In this column two weeks ago, we spoke to two Russian musicians, now living in the United States, who are firmly against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and wanted to publicly stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine. The sentiments were touching, a timely reminder that we are not our politicians. Or at least, we don’t have to be.
Of course, there are also plenty of musicians actually from and/or in the Ukraine who are desperately trying to make sense of this horrific attack, keep their families safe, and, in many cases, actually go in and fight.
“We were in talks to play in this very cool Russian club, Chinese Pilot,” Slepakov told NPR. “But during the negotiations, Russia’s aggression in Donbas began, and we as a band decided we cannot tour in Russia.”
As is often the case when people feel oppressed by politicians, music is a means to assert themselves. This is especially true in the Ukraine, where the people are often looked down upon — treated as peasants — by others within the region.
“We have this thing we call inferiority complex,” Taras Shevchenko, keyboardist and percussionist with Ukrainian electronica-folk band Go_A, told NPR. “People [who] even didn’t hear Ukrainian music, they already think that it’s bad and it’s not interesting and it’s not worth listening to.”
Kyrylo Brener of rock band Kat told Rolling Stone that the invasion has left him feeling destroyed inside. Brener was forced to flee his city of Kharkiv with his family, and he has no idea what the future holds.
“I hope this thing will somehow be ended and we will be able to play,” he said. “But right now we can’t make plans, even for the next day. I don’t know what will be next.”
“A lot of interesting artists had a chance to show their music to the whole world,” DJ Bodya Konakov told Rolling Stone. “Everybody was interested in what this revolution would bring. It was like a wave. Everybody wished to take part in building a new music scene. It was a beautiful time of solidarity, and we can see now that we have a strong music scene.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv is standing firm in solidarity with her nation and using her position to raise awareness.
“My parents and my brother are [in my hometown of Brody, near Lviv],” she told DW.com. “There were attacks on the second day of the war. My mother and her twin sister, my aunt, have been hiding by candlelight in our root cellar. The young children in our family have been taken further away, to the Carpathian Mountains, to stay with friends, where it is safe. My father, a choir director, continues to organize concerts with his choir. They sing Ukrainian songs to boost people’s spirits.”
On the subject of Russian musicians being sanctioned, and excluded from classical competitions, Lyniv said, “I can understand that it is a matter of debate, but artists are representatives of their state. Sure, they can distance themselves from what the state is doing, but unfortunately far too few do, which is also true for the artists with whom I’ve shared the stage. There are a few, like opera director Dmitri Tcherniakov or conductor Vladimir Jurowski, who have clearly spoken out against the war and Putin’s policies. Some others, who were perhaps afraid to speak out publicly, have written to me in private. But when you look at a nation as large as Russia, their number is negligible. Unfortunately. I know there are harsh punishments for every word spoken against the war in Russia, but I must urge Russian artists: Raise your voices! If you don’t, the blood of innocent victims will be on your hands.”
Musicians from all over the world have been gathering for benefits across America, to stand with Ukraine. One such event in New York saw Patti Smith, always a vocal supporter of justice, perform alongside Gogol Bordello.
That band’s singer Eugene Hütz has a Russian father and half-Ukrainian/half-Roma mother. In a press release, Hütz referred to Russia as “Ukraine’s criminally insane neighbor” and a “psychotic totalitarian nation.” He added, “Please help us to win this battle; help us to end this catastrophe immediately and bring the intruder to justice.”
From the stage, Hütz said, “We’re stepping up at the right moment to raise money and awareness. Less is more and more is what we need now. We need all the help we can get.”
Many American artists reacted strongly, with Miley Cyrus posting on social media, “This morning was heartbreaking waking up to the news that Ukraine had been invaded. I had the most incredible experience filming ‘Nothing Breaks Like a Heart’ in Kyiv and will be forever grateful to the local community who welcomed me with open arms. There are local reports that at least 40 Ukrainians have been killed already, and this conflict can lead to many more deaths, another refugee crisis with so many forced to flee their homes, and more. I am standing in solidarity with everyone in Ukraine who is affected by this attack and with our global community who is calling for an immediate end to this violence.”
Yungblud posted: “I’m so devastated to see what’s happening in Ukraine right now. My prayers are with you.”
Of course, there’s ultimately a limited amount that musicians of any nationality can do. But they do have a pedestal and it’s at least reassuring that so many are using it effectively and as a force for good.