From speaking constantly to different Ukrainian artists, musicians, and political figures, it seems impossible to overstate the profound significance of the 2013 Maidan protests and its subsequent impact on Ukrainian culture. Unlike other revolutions, the Maidan protests did not merely shift the top of the state but entirely changed the DNA of Ukrainian culture. This has led to a resurgent sense of purpose and national identity among almost every sector of Ukrainian society. On one hand, it has led to chauvinistic nationalist groups that rock Cossack haircuts on Khreshchatyk, but on the other, it has led to what is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most dynamic and exciting cultural scenes.
Much attention has been paid to Ukrainian fashion and arts scene, with the likes of Yulia Yefimtchuk and Sasha Kurmaz drawing significant international attention. What has been critically ignored however – until now, at least – has been the amazing rise of Ukrainian pop music. With artists like Onuka and The Maneken foregrounding an aesthetic that merges both underground influences yet still make it accessible to mainstream audiences, Ukraine has started to produce a long stream of musical artists that are renegotiating what pop music is.
In both Kyiv and other Ukrainian urban centres a diverse cohort of young musicians have emerged that escape any easy categorization other than their refusal to be defined as either ‘mainstream’ or ‘underground’. They are not artists that one has to be plugged into the fashionable conversation to know about. You can hear them in cafes, and even – weirdly – sometimes in advertisements. However, they are asking far more questions than what we traditionally associate with mainstream music in the 21st century.
More importantly, in contrast to a typically male-driven musical business, the artists meriting the most attention are overwhelmingly either female solo artists or female-led groups. With the dominant narrative surrounding Ukrainian women being highly sexist and colonial, it is important to showcase the resistance to that and artistic creativity emerging by Ukrainian women. As such, we want to look at some of the artists really exciting us and showing that the future is female in Ukrainian music.
INAIA, aka. K.A.T.Y.A, aka. Katya Rogovaya, makes fantastic electro-pop in Kyiv. When asked in one interview why she keeps changing her name, she points out that names are just like clothing that you wear at the appropriate moment. We really don’t care. Although her music isn’t as avant-garde as the other artists here, her 2017 album LIKE/DISLIKE elegantly treaded the border of mainstream and underground. It’s eccentric and individualistic while certainly not alienating to a mainstream listener. Mixing French and Ukrainian, her music brings together a host of different influences for a truly great album.
One of the most exciting new voices on the Kyiv music scene is Люси (Luci). Kristina Varlamova embodies so much of what is attracting attention to Kyiv as a centre of culture. Her music belongs both in the club and in your own private moments. She is both subdued but strangely energetic. Beyond her sound, she crafts videos for her music that acts as a tutorial to what is the wonder of Kyiv. Recently, we spoke to her for an interview about Kyiv and her music, while she gave us a beautiful mix.
Palmo X produces beautifully emotional music that is filled with vulnerable lyrics and maximalist beats. Her track Unchained showcases the contorted emotions of lost love. Based in Lviv, Palmo showcases what some may have been missing out on by thinking that musically, Ukraine doesn’t extend beyond Kyiv. She is part of a slowly building wave of Western Ukraine that is emphatically proving that the area is much more than vyshyvankas and Habsburg architectural design, and is a cosmopolitan and forward-thinking space.
Listening to Гурт «O» (Group “O”) draws similarities to that moment when you open your bedroom window on the first day of spring and the sensation of the first breath of fresh air fills you with joy. Led by vocalist Olya Chernyshova, they combine a funky bass-driven sound with hushed tone vocals that leave you feeling ready for the end of winter and seemingly endless possibilities of summer. They played last years Atlas Weekend, which is one of the biggest summer festivals in Kyiv, and are signed onto Ivan Dorn’s album label Masterskaya. They’ll have a new album coming out in April that you’ll have to look out for.
Whereas the artists above largely have a more electronic sound, Tik Tu make baroque pop with all band members being multi-instrumentists. However, they are not bombastic and overwhelming, instead sounding like Funeral-era Arcade Fire, stripped down to their basic essentials. The Ternopil-based band is led by vocalist Natalka Bagrie and has played festivals in Ukraine, Poland and the Netherlands, where they have been met with massive critical acclaim. Last year, their music reached an even broader audience when their music was featured in ads by fashion brand Wolf & Badger.