For 11 weeks, Ukrainians braved war, destruction and loss. But on Saturday they could celebrate the victory: the country’s sweeping hip-hop song “Stefania” is favored to win the Eurovision Song Contest, the cultural phenomenon that helped launch Abba and Celine Dion and is followed by 200 million people annually.
“Stefania”, a hymn song by the Ukrainian Kalush Orchestra, was originally written to honor the mother of the group’s frontman, Oleh Psiuk. But after the war, it was reinterpreted as a tribute to Ukraine as the motherland. The song includes lyrics that roughly translate to “You can’t take away my willpower, as I took it from her” and “I’ll always find my way home, even if the streets are broken”.
The hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest, a famous over-the-top display of kitsch, whose past winners include a Finnish heavy metal monster band Passionate about blowing up steaming pieces of meat on stage, this year has taken on particularly political connotations.
In February, event organizers banned Russia from participating in the competition, a showcase intended to promote European unity and cultural exchange, citing fears that Russia’s inclusion would damage its reputation.
The move underscored the intensification of Russia’s distancing from the international community, including in the realm of culture. Russia began competing in the singing competition, the largest in the world, in 1994, and has competed more than 20 times. His participation was something of a cultural milestone for the country’s rebound and engagement with the world after Russian President Vladimir V. Putin came to power in the wake of the political and economic chaos of the 1990s.
In 2008, when Dima Bilan, a Russian pop star, won Eurovision with the song “To believe,” Mr. Putin promptly weighed the congratulations, thanking him for further burning Russia’s image.
It is not the first time that politics has invaded the competition, which was first presented in 1956. In 2005, Ukraine’s entrance song was rewritten after being considered too political because it celebrated the Orange Revolution. When Dana International, an Israeli transgender woman, won in 1998 with her hit song “Diva”, the rabbis accused her of violating the values of the Jewish state.
The entrance of Ukraine “Stefania” comes from a band that blends traditional Ukrainian folk music with rap and hip-hop. The Kalush Orchestra brought the semi-final crowd in Turin, Italy to their feet on Tuesday with a lively performance that led them to the Grand Final on Saturday.
The band traveled to Eurovision with special permission to circumvent a martial law that prevents most Ukrainian men from leaving the country, according to Ukrainian public broadcaster Suspilne.
The war required other adjustments. Ukrainian commentator on the show, Timur Miroshnychenko, broadcast from a bomb shelter.
A photo posted by Suspilne showed the veteran presenter at a desk in a bunker-like room, surrounded by computers, cables, a camera, and eroding walls that revealed patches of brick underneath. It was not clear which city he was in.
The bunker had been prepared to prevent disruption due to air raid sirens, Miroshnychenko told BBC Radio 5 Live. He said Ukrainians love the contest and were “trying to seize every moment of peace” they could.
“Nothing will stop Eurovision broadcasting,” he said.