Alyona Savranenko talks like she raps. She’s fast, assured and precise with her words. Her energy is relentless and infectious, and her strong, motivational spirit is more vital than ever as Russia’s invasion of her country continues to be senselessly brutal, killing thousands of people in its wake.
While many Ukrainian women fled the country to seek safety, Savranenko – who goes by the artist name Alyona Alyona – decided to stay. “I felt like I was needed here, because there are people here who can’t go abroad,” the 30-year-old tells me over Zoom from her flat in Kyiv. “If I left people here, they would have no hope that anyone was willing to stay with them or that we will win this war.” Although if she had kids, she tells me, her decision would have been different: “then I would’ve left Ukraine because my only goal would be to protect their lives.”
Savranenko was born in the Kirovogradskaya region of central Ukraine and moved to a village south of Kyiv aged 14, before moving to the capital in 2018 – the same year she started making waves with her fun, absurdist twist on high-energy rap. Vogue compared her sound to “a car revving up and rocketing off full speed until suddenly, you’re carried away”. Her visuals are unusual too. In the music video for 20 Тонн (20 Tonnes), she dresses up as a pin-up model and takes a bath in a tub full of cooked spaghetti.
But despite the surreal humour, a lot of Savranenko’s songs are motivated by her values. She points me towards her braggadocious track Pushka Pishka – Pusha translates to “the shit”, while the word Pishka can mean a doughnut or a plus-size woman. “I have a body-positive message, a message to women, a message of energy,” she says. “Everything has either a social or political message, or it will be a song from the heart.”
Savranenko, who grew up speaking surzhyk (a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian commonly spoken in Ukraine) used to rap in Russian because she believed most of her fanbase only spoke the language. Yet in 2014, she made the choice to start releasing Ukrainian-language music. Although Savranenko says this wasn’t politically motivated, it’s no coincidence that around this time she was able to resonate with a Ukrainian-speaking audience. In 2013, the Euromaidan protests – a wave of civil unrest and demonstrations in Ukraine against the government’s corruption and relationship with Russia – led to an increase in nationalism, with more Ukranians speaking in their native language.
In the first few weeks of the invasion, Savranenko had no time to even think about music. Instead, she volunteered all her time in the capital. “I went to volunteer in a pharmacy [in Kyiv] because the delivery of medicine from warehouses had completely stopped, so my father and I helped to drive it down.”
Having primarily used her Instagram page to report on the invasion in recent weeks, she’s now decided to use her musical abilities to raise awareness. Her latest single Molitva (a prayer) featuring the singer Jerry Heil sent shivers down my spine. The short 90-second track portrays a cinematic montage of Ukraine before the war, Ukraine since it’s been bombed and Ukrainians praying for peace. “Peaceful sky was covered with fire, children quietly crying in the basement,” she speaks solemnly as a melancholic piano melody repeats itself in the background. Heil sings the chorus emotively: “Our heavenly father they’re asking: ‘Please close our sky with your hands’”.
THE FACE called Alyona Alyona on 6th April to discuss how her role as a musician has changed, her perspective of Russia’s invasion on Ukraine and the importance of hope.
Have you been writing or listening to music to process the war?
I’ve spent the last four days at home and I’ve finally sat down to write the music people are waiting to hear from me. I’m now writing rap, not just lyrics. I’ve found the strength to listen to beats. In terms of listening to music, it’s been rare. Only when I’m driving my car somewhere.
Can you tell us what kind of themes you’re writing on?
Everything will be about my country, about the pain that people are experiencing. [My new lyrics include] a comparison of a Russian soldier and a Ukrainian soldier, and how we are different; words of mothers who are begging for things; a plea into the universe that this all stops and that people stop killing one another and dying.
Have you felt like the international music industry has been supportive of Ukrainians during this time?
Actually, yes. I’ve noticed how European radio channels have started adding Ukrainian artists to their playlists and announcing this on Instagram pages. I keep getting tagged on Instagram. I’m seeing a huge surge in interest in Ukrainian music. I’m seeing many other Ukrainian artists give interviews – some have even travelled abroad to keep talking with people, to keep up the international support. Many are being added to concerts and festivals.
How has Ukrainian culture and history influenced your work?
Ukrainian literature and poetry have hugely influenced my lyricism. Of course, arts in the wider sense have also influenced my outlook. I also believe that being a patriot has influenced my output; everything from learning poetry as a child and celebrating national holidays, to our unique instruments and vocals. Even if we adopt other types of genres, we can put our own Ukrainian twist on them.
Who has influenced your music?
At one point everyone [in Ukraine] was listening to super old school [music], like Onyx and anything they could get their hands on. Then with the coming of the internet, rap became more accessible and that’s when I heard Eminem, who became my favourite artist for a while. Another favourite is A$AP Rocky. We don’t have many things in common in our personal lives, but I love his flow and his beats. Kendrick Lamar. Tyler, the Creator. There are always new music genres and trends to follow and understand. I love British musicians like Skepta, Stormzy and Dizzee Rascal. I love female rappers like Little Simz and Lady Leshurr. I also like Princess Nokia.
What about Ukrainian artists?
Of course, there is Okean Elzy, a rock group here. I know many of their melodies off by heart. There’s also a group called Boombox. There are so many Ukrainian musicians who have inspired me and continue to do so.
