To be a rapper in Ukraine means perpetually making high-stakes decisions that have immediate consequences. Do you rap in Ukrainian and appeal to a country still ironing out its Post-Soviet identity, or do you instead opt for Russian, which allows for a potential audience not only in the much more populous Russia, but also in the rest of the Russian-speaking former Soviet Union? Regardless of whether you rap in Russian or Ukrainian, do you do business with Moscow’s more robust, organized, and well-financed musical elite? How about Russian producers? Are your songs in the Cyrillic alphabet or, in an attempt to cater to listeners in the West, do you use the Latin alphabet?
These are not choices made only once — they’re constantly either reaffirmed or reneged, and they have serious consequences for any artist with ambition. As the internet has gradually replaced the otherwise rigid Post-Soviet music business, a lack of infrastructure in the Ukrainian music scene has allowed artists to define sounds rather than follow them wholesale. A tight and impenetrable ring of Russian producers has guaranteed that artists who follow the format will have some level of success, but this well-oiled machine has also hampered innovation and discouraged aesthetic risk tasking. In this case, less has been more for the Ukrainians.
But the Ukrainian hip-hop scene should not be considered only in its relationship to Russia — it is true that, like other countries, Ukrainian rappers continue to emulate the US hip-hop scene, but US hip-hop’s role as the preeminent global tastemaker is overstated. Look at the evolution of Drake’s music over the last few years, for example, and you’ll see how heavily his music has been influenced by grime from London and reaggaeton from the Spanish-speaking world.
In fact, Ukrainian rap has been ahead of its US counterpart in a few key areas — whereas in the US the pairing between hip-hop and electronic music has often been subsumed under the genre of “experimental” (or has been relegated to city-wide music scenes like Chicago juke or Los Angeles trip-hop), the pairing in Ukraine is a more natural product of the region’s homegrown rave scene. This is not only true of hip-hop — Ukrainian teens caught in the great lull that was the Post-Soviet transition of the ‘90s were wearing off-brand tracksuits and squatting for photos long before Western street culture adopted both of these aesthetics.
But many Ukrainians would prefer to look forward rather than reflect on the country’s past. During the September 24th Independence Day celebration this year, instead of the traditional tank parade in the heart of Kyiv, newly-elected actor-turned-politician Volodymyr Zelensky instead decided to hold a showcase of the country’s young musical talent. This seems like a relatively banal event (especially given Ukraine’s real, immediate problems with its neighbor next door), but it’s a significant one for a Post-Soviet country so intimately familiar with the power of symbolism.
There are, too, more universal currents that run through this selection — the competing pulls of small-town life and the big city, misplaced nostalgia for a less-than-perfect upbringing. Ukrainian hip-hop should be free to explore whatever themes it sees fit — the burden of constant politicization should not fall on the shoulders of the country under occupation. In any case, it is partially this disinterest in looking backward that has allowed for the sort of cultural renaissance happening right now in Ukraine.
With that in mind, here are 10 Ukrainian rappers you need to put on your radar:
Life comes at you fast. One minute you’re a kindergarten teacher, and the next, you’re Ukrainian rap’s poster child. Although she has been making music on and off since her late teens, 27-year-old Alyona Savranenko (known as Alyona Alyona) has become Ukrainian rap’s most electrifying figure in less than a year. Her viral hit “Ribky” (“Fish” in Ukrainian) was not without its detractors, but her rise since has been nothing short of meteoric.
We can say that the plus-sized Alyona is a role model for young women in the Ukraine, or that she’s challenging what it means to be a rapper — these are both true. But focusing on Alyona’s status as a symbol disregards the fact that her music is simply better than almost anything else coming out of Ukraine at the moment. This is especially stunning given how recently she exploded onto the scene. Add this start to a slew of awards — 2019’s international Anchor Award and Best Breakthrough Rapper at this year’s RAP UA Awards, to name just a couple — and it’s clear that Alyona might be Europe’s next big cultural event rather than a local Ukrainian sensation.
Put together Beastie Boys, Death Grips, and the Prodigy and then inject a massive dose of bass-heavy post-Soviet aestheticism, and you get Grebz (a pun on “mushroom” in Russian). Throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Grebz is a household name — their viral hit “The Ice Is Melting” currently sits at 208 million views on YouTube, an undeniably absurd number for a Ukrainian group known for industrial and often unforgiving hip-hop.
