Jamala, the Dakh Daughters, and Ukraine’s New Femininity

By Natalia Antonova
  • Natalia Antonova
    Natalia Antonova was born in Ukraine and grew up in North Carolina. She works as a pundit and playwright. She has written for The Guardian, Newsweek, openDemocracy, Mashable, Foreign Policy, et al. She was the last editor of The Moscow News, Russia's oldest English-language publication, before it was shut down by the government in 2014.

It can be strange, being a woman from Ukraine. We are considered beautiful, but in a cheap, too-obvious way; we are women fit for aging sex tourists and big-fish-in-a-small-pond expats. We do not choose, we are chosen. Misogynists use us as foils for Western women who will not give them the time of day—in the sense that we are supposed to weigh less and be more deferential (read: we are supposed to humor the asshole at the bar, as opposed to tell him he is an asshole).

Most importantly, we are not supposed to think too much. Ukrainian women, in spite of an intellectual tradition that spans everyone from the poet Lesya Ukrainka to playwright Natalia Vorozhbit (who is a good friend), are not associated with high art, philosophy, or political criticism or all the other things we are considered too dumb and explicitly feminine for.

Of course, all I have done above is list a bunch of stereotypes. The average Ukrainian woman will confidently tell you that she is stupid. But stereotypes have power, especially when you are young and impressionable and have not seen much of the world. That is why pop culture is important: if it offers a breadth of examples that enable young women to see a variety of interesting choices opening up in front of them.

From Ani Lorak to Vera Brezhneva, famous Ukrainian pop singers have traditionally been cast in a very particular mold. They are beautiful, crackling with a particular kind of sexual energy, but also ‘safe’, and just bland enough. In Ukraine, they are often compared to well-compensated service industry employees—here to please. They are not going to do anything to kill your boner or put unusual ideas about politics or society in your head. They do not take risks with their image like Lady Gaga or show righteous anger like Beyoncé.

One Ukrainian music producer told me just a few years ago, “Ukraine could never have its own Beyoncé—she’s too political. And forget about an alternative Ukrainian act with major crossover appeal if it’s a woman—international audiences expect Ukrainian singers to be pretty, not ‘different’.”

It seems that the Ukraine crisis may have proved him wrong on both counts.

When Lorak came in second place at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Shady Lady,” the critics yawned. Sure, Lorak is attractive, but this was nothing revolutionary as far as Eurovision, with all of its campy excess, is concerned.

Flash forward to 2016, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and an ongoing military conflict in parts of east Ukraine. Jamala, an ethnic Crimean Tatar, wins Eurovision with “1944,” a fiery denunciation of Stalin’s deportation of Tatars from Crimea, a counterintuitive pop song with lines such as “You think you are gods / But everyone dies,” clearly a reference to the fact that no matter how many people Stalin killed and oppressed, he still croaked in the end.

Russian observers decried Jamala’s win as just another form of unfair sanctioning of poor Russia. Russia’s own candidate, Sergey Lazarev, put on quite a show featuring stunning special effects, and probably would have won had the political situation not a) alienated Europe from Russia and b) inspired Jamala to sing a song about Stalin in the first place.

Jamala’s image for Eurovision is interesting even if you lay aside the politics of her performance. She is pretty but not eager to please, styled in a slightly gothic way, not offering herself up for consumption as much as offering the viewer a chance for reflection. She does not kill the Eurovision’s silly vibe, she gracefully subverts it. An unusual candidate for Ukraine either way you look at it.

The Eurovision Song Contest is not something most people take seriously, but in Ukraine, as in other countries that see themselves as marginal to Europe or striving toward Europe, this refusal to take notice is simply impossible. In that sense, Jamala’s win means more than a first place in a televised extravaganza featuring forgettable pop hits—it is a win for an ethnically diverse Ukrainian identity, for a post-Soviet historical perspective, and for a broader, more inclusive femininity.

In her performances, Jamala is cool and self-possessed, melancholy without trying too hard, ghostly and magical, her voice inward sounding, as if she has a secret she will not quite reveal. There is a sense of removal to it, of a woman who, unlike her more conventional colleagues, will leave you wanting more. It is lovely that, controversial or not, Eurovision gave her a bigger platform.

Like with Jamala and pop, the Ukraine crisis has also brought a new dimension to gender within the world of Ukrainian alternative music, namely to all-female freak cabaret band known as the Dakh Daughters.

The Dakh Daughters began at Kiev’s independent theater Dakh, started by director Vlad Troitsky, the same place where I began my career as a playwright after a bad break up (because how else does one begin a career as a playwright?).

The art world in Kiev, my native city, is small, everyone knows everyone, or is related to everyone. I am related to one of the Dakh Daughters, Solomia Melnyk, my cousin. And I remember how the Dakh Daughters were starting out—they were a playful act, experimenting in the tiny Dakh theater when the women were not starring as actors in its productions.

The strange times we are living in overtook them and their work grew to be a sharp, darkly funny, lovingly poetic exploration of everything from the ongoing war to shitty relationships. Their sound is both unmistakable and hard to pin down—there is a bit of The Dresden Dolls, and a Greek chorus, some spoken word, and folk with a delicious, rockabilly edge.

The Dakh Daughters famously adopted “To moye more” (literally: “That’s my sea”), a Ukrainian pop rock song of the early 1990s, and turned it into a sly, and somehow incredibly fun criticism of the Crimean annexation. One of their other famous compositions, “Rozy / Donbass” is a lyrical mixture of everything from a Shakespeare sonnet (“No more be grieved at that which thou hast done: Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud”) to a Ukrainian folk song featuring a woman going mushroom picking.

“Rozy / Donbass” gained special significance when armed conflict broke out in Ukraine’s Donbas region, though the song was written before the guns started firing—and when you listen to the track, with its heavy beats and building sense of foreboding, you cannot help but wonder if these women somehow saw the future.

Much like Jamala, the Dakh Daughters are characterized by a sense of removal. Nothing about their lyrics or performance style is on the nose. Each performance contains several layers: Drama is covered up with laughter, laughter descends into the grotesque, anger is subverted into farce. And judging by how enthusiastically all of this is received and how quickly the tickets sell out, it seems that Ukrainian audiences are more than ready for female artists who will challenge them.

Their fans often wonder if the Dakh Daughters are different when the paper-white, dramatic stage makeup comes off—they are not. I hate the expression “they live their art,” but, well, they live their art, and are as likely to engineer an episode of vaudevillian hilarity in a grocery store as they are on the stage.

As Russian critic Marina Davydova noted earlier this year, it was at the Dakh Daughters’ triumphant performance at Wiener Festwochen in Vienna that “a real and unconditional victory was won for Ukrainian musical culture.” For Davydova, that ranked much higher than Jamala’s Eurovision win, seeing as Eurovision culture is generally disposable.

I, however, see both Jamala and the Dakh Daughters as two important aspects of a newly popular femininity in Ukraine, shaped by conflict and crisis, but also by not having anything to prove. This is a femininity that does not place one’s fuckability at the center of one’s work. It does not reject sex appeal, it just refuses to grant it special privileges, or set the average man up as its ultimate arbiter. It does not establish an unattainable ideal for the audience to follow, it invites the audience to participate in the drama, in the fun. It sinks its pearly white teeth into politics, then spits it out, and turns it into something unexpectedly beautiful in the process.

The upheavals of the last few years have ensured that Ukraine will never be the same, for many reasons, a great number of them unbearable in their sadness, terrifying in their banality. But there has also been courage and resistance, there have been hopes and beginnings. It is fitting, then, that the best songs of these times are not sung by caged birds.