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This duo rehearsed between air raid alarms. Now they're repping Ukraine at Eurovision

Andrii Hutsuliak (L) and Jeffrey Kenny (R) pose for a portrait in Ukraine's Central Kyiv Railway Station on April 28.
Alexey Furman
Getty Images
Andrii Hutsuliak (L) and Jeffrey Kenny (R) pose for a portrait in Ukraine's Central Kyiv Railway Station on April 28.

Musicians from more than two dozen countries will compete in the grand final of the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool on Saturday, vying for the ultimate title in front of millions of TV viewers worldwide.

There's a special spotlight shining on Ukraine, whose folk-rap group Kalush Orchestra won last year's competition with its patriotic song "Stefania" less than three months after Russia's full-scale invasion.

It's customary for the winning country to host the following year's contest, a famously elaborate production involving thousands of workers and 12 months of preparation. But the U.K., which placed second, stepped in after a panel of experts ruled that the security and logistical questions posed by Russia's ongoing war made it too risky for Ukraine to do so.

This year the country will be represented by the electronic music duo Tvorchi, which consists of Ukrainian producer Andrii Hutsuliak and Nigerian-born vocalist and songwriter Jimoh Augustus Kehinde, who goes by Jeffrey Kenny.

The two met as university students in 2016 and have so far released four studio albums, in addition to headlining multiple Ukrainian music festivals, cinching a record-breaking number of Yuna Award nominations (Ukrainian national music awards) and even advancing to the finals of Ukraine's Eurovision national selection process in 2020.

They have spent most of the war performing in cities across Europe to raise money for Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. They decided to enter Eurovision again with their song "Heart of Steel," which they had written about the Ukrainian fighters defending the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol in the spring of 2022.

"[We're] trying to say the Ukrainians will fight no matter what 'til the end, which is peace," Hutsuliak says. "So we just want to show they have hearts of steel. They don't have, like, brittle spirits. No, they're very strong, mind and body."

Hutsuliak and Kenny spoke with NPR over Zoom from Ternopil, a city in western Ukraine, in February β€” the week of the first anniversary of the war's outbreak β€” about their journey from late-night kitchen jam sessions to bomb shelter rehearsals to the global stage, and what they want to show the world.

It all started with a chance encounter on the street

Hutsuliak, 27, and Kenny, 25, had been studying at the same medical university and were both passionate about music. But they only met by chance β€” or what Hutsuliak calls fate.

"I was walking home and he tapped my shoulder and said, like, 'Hey, I want to improve my English skills,' " Kenny recalls.

Hutsuliak offered to help Kenny β€” who had been in the country for some three years at that point β€” with his Ukrainian as well. Looking back now, he stresses he wasn't in the habit of randomly approaching strangers.

"I did it once in my life and ... I will not do it [again], because I don't know what was in my head [at] the time," Hutsuliak says. "But I think that was a sign of destiny. Something pushed me forward and that's how our friendship started."

Months later, Kenny revealed his vocal prowess when he played "Happy Birthday" on the guitar for Hutsuliak's birthday.

"And wow, I was impressed so much," Hutsuliak says. "After some time we were in my kitchen, I [cooked] some pasta and I took my laptop, played some music that I made, and Jeffrey just started writing lyrics, and that's how our first song was made."

The two kept making and performing music under the name Tvorchi, which was suggested by a friend and means "creative" in Ukrainian. They released their first album, The Parts, in 2018, followed by Disco Lights in 2019, 13 Waves in 2020 and Road in 2021.

That year they won three Yuna awards, including for band and album of the year, and debuted Road at a massive concert at the Kyiv Velotrek (a cycling track) that critics called "the best solo show of the year in Ukraine."

"We were having a lot of performances all around the country and outside the country, going on different ceremonies, releasing new music, shooting music videos," Hutsuliak says. "That was like, a life of artists."

Then, in February 2022, Russia invaded.

Tvorchi performs in the hall of the Central Kyiv Railway Station on April 28. They won Ukraine's national contest in December and will compete in the Eurovision final on May 13.
Alexey Furman / Getty Images
Getty Images
Tvorchi performs in the hall of the Central Kyiv Railway Station on April 28. They won Ukraine's national contest in December and will compete in the Eurovision final on May 13.

They're using their rising stardom to support the war effort

The start of the war came as a shock and a call to action, Hutsuliak says.

He and Kenny spent the first few weeks buying things like medicine, food and camouflage nets for soldiers and people in the hardest-hit regions. But they soon focused their efforts elsewhere.

"In our situation, we wanted to help how best we could with what we knew how to do best," Kenny says. "And we know how to make music best. So we decided to go around making charity performances to raise money."

