Back in the 1980s, a doctor in a remote clinic performed an emergency circumcision to treat a young boy's severe urinary tract infection in Azerbaijan, on the Caspian Sea. Ruslan Karaoglanov was cured from potentially fatal infection that day. But the Karaoglanov family had no inkling that five years later, that circumcision would save Ruslan's life during a bloody pogrom led by Muslim terrorists.
Ruslan, a rising talent in the Christian hip-hop world (known professionally by his first name), retold the story to Christianity Today. It was during the historic period in which the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire collapsed. In Azerbaijan, Christians lived in daily fear for their lives as Islamic terrorists sought to purge non-Muslims from the region.
The worst occurred in the early days of 1990 (today known as "Black January"). Over seven days that month, violence between Azerbaijani Muslims and the Soviet Red Army left an estimated 220 people dead and 1,500 injured in Baku, the capital.
One day, armed men crashed through the door at the home where the Karaoglanov family was living in Baku. They were seeking to find and murder any Armenian males. Ruslan's Armenian father and uncles had already fled to Moscow for safety. But Ruslan, about 5 years old, had stayed with his ethnic Russian mother, Marina, and grandparents.
As three rebels with automatic weapons prepared to kill him, his mother quickly exposed her son's circumcised penis to prove that his was not Armenian. "No! No! No!" Marina shouted in Russian.
"We're not Armenians. Look, my son is circumcised!"
Armenian Christians traditionally do not practice circumcision, while Muslims typically do. The militants were persuaded the Karaoglanovs were fellow Muslims. After the harrowing episode, the Karaoglanov family was reunited in Moscow at the end of 1990. They applied for visas to the United States, and the family landed in San Diego to build a new life.
Growing up on the fringes of American culture, Ruslan turned to hip-hop to express himself. As an adult rap artist, Ruslan has opened for Lecrae, Mobb Deep, Raekwon, and other top acts. He says his keen awareness of God's protection of religious minorities has found a place in his music, which he describes as "positive hip-hop."
Birthed in the late 1970s, hip-hop now generates a $10 billion a year in revenue. Surveys show there are 45 million hip-hop consumers, ages 13 to 34, and 80 percent are white. Christian hip-hop artists, such as Lecrae, often place their recordings at or near the top of the rap album chart. Billboard magazine recently described Christian hip-hop as a "welcome bright spot" for the religious music market, which has seen sales decline 31 percent since 2009. Traffic to Rapzilla.com, a leading Christian hip-hop webzine, grew fifteen-fold from 2008 to 2013.
Master of His Craft
Ruslan believes music is an overlooked way to reach a younger audience with a message about the fight for religious freedom. He began the first verse of song off his debut solo album, Carry On, rapping, "I was supposed to die—no one would've noticed it." Later in a video, "Please Pronounce My Name Right," he tells the story of the 1990 pogrom and how he survived.
Derek "Fonzworth Bentley" Watkins, a recording artist who has worked alongside Sean "P Diddy" Combs and Kanye West, told CT he sees the missionary pulse in Ruslan's music. "You cannot influence that which you are not in proximity to," said Watkins. "A lot of Christian artists . . . will not interact at a deeper level with folks whose hearts have not been won by God. [But] Jesus went to those people. That's something Ruslan really brings to the table.