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Ukraine's Eurovision song entry showcases how cultural identity can evolve

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Ukraine won the world's biggest song contest last year, and this week, it's co-hosting this year's competition in Liverpool. It's the Eurovision Song Contest, known and beloved for over-the-top theatrics. It's also a platform to showcase cultural identity and, in the case of Ukraine's entry this year, how identity can evolve. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.

JEFFERY KENNY: La la la (ph).

ANDRIY HUTSULIAK: La la la (ph).

My name is Andriy.

KENNY: And I am Jeffery.

HUTSULIAK: And we are Tvorchi.

KENNY: We are Tvorchi, electronic music duo from Ukraine.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Meet Andriy Hutsuliak and Jeffery Kenny, the duo representing Ukraine at Eurovision this year. Their band's name means creative in Ukrainian. And when we spoke at NPR's bureau in Kyiv recently, they started strumming a bandura, an old Ukrainian stringed instrument.

HUTSULIAK: Anything sounds nice on this.

KAKISSIS: Hutsuliak and Kenny began making music five years ago in western Ukraine, when they were both training as pharmacists.

HUTSULIAK: You know, it was interesting to watch those experiments. You remember how it was?

KENNY: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

HUTSULIAK: You get it - tin, tin, tin (ph). So put some drops in that tubes.

KENNY: Sometimes you have to, like, mix it and mix it and wait. Sometimes you got to heat it up.

KAKISSIS: And they see music the same way.

KENNY: (Singing) It's past midnight, looking at words...

KAKISSIS: Kenny's from Lagos, Nigeria, where he was born Jimoh Augustus Kehinde. Jeffrey Kenny is his stage name. He moved to the western Ukrainian city of Ternopil in 2013 when he was just 16 years old to attend university.

KENNY: When I first came, like, it's hard not to stand out. You know, it's hard not to - like, you just walk down the street, and, like, people just, like, staring at you. So it was funny. But, you know, now people just get used to, like, seeing each other.

KAKISSIS: Before Russia's full-scale invasion, many African students studied in Ukraine. After the invasion, many fled, and some said they faced discrimination by Ukrainian border guards. Kenny doesn't excuse that, but he says he sees Ukraine changing.

KENNY: Something so complex as, you know, being able to, like, accept each other's differences and be one family - yes, it takes time. But I feel like, you know, it's my second home. So...

KAKISSIS: Hutsuliak calls himself and Kenny the boys from Ternopil as if to say, you don't have to be a white, Orthodox Christian to be Ukrainian.

HUTSULIAK: People became more open-minded, more diverse to new things. And also the environment was becoming better and better. So definitely we are a simple example that Ukrainians chose us to represent whole country.

KAKISSIS: Ukraine has showcased diversity in the past at Eurovision. In 2016, a Crimean Tatar won the song contest. Ukraine also won Eurovision last year...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEFANIA")

KALUSH ORCHESTRA: (Singing in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: ...With a song dedicated to Ukrainian women. Kenny says he's found the bravery of Ukrainian women and men inspiring.

KENNY: Like, it made me understand, you know, selflessness, if I can say. And you just want to do something so things can get better, you know, without the promise of, like, profit or anything.

KAKISSIS: Tvorchi's Eurovision song, called "Heart Of Steel," is about resilience.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF STEEL")

TVORCHI: (Singing) Guess I got a heart of steel.

KAKISSIS: It's inspired by an epic siege last spring in the southern city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian soldiers and civilians barricaded themselves under a giant steel plant called Azovstal. Hutsuliak says he was astonished at how long they held out.

HUTSULIAK: You can look at the Ukrainians and take inspiration.

KAKISSIS: You want to be the strong heart. You want to be the heart of steel.

HUTSULIAK: We don't want to be pitied.

KAKISSIS: And with that, Hutsuliak and Kenny put on their sunglasses. They look ready for the stage, and so I have to ask.

How do you feel about singing "Heart Of Steel" for us here in our improvised Tiny Desk concert (laughter)?

KENNY: OK. (Inaudible) let's go.

(Vocalizing) Dun, dun, dun, da-dun, dun, dun, da-dun (ph).

OK. That's a good tempo.

(Singing) Don't be scared to say just what you think 'cause no matter how bad, someone's listening.

KAKISSIS: Kenny also adds a line in Ukrainian that speaks to the war still raging. He sings, "despite the pain, I will continue to fight." Tvorchi will compete at the Eurovision finals in Liverpool on Saturday.

KENNY: (Singing) Heart of steel.

KAKISSIS: Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF STEEL")

TVORCHI: (Singing) Don't care what you say. Yeah, yeah. Don't care how... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.