From storytime to millions of hits How a rural preschool teacher became the star of Ukrainian rap
In October of 2018, the rapper Alyona Alyona posted a nine-minute video on YouTube. The satirical clip, entitled “Ribki 2” (“Fishies 2”), begins as a parody of a rural children’s television show but quickly merges into a burst of impressively energetic, lightning-fast Ukrainian rap. The video went viral, and Alyona Alyona has published four equally popular music videos since. Each has received no less than a million views along with dozens of Russian-language comments declaring that the emerging Ukrainian artist already has the entire Russian hip hop world beat. However, what makes this story truly special is that 27-year-old Alyona Savranenko worked until very recently as a preschool teacher in the town of Baryshevka near Kyiv, and her day-to-day life there plays a prominent role in her videos. Meduza asked Savranenko about stardom, childhood, and body positivity.
I’m a pretty typical girl. I finished school, studied, went off to work. And trust me, I worked everywhere! I started out when I was 15: in Kyiv, there’s a place called the Troieshchyna Market, and I sold purses and shoes there in a booth owned by a Chinese guy. During school breaks, I would go out there and work — we Ukrainians look older to them than we really are, so even though I was 15, I told him I was 20 and that I was a college student. And he said he’d thought I was 30!
After that, I worked as a cashier, a collector, a mall janitor, a saleswoman. I studied psychology in college and found a job in my field as a social worker. I gave psychological consultations to people who needed them. I worked with young mothers who gave birth really early, women from disadvantaged families, people who were imprisoned, drug addicts, alcoholics. I talked to them about how they could start believing in themselves, how to behave well at work, how to make social contact with people if you’re coming from prison. I helped women whose partners hurt them understand that not all men are bad, not all of them are there to hurt you.
My job at the preschool also fell into my field of expertise: I wanted to be a psychologist there. They told me that this preschool didn’t have a regular position for a psychologist but that I should work there a little and an opening would pop up eventually. I started working as a teacher, but that opening never came — there was no money for it. But I just fell in love with my work so much that I went back to school for an education degree and stayed at the preschool for five years. In the second preschool where I worked, I was actually the principal. I only quit in early December.
I think it’s really interesting work. I really like crafts myself; I like to draw. I found a way to connect with the kids: they listen to me, and they have fun being around me. I love music. For me, thinking up a kids’ song and setting up a little dance all by myself is a frickin’ piece of cake. I’d just put it all together, and then you’re basically doing something really cool, it’s legit that you can teach kids to be nice, teach them to be good people. The kids sit on little pillows on the carpet. You’re sitting next to them on a table. It all starts with a bit of improvised literature, a little story or a poem that has some kind of life lesson in it. Like, a kid broke a branch off a tree, and you explain that the branch is broken, so the tree didn’t grow properly, the bird went hungry, and so did the squirrel. You let it all sink in, and the kids learn to be thoughtful and loving and not to do bad things. That’s really important.
From the time I was a kid, I had good, brainy music all around me. I started writing poems when I was around 12, but then I heard rap for the first time and realized — why am I doing this if I can just tell a whole story in one song? I looked for backup music and learned some basic programs to write my own beats. Back then, there were two other girls too — it was like we had a little group, we tried out a bunch of stuff, but it didn’t go anywhere. The other girls went on to other things, but I kept going. Actually, people knew me as a performer in Ukrainian hip hop already way back then. I was just unknown to the rest of the world.
Before, I wrote music to make people like me, to be like someone famous so that some crew would take me in as their new superstar. I wrote about stuff that I wasn’t living, like I don’t actually smoke weed, it doesn’t interest me, but I mentioned weed in every track just to be part of the scene. Then I quit all that and started writing about what I was living. Plus, I used to read my bars differently — I used more old-school beats. I decided to try some new software, rap a little faster even if everyone in the scene thought that kind of thing was just meh. And I made it!
