems to be socially important that a singer who migrated, a singer of Tajik origin is representing Russia. It is important for Russia’s image as a country of migrants too, as a country of Asian cultures and different experiences and fates of people. I didn’t understand everything she sang in the music video.”

As Oparin thinks, Russian Woman isn’t an ethnic category but a category that talks about the singer’s biography and experience, the experience of her persona with whom she sympathises, whose character she creates.

Kitsch and laughing at ourselves are our weapons

“We have once talked with her on a podcast that she identifies herself with some culture via folklore,” remembers Mark Simon, docent of the Department of Political and Legal Studies of Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “If indeed spectators voted for her, it is a breakthrough. As for the song, it constantly contains folk motifs. She has a romance too. She also says that kitsch and laughing at yourself are the only working strategy against being “excluded”. I think it is great because this is how she legitimises the talk about a hybrid identity.”

Simon thinks that the text of the song is ironic because “a Slavic woman, a Russian woman are too exclusive categories. She mocks this exclusivity, as it seems to me”.

By the way, New Literary Review published Simon’s article Representations of Migrants in Music Videos of Russian Independent Artists: Three Categories of Construction of Authenticity where the music video Almost Slavic is analysed.

“Manizha always tables important social problems, the Eurovision song isn’t an exception,” says Guzel Yusupova, docent and leading researcher at RANEPA’s North-West Institute of Management. “It consists of layers as usual. But this song mainly questions gender stereotypes about the correct woman. And the fact that Manizha who is traditionally considered as the voice of women’s migration from Central Asia (directly and indirectly) sings on behalf of a Russian woman (which means Slavic) is also challenging stereotypes. It is an urge for dialogue, if the interpreter is a slave of her habitual style and what a Russian woman is today, is she always Slavic?”

Yusupova points out that the singer wants to understand if there is a difference in the experience of women of different races. Because to lose weight and give birth to children by 30 are “standards” for everybody. Moreover, the fusion of modern pop music itself and Russian folk, the Russian and English languages hint that any borders can be crossed creating a new, potentially uniting experience.

It is illustrative that the song caused heated debates, and it is clear: no, sadly, there aren’t more hot-button issues than rights of women, national minorities and diversity in Russia. Manizha Sangin is a symbol of these occurrences.

By Radif Kashapov