Ukrainian Hip Hop Revolution

Published On May 1, 2014 | By Greg | Features, News, Ukraine
Hrushewski street day

Kiev-based MC Artisto during the Ukrainian revolution in late 2013.

Revolution is a long held theme of hip hop music. The world has seen young revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia and Senegal using their music to spread a message of revolution against their governments.

Government protestors in Ukraine are using hip hop music to spread their messages and bring people to the cause.

“There is strong (political) hip hop in Eastern Europe but it somehow hasn’t taken roots in Ukraine so much,” said Ukrainian hip hop artist Artisto. He is one of a new generation of political and social change focused MCs. He created a song called “Revolution Ukraine” which resonated with many of the protestors who helped oust the president in December 2013.

“It’s not just a song, it has its own life now,” said Artisto. “It has become the center of a movement. It has sparked the creativity of so many people. Right now we build a creative community for a Revolution of the minds in Ukraine.

“I toured the country for months without much impact. The time was not ripe for change. But it came last November. I was among the first people on Maidan [Kyiv’s central square, center of the protests]. I got the stage and then something magical happened. The song spoke the same truth as the people. Here we stood, only a few at the beginning, ready to break the chains from our oppressors. The first element in that chain is in your head. If you find a voice you can break that one. It was not me that gave the people this voice. It was the song.”

This isn’t the first revolution in Ukraine and it’s not the first time a hip hop song urged it along. In the Orange Revolution of 2004, the Ukrainian people rebelled against election rigging. Greenjolly’s “Razom nas bahato (Together We Are Many)” became the unofficial anthem, and many other songs used during the Orange Revolution involved hip hop elements, such as rapping and sampling.

Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western president who came into power after the Orange Revolution, was replaced by Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian president, who stayed in power until February 2014 when he was ousted by Ukrainian Parliament, after months of protests and accusations of murdering innocent protestors.

For decades, Ukraine has been caught in a tug of war between Western Europe and Russia. Hip hop music itself has also been caught in this struggle.

“It breaks down on language and where you live,” explained Adriana Helbig, assistant professor of music at University of Pittsburgh and author of the new book Hip Hop Ukraine: Music, Race and African Migration. “The western and central portions of the country primarily speak Ukrainian, and the people have a more European outlook . However, the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine speak primarily Russian and have cultural ties to Russia.” Language choice in music is greatly influenced by the political ideology of those in power. During and immediately after the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukrainian-language music gained more airtime in a media dominated by Russian-language popular culture. Under Moscow-based Viktor Yanukovych, the tide turned against Ukrainian-language music.

While the revolution known as “EuroMaidan” in Ukraine originated in Kyiv, the “hip hop capital” of Ukraine is actually Kharkiv, an eastern city just 30 miles west of the Russian border. The hip hop scene in Kharkiv is thriving, mainly thanks to the backing of the local pro-Moscow government and connections with St. Petersburg’s music industry. Many hip hop musicians there do not want to break ties with Russia, as it supports their own careers.

Helbig book cover“It’s evident even in the music put forth by migrants” said Helbig. “Certain African musicians living in Kharkiv rapped and sang in Ukrainian following the Orange Revolution. They now perform predominantly in Russian because that’s where the money is.”

For the Russian-speaking artists, hip hop is still connected to marginalization. Although independent and underground, these artists currently enjoy more success across all parts of Ukraine as well as in Russia than their Ukrainian-speaking counterparts. Kyiv is known more for its strong b-boying community than its rappers.

Kyiv-based emcee Sun Sunych describes himself as a conscious rapper, something he says is different in the hip hop landscape of Ukraine. “We have several trends among performers: old school (MC’s who started in the 90s), new school (modern tendencies: trap, R&B, swag), and the lion’s share is the so called ‘underground’ whose main topics are weed, amoral behavior and street violence.” “I feel my duty to bring people knowledge, open the truth; this is my mission. What is happening in Ukraine right now is impudent occupation! I live in Kyiv, [but] I have a lot of friends in the south. We stay in touch, calling each other few times a day, so that’s not only my words, but people’s from different cities, places and backgrounds. Russian forces invaded Crimea, blocked lots of roads, strategic places. What is more, they are provoking civilians and Ukrainian soldiers especially, threatening their families if they don’t give up, shooting upon heads, calling them fascist. Russia’s media resources are much stronger. They’re keeping an information war against us. For instance, on their TV channels only one type of propaganda – ‘Ukrainian terrorists obtained power!’ But we just want democracy, not [a] regime!”

Ukrainian MC Sun Sunych

Ukrainian MC Sun Sunych

In some respects, hip hop is still trying to find its identity in Ukraine, as the country itself tries to forge its own identity.

Helbig said that although there is not a lot of MCs speaking on political topics, Ukrainian hip hop is quite political. “[L]ook beyond the lyrics and recognize that language choice in and of itself is political in Ukraine. These guys aren’t overtly political but their politics comes into play based on where they perform, the language they use, which studios they are associated with, and what clubs they go to. For instance, some feel strongly about not DJing in clubs owned by Russians.”

Artisto represents a small group of revolutionary and creative people who are risking everything to speak out against the government and for the people.

“There is some amount of danger in being a political artist right now,” said Artisto. “Artists have been abducted, tortured and killed in the last months. Until very recently I have worn a bullet-proof vest and had bodyguards at all times. But we are getting there, people need examples, then they do their own stuff. We are working on a creative domino effect. Maidan has been very creative, daily concerts, an open university, poster art and so on.

“To quote Tupac: ‘I have no motherfucking fear.’ And he said, that we can change the world. Hip Hop can change the world. And then Martin Luther King: ‘I have a dream’… that one day my Ukraine will be free and music is one corner stone in its liberation. So we need a hip hop revolution! ‘Revolution Ukraine’ is also my little hope for a revolution of hip hop.”

by Greg Schick (for World Hip Hop Market)