If the Ukrainian music industry consisted solely of the songs played on local radio stations, it would be dominated by pop. Rock and electronic music would be rarities. And hip-hop would be nearly unheard of.
The reality, of course, is very different.
Today, Ukrainian hip-hop is thriving, with more than 100 rappers and groups who are impressively diverse musically. It’s one of the most productive genres in the country, with dozens of monthly releases.
It’s also largely underground. Overlooked by the local music awards and media, Ukrainian hip-hop is struggling to reach a broader audience.
But despite these obstacles, the change appears on the horizon. Several rappers have managed to make breakthroughs. And some of the most captivating musical acts to emerge in recent years — like rappers Alyona Alyona and Alina Pash — came from hip-hop.
The future of Ukrainian music may very well lie with today’s underground MCs and beat-makers.
Do me hip-hop
Alongside R&B, rap music has been the number one genre around the globe for the last several years, topping local and international charts and largely driving the development of the musical art overall.
And since its inception, the hip-hop wave has never missed Ukraine.
When DJs started scratching turntables at the block parties in African-American and Latino communities in New York City in the 1970s, they laid the foundation for the nascent genre of hip-hop.
At the time, Ukraine was largely shut off from the rest of the world behind the Iron Curtain. But this music of protest started spreading throughout Europe and, unsurprisingly, found its way through the closed Soviet borders.
The first known Ukrainian hip-hop group, Bad Blood, was formed in the late 1980s by two rappers born in the eastern city of Donetsk. One of its members, Sergey Krutikov, known as Mikhey, ended up becoming one of the most prominent rappers in post-Soviet countries. And his biggest hit, “Love’s a Bitch,” boomed from every corner in the 1990s, marking the abrupt shift from stodgy Soviet conservatism to a new cultural openness.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, local hip-hop broadened its geography. MCs emerged all over Ukraine, as rap in the Ukrainian language was born.
Soon after, another eastern Ukrainian city, Kharkiv, gave Ukraine TNMK, one of the most remarkable hip-hop bands to date. The group made a breakthrough with the hit “Do Me Hip-Hop,” which introduced the term to a wide audience. Its music video brought the hip-hop aesthetic with graffiti, oversized urban clothes and caps to the Ukrainian audience.
Despite rap’s rapid start, the Ukrainian music scene soon became saturated with pop, while hip-hop mostly went underground and has remained there ever since.
But, more recently, a new phase in the history of Ukrainian hip-hop has started.
The 2013–2014 Euromaidan Revolution, which ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych, not only changed the political landscape but also triggered a new cultural discourse and art revival.
Back then, the spotlight was on electronic musicians who often mixed Ukrainian folk motifs in their tracks. The pop and rock scenes grew stronger and reached a wider public.
But several years later, most of the artists then labeled the “new wave” of Ukrainian music have produced little and seldom surprised their audience.
Suddenly, the industry had spare room, and hip-hop filled it.
Two years ago, Alyona Savranenko, a nursery school teacher, made an unlikely but extremely successful debut in rap under the stage name Alyona Alyona and won numerous fans with her fast flow, relatable lyrics and grooving beats.
In the ensuing years, the rapper won two local music awards for the best album of 2019, toured in Europe and received the 2019 German Anchor Award as the best emerging artist.
Alyona Alyona’s sensational success gave new hope to Ukrainian hip-hop artists. And the broader public started paying more attention to the genre.
Today, Ukrainian hip-hop has two capitals and, surprisingly, Kyiv is not one of them.
The main rap clusters are Kharkiv in the east and Lviv in the west — that’s where most of the rap battles are held. Kharkiv also gave birth to the Rap.ua Awards, the awards recognizing hip-hop musicians carried out by hip-hop-focused online media Rap.ua.
The Ukrainian rap is impressively diverse from many standpoints: subgenres, languages, lyrics and band composition.
The scene offers all kinds of styles, from conscious hip-hop to trap and Lil Peep-like emo rap.
The Ukrainian and Russian languages are equally represented in the genre, with fewer artists rapping in English.
There are also some musicians who rap in Ukrainian dialects, like Alina Pash, who draws inspiration from her mountainous native Zakarpattia region, and trio Kalush’s frontman, whose Galician dialect combined with super-fast flow challenges every ear.
There are several strong female rap acts, a black female trio, numerous duos and even communities that unite people who together create music, video content, events and more.
Some rappers cartoonishly copy U.S. hip-hop culture, rapping about drug deals, hoods, guns and luxurious cars they don’t own. It looks especially ridiculous in music videos.
