TikTok has a tendency to create trending sounds out of random songs and audio bits. Its latest obsession: 70s Euro disco group Boney M’s “Rasputin,” the song that details the history of the Russian teacher, preacher, and love machine.
We reached out to former members to learn about the group and the song.
Ultimately, we learned how to recontextualize music with problematic pasts.
Just a TikTok song?
“There lived a certain man in Russia long ago.”
If you know the rest of the lyrics to this song: “he was big and strong and his eyes were flaming gold,” you’re likely one of the following:
a) active on TikTok; b) from Europe or Russia; c) big into 70s Euro disco.
I am both a and b. Thus, scrolling through TikTok this past month was surprised by the song’s sudden appearance on the app.
The trend, in which teens flex their muscles or their dancing skills, took off earlier this year and hasn’t shown any signs of dying out anytime soon.
What is even more surprising was how little people knew the group that brought us this bop and that they created more than just “that TikTok song.”
Evidently, an introduction to Boney M is necessary. For this and to figure out what the appeal of Rasputin is to TikTok Gen Z’ers, I reached out to Sheyla Bonnick and one former member of the group who, retrospectively, requested not to be mentioned in this piece.
A history lesson of the Euro disco group
Boney M, the brainchild of German music producer Frank Farian, was brought together in 1975.
They quickly grew to be a Euro disco powerhouse. Sheyla Bonnick, who was born in Jamaica but now lives in Spain, was brought on as one of the first people to “audition.”
“There wasn’t really an audition as such,” Bonnick said. Voice checks were minimal and “it was all just accidentally put together.”
Bonnick left the group after about nine months.
Next, vocalists Liz Mitchell and Marcia Barrett, who were both from Jamaica, Maizie Williams, from Montserrat, and dancer Bobby Farrell, from Aruba were brought on. These four would go on to be the main members of Boney M and the face of Euro-Caribbean disco for many.
Describing Boney M’s sound is tricky; it’s a fun blend between standard European Disco riffs, a healthy dose of Middle Eastern melody patterns, and, thanks to its members’ Caribbean heritage, it is also filled with reggae sensibility and influences.
This is where we need to pivot in the story. While exploring Rasputin’s appeal to the youth is fun, there is a certain overtone in Boney M’s themes that need further dismantling first.
Talking to Bonnick, racial issues at the core of the group shine through.
A problematic past for Boney M
In the creation of the group, the choice for a mostly Caribbean collective was not one made out of particular care for the rich cultural history of the area.
As Bonnick explained, it was “Frank’s baby so he didn’t seem to need anyone else, just for the image: three black girls, a black guy.”
This is also reflected in Frank Farian’s quote: “all members [of Boney M] could be replaced except Liz [Mitchell].”
This can be seen as praise for Liz Mitchell, but also reflects how Farian perceived all other members as disposable.
Boney M’s albums
When I asked the former member about this quote, they interpreted it differently. To them, this particular quote from Farian speaks more to the creative process of the group. “The actual full-course sound of Boney M was Frank Farian and [Liz Mitchell],” they explained.
“He was the male vocals doing, you know, the low part with the female vocals tracking [Liz Mitchell].”Former member Boney M, 2021
They brought up songs that were, despite their ensemble sound, actually pure solo’s such as “Sunny” and “Mary’s Boy Child”. They would record Liz Mitchell’s voice in different tracks and layer them together.
“The actual sound of the group, the group sound, was made by [Liz Mitchell]. And I think that’s why he said that,” the former member explained.
This doesn’t fully explore the depths of Farian’s words though.
His saying that all members are replaceable spoke to a group dynamic in which the majority of the members were there as either pawns or puppets.
They were placeholders and stand-ins for an idealized and exoticized image that Farian – being white and German – wouldn’t be able to fill.
Bonnick echoes these sentiments when looking back at the beginning days of the group.
“This sounds a little bit intense, but I really feel there was some sort of a slavery aspect,” she said, “not in a deep, malicious way but there was still a usage of (…) Black people.”Sheyla Bonnick
“I actually left at the right time,” she said when describing the concepts for Boney M’s album covers.
Notably, the first album features Bobby Farrell in something resembling a loincloth towering over the three women who are on the floor, draped over each other.
Love for sale
The second album, “Love for Sale”, shows the members, once again near-nude, but this time in chains. “That was also seen as something so exotic and something so original but morally I felt that wasn’t right at all,” Bonnick added.
Still, the former member was reluctant to talk about these tensions.
“I will leave that alone as I don’t know what and who is saying what,” they wrote to my follow-up question days after our interview.
“Don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.” They signed it with the typical British “Xx.”
So, wait, what now? What started as a piece exploring the song’s appeal to the youth turned into a bigger question: how can we appreciate and enjoy art while acknowledging and address its problematic roots?
What happens when the context of the music has been ignored or forgotten?
Working with Boney M
Despite these tones of exoticization, both Bonnick and the former member still look back fondly on the group’s music.
Both artists stress the joy their work with Boney M brought and continues to bring audiences. Both continue performing with both Boney M songs and their own solo work.
“Rasputin,” like “Sunny” or “Daddy Cool,” speaks to this joy.
“Rasputin has proven to just be the song that is just going over the times. Young people still feel that they can just hop away, skip away, jump away,” Mitchell said about the song.
“Whatever the energy is, it’s still alive today.”Former member Boney M
The former member hadn’t seen the Rasputin TikTok trends yet. “I think it’s crazy, wonderfully crazy that it is doing what it’s doing today,” they said.
What is celebrated on TikTok right now, is not the aesthetics of the group’s albums. When TikTok creators dance to Rasputin, they don’t do so to support the inherently racist structure that brought the members together.
And “Sunny’s appeal” does not lie in the exploitative nature of the group’s origin.
Instead, it celebrates joy. It celebrates being silly and fun and carefree.
Everything both Bonnick and the former member highlighted as reasons they still love performing the songs today – more than twenty years after the group’s disbandment.
‘Rasputin’ the song
Finally, there’s the platform itself. Maybe TikTok, with its relative diversity and tongue-in-cheek approach to most sounds it pulls into its algorithm, is the best way to consume past bops with problematic production.
Maybe in the 21st century, the Rasputin line “he was big and strong” has to be accompanied by exposed arms and chests, excessive flexing.
The next, “and his eyes were flaming gold” has to be accompanied by a sultry stare into the camera.
Looking back at Rasputin, the music, fan appreciation, and TikTok, the former member added one thought: “I think that we created something that was really warming.”