In 2014, you switched to rapping in Ukrainian, why did you make this choice?
Before 2014 [the year the Euromaidan protests ended] we were all using the social media site VKontakte. It’s a Russian site and my rap community was Russian-speaking and from Russia, so naturally I made Russian [language] rap. From 2014, I found a Ukrainian rap community, and in 2016, I released an album in Ukrainian. I did delete it later, but it was an important move because I found my listeners.
I always had a lot of Ukrainian in me, as I read a lot of Ukrainian literature and poetry, and my vocabulary increased. Plus, I started working with kids in a nursery and my teaching material was all in Ukrainian. Before I wanted to make something in Ukrainian, but I didn’t because I wasn’t sure whether there’d be an audience. But as soon as I found it, I switched. Since then, I haven’t changed my mind; this is better for my soul and I enjoy it more. Of course, I realise that I made the right decision back then. I was following my heart. It wasn’t even about politics, because many Ukrainian artists continued to release music in Russian and even perform in Russia. Everyone was doing what they wanted, it wasn’t all as sensitive back then as it is now.
Do you think if Ukrainian musicians made music in the Russian language now, it would come across as uncomfortable?
No, I don’t think so right now. Our biggest pop musicians in Ukraine do make Russian-language songs and I would say the ratio is five Russian-language songs to one Ukrainian-language song. I think this will continue, not because they’re hoping to get through to Russian listeners, but because in Ukraine there are many Russian speaking people. I think that once we win the war, conservations will start about making Ukrainian the primary language. Right now there is no time to have these conservations. Our goal is to defend our land and shoot out the invaders. Many soldiers who are defending Ukraine speak in Russian. [Why does it matter] what language he speaks if he is saving your life?
I went to a festival once in Estonia, a country also once in the USSR, and saw that the younger generation understood Russian but mostly spoke their own language. I was amazed to see that there was a choice to either learn Russian for yourself or not – it’s an international language but it’s not compulsory. No one is saying that Russian is better than Estonian or, say, English. It is the choice of the individual. In these young people, I saw Ukrainians within a generation – they won’t feel the need to learn Russian because it’s the more fashionable language or because they’re told that the Ukrainian language is the language of villagers and Russian is the language of tsars. It will be their choice and they might even choose to learn English, which will be far more useful to them in Europe. I was inspired by this.
Your latest track Molitva is so moving. How did it come about?
In the first week of the war – when we all figured out what was going on and how people could help, what people should be doing, how we should all be reacting and that this won’t all be finished in a day or two – that’s when I started thinking about putting something down in words. I was glued to my screen to see the latest news; I was an “internet soldier”, constantly monitoring incoming information. I connected people with other relevant people, trying to help out where I could, sharing petitions and interviews and the latest news. The only thing I had the creative resources for was short poems.
I wrote these words, sent them to my team, and we decided to put them to music and ask another artist to do the vocals to finish the song. We asked Jerry Heil and we ended up with this music. Our mission was to unite everyone. The song will be available with English subtitles on YouTube and, in this way, we want to bring more people to pray for Ukraine. When the war began, many people understandably felt like they couldn’t do anything; perhaps they went abroad with a child and felt like they couldn’t do anything to help out. I want to tell all these people that praying for Ukraine also counts for something. It is the hope and belief that we will win.
How has this all affected your mental and physical health?
I speak for my friends and me when I say that the war is a constant emotional swing. At first, we all experienced a surge of energy. In the first week, I worked on the internet, gave interviews, asked NATO to close the skies and told everyone that we needed help. Then after a week, I began burning out. You realise that this isn’t going to finish tomorrow and that, eventually, your energy will run out. You acknowledge that people, children and animals are dying. My friends and I started taking anti-anxiety medication because our hearts couldn’t take it. You’re constantly worrying and all you can hear is explosions, and you can’t tell whether they’re close or far away. Plus, one rocket came to the village I was staying in with my family and you don’t know if there will be a new one tomorrow. Whether tomorrow it will hit your home. These thoughts are constant.
Every sound makes you panic, your heart starts beating uncontrollably. I had to take the medicine for a week and a half. This medicine helped me to even out emotionally and then when I started volunteering and keeping busy, and also walked away from the internet a bit (because my vision started going too, I was scrolling my phone all waking hours of the day), everything got a bit easier. Keeping busy is vital because at least you’re not absorbing the news all the time and, in that way, you get stronger again. And then the cycle repeats again every week. So many people are dying, you’re seeing these photos, you start feeling helpless and hopeless, you start feeling depressed.
At one point you realise that medicines won’t cure you and we all tried to find positivity in what surrounds us. In that, there is a light within the darkness. That good will always triumph. You have to motivate yourself in some way. Right now I am in a positive swing – we’re seeing that Kyiv is now freer as well as many other regions.
Do you have plans for after the war, or are you trying to live your life day-by-day right now?
Plans started appearing a week or so ago and all psychologists say to look into the future, to give ourselves hope. I began visualising how after the war I will organise clear-ups and help rebuild certain territories. Before the war, I was already involved in environmental cleanups, where we cleaned areas of plastic, etcetera. I’m also visualising that I will help animals and continue to connect with different people from different regions of Ukraine. We have huge music festivals here too, and I’m hoping that they will happen and that people will be joyous, talking of victory.