Ukrainian duo heads to the Eurovision Song Contest with a message: We’re still here

KYIV, Ukraine — Even amid war, Ukraine finds time for the glittery, pop-filled Eurovision Song Contest. Perhaps now even more than ever.

Ukraine’s entrants in the pan-continental music competition — the female duo of rapper alyona alyona and singer Jerry Heil — set off from Kyiv for the competition on Thursday. In wartime, that means a long train journey to Poland, from where they will travel on to next month’s competition in Malmö, Sweden.

“We need to be visible for the world,” Heil told The Associated Press at Kyiv train station before her departure. “We need to show that even now, during the war, our culture is developing, and that Ukrainian music is something waiting for the world” to discover.

“We have to spread it and share it and show people how strong (Ukrainian) women and men are now,” added alyona, who spells her name with all lower case letters.

Ukraine has long used Eurovision as a form of cultural diplomacy, a way of showing the world the country’s unique sound and style. That mission became more urgent after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied that Ukraine existed as a distinct country and people before Soviet times.

Ukrainian singer Jamala won the contest in 2016 — two years after Russia illegally seized the Crimean Peninsula — with a song about the expulsion of Crimea’s Tatars by Stalin in 1944. Folk-rap band Kalush Orchestra took the Eurovision title in 2022 with “Stefania,” a song about the frontman’s mother that became an anthem to the war-ravaged motherland, with a haunting refrain on a traditional Ukrainian wind instrument.

Alyona and Heil will perform “Maria & Teresa,” an anthemic ode to inspiring women. The title refers to Mother Theresa and the Virgin Mary, and the lyrics include the refrain, in English: “All the divas were born as the human beings” — people we regard as saints were once flawed and human like the rest of us.

Heil said the message is that “we all make mistakes, but your actions are what define you.”

And, alyona added: “with enough energy you can win the war, you can change the world.”

The song blends alyona’s punchy rap style with Heil’s soaring melody and distinctly Ukrainian vocal style.

“Alyona is a great rapper, she has this powerful energy,” Heil said. “And I’m more soft.”

“But great melodies,” alyona added. “So she creates all the melodies and I just jump in.”

Ukraine has been at the forefront of turning Eurovision from a contest dominated by English-language pop songs to a more diverse and multilingual event. Jamala sang part of her song in the Crimean Tatar language, while Kalush Orchestra sang and rapped in Ukrainian.

Ukraine’s Eurovision win in 2022 brought the country the right to host the following year, but because of the war the 2023 contest was held in the English city of Liverpool, which was bedecked in blue and yellow Ukrainian flags for the occasion — a celebration of Ukraine’s spirit and culture.

Thirty-seven countries from across Europe and beyond — including Israel and Australia — will compete in Malmö in two Eurovision semifinals May 7 and 9, followed by a May 11 final. Ukraine currently ranks among bookmakers’ top five favorites alongside the likes of singer Nemo from Switzerland and Croatian singer-songwriter Baby Lasagna.

Russia, a long-time Eurovision competitor, was kicked out of the contest over the invasion.

The Ukrainian duo caught a train after holding a news conference where they announced a fundraising drive for a school destroyed by a Russian strike.

The duo is joining with charity fundraising platform United 24 to raise 10 million hryvnia (about $250,000) to rebuild a school in the village of Velyka Kostromka in southern Ukraine that was destroyed by a Russian rocket in October 2022. The school’s 250 pupils have been unable to attend class since then, relying on online learning.

From the rubble, a teacher managed to rescue one of the school’s treasured possessions — a large wooden key traditionally presented to first grade students to symbolize that education is the key to their future.

Alyona and Heil have also embraced the key as a symbol, wearing T-shirts covered in small metal housekeys.

“It’s a symbol of something which maybe some people in Ukraine won’t have, because so many people lost their homes,” Heil said. “But they’re holding these keys in their pockets, and they’re holding the hope.”

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