Who the group features depends on whom you ask — in late 2017 the trio of 4atty aka Tilla, Symptom, and Yuri Bardash split up, and only in the last few months have 4atty and Symptom released new songs as Grebz. They’ve done so, however, without their frontman in Bardash, who is largely credited as being the brains behind the project. Bardash was an industry veteran and former break dancer, and it was largely through his direction that the group developed their promotional strategy of masks and minimal media contact. Like MF DOOM or the more recent Internet oddity Lil Toe, Grebz used their anonymity as a marketing tool — they might have been the first organic Internet sensation from the former Soviet Union.
Many are happy to see the group back, but others feel like like 4atty and Symptom are simply cashing in on nostalgia for Grebz. Whichever side of the argument you fall on, it’s hard to argue that Grebz still has one of the most unique, distinctive sounds in all of Europe – the Ukrainian scene is made richer by their return.
Yuri Bardash is the Ukrainian music industry’s renaissance man — besides claiming Grebz as his brainchild, he is also the producer for the wildly popular Quest Pistols Show, and was the founder of the now-defunct Kruzheva Music label.
Whereas 4atty and Symptom of Grebz have tried to recapture the sort of absurd whimsicality that made Grebz famous, Yuri has instead gone the opposite route in his solo project that is every bit as gritty as Grebz was at their darkest. Yuri’s marketing campaign has largely followed the same pattern that his group found success with — his debut album Plan B was released without warning and with no advertising.
Youra will never be as popular as Grebz was at their height, but Bardash’s new outlet is far more than just the passion project of a bored, successful man — he recently shared the stage with Alyona Alyona at 2019’s RAP UA Awards, where his song “Praktika” was named Best Clip.
Like Youra, Anastasia Shevchenko came to music with some experience behind her — before launching her project STASIK, Shevchenko was a veteran of the famed transgressive Dakh theater. Music insiders are betting on Shevchenko ballooning much like Alyona Alyona did, and while their styles are worlds apart, the talent is obvious.
Shevchenko‘s project is about unadulterated pain, about how we come back from calamity and shape its raw energy into something productive and life affirming. Having participated first-hand in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the rage present in Shevchenko’s work is by no means an affect. She is understandably relieved that she’s no longer on the front line, but is adamant that her own fight has yet to cease: “To stop and not act is impossible.”
This is not the first bit of music she has released — there’s a track from roughly three years ago under the same YouTube account — but the attention that Shevchenko is getting for her STASIK project far eclipses her prior foray into music. It remains to be seen which direction STASIK will take, as the few other songs she has released are decidedly more experimental and less hip-hop. Regardless of which sound Shevchenko continues to explore, the Ukrainian music industry will be watching.
T-Fest has been widely referred to as Ukraine’s next big cultural export to Russia (justifiably so, as his most popular video has nearly 100 million views), but the pop-trap star’s ascendance has been nothing short of international. He initially drew attention as a young teenager for his covers of German-Kazakh rapper Schockk, and not long after, fell in with Scriptonite, the Kazakh rapper, producer, and post-Soviet tastemaker. T-Fest signed with the major Russian label Gazholder in 2017 (he raps in Russian), and despite dipping in and out of the public eye, he continues to attract a large following in both Ukraine and Russia.
His recent collaboration with enigmatic SoundCloud and West Palm Beach rapper Lil Toe seems like a mutually beneficial arrangement — Lil Toe has the chance to build on his considerable Post-Soviet fanbase (why Toe has taken off in the region is anyone’s guess), and T-Fest has the opportunity to branch out toward potential fans in the US.
KYIVSTONER made his name as a vlogger, and after a short official stint with Grebz, he has since pursued a solo career. If you do a quick search for KYIVSTONER, you might find the recently-opened Kyiv Stoner Bar in the eponymous city. I’ve not been able to figure out if the bar has any relationship to the artist, but that a left-field internet-rapper’s efforts might be hampered by SEO issues is not without a bit of irony. Regardless, no rap list in 2019 is complete without the obligatory weird, erudite, and internet-savvy joke rapper.
