UK honors Ukrainian artists during Eurovision 2023
Liverpool lived in a blue-and-yellow submarine for a week as the city feted Ukrainian music and culture for Eurovision. (Photo:Lee Reaney / NV)
An estimated 170+ million people around the world tuned in to see Great Britain celebrate Ukrainian music. The UK was chosen to host Eurovision in 2023 instead of 2022’s winner, Ukraine, due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country.
Meanwhile, Liverpool, this year’s host city, had transformed into a sort of home-away-from-home for thousands of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee Russian aggression, with Ukrainian installations found throughout the city center and restaurants and clubs festooned with any yellow and blue thing they could muster.
While British tabloids ran with the story that the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) “banned” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from addressing the massive global audience during the show due to the risk of “politicizing” the event, 2022 winners Kalush Orchestra likely said it best when they posited that the Ukrainian President simply wanted to thank Great Britain for its support.
Ukraine provides a show to remember
If there was any doubt about who was the intended host, it was erased in the first moments of the Eurovision 2023 broadcast.
The spectacle kicked off with a rousing rendition of last year’s winning song, ‘Kalush Orchestra’s Stefania’, primarily filmed in Kyiv’s metro stations.The metro theme was poignant for several reasons.
Not only do the city’s stations continue to operate as bomb shelters for Kyiv’s beleaguered population, but Ukraine’s Eurovision national song contest, ‘Vidbir’, was filmed in the station to prevent Russian bombing from interrupting the proceedings.
The rousing opening act allowed the group to showcase some of its other wartime hits, including the popular ‘Changes’, while providing an opportunity for the guest hosts to get involved.
Eurovision 2022 runner-up, the UK’s Sam Ryder, plays the guitar in the act, which also features appearances by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber and Joss Stone.
Perhaps none was unexpected as the appearance of the Princess of Wales herself, Kate Middleton, who played the piano for part of the song.
Some of Ukraine’s most popular Eurovision acts appeared in the ‘flag parade’ segment, including Go_A, Tina Karol, and the much-anticipated return of Verka Serduchka.
Jamala, winner of Eurovision 2016 for her song ‘1944’ about Stalin’s deportation of Tatars from Crimea, also made an appearance, shouting “Glory to Ukraine, Glory to Our Heroes” to 170+ million viewers at the end of her performance
In one of the final acts of the night, Duncan Laurence sang ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the anthem of the popular local football team, and were joined on video by 2004 Eurovision champion Ruslana and a chorus of Ukrainians singing along in front of Kyiv’s Golden Gate.
The moment moved host Graham Norton to tears. Known for his acerbic commentary on the less-talented acts at the show, Norton said while wiping away a tear, “A tear in my silly old eye – you don’t see that every day.”
Russia attacks Ukraine while the world celebrates Eurovision
Of course, the reason for Liverpool standing in as 2023 host was present throughout the week. Ukraine was on the mind of pretty much everyone, with performers, presenters, hosts, and Liverpudlians all sending best wishes to Ukrainians whenever in front of the cameras.
Ukraine’s 2023 representatives, TVORCHI, reminded audiences that their preparations for the show were regularly interrupted by air raid sirens and Russian missile strikes.
While the world watched the UK fete Ukraine in front of a massive global audience, Russia fired several missiles at Ukraine at the beginning of the show, sending most Ukrainians into their bomb shelters just as Kalush Orchestra took the stage.
With the show ongoing, and Ukrainians watching from their bomb shelters, TVORCHI saw their home city of Ternopil get shelled. The group went out and performed regardless, holding up a sign emblazoned with their city’s name while receiving the maximum 12 jury points from Czechia.
In her press conference after winning her second Eurovision title, Sweden’s Loreen said “I love Ukraine, I’ve been a lot. I’ve done a lot of shows and it hurts me to see what’s going on there and I’m sad about that.”
While announcing Poland’s jury points while wearing a jacket prominently featuring Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag, Polish-American actress and dancer Ida Nowakowska said that Poland’s hearts are with Ukraine.
And during a Grand Finals dress rehearsal show, when the United Kingdom won a mock vote, Ukrainian media joked that they would be cheering for a United Kingdom win so that Ukraine could return the favor by hosting next year’s contest.
The United Kingdom unites participants with music
All in all, Eurovision’s first “co-hosting” experience went more smoothly than might have been expected.
Organizers set aside thousands of tickets for Ukrainian refugees to see the shows, allowing Ukrainians that have had their lives turned upside down to experience a once-in-a-lifetime event.
In addition to the films, art shows, and educational installations found throughout Liverpool over the course of the festival, some of Ukraine’s biggest musical groups performed for Liverpool residents, Ukrainian refugees, and Eurovision fans from around the world at the EuroVillage fan zone.
Ukraine’s Eurovision Wartime Playlist
Antytyla played their rousing ‘Fortetsia Bakhmut’ (‘Bakhmut Fortress’), while Jerry Heil performed her ‘When God Shut the Door’, which lost to TVORCHI’s ‘Heart of Steel’ in the 2023 ‘Vidbir’ final.
Other performers included the popular kindergarten teacher-turned-rap superstar Alyona Alyona, 2016 Eurovision winner Jamala, Eurovision stars Tina Karol and Mariya Yaremchuk, and Eurovision 2004 winner Ruslana who, in a world premiere, debuted a single from her yet-to-be-released album ‘Wild Heart’.
While nothing can replace the experience of hosting such an important culture event in one’s own country, Liverpool showed that it is, indeed, possible to be “United by Music”.
And, for a short time at least, allowed Ukrainians – whether forced abroad as refugees or watching from their bomb shelters – the chance to live in their own fantasy world full of blue-and-yellow submarines.
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