And, of course, a large number of commercial rappers turn nonsense lyrics into groovy hits and become quite successful.
But the majority appear to be authentic Ukrainian hip-hop artists. Their lyrics are often somewhat melancholic and deal with philosophy, reflection and feelings, especially nostalgia, echoing hundreds of years of the Ukrainian poetic tradition.
More rarely, rappers raise social and political issues like divisions over the Ukrainian and Russian languages, drug use in rural Ukraine and Russia’s aggression in the east.
Danila Panimash, a music journalist with the Slukh online outlet, says that Ukrainian hip-hop has always been productive, but, recently, the quantity and quality of the music has increased sharply.
Panimash calls some of the latest releases “outstanding.” One of them is the Echelon duo’s 11-track “Former People” album, released in May.
The long play is an integral conceptual piece, which reflects on childhood memories, disappointments, the inability to resist romantic feelings and the burning desire to succeed musically. The intellectual lyrics, combined with melodic beats and the duo’s chill flow, made “Former People” stand out.
Echelon’s Roman Kukharuk, 29 — known as “Roma Mic” — and Volodymyr Popovych, 23 — “Vokha” — worked on the album for four years to reach a consistent, intimate sound.
Some of the long play’s tracks have even been picked up by several small radio stations, which rarely happens to hip-hop in Ukraine.
While their album was largely praised by critics, Kukharuk and Popovych continue to work in IT, which gives them the funds to make and record music.
“My work is a side hustle — I’m used to it being difficult,” Kukharuk raps on one of the tracks.
“It’s a lifestyle,” Kukharuk told the Kyiv Post. “(Music) is an indispensable part of our life.”
Sadly, Echelon is not a rare exception. They are among the many rappers who can’t make living out of music, even if what they create is extremely good.
Out of sight
A contract with a label that helps with promotion often becomes a turning point for an up-and-coming musician.
Western labels rarely sign Ukrainian artists. Kalush and Alyona Alyona, who collaborate with the Polish branch of Dej Jam, one of the most influential U.S. labels in hip-hop, are the only two outliers.
Some local Russian-speaking rappers have received support from labels in Moscow, where hip-hop is gaining momentum as well.
Meanwhile, the rest have few options, as Ukrainian labels don’t normally bank on hip-hoppers, since their music is harder to promote. Rap music can rarely be heard on the radio. If it is, it likely happens during the “dead hours.” The picture is no better with music television channels.
Lviv-based artist Stepan Burban, whose second solo project, Palindrome, is considered to be one of the most important modern acts in the country, has faced closed doors from media many times.
He says that radio stations always have the same answer: “It’s not our format.”
Burban, 25, who has been rhyming and rapping for years under other stage names and as part of the Hlava 94 (Chapter 94) duo, reaches his audience online.
“The internet is the only platform for musicians,” Burban told the Kyiv Post.
Palindrome now has several thousand monthly listeners on various streaming platforms. He has built a fan base on Patreon, a platform that provides business tools for creators to run a subscription content service. There, the rapper’s fans give him donations and receive exclusive content in exchange.
“It helps a lot,” Burban says. “Every month I have money for musical needs.”
But those funds barely cover Palindrome’s modest expenses on equipment and recording, while he continues to work as a video editor.
Not being able to promote their music in the mainstream Ukrainian media, rappers struggle to stand out in the oceans of online content.
To give a platform to their community, a group of rap enthusiasts relaunched the Rap.ua media in 2013. Today, they not only cover all releases and events in the world of hip-hop, but hand out awards, organize showcases, hold online battles and bring foreign performers to Ukraine.
“Without a strong media, there is no opportunity for promotion,” the platform’s co-founder Anton Nazarko told the Kyiv Post.
He says that the new generation of Ukrainian musicians mostly consists of rappers. “In the years to come, it will be a fundamental culture in music,” he says.
However, for artists to continue to make music, they need to be recognized and invested in. The Rap.ua team believes that Ukraine needs to learn from the way U.K. rappers reinvented hip-hop by merging rapid electronic breakbeats and fast-paced emceeing into what we now know as the grime genre.
Having manufactured a whole new sound and style, U.K. rappers now top international charts and win an audience all over the globe.
Ukrainian rappers should also experiment with sound by collaborating with the local electronic scene, which Nazarko calls one of the country’s calling cards. That might help to draw international labels’ attention and investment to Ukraine.
“We have something to learn from them (the U.K.) and make our scene authentic and recognizable,” Nazarko says. “Judging by the demos of material that I listened to and that our Ukrainian artists will release in the next year, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s gonna happen.”
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