Jokes aside, KYIVSTONER’s music is a fantastic example of what happens when a studious rapper who has an eye on the West’s rap scene utilizes the sort of breakbeat and deep-bass production so omnipresent in Eastern Europe. His music is a combination of influences nowhere to be found in Anglophone rap, or not in any meaningful capacity, at least. Being puzzled and being impressed, apparently, are not mutually exclusive categories.
Alina Pash’s viral single “Bitunga” is funky, beautifully shot, and apparently true. It’s a dance/hip-hop crossover, but it’s inspired by an evening when she escaped through her bedroom window to hit a party her parents forbid her from attending — no small feat for the daughter of a cop and a teacher. Pash’s childhood doubtless left an indelible mark on her art. Hailing from Transcarpathia in the Western part of Ukraine, she grew up among a myriad of German, Polish, Roma, Hungarian and other influences.
Like KYIVSTONER, Pash is also looking westward — most of her music videos feature English subtitles, and her decision to use the Latin alphabet is deliberate. Her music is infectious, and Ukrainian critics have drawn comparisons between her and artists like M.I.A., Azealia Banks, and even Die Antwoord. Despite her refusal to perform in Russia, she recently drew criticism as photos of her in both Russia and Russia-occupied Crimea surfaced online. She defended her actions by claiming she was there as a private citizen and not as an artist, but her family received threats nonetheless. Pash was recently mentioned in a piece about Ukraine from the Wall Street Journal, and alongside Alyona Alyona, she might have the best chance at building a large Western audience.
Yarmak is just 27-years-old, but he has been a mainstay on the Ukrainian rap scene for the better part of a decade. Staying relevant in a scene that is changing so rapidly is no easy feat, and Yarmak has managed to do so largely because of his knack for narrative — he is a storyteller from the old guard, the sort of unironic chronicler that can’t be taught or made up for on the production side.
Yarmak is also associated with Ukrainian rap’s response to the Crimean conflict. In a rap climate where peace is corny, or, in the words of Young Thug, it’s “too late for all that lovey-dovey shit,” Yarmak is proof that earnestness can still garner views in one of the most hotly contested parts of the world. In a direct address to his Russian fans who supported the annexation of Crimea, he urges them to “Come and sit near me / Let’s share the brother’s pain / I will tell about Crimea / And you will tell me about Beslan and Volgograd” (which refer to two tragedies firmly embedded in Russia’s collective memory). Not all of Yarmak’s work is conciliatory, though — add a few stints as a battle rapper to his resume, and you have one of the most well-rounded and well-respected rappers in all of Ukraine.
If there was any doubt that sadboy emo rap had made it to Ukraine, a Lil Peep cameo in the attached 044 Rose song “All in Our Hands” solidifies the latter rapper as a gatekeeper in the subgenre. His flow is lazy, wistful, and warm — he owes an obvious debt to rappers like the late Lil Peep and Bones, but takes equally large inspiration from Chris Travis and his minimalist cadence. But Rose’s music (044 is a reference to the loose rap collective that he’s part of) lacks the sort of fatalism that emo rap so often embodies — there are drugs and heartbreak in his music, yes, but there is also positivity — there is love for his friends and for what his future holds.
But underground rap’s strength also tends to be one of its weaknesses — Rose has released a prolific amount of music in a short amount of time, and after an incredible 2018, he has been relatively quiet since the start of the New Year. As one of the definitive faces of Eastern European emo rap, where Rose goes from here is up to him.
Copying a formula that has worked abroad and bringing it home is a risky business — importing an aesthetic wholesale fails as often as it works and rarely stands the test of time. Look at any non-Anglophone rap from, say, 2010, and this strategy looks even worse in retrospect. Local renditions of traditional gangster rap end up looking dated and almost parodic after just a few years.
That being said, Lil Morty has doubled down and won — he has taken the formula that rappers like Playboi Carti, Young Nudy, and Cousin Stizz have capitalized on, and it has gone remarkably well. One of his songs in particular, the remix for “Dirty Morty,” feels like a purposeful homage to OG Maco’s “U Guessed It.” His music is vital and unrepentantly irreverent — it won’t be for everyone (particularly if you’re a parent), but at just 20-years-old, Lil Morty has found his niche remarkably fast.