A Future for Ukrainian Music?

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Part three of our Kharkiv-based correspondent, Ilya Kovalenko’s deep dive into the Ukrainian rap (and related) scene…

Ukrainian music is really experiencing probably the biggest renaissance in its history right now, but just like any other field, it faces many challenges that have to do with how people in the country perceive it.

At the moment, the average local listener adores anything Ukrainian, whatever it may be, and I think it’s great when people are finally starting to be interested in and proud of their national product.

I see it as the first stage in the development of the Ukrainian music scene. Since we are gradually discarding Russian music, we have started to notice that there is a lot of Ukrainian music and there are alternatives for almost any genre.

It’s great to see that people have started to listen to Ukrainian music, but the next stage in the development of the Ukrainian scene is to separate the good Ukrainian music from the bad. It’s a time when the demand for Ukrainian music is soaring, people like everything that is simply made in Ukrainian. Maybe we need to think that there may be something wrong with some of this music?

“Sharovarshchina” 

Yes, people support Ukrainian artists, but they often don’t notice that a particular artist is making music without any effort. Nowadays such a term as “Sharovarshchina” has gained popularity – it is a deliberate use of Ukrainian national symbols, historical events, stereotypes in the songs, which everyone has heard of, and speculations on the war theme.

As the result, the majority of mainstream and popular songs broadcast on radio, shown in commercials and promoted every day, sound like a set of pseudo-patriotic lines; repeating words such as “sharovary”, “sopilka”, “ЗСУ”, and “козаки”.

The song DELAMER – ГОРИТЬ ОКУПАНТ (rap ua) #зсу #russiaterroriststate was released at the beginning of the full-scale invasion, with a large number of Ukrainian rappers joining in. The main motif of the song and the chorus sounds like, “Take up arms”. The video sequence shows footage of military action. But the interesting thing is that almost none of these rappers took up arms for real and such boasting may offend the military, who risk their lives every day to defend the country at the front.

It is worth telling how this trend started during the war: in the first weeks after the start of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian artists hardly released any new material. A couple of weeks later the first songs began to appear, and they gained enormous popularity. One of the first was the joke song ‘Bayraktar’, a track about the weapons that were delivered to us from Turkey in the first days of the war, and because of its successful use by the Ukrainian military, the name was often heard in the news. At the time the song seemed funny and witty and perfectly suited the mood of the Ukrainians.

The problem is that after nine months of war the word ‘bayraktar’ is still being actively used in songs and the same songs are gaining millions of listens. As a result, our mainstream music turns into a collection of words like ‘bayraktar’, ‘kozaks’, ‘Bucha’, ‘occupants’, and the like.

This song – with 26 million views – has a rather pleasant chorus from a musical point of view and is very well suited for use on radio, commercials, or television. The lyrics are quite simple, without any profound reflection on the war. They use the names of towns that were incredibly affected (Bucha, Dnipro, Irpin) and of course references to Azov; especially in the chorus. Still: it’s not the worst track, it was released at a time when such songs were not perceived as “sharovarshchina”, but it has all the attributes and is one of those tracks that started speculation on the theme of war and became extremely popular.

This song – with 11 million views – uses a hackneyed snottiness in the instrumental, and primitive lines about will, strength and victory that have caught the mainstream listener’s fancy.

Another example is the Eurovision 2022 winners Kalush Orchestra and their song ‘Numo kozaki’. The guys and their label ENKO – the biggest in the country – have found a win-win option it seems: songs about cossacks. This time they invited Cossak Siromakhu for the fit as well. No rap, no new voices or even a desire to find them – a quality beat and cossacks, that is how our Eurovision winners see new Ukrainian culture, and how Ukrainians and foreigners will see it, if they continue to consider it good music.

This happens because artists are unwilling to come up with new thoughts and meanings in their work. It is much easier to write a song in 30 minutes, stuffing it with lines about the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the Ukrainian fields, bayraktars and javelins. Also, these creatives make sure to shoot a clip of a destroyed house, traditional clothing like the vyshyvanka and complete the package with an instrumental break using the sounds of a sopilka. As a result, with minimal creative effort an artist earns millions of auditions, popularity and money.

I think that both the listeners and the artists have to think a bit more about what they want from the music: if listeners demanded more interesting, different and complex songs, the artists would probably have to come up with something more complicated than speculating on the theme of war and the national symbols of the country.

As a colleague of mine said, “England has managed to find its own unique sound and style, and they don’t sing and rap about King Arthur and Ivanhoe”.

Anyway I’m sure that in time this trend of odd songs using the same ideas will pass, when people will find time to start thinking what Ukrainian music is bad and what is good. There is still a war going on in the country and a lot of people don’t have time to understand music. The fact that people want to listen to Ukrainian music is a great cultural success, but the next step is to distinguish quality music from the banal and uninteresting products that have no cultural value. Unfortunately, at the moment, if a song is just made in Ukrainian, people like it by default, no matter if it has an interesting message or new musical solutions.

Indeed, these kinds of songs are the biggest problem not only for rap, but of all Ukrainian music. Half a year ago it was difficult for people to use their creativity to reflect the new reality, as before no one had faced such things, but now, in 2023, simple songs and blanket use of stereotypical images in a war context do not develop or help our culture, but rather simplify it and make it as uniform in all senses.

During the first news about the atrocities of the occupants in Bucha, a song called ‘Bucha’ came out. An obvious commentary on the terrible events and, of course, playing on people’s emotions, the song gained millions of views. Apart from the primitive nature of the song itself, there are now doubts about the artist’s sincerity.

