A Brand New Direction for Ukraine at Eurovision

Ukraine’s 2023 Eurovision contestant is unlike any in its history of the contest. Tvorchi, a duo made up Nigerian vocalist Jeffery Kenny and Ukrainian producer Andrii Hutsuliak, will be representing Ukraine with their song, “Heart of Steel,” an electronic R&B piece warning against the dangers of nuclear arsenals. After taking a listen, watching the performance on Youtube, and learning about the makeup of the group, it’s easy to see how big of a switch up it is compared to performances in the past.

The past two Ukrainian Eurovision contestants, Go-A and Kalush, performed songs that are both modernized takes on traditional Ukrainian folk music. Go-A’s entry, “Shum,” and Kalush’s entry, “Stefania,” both heavily feature the Sopilka, a type of woodwind flute often used by Ukrainian folk musicians. With Shum, Go-A electronically adapted an old Ukrainian folk song to get 5th place in 2021, while Kalush combined rap and Ukrainian folk to become Ukraine’s third Eurovision winner of all time.

If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend listening to Shum and Stefania so you can get more of an idea of what I’m talking about. Both of the songs were top five finishers for a reason, and Kalush’s and Go-A’s respective discographies are wonderful rabbit holes to go down. (Listen to Shum Here and Stefania Here).

Seeing as the past two entries had so much success, it would make sense for Ukraine to go with an, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” attitude. Adapted folk songs celebrate the rich history of Ukrainian musical culture, and during a time when Russia is attempting to wipe that culture off of the face of the planet, one might think that tripling down with this genre in the next Eurovision Contest would be the best course of action.

Instead, Ukrainians decided to go in a completely different direction. Tvorchi’s entry, “Heart of Steel,” is a smooth electro/R&B song that doesn’t have any elements of Ukrainian folk or heritage. While Shum and Stefania sound like clear odes to Ukrainian culture, Heart of Steel could be on a Top 40 radio station in any country in the world.

Again, if you haven’t listened to the song already, I highly recommend listening to it here.

Along with the sound, the look of the duo is completely different. The lead singer is from Nigeria, and instead of wearing Ukrainian traditional embroidered clothing of a Vyshyvanka during the performance, he wore sunglasses, a gold jacket, and gold pants. The other half of Tvorchi, Ukrainian producer Andrii Hutsuliak, was also dawning sunglasses and a black jumpsuit.

Heart of Steel is not only a huge contrast against the past two contestants but also many of the finalists for the 2023 spot. Just take a look at the difference between Jeffrey Kenny, the lead singer of Tvorchi, and Jerry Heil, another finalist who went down the traditional folk route.

Jeffery Kenny of Tvorchi, left, and Jerry Heil, right. Courtesy of EurovisionSongContest on Youtube.

From both the sound and the visuals, Ukraine chose to show off that they are not only proud of their musical history and culture, but also have a wide range of new and modern music to show off to the world. There’s nothing wrong with going in the folk route, but doing it every year pigeonholes Ukrainian culture a bit. I’m proud that Ukraine’s Eurovision committee chose to embrace an artist that reflects the modern direction that the country has been moving towards since independence.

However, I can’t say that I came up with this opinion on my own. After showing me the video, my wife was the one who mentioned what a good idea it is that Ukraine nominated someone who wasn’t once again promoting the Ethno-Ukrainian look and sound. Many comments on the Heart of Steel video tell the same story:

I agree with the commenters – Nominating Tvorchi propels the concept of a young and modern Ukraine that’s of course proud of its heritage, but also home to a budding and diverse music scene and population.

We also shouldn’t bury the lead that Ukraine, an overwhelmingly homogenous slavic and white population, has nominated a black man to represent their country on one of the biggest stages in the world. It’s significant because Nigerian community leaders in 2008 said that “Africans live in fear” in Kyiv, and nominating Tvorchi is a step in the right direction, says 25 year old Ukrainian Alina Yuska:

“It’s great that we have not only nominated a foreigner, but also a black person,” Yuska says, “It shows that we are a tolerant and progressive society.”

“I also think many Africans who study in Ukraine are going to be happy to see it, and will also feel more comfortable and less like outsiders. And most importantly, I am 100% sure that Russia would never do something like this.”

I think that last sentence is an important part in all of this. Russia has been trying to pull Ukraine back to the dark ages for quite some time now, with the war merely being a drastic escalation of this prolonged effort. Russia has been doing anything it can to stop Ukraine’s inevitable Westward momentum, a momentum that necessarily brings along greater tolerance towards other races, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Putin, who has characterized Russia as the savior of traditional values against a morally depraved west and has essentially made being gay in Russia illegal, is as far away from being a beacon of progressive tolerance as you can get. Needless to say, the farther away Ukraine can get from Putin and Russia, the better.

Nominating Tvorchi is yet another step in the Western direction away from Russia, and thankfully, is a banger to listen to. While Ukraine is unlikely to win two years in a row, choosing Tvorchi is a statement that Ukraine has more to offer than folk and is proud to celebrate all elements of its modern and growingly diverse culture.

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