Tvorchi has been performing around the world β€” in cities including London, Lisbon, Hamburg, Berlin and Budapest β€” to raise money for Ukraine's military and children affected by the war. They also perform for Ukrainian soldiers, doctors and refugees, which they call a big honor and responsibility.

They've performed on truck beds and at military camps, swapping hats and trinkets with the soldiers there. Hutsuliak says they recently bought a car for some of them.

The war has made Ukraine stronger and more united, they say, since everyone has come together in the pursuit of victory.

"We got to show who we are as people and who other people are ... in the way they tried to help when this whole situation started," Kenny says. "It made us understand how to channel energy into doing something positive in a negative situation as well."

A bomb-shelter performance paved their way to Liverpool

Kenny says the two decided to apply for Eurovision at the very last minute β€” "We just went for it and we didn't even expect to win."

They hadn't written any songs specifically for the competition, but chose "Heart of Steel" because of the deep emotions they put into it and the message they wanted the world to hear.

They wrote it while watching the siege of the steel plant in Mariupol β€” which became a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance β€” unfold last spring.

"We were inspired from those videos because we couldn't imagine how hard it was over there," Hutsuliak says. "But when we saw those videos, we only felt strength, confidence, and we saw those unbreakable ... people."

The duo shifted into rehearsal mode ahead of the national selection competition in December, practicing and refining the song, figuring out their outfits and choreography and working with a team on the technical aspects β€” all between near-daily air raid alarms.

"It was pretty hard because you don't know which minute you can be hit by a missile, because air alarms are every day," Hutsuliak says. "So our life was like, we were walking from one shelter to another shelter and trying to make our schedule work."

The selection show was held at a Kyiv metro station-turned-bomb shelter, with 10 acts performing deep underground on a small platform between train tracks.

Kenny sang onstage wearing sunglasses and a gold hazmat suit, flanked by dancers wearing gas masks and in front of a screen with flashing red lights and spinning nuclear symbols. The duo describe the production as an acoustic and logistical challenge and credit their team with making it all work.

"It was crazy," Kenny recalls. "The trains were moving at the time. It was really cold and a lot of us got sick as well ... Everybody did a great job and everything went nicely ... when I went back to watch it, I wouldn't know it was a metro station if not for the trains."

The jury and the Ukrainian public chose Tvorchi to represent them at Eurovision. As the previous year's winner, Ukraine automatically qualified for the grand final (alongside the so-called "Big Five" countries of France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K.).

While Ukraine had hoped to host this year's competition, Hutsuliak and Kenny say they are grateful to the U.K. for stepping in for safety purposes and are optimistic they will do a good job in "making it feel like Ukraine."

Hutsuliak (L) and Kenny (R) met as university students and released four albums in four years. They pivoted to fundraising gigs after Russia's invasion.
Anya Vendi / Tvorchi
Hutsuliak (L) and Kenny (R) met as university students and released four albums in four years. They pivoted to fundraising gigs after Russia's invasion.

Their music showcases a different side of Ukraine

A Tvorchi Eurovision victory would be the fourth for Ukraine, which also won in 2004 and 2016. Previous acts have incorporated folk music into their performances, and Hutsuliak is excited to showcase a side of Ukraine that he doesn't think many people would expect: electronic music.

"Ukraine is ... a nice country with a lot of different people who make different music," he says, listing genres including hip-hop, rap, folk, pop and electronic. His own musical influences range from Mozart to Skrillex, while Kenny cites Afrobeats and mainstream pop.

There's another message they want to send with their music.

"We want to say, world, that we don't want to be pitied," Hutsuliak says. "We want you to look at us, get inspired from us, be united like we are, and help us in this fight."

They hope viewers around the world will continue to support Ukraine financially, by donating to the foundations that raise money for its military and civilians and to United24, a government-run fundraising platform.

Ukraine is widely expected to launch a counteroffensive this spring in which it would use the money and weapons donated by its Western allies to try to drive Russian forces out of occupied land. Some 14 months into the war, the artists β€” whose families are not in Ukraine β€” say things are still tense.

"Everybody has been able to put their feet on the ground somewhere, somehow, where they feel most comfortable or where they can operate best," Kenny says. "The tension is still there because ... [Russia] still can send missiles at any time."

Kenny wasn't intending to stay in Ukraine when he moved there to study in 2013, but as the duo's partnership and career took off he decided to "continue the good thing we had going." He doesn't regret the decision to stay, nor does he plan to move anywhere else.

He calls Ukraine a place of unity and diversity β€” before the war people would come from different countries to study and work, now others are showing up to join the fight.

"Ukraine is a place where you can come together and still be a family, regardless of where you are from," he says. "And that's why Ukraine is as brave as they are today because, without unity, there's not much you can do by yourself."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.