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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Undaunted by air raids, a Ukrainian duo gets ready for Eurovision

Andrii Hutsuliak, left, and Jimoh Augustus Kehinde, who, as the duo Tvorchi, are representing Ukraine at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, in Amsterdam on April 15, 2023.

By Marc Santora and Alex Marshall

Whenever their rehearsals for the Eurovision Song Contest were interrupted by air raid sirens, the Ukrainian pop duo Tvorchi would race to the safety of underground bunkers, sometimes wearing their matching stage outfits.

While recording a video in Kyiv of their contest entry, “Heart of Steel,” they lost electricity, sending them on a hunt for generators.

But they are quick to stress that those inconveniences have been minor compared with what others are going through.

“Everyone can meet hard and difficult times,” said Andrii Hutsuliak, 27, who formed the group with singer Jimoh Augustus Kehinde, 26, describing what has become the theme of their song. “We just wanted to say, be a stronger and better version of yourself.”

They are about to get a chance to project that message at the world’s largest, glitziest and often campiest song contest: Eurovision, in which entrants from countries across Europe and beyond are facing off Saturday on a broadcast that is expected to draw some 160 million global viewers, making it the world’s most-watched cultural event.

This year’s contest should have been held in Ukraine because the country’s entrant last year, Kalush Orchestra, won with an upbeat track that mixed rap and traditional folk music. But with Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine continuing, the host city was switched to Liverpool, England.

Tvorchi, which means “creative,” won the right to represent Ukraine after performing “Heart of Steel” at a Eurovision selection contest staged in a metro station deep below Kyiv, out of reach of Russian bombs. They were flanked by backup dancers wearing gas masks, and images of nuclear warning signs flashed on screens behind them.

“It still feels kind of unreal,” Hutsuliak said as he prepared to leave for Liverpool.

Known now as a sprawling television extravaganza with wild costumes, eclectic mixes of acts and over-the-top performances, Eurovision began in 1956 as a way of uniting Europe after World War II. As it has grown — and expanded beyond Europe, with entries from Israel and Australia — it has often reflected wider political and social issues.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken the contest’s entanglement with politics to new heights. The European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the contest, barred Russia from competing immediately after its invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian victory at last year’s Eurovision, awarded by a mix of jury and public votes, was widely seen as a show of solidarity with the besieged nation.

In Ukraine, which has won top honors three times since making its Eurovision debut in 2003, the contest has long been hugely popular and valued as a way for the nation to align itself culturally with Europe. Now it is also seen as a way to keep Europe’s attention focused on the war.

As Hutsuliak and Kehinde sat down for an interview at a hip restaurant in central Kyiv called Honey, they apologized for having had to delay the meeting by a day, explaining that they had some urgent business: securing the paperwork that men of fighting age need to exit the country so they could travel to Liverpool.

Their song “Heart of Steel” was inspired, Hutsuliak said, by the soldiers who worked to defend the now-ruined city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, holding out months longer than anyone imagined possible. The soldiers made their final stand at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.

Hutsuliak said he clearly remembered the online clips that soldiers filmed of their defense.

“When I saw these videos, I saw people with strength, staying solid even in the most terrible conditions,” he added. Soon afterward, the pair wrote the track with lyrics seemingly aimed at invading Russians.

“Get out of my way,” Kehinde sings. “’Cause I got a heart of steel.”

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February last year, martial law meant that Hutsuliak couldn’t leave, while Kehinde, a Nigerian citizen originally from Lagos, could. His mother, panicked, called him on the morning Russia started bombing Ukrainian cities and urged him to get out.

“That day I think I had 25 to 30 relatives call me,” Kehinde recalled. “They wanted me to leave.”

Kehinde, whose stage name is Jeffery Kenny, visited his mother in Nigeria for a week — “because she wouldn’t stop panicking,” he said — but then returned, as he’d built a life in Ternopil, in western Ukraine. At first he thought the war would last a few months, but then the reality of the conflict set in.

The band would never have formed if Kehinde had not made the unusual decision to move, in December 2013, to Ukraine for college to study for a pharmacy degree. As one of the few Black people in Ternopil, Kehinde stood out, he recalled, but that proved instrumental to the band’s formation. One day, Hutsuliak introduced himself and asked if he could practice his English, promising that Kehinde could try out his Ukrainian.

Many of their early tracks were love songs, but the invasion led them to write a series of more intense tracks including “Heart of Steel” and “Freedom,” which has defiant lyrics including “These walls / You can’t break them down.” Those songs were not written with Eurovision in mind, but in December the pair competed in a live contest in Kyiv to become Ukraine’s entry.

Tvorchi has also supported Ukraine by playing concerts on the back of trucks for troops and partnering with United24, a Ukrainian charity, to raise money to buy incubators for premature newborns in the country’s strained hospitals.

The concert that got them to Eurovision, performed in a metro station where Russian bombs couldn’t interrupt the acts, was surreal, Kehinde recalled. Trains sped past throughout rehearsals and the final event.

“I thought more than once, ‘What in the world is going on right now?’” Kehinde said. But when he watched the broadcast later, he was amazed to discover it looked like a professional studio, with lighting and graphics.

The pair didn’t expect to win, but they became Ukraine’s choice. Ever since, they have been trying to live up to that decision, which they called an honor.

This year, they reworked their track a little to make it even more representative of the country. While Eurovision songs are frequently sung in English, the version of “Heart of Steel” that will be performed on Saturday now contains a section in Ukrainian.

“Despite the pain, I continue my fight,” Kehinde sings during it. “The world is on fire, but you should act.”

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