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Ukrainian musicians and artists respond to the war in many different ways


Three weeks ago today, the war in Ukraine began, and it's completely transformed this country. Cities are being pounded by Russian artillery. Millions of people are fleeing for their lives. It's carnage. But in the midst of this, somehow there are artists who are trying to find hope, redemption and boost their country's spirits. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports from Lviv in western Ukraine.


OKEAN ELZY: (Singing in non-English language).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: In this music video, Slava Vakarchuk clutches a microphone, closes his eyes and croons out into a stadium full of his fans, all swaying with their cellphones illuminated. Vakarchuk is the lead singer of Okean Elzy, Ukraine's biggest rock band.


OKEAN ELZY: (Singing in non-English language).

SLAVA VAKARCHUK: In peaceful time, we are touring and recording music, playing stadiums all over Eastern Europe.

FRAYER: But on the day that the war began, Vakarchuk was at home in the capital, Kyiv. He woke up early to news of a Russian invasion.

VAKARCHUK: And the moment I read it - I mean, literally, next second, I hear a big blow, probably 5 miles from my house. And it was like, wow.

FRAYER: Vakarchuk jumped into his car and, in that moment, made a big decision.

VAKARCHUK: I started touring the country once again, but not with music. Like, I decided to go to the points that are in danger.

FRAYER: Since then, he's been driving back and forth into the war zone, delivering food and medicine. I interviewed him at a restaurant in western Ukraine...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I'll send a picture to my mom (laughter).

FRAYER: ...Where people swooned when he walked in. Vakarchuk takes it in stride. He realizes his fame is something he can use to comfort people right now.

VAKARCHUK: For example, you're in a gas station, and somebody sees you and wants to hug you, to embrace you - cuddling you, you know. And it's emotional. People need it.

FRAYER: Ukrainian musicians and artists are responding to war in lots of different ways. Vakarchuk is one of many Ukrainian celebrities who are using their high profiles and connections to speed relief supplies to those who need them right now.

Others are doubling down on their art. There's been an outpouring of protest art online. And some Ukrainian musicians have already recorded new songs about the war.

PALINDROM: I make music in this time, but it's a little bit difficult.

FRAYER: Stepan Burban is better known as Palindrom, a Ukrainian rapper who's been juggling his music and also buying groceries for war evacuees. And when I asked him to rap a few lines of his latest song...

PALINDROM: (Rapping in non-English language).

Difficult because my memory now...

FRAYER: You're tired. You're working hard.

PALINDROM: Yeah, I'm tired little bit.

FRAYER: He forgot his own lyrics, he's so tired and stressed out by this war. So I found the song online, and I was taken aback.

PALINDROM: (Rapping in non-English language).

FRAYER: "Russians, get out. Go to hell," he raps. "You're not even fit to be fertilizer on Ukrainian soil."

These angry lyrics are such a contrast with the exhausted, soft-spoken young man in front of me who wrote them.

PALINDROM: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "I had to express my anger," he says. "I couldn't keep it inside."

I actually met him on his way out of an art gallery in western Ukraine, where war evacuees and artists have been camping out together, helping one another process that anger.

So this is a cement sort of warehouse space where there are piles and piles of groceries. There's also yoga mats, a huge grand piano in the middle of it, people with computers. It's become this shelter for evacuees, but it's also a place where people are creating art in the middle of a war.

LYANA MYTSKO: (Non-English language spoken). Would you like some dumplings?



FRAYER: You should eat, though.

MYTSKO: Yeah, yes.

FRAYER: Lyana Mytsko is the ever-generous director of the Lviv Municipal Art Center.

MYTSKO: First days, when it was full of adrenaline everywhere, we really didn't think about art. But in a few days, we started open call for guys who make posters. (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: Propaganda posters - Ukrainian artists answered the call and within days were churning out paintings and drawings which have been Xeroxed and posted all over the country. There's one of a civilian mother and child encircled by ghoulish Russian invaders, another of a Russian imperial dragon consuming itself. It's haunting, like Picasso's "Guernica." There are even some how-to posters.

MYTSKO: This is a recipe of Molotov.

FRAYER: Recipes for Molotov cocktails...


FRAYER: And these are instructions on how to make one.

MYTSKO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. We put this also on the street.

FRAYER: This art is a rallying cry. It's also therapy. Evacuees from the front lines are camping out here with artists, creating with them. There are psychologists on hand, too. Mytsko says artists and musicians keep contacting her and asking what they can do.

MYTSKO: Artists now, they feel themself - I cannot take gun to my hands. What should I do?

FRAYER: And here's what she tells them - art is not an extra little thing, a sidebar in this war. Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, has said Ukraine is not a real country, that it doesn't have a real culture of its own. Go out and prove him wrong, Mytsko tells her artist and musician friends.

MYTSKO: They really must know that every one of them is a gun of Ukrainian culture. Every one of them can make music, can make pictures and can take our soul up, up, up.


OKEAN ELZY: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: This is a song that the rock star Slava Vakarchuk wrote after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014. It marked a change from his regular love songs. It's called "Not My War" (ph). Vakarchuk stopped doing concerts in Russia after that. During this war, though, he's been away from his piano, driving back and forth to cities under bombardment, composing a poem in his head.

VAKARCHUK: I don't know if I can find the music. I cannot make verse and chorus here.

FRAYER: And just like the rapper Palindrom's song, his poem is dark, and it's angry.

VAKARCHUK: (Non-English language spoken).

FRAYER: "Where have you come from, my hatred?" - is the opening line.

VAKARCHUK: The theme is that for 40 years, 46 years of my life, I never experienced, never faced this feeling of hatred. And now I - it's present in my veins. It's toxic, and I want to get rid of it. But the only way to get rid of it now is to win the war.

FRAYER: Win the war, go back to his piano, try to go back to what things were like before - he wishes he could.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Lviv, Ukraine.


OKEAN ELZY: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.