Mainstream pop artists have decided to gain popularity at the expense of the most primitive song, where in the chorus they sing “what a cossack you are”. The song bears no cultural or semantic meaning. But most likely they don’t care, the main thing is to get into the charts, and it doesn’t matter what the song is. The most widespread image is of the cossacks. It feels as if nothing ever happens in our country and nothing ever happened except the cossacks, and we have nothing else to sing about. The songs always contain the images of fields and the Khatin (the name of small houses in the countryside). And of course, the worst thing – “Azov” and “Azovstal” – the actors just use these words to get more views – but I think that these words, which have become a symbol of a terrible tragedy, should be used very carefully, and not shoved into any song.

Music cannot evolve in the context of the same meanings for a long time.

The most striking example of “sharovarshchina” happened quite recently. The mainstream pop singer Jerry Heil released the song ‘Kozatskomu rodu’, and it is the quintessence of what Ukrainian music should not turn into. The whole song is made up of popular slogans, stereotypical images and sociology, which some artists have been exploiting for nine months.

Underground Roots?

To search, to create and to show for the whole world what we live by, to experiment, to break common patterns, to make unique music, to mix genres, not to be guided by the needs of listeners in a moment, to speak honestly and sincerely – this is the way how the Ukrainian industry should develop. 

Unfortunately, our underground rappers, whom I wrote about in the previous articles, are hardly known. For many people Ukrainian rap – it’s the same half-dozen people who play on the radio, such as Kalush’s label mate, AlyonaAlyona. But in fact, they have nothing in common with rap, except they use the form of recitative. Even if they started out as fresh, interesting artists with groundbreaking thoughts and meanings within the genre, now it’s just mainstream music made with one goal in mind – to be successful.

The interesting thing is that such artists have a great resource and they could easily hire a ghostwriter for example to make their song less superficial, but even that they don’t do, they just poll everything they can. In my opinion that is a shame.

As a result other less popular artists begin to imitate them, because they believe that why complicate and try to bring something new into the music, if they can do the hundredth song about the occupiers and the ZSU, making more money and spending less time. Such an approach to creation can really kill the development of an independent Ukrainian industry.

I think that Ukrainian music has to be different to be seen abroad and understood by Ukrainians. One-size-fits-all songs about the same thing absolutely don’t develop the industry or people’s taste. I think artists should stop paying attention only to auditions and money, and just create, combine genres and not pay attention to people’s musical needs today, in this time of war, because people simply have no time to develop their taste when the country is in a blackout and there is no electricity and internet. I’m sure that once the war is over, a lot more people will pay attention to the really cool and independent artists who make and have made great music that doesn’t come out of all the cracks now.

Scandal

While I was working on this article, there was a scandal which shows that only now people are beginning to realise that they are not ready to consume every Ukrainian song that mainstream artists and labels give us. It seems to be no surprise, Kalush and Skofka released another track ‘Bat’kishchyna’, which has everything that I’m writing about in this article. It would seem, everything is as usual, another “sharovar” track, which is presented as a deep dive into Ukrainian culture, but there was an unacceptable and offensive line: “Freedom is a girl who loves home, only she would not give to a Russian”, (colloquially this means girls “had sex”, or “gave consent to sex”).

To make a bunch of primitive songs about Ukraine is their right, after all a lot of people have listened to them so far, but they have sunk to the level of sexist lines that do not glorify our culture, but make it feel ugly. After the release of the song the media and listeners raised a stink on social networks, forcing the artists to make some kind of comment and apologise. The artists did apologise, but Kalush’s excuse is questionable. He said he meant the house and not the girl, but to be honest, everyone laughed at that, because the sexist horrible message of the line is obvious.

I consider this situation as a big step away from such music because a lot of people questioned the quality of the music and the meaning behind their lyrics. Because of the scandal, people started to realise that not everything shoved by mainstream rappers is worthy music. The audience will soon stop consuming any song that contains the words “cossack”, “field” and “Armed Forces of Ukraine”.

“New Music for Young People”

We need music for young people. The war will undoubtedly end and the country will be left with young people whose youth is being taken away from them. If I can talk about myself (I am 20 years old) I want to enjoy life, go to parties, have fun, and go to music festivals. The industry has to pay attention to the wider musical demands of young people. They want cool Ukrainian music to spend their time with, wherever. The young generation wants to spend their youth in a cool way, even now, and if the moment comes when at all festivals and parties they will dance madly and party to Ukrainian music – it will be a real victory.

It scares me that because of the war all music will be about the war. That’s what’s happening; in almost every track people talk about what’s going on in the country right now. There’s no way to avoid it, because people talk about what’s bothering them in the songs, and there’s no way without it, it’s also part of the new Ukrainian music.

Personally I can’t listen to songs about war and what is happening now, because when there are rockets flying over the whole country and every Ukrainian hears explosions in their city, the last thing I would like to hear in music is artists’ thoughts about the war. There is too much war in real life, and personally for me music is just a way to get away from it and return to a past, peaceful time.

Music about war and what is going on in the country is sadly inevitable. And it is wrong and impossible not to talk about it. On the other hand, I respect those artists who, despite the events, continue to speak in music about what really concerns them and stick to the style they have created. That is to say, if an artist had been rapping about their own personal beliefs and interests before the war and continues to do so even during the war, because it’s still close to them – that musician, just like someone who talks honestly and sincerely about the war – commands my respect and interest. I think that just focusing on the war in music is not going to do any good. It doesn’t matter what you talk about, the war or your new trainers and girls – the main thing is to do it honestly and sincerely.

We have more independent music media and bloggers showing new artists and music from different genres, the kind of music that is considered ‘unformatted’ by the big music channels and radio. Honest, unique artists will be seen and recognised, maybe not now, but in the near future, and “dummy artists”, who speculate on the theme of war will be seen as a mistake of the past.

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