When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, the newly independent Ukraine began to reclaim its national identity. Over the course of the Russian Empire and under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian language had been consistently stigmatised, if not outright oppressed. Russian was compulsory in schools; speaking it well landed you a place at university and gave you tangible career prospects. Independence saw Ukrainian re-establish itself in the cultural sphere, bringing a new wave of Ukrainian-language pop, rock, and rap music. In 1995, Angelyka Rudnytska and Olexandr Brygynets launched the legendary Teritoriya A on ICTV. The show kickstarted the careers of beloved artists such as Skryabin, Okean Elzy, Grin Grey, TNMK, Akva Vita — and 90 per cent of the show’s content was in Ukrainian. But by the year 2000, the Ukrainian stars from that first decade of independence were starting to diminish. The wealthier Russian music industry began to make its presence felt in Ukraine, tipping popularity back towards Russian-language pop.
Today’s Ukraine is bilingual, with many people speaking both Russian and Ukrainian in their day-to-day lives. But Ukrainian is also undergoing a cultural revival. As of 2019, TV and radio stations were asked to boost their Ukrainian-language content. And, for the first time since the early days of independence, there is a new excitement surrounding Ukrainian-language music — largely thanks to the fierce figures representing raw expression in their mother tongue. The Calvert Journal has picked three of Ukraine’s new artistic generation bringing their native language to tracks across the world.
Alyona Alyona has never fit the bill as a typical hip-hop artist. A former kindergarten teacher and straight talker, she isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo and speak up, whether that’s through her music or her internet presence. One of her most-liked Instagram posts shows Alyona in rural Ukraine, digging soil so intensely that black chunks stain her blue boiler suit. “Hit ‘like’, if you’ve ever had to scoop shit in your life,” the caption reads.
It’s this down-to-earth attitude, her “provincial girl” charm, her emotional depth, and her penchant for self-irony that have transformed Alyona Alyona her into the reigning queen of the Ukrainian music scene — together with an unmistakable talent of spitting rap like fire.
Her music is unconventional too. Over heavy, trunk-rattling beats, she raps about leaving her hometown, her mother’s soup and father’s borshch, and her relationship with her body. She often reps the new Ukrainian generation, whether lending a hand to victims of bullying or celebrating adolescence along the tower blocks, like the one Alyona Alyona grew up in herself. Rapping, singing, and speaking publicly in her native language is important to her, too.
“Rapping in Ukrainian means I’m open and tell it how it is,” she explains. “The Ukrainian language is fun to play with: I have an unlimited range of topics and everyday words to express my thoughts with. But the most important part is, they are connected to me. I do it all with pure love for mova [a word for ‘the language’ in Ukrainian]. Our language is truly beautiful.”
From performing at a small bar on the outskirts of Kyiv to being booked by Sónar music festival (now postponed to June 2021), Alina Pash’s musical career has skyrocketed over the last few years. Hailing from the Transcarpathian town of Bushtyno, she first caught her break on the Ukrainian version of The X Factor in 2015, making her way into the final. But if you watch her first music video for Bitanga (2018) — a blend of traditional polyphonic folk music and rap — you might not recognise the woman who sang Soviet estrada songs and cried on live primetime TV. Here, she is reincarnated into a deity — with a voice that is anything but ordinary.
“I’m not a producer-invented project, so when I finally decided to create my first song and try to launch my career, I had no doubts about the choice of language and style. Many people thought I’d gone nuts. The Ukrainian language? A Transcarpathian dialect? Rap? Hell yes! It’s me,” she said. “The Ukrainian language was the first thing I heard in this world. It has nurtured, taught me to love and be honest with myself. It’s the language I think in, it’s beautiful to me. Writing songs in Ukrainian is a joy for me because it means I can express all my thoughts in exquisite ways. This is the base I build from, and then comes the dialect. And, thanks to it, I can also understand people in our neighboring countries: Slovakia, Romania, Czech Republic, Poland, Belarus, Russia, Hungary.”
In 2019, Pash released a double album — entitled Pintea: Gory and Pintea: Misto — dedicated to her ancestor, Pintea the Brave, a 17th-century Transcarpathian Robin Hood. Ce Ukraina Yo was conceived as an homage to Childish Gambino’s This is America, mocking aspects of Ukrainian contemporary society and mass culture — referencing trashy reality shows, and Ukraine’s ever-turbulent political climate. Her songs also tackle the realities of mental health: for example her video for Don’t Chew the Rag (Ne Pili) looks at emotional abuse in romantic relationships.
Pash has stayed productive during quarantine by recording cover songs at home, releasing an “anti-hate” track called The Arrogant (Vysokomirni), and participating in a social justice project Rizni.Rivni. But she has also found time to finally revisit her hometown of Bushtyno. “For almost nine years I wasn’t able to do it. What a joy to be at home for more than 5 days,” she wrote on Instagram.
Anastasia Shevchenko (a.k.a STASIK, or CTACIK) sings in the dazzling high-pitched folk style most associated with old ladies in Ukrainian villages — except that the artist could be a model plucked from a Dazed fashion spread with her shaved head and haunting blue eyes.
Shevchenko could be easily styled as Ukraine’s Sinead O’Connor, but unsurprisingly, she doesn’t like being compared to other artists. That’s because she’s exceptionally unique in her subject matter.
Shevchenko is a veteran of the continuing war in Donbas, where she worked as a nurse for the Ukrainian forces. Her experience of war has been the inspiration behind her music. In her best-known song, A Lullaby for the Enemy (Kolyskova Dlya Voroga), she addresses Russia-backed soldiers and separatists in Ukrainian for igniting the hostilities in her home country. The lyrics are moving yet quietly brutal, inviting her listeners to reflect and take pause: “You wanted this earth, so now go blend with it. Become my earth itself. Sleep”. Russian subtitles were added to the video, but seem almost superfluous to understanding. By the song’s climax, Shevchenko is screaming with emotional pain, drowned out only by the sound of the sudden bass.
With her background as a folk choir singer, Shevchenko also puts Ukrainian language at the heart of her craft.
“I sing in Ukrainian because my songs aren’t just a stream of consciousness or inspiration. They are not just ways I express myself. They are precise statements,” she explains. “In my everyday life, I think in Russian. I even have my own poetry written in Russian. But when I sing, I choose Ukrainian because for me, this is the language of meaningful statements.”
“First, the Ukrainian language helps me mark my audience because especially those songs where I turn inwards to the country. Second, it is to mark and recognise myself and my identity. I’m very open-minded, I think broadly, but I’m not a citizen of the world. I have my cultural and national identity, I feel connected to Ukraine as a country and as a land, and, above all, to its culture. I’m immersed in it. The Ukrainian language is my totemic language.”