The View From Here: Music and Politics

Volodymyr Kish

This past weekend a fine young Tatar singer with an exceptional voice by the name of Jamala won the Eurovision song contest on behalf of Ukraine with a haunting ballad titled “1944”. In doing so, she beat out the heavily favored Russian entry in the person of Sergey Lazarev, whose pop rock song “You Are the Only One”, though full of catchy high tech visuals and elaborate production values, was an ersatz copy of the kind of stuff you will find on popular American music videos.

To add insult to injury the Russian was also beat out by the Australian entry, one Dami Im, who was originally born in South Korea. One might well ask what an Australian entry was doing in a European song competition. I wish I had an answer. The same goes for Azerbaijan and Israel, which the last time I checked a map, were also not exactly a part of Europe.

Be that as it may, it did not take long for Russian officials to start whining about how “politics beat art”. Although I must confess that I am not exactly qualified to judge the artistic values behind the competition, I cannot help but recognize that politics did indeed play a part in the outcome. After all, the evaluation process is a combination of professional judges as well as viewer “televoting”. Needless to say, with Russia’s recent blatant annexation of Crimea and its increasing oppression of Crimea’s native Tatar population, Russia is not exactly a fan favourite of most Europeans at the moment. Jamala’s triumph is therefore a symbolic victory for both the Tatars and Ukraine, as well as a poke in the eye of the Russians who are becoming a pariah state to the rest of the world.

As for the whining about how politics should not be part of the popular music scene, Russia’s officials are only displaying their ignorance of contemporary musical history. Music has played a major part in social and political evolution for centuries. When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, the popular music of the day was the engine that drove much of the political protests of that generation, and led to major changes in racial equality, the human rights movement, the end of the Vietnam war, and the rise of a more balanced and liberal political agenda in the western world. In the U.S., the power of Blues, gospel music and jazz sustained and motivated the black population in the turbulent period after the Civil War, until they finally succeeded in attaining the civil rights they deserved. To try and restrict music to non-political themes, is to rob music of the emotional power it has to move people and effect change in a world that desperately needs it. Music, like literature and other art forms, must reflect both the make-up and the conflicts and issues of the societies within which they originate.

Leaving the political aspects aside, it is worth reflecting on Jamala herself. Her real name is Susana Jamaladinova, and she was born in 1983 in the then Kirghiz SSR, daughter to an exiled Crimean Tatar father and an Armenian mother. When Ukraine became independent, her family moved back to Crimea, where she got her initial musical education at the Simferopol Musical College. She subsequently studied and graduated from the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy in Kyiv. Although an opera singer by training, she preferred popular music and chose that genre in her professional career.

Her winning song “1944” is ostensibly based on recollections of her great grandmother who was part of Stalin’s mass deportations of Crimean Tatars in 1944. Some 250,000 Tatars were shipped off to the Far East on essentially a moment’s notice and under deplorable conditions. It is estimated that some 100,000 perished in the process. Although the song does not directly mention either Stalin, or Tatars or Crimea, no one who is knowledgeable about Soviet history can have any doubt as to what the song refers to. To quote the starting lyrics:

When strangers are coming…
They come to your house,
They kill you all
and say,
We’re not guilty
not guilty.

The fact that the Russians continue to deny what happened under Stalin, and over the past two years continue to persecute, oppress and illegally persecute the Tatars in their ancestral home, only proves the barbarity of the Russian state and its utter contempt for human rights and the rule of law. They deserve to be ostracized from the civilized world.