Meet the Rappers Behind the Smash Hip-Hop Ode to Putin

Nov 03, 2014 at 7:30 AM ET

In hindsight, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the world of hip-hop turned its attention to Vladimir Putin, the macho Russian president with a swagger in his step and steel in his eyes. After all, from Scarface to kung fu masters, rappers have always emulated tough guys.

It’s no surprise that the first Putin rap comes straight outta Moscow, where adulation of the Kremlin leader has reached fever pitch since Russia seized Crimea in March. In the Russian capital this summer, there were designer T-shirts for sale bearing Putin’s image, an art exhibition called The 12 Labors of Putin and a public debate on the president’s possible divinity.

Then there’s “I Go Hard Like Vladimir Putin,” one of the biggest songs of the year in Russia. With lyrics like “Put in work like Vladimir/Yeah, I’m the hardest here,” and an inescapably catchy chorus, the track caused an online storm after its release this summer.

A.M.G., the rap duo behind the hit, are hardly your typical Russian nationalists. They’re expats from Africa. K. King, who’s from Zimbabwe via London, and Beni Maniaci, from Kenya, both moved to Moscow in the early 2000s to study medicine in Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad). After finishing school, the two settled in Moscow to “build foundations and make connections,” as King puts it.

Vocativ spoke with King and Maniaci in their Moscow studio as they took time off from their “I Go Hard Tour,” which includes shows across all of Russia, from Siberia to the Pacific Coast.

What are the origins of “I Go Hard”?

King: The lines “I go hard like Vladimir Putin” were there last year. But the mood wasn’t right. But this year, with what’s going on in politics, the music was screaming out and we realized, “We need to do this.” We recorded the whole thing in two hours and put it online. Then it went viral. We were surprised that the song got so big in Russia. It was overwhelming.

Is the song ironic, or a tribute to Putin?

King: It’s most definitely a tribute. You see, in black culture, in Africa, most kids grow up without a father figure or a hero. And so we grew up on legends of real living people. If people from where I grew up in Zimbabwe know my history, they would say, “I wanna be serious like K.King.” So we were thinking, “We wanna go hard.” But like who? [Snaps fingers.] Like Putin.

How does Putin “go hard?”

King: In every way. The way he walks, for example. He walks like a man. You can see that this dude is serious. The way he talks. Like when he goes to towns and he asks officials there, “What did you do with the money?” Or when there’s a flood, and he goes to the town and asks, “What are you doing to help the people?” He’s yelling at these guys live on TV.

Maniaci: I was watching the news recently, and Putin said, “We are responsible for the people we are ruling.” He’s like a policeman: He is here to protect and serve. And he does protect and serve. Russia has changed from point A to point Z since Putin has been in power. Before Putin, when [President Boris] Yeltsin was in charge, the country was on its knees. I remember in the 1990s seeing a report before I moved here about how Russian soldiers didn’t even have socks, they had to wrap clothes around their feet.

Do you think he would like your song?

Maniaci: I think so. I think he would work out to it when he goes to the gym. I’m sure he’s heard it: He and his guys are savvy and keep their ears to the ground. They want to know what’s going on. He doesn’t use the Internet, or so I’ve heard, but he has [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, who does. Maybe he gave it to Putin to listen to!

Could you have done the song about Medvedev?

King: Nah, Medvedev is a different kind of guy. He’s more the quiet type.

Some people have suggested you are a government project. Perhaps the work of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin official who is a big Tupac Shakur fan.

King: I don’t know who this Surkov guy is. If I had known, I would have called him.

The song was played before a public debate in Moscow recently called “Is Putin God or Will He Become One?” What did you make of that?

King: People always start overdoing things. Putin can’t become a god. He’s just a person like everyone else.

Do you earn a living from your music?

King: Most definitely. We make money from our shows and endorsements. And right now we are booked up until the end of December. There’s even talk of a show in Chechnya soon.

Vocativ would like to go to that concert.

King: We’ll give you a call.