“I won’t let myself be broken”: Russian Eurovision candidate Manizha tackles “haters” | Eurovision

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RThe USsia’s Eurovision 2021 contestant walks into a conference room, the Channel One documentary crew in tow, offering a simple mint leaf tea steeped in hot water. “Days like today, I want something soothing,” Manizha says, pouring out two cups, as a boom microphone hovers above us. No pressure.

The Tajikistan-born singer, who will perform her feminist ballad Russian Woman next month at Rotterdam’s much-loved and much-mocked song contest, is the target of a backlash from conservatives for her foreign roots and her lyrics attacking female stereotypes.

But she’s upbeat and, as the documentary crew moves forward, says she’s learned to deal with the torrent of abuse that began when she won a televised vote to represent her adopted country last month.

“I won’t allow myself to be broken,” she said in an hour-long interview, shedding a patterned suzani dress to sit in jeans and a black sweater. “If I broke up now because of the ‘haters’, that I started to cry, to say ‘oh my God’, then I would prove that all their words were true.

In the West, says Manizha, she can come across as a “very cautious feminist.” But her activism against domestic violence and xenophobia, her positive body posts on Instagram, and her support for the LGBT community have led her to be called radical here.

Some of the most powerful people in Russia have stacked up. Valentina Matviyenko, President of the Council of the Russian Federation, questioned the vote during a parliamentary session. Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesperson, rejected Eurovision, saying: “We are talking about a show business competition where… bearded women are playing, there are singers dressed as chickens, so we don’t do not take this as our problem or a topic for our attention. “

Manizha recognizes the abuse for what it is: “bullying”. When it started last month, she says, she felt her heart beat and even stopped checking her phone in the morning to deal with stress. But she’s driven by young fans who she knows are waiting to see if she gives in under the pressure. “I have a certain message that I will carry through to the end,” she said. “It’s important for them to understand that you haven’t strayed from your standards, that you haven’t sold yourself when you could and made more money by being less honest. “

Russian woman, Manizha’s entrance to Eurovision Song Contest.

Poisoned and articulate, Manizha’s freedom is, in part, due to her status as one of the first Instagram music stars in Russia, letting her transcend the pop music industry and engage in the genre of music. creative and social activism experiences that producers will often tell talent they can’t afford.

As a teenage singer, she had already signed and released heavily produced pop songs under a stage name at age 15. “I felt like I was put in a box,” she said, discussing the pressure to change her sound and appearance. Close to a breakdown, she quit, then spent several years trying to break into the alternative scene. Eventually, she moved to London, working on an ill-fated TV project while scratching at a roommate in Hackney. When she returned to Moscow in 2015, she was back to square one.

That’s when she started uploading 15-second video collages to Instagram, soon followed by music videos that she had written, produced, filmed and edited herself. Eventually, she gathered enough material to download her debut album, Manuscript, the first she released under the name Manizha, a name she had been told was too Muslim to work in a Russian market.

“I needed time,” she says. “I needed life, I needed experience, I needed mistakes and bad songs and I needed good audiences and bad audiences, so in 2017, 10 years older I later released the Manizha project under my own name. I said my name out loud.

Manizha at Crocus City Hall in Moscow on March 9, 2021.
Manizha at Crocus City Hall in Moscow on March 9, 2021.
Photographie: Valery Sharifulin / Tass

Encouraged by her growing online community, she leaned into an art-pop style that incorporates various elements: hip-hop, soul, brassy funk, world music, choral arrangements and even Russian folklore, all of which inspire her entry into Eurovision Song Contest, Russian Woman. She cites Billie Eilish and Alla Pugacheva, the great lady of Russian pop, as inspirations, because each “does what she wants”.

“I want to do different kinds of music, so that when someone turns on my song someday, whatever the genre, they say, ‘It’s Manizha, well, she can afford that,’” she said. laughing.

Russian Woman’s lyrics, delivered with a signature touch of humor, are inspired by the experiences of people advising her to lose weight or asking her why she doesn’t have children at age 30. “Now we know this knowledge causes trauma and I won’t say it. my daughter these things, ”she said. There are also allusions to darker times, like the line: “You won’t break me with a broken family,” sung half in Russian, half in English.

She credits her early interest in activism to listening to patients tell her mother, a psychotherapist, their experiences of domestic violence, terminal illness and other hidden traumas. In 2017, she started posting makeup-free photos in a flashmob she called ‘beauty trauma’, openly discussing the pressure she felt on Photoshop images of her face or even undergoing plastic surgery. .

In 2019, she released the song Mama, about a family with an abusive father, alongside a phone app called Silsila, which allows victims of violence to send an appeal for SOS help. Her mother, whom Manizha calls her producer and trainer, sold her apartment to help pay for it.

Other songs have probed the dark heart of Russia in self-irony. Nedoslavyanka, a 2019 hit that means “Not quite a Slavic woman,” depicted an orientalized version of Manizha walking through a bazaar, fighting ninjas and handing out passports to immigrants from Central Asia.

And yet he probes painful truths. “Alone among strangers, a stranger among mine,” sings Manizha. Driven from Tajikistan by civil war as a toddler, she spoke of struggling with her sense of alienation in both countries – three if you count her time in the UK, where she says she met a new set of stereotypes. “The song has become prophetic,” she says. “Nedoslavyanka now answers all the questions the audience asks me.”

In short: how can a refugee from Tajikistan who adheres to liberal values ​​represent a country that seems more conservative every day, passing legislation against “gay propaganda”, targeting migrants and decriminalizing domestic violence in a 2017 law according to which Manizha says “just killed me”.

“Most of all, I want all of this art, all of these songs, all of my lyrics to lead to a law that would protect women and children from domestic violence,” she says.

Perhaps she sings ideas whose time has not yet come here? I ask. “No,” she said. “I’m optimistic. These are layers. There was a time when you couldn’t go out, there were skinheads, there were Ku Klux Klans. It has already become much less. You have to agree. And this will continue layer by layer. ”

She says her own battle with xenophobia, from the schoolyard taunts to the Eurovision Song Contest, paradoxically made her feel more at home in Russia, strengthening her community and pushing aside those who think she isn’t. does not belong.

“I don’t think of myself as a Russian woman in vain,” she said. “I have the right to this.”

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