I put out my first track in Ukrainian something like 10 years ago, but then I started rapping in Russian. I wanted people to like me, and nobody was listening to Ukrainian rap. I wandered around looking for my voice, tried doing something in English. But the whole time, everything I wanted to say in Ukrainian was just boiling in there! And then I started doing what I’m doing now. It’s closer to my heart. I read a lot of Ukrainian literature: it feels like Ukrainian prose has really taken off, and there are loads of super awesome, interesting books. I taught the kids in Ukrainian, and that expanded my vocabulary even more. A lot of the time, I think in Ukrainian too. Plus, Ukrainian is just structurally a little simpler than Russian: it’s more melodic, it’s sweeter, more poetic. It’s true when people say it sounds like a nightingale. Anyway, there’s no political undertone here — I’m just not a political person all around. I think music has no nationality.
Why did my songs take off? First of all, because I found myself. Second of all, it turns out that the way I live, a lot of people live like that in the country, and their stories are a lot like mine. Plus, it matters that I’m a daycare counselor — that’s a little unusual. But I know doctors who churn out legit rock music — real biker dudes, I’m telling you! For me, that’s just life. Everyone has the right to do what they want in their free time.
The idea here was never to promote body positivity. I’m asking all of you not to pin this word on me! I’m not into that kind of thing, I never posed naked for y’all or anything! I just am the way I am. I talk about how I’ve accepted myself, but I’m not here for propaganda. I’m not going to tell you to go off and beat up anyone who tells you you’re fat. I mean, c’mon, guys, lets look the truth in the face.
I wasn’t able to accept myself the way I was right away, only after 20 years, when I was in college. I sang a lot back then, and I did KVN [a post-Soviet sketch comedy competition]. And then, a girl came up to me once and said, “Listen, you’re so cool — can you teach me? I’d love to be able to carry myself like that when I’m onstage.” And I was super surprised because she was so skinny — she had a great figure. I met up with my friends and told them what happened, and they asked me, “What if you could go to sleep today and wake up skinny in the morning but without all your talent, your musicality, your voice — what would you choose? I kind of laughed it off, but then I thought about it: what’s more important to me, my charisma and my love of humor or being skinny? And I decided that what I love is more important to me than my body.
Ever since then, I’ve stopped dieting. I decided that if I have that extra time, I’d do better to go help someone or teach someone something. The kids appeared in my life, and I decided to give my life to them instead of getting hung up on myself. I’m not saying that I don’t have complexes. That’s impossible! Complexes start getting to you when you’re a little kid. You can’t just wake up one day and have it all click and say, “They’re gone!” But the way you think about them is really important. You can hide in a corner, sit there like a mouse, and cry every time someone pushes you or says something to you. Like if a little boy is walking by me, sometimes they’ll just reach out and poke me, you know, “Look what a big lady this is.” So what, am I supposed to sit down and cry over that? This is my life; this is who I am. You’ve got to just take it easy — then life gets way more beautiful and more epic.
I want to help Ukrainian music develop. The hip hop scene here is pretty tightened up, but I think that’s going to change soon. And I’d also want to help [society] change [so that] it can accept people like me. I’m not about to lose 40 kilos, and if I can use music to give [people] a chance to believe in themselves, feel a little freer, let their talent out of the shadows, then that’s what I’m going to do.
People are trying to get me to perform live — in Russia too. But I don’t want to do that right now. I mean, do you know what it’s like to rap in front of an audience? To me, it feels like stripping naked. I’m not ready yet. In my entire career, I’ve rapped in public maybe five times — and I forgot the words every time. It was terrible! My knees were shaking! My whole life, when I performed, I sang other people’s songs, or I told jokes at KVN, but rap was always for my soul, it was always too private somehow. It’s easier for me to go out there and sing an Ani Lorak song than do one of my own tracks. That’s why I’m performing now at little parties every once in a while—I’m training up a little bit.
[When my preschoolers saw my music videos,] they said, “Ms. Savranenko, you’re so pretty!” Kids like my music. Probably because there’s no propaganda in it. I don’t swear in my songs. People send me videos of kids dancing to my music. Parents come up to me too and say, “I put on your track for my kid, and we loved it so much!”
Translation by Hilah Kohen