New East Digital Archive

All hail Manizha, the Tajik-Russian musician rewriting the rules on what it means to belong

Singer-songwriter Manizha has already grown a cult online following thanks to her tongue-in-cheek videos and deep-feeling tracks. But she’s also making a stand on the issues that count

16 April 2020
Images: Miliyollie

Musician, activist, feminist, friend: for Tajik-Russian artist Manizha, the professional and personal come as one. Manizha went viral in 2016 after releasing what she claimed to be the world’s first Instagram music album. Four years on, the artist can boast a repertoire spanning from blue-eyed ballads to feminist gospel rap, complete with a collection of videos tackling conservative notions of beauty, ethnicity, femininity, and family relations in Russia.

Commissioned by The Calvert Journal, her latest editorial was shot by photographer Miliyollie and aims to celebrate diversity, inclusivity, and community at heart of the singer’s vision — with a splash of wild colour by makeup artist Kristallikova.

“Imagine a table with pilaf, vodka, and pelmeni,” the singer-songwriter laughs explaining what it feels like to be both Tajik and Russian, but neither Christian nor Muslim. Born in Tajikistan a few months before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Manizha and her family ultimately left the Tajik capital of Dushanbe for Moscow, where she has been living since. Faced with racist bullying at school, Manizha found shelter in music. “At first, it was a way to escape. And only as my audience started to grow, I realised I can actually talk to people through my music,” she says.

Read more These artists are bringing Russia’s most embarrassing musical genre back to its criminal underground roots

But Manizha is no longer hiding. Open her YouTube page and you’ll meet a warrior jumping over the burning cars, or a fierce folk-fuelled princess. Her Instagram page switches between a fundraising campaign for Moscow’s humanitarian centre for refugee kids to off-cuff raps. Russia is a country of many ethnicities, but many of them remain poorly represented in mainstream culture. Manizha and her following, teaming with reciprocal love, challenges that balance. The singer actively tackles the intolerance and racism that particularly affects immigrants from the Central Asia, including them in clips such as her “Now Is Not Happening Twice” video. Set in an idyllic Russian village, the clip sees narrow-minded locals condemn a grotesque, mono-browned Manizha as the Tajik fiancée of a local Russian man, asking: “why don’t you find yourself a good Russian wife instead?” But when Manizha’s character starts to sing, praising the sweeping beauty of the “now” we all equally share, the villagers begin to cry tears of joy instead. “Native and minority awakening has become a pop culture trend. But we need this trend to shift the norm. The shift is getting real as I see my friends finding this trend pleasingly relatable,” Manizha says. Elements of daily life in Tajikistan now echo in her art years later, ultimately bringing her back to Dushanbe last November, when she also visited kishlaks, or semi-normadic rural settlements, in the mountains.

But Manizha’s dual-heritage is not the only focus of her work. Musically she looks towards Bjork and Thom Yorke, as well as one of Tajikistan’s greatest singers, Nargiz Bendishoeva. (Bendishoeva had been due to perform at a ceremony marking 40 days since Manizha’s birth — an ancient tradition in Tajikistan — but died in a car crash on the day of the celebration itself.) Manizha is also fiercely feminist and pro-LGBTQ, a stance which often sees her under fire.

Despite being born in a patriarchal community, Manizha wants to prove that there can be choice, opportunities, and recognition for women. Manizha’s female relatives have had a huge impact on the singer and her own creativity. “My mother has made her living working as a designer since she was 16. We always had different ornaments and fabrics around in the house. My grandmother used to save up her pension to take me to the bazaar where she’d buy me a special dress for my birthday,” Manizha recalls.

Together with her mother, she has already used her platform to launch a free app helping victims of domestic violence. They also went offline for a series of female empowerment meetings in the North Caucasus. “To me, feminism is about having a choice,” says Manizha. “If somebody is happy as a mother and wife, I have nothing against it. But we need to make sure there is education and job opportunities for those women who choose another kind of life”.

It is that mantra about choice that seems to define Manizha most of all. A transnational polymath, it is not about fitting into the boxes of Russia or Tajik, cosmopolitan or folk-fuelled, candid or combative. It is about the power to change, transform, and draw on creativity from every side of herself.

“In Russia, criticising others is the norm,” she says. “Anything new meets negativity. Lacking the tradition of freedom and choice, stuck on the level of basic survival, many find it hard to respond positively to anything that does not fit in the system. Honestly, I think at first we all fear, but if you keep bringing these things up, the walls will tumble down. Deep inside everyone is true kindness.”

We would like to thank everyone who took part in the shoot helping to represent the diverse faces of today’s Russia:

RAMAZON / Marina / Diana / Yasmina / Rustam / Karina / Anastasia / Suzanna / Alex