Tajik singer-songwriter Manizha Sangin isn’t afraid of approaching touchy subjects in her music. The artist – who taps into the powerful tradition of going only by her first name – has been slowly gaining popularity for almost a decade. After a big break in 2016 with the release of her debut album as a series of Instagram posts, Manizha has used her voice in service of others in addition to entertainment.
The music video for her song “Mama,” for example, accompanied the release of Silsila, an app that gives women suffering from domestic violence resources to escape. Manizha wanted to avoid “femtervising” for this specific project; it was important for the song to reach beyond female audiences to have any effect on attitudes toward domestic violence. “When speaking about domestic violence, we aren’t talking about feminism, but about humanity,” she told Meduza in an interview in February 2019. As such, she collaborated specifically with a male director on the video in the hope that his artistic vision would speak to other men.
Manizha’s identity as a woman is the focus of a lot of her music and digital persona – her EP WOMANIZHA tackles unrealistic beauty standards, for example – but she has also explored what it means to be an immigrant in Russia today. She is open about the double bind many immigrants – especially women – face in trying to navigate a culture and society that resists full assimilation. In one scene of the video for her song “Now It Won’t Happen Again,” a Russian boy affectionately asks Manizha to sing, but “in her native language.” Manizha, who is dressed in traditional Ferghana Valley embroidery, looks into the camera before starting her bittersweet ballad in Russian.
Her latest song, “Nedoslavyanka” (Russian for “Not Quite a Slav”), goes even further to interrogate tropes about Central Asian immigrants living in Russia. Manizha, whose family moved from Tajikistan to Russia when she was a toddler after the civil war started, straddles two cultures. She sings, “In my native land I’m a stranger; in a foreign land, I’m still not myself.”
In the face of growing xenophobia in Russia, the stakes for belonging are raised – indeed, half of Russians support the slogan “Russia for Russians,” according to a Levada Center poll from last September. But at the same time, belonging “too much” to Russian culture can be alienating for immigrants. Central Asian women face heavy normative expectations to display and protect national identity, and Manizha is no exception; trolls called her a “shame to the Tajik nation” for her art. With “Nedoslavyanka,” Manizha’s acknowledging that you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t – but she’s also taking it all in stride.
Many of the visual elements of Manizha’s video for “Nedoslavyanka” overlap with rapper Tatarka’s recent video “Au.” Both feature bazaar scenes and both use suzani textiles as backdrops for singing and dancing. But where Tataraka leans on exotifying tropes for Turkic street cred, Manizha cleverly emphasizes stereotypes of Central Asians to send a message. “Nedoslavyanka” is a sharp example of styob, which NYU Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies professor Eliot Borenstein describes as “a Russian style of humor that ridicules its object by overidentifying with it.”
In the video, Manizha and a woman in gold coin paranja embark on a roadtrip with a track suit-clad driver; their journey is interrupted by a ninja who ambushes the car and steals Manizha’s unibrow. The trio appeal to a detective (also played by Manizha) who is busy working other cases brought forward by Central Asians who have lost various possessions, material and otherwise. “The villain stole my husband’s tubeteika [a traditional Central Asian hat] and now he won’t do our national dances because he’s embarrassed!” one woman, wearing a white headscarf ubiquitous among young Kyrgyz brides, cries.
The detective has a lightbulb moment and cracks the case, shifting the video into its climax: Manizha fights the ninja thief and recovers a briefcase full of passports and Central Asian textiles. Finally, the camera cuts to a field where the ninja is standing. They pull off their mask to reveal that Manizha herself was the culture-thief the whole time.
“Nedoslavyanka” may be over the top, but it has struck a deep chord with Manizha’s fans. One YouTube user commented, “Manizha organized a huge psychotherapy session for all emigrants from Central Asia – probably all emigrants from CIS countries!” While Manizha is speaking most directly to Central Asian immigrants, it also seems feasible that she could change the way people think about who counts when they say “Russia for Russians.”