Alyona Alyona: How a feminist, body positive, former nursery teacher is changing Ukrainian rap

‘Women artists were expected to be no more than a pair of singing knickers,’ says breakthrough artist

Oliver Carroll
Wednesday 04 September 2019 17:45 BST
Alyona Alyona: The feminist, body-positive, former nursery teacher is changing Ukrainian rap

There is no mistaking Ukrainian rap star Alyona Alyona.

In her breakthrough hit “Rybki”, meaning “little fish”, the singer is dressed as an incongruous mermaid, riding atop a water motorcycle in a silver bathing suit.

Like the “fish behind glass” in an aquarium, Alyona riffs, she couldn’t care what others think.

“You throw words on the water/ They fall like stones/ Straight to the bottom.”

The huge success of “Rybki” and a follow-up debut album Pushka have helped Alyona, whose real surname is Savranenko, reshape expectations about what it is to be a female music artist in Ukraine.

“Before, women were expected to be no more than a pair of singing knickers,” she tells The Independent over coffee and cakes in Kiev.

“But my deal is this: I can sing. Better than the people who went before me. I can read,” she says. “And I can feel great in a swimsuit too.”

Savranenko has been writing rap for over 15 years, but has tasted massive success only recently. As late as last December, she was working as a nursery teacher in a small village outside Kiev, earning the equivalent of $200 a month.

Before that, Savranenko plied her trade as a child psychologist, tended tills in a supermarket, and sold make-up at a market.

Music was just a hobby, like knitting, she says; when her gran made socks, she made hip-hop. Now Savranenko is recognised everywhere she goes. She has been featured in Vogue and The New York Times.

Back at the village, the kids also know she is a star. They have seen the change firsthand at the nursery, which has been refitted with the latest equipment including climbing frames and wifi.

Savranenko says she can’t fully detach herself from this previous life, and is in constant search of new sponsors for the preschool.

“The kids go crazy whenever they see me, and tell me they've seen me on TV,” she says. “But deep down I’m just the same, simple village teacher I always was.”

You don’t have to look far to see the pedagogy in her rap. The beats may be rough, but the words are often serious. They touch on feminism, body positivism, social justice and war.

The rapper is part of an increasingly confident native music scene
The rapper is part of an increasingly confident native music scene (Alyona Alyona)

Her own early experience as an outcast forged her as an artist, she says. “You can’t be told you’re a bad person for 20 years and for the feeling of shame to disappear suddenly.”

Savranenko says she has several no-go areas in her work. “What if little kids are listening?” she asks. So there’s none of the usual rhymes about booze, cigarettes, sex or chicks. Instead, it’s the simple, everyday things of life that she plays with: sports gear, mobile phones, and, yes, fish.

It wasn’t always like this. When she started out, Savranenko tried to emulate her hero Eminem with ditties about drugs and weed. “All the bad boy stuff,” she says. But it didn’t feel right.

“I realised I was writing for other rap artists. I decided to start writing for the people,” she says. “I became a rapper for the village.”

That realisation was accompanied by a linguistic switch. Initially, Savranenko wrote in Russian. Like most other Ukrainian artists, she looked to Moscow and its more developed music industry at the time. But just before the Maidan revolution, she switched to the more folksy Ukrainian.

She says she has never regretted it. The “beautiful, soft, tender, more poetic language" lends itself more obviously to rap, she claims.

Savranenko’s conversion mirrors a trend among Ukrainian artists at the moment. For the first time in modern history, Ukrainian music is not looking to Moscow for inspiration but setting a new standard of its own.

New language laws limiting radio airtime for Russian language music have created unprecedented opportunities for local musicians.

Uniquely Ukrainian acts like Dakh Daughters, Latexfauna, 5vymir, Panivalkova, Yuko, and Alina Pash have risen to fill the gap.

“After Maidan and the war, Ukrainians started to ask each other what it was that made them who they were,” Savranenko says. “They understood that going to Russia meant churning out pop music. And going to Europe meant doing it like people do it in Europe. So instead they bought recording equipment and started looking for their own thing, their own breath of fresh air.”

Savranenko says she has no desire to take her act beyond Ukraine. Something special is happening at home, she says, and she wants to help forge it.

“My generation has no experience of the Soviet Union, and our only guide is the future. We’re not going to be told what to think, about what to like, who to love, what to create.”

“That’s the meaning of freedom here,” she says.

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