Meet Ukraine’s new star rapper, Alyona Alyona
It took Alyona Savranenko, known by her stage name Alyona Alyona, half a year to go from working at a nursery school to being unofficially titled Ukraine’s best rapper.
The 27-year-old up-and-coming star caught the rap bug as a teenager and has been writing songs ever since. But it was her music video “Rybky” (“Fish”), released in October 2018, that made Alyona Alyona famous. That video went viral and the song made it onto her first album, which was released on April 8.
The long play, called “Pushka” (“Gun”), is already being praised by Ukraine’s music-focused media.
“I haven't been heard,” the rapper told the Kyiv Post. “I wanted to say ‘Guys, look, despite my disadvantage, my figure, which you don’t like, see what you can love me for,” the rapper says, describing her album.
The artist’s schedule is now packed with interviews and she is about to start her first tour, but there’s hardly an ounce of ego in the teacher-turned-rapper. She remains true to her roots and is keeping it real.
First rap song
Alyona Alyona has lived most of her life in small towns. Unlike many others involved in the music industry, she didn’t seek fame in the capital. Instead, she moved to Kyiv only after public acclaim became a part of her life.
The rapper comes from Kapitanivka, a small town of about 2,000 people located in Kirovohrad Oblast, some 200 kilometers south of Kyiv. She refers to her childhood a lot in her new album.
“We all choose the way forward, but we shouldn’t forget our roots,” she says.
As a kid, she sometimes stayed alone at home, as her parents couldn’t skip work and the local nursery school worked irregularly. But the rapper wasn’t bored, as she had music to babysit her.
“It was just me and a record player. I threw music shows,” Alyona Alyona reminisces.
She listened to Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, Chris Rea, and Scorpions but none of their songs excited her quite as much as hip hop culture. The first rap song Alyona Alyona heard was a huge 1990s hit: “Gangsta's Paradise” by U.S. artist Coolio.
She says she can still recount the plot of “Gangsta’s Paradise” in detail. “I loved it so much,” she says. When Alyona Alyona was still in her pre-teen years, her family moved to Novomyrhorod, a slightly larger town in the same oblast. There, she teamed up with other creative people in her middle school, occasionally performed comedy and pop songs and even tried out her first rap lines at the age of 12.
Her first rap song was about the pain every teenager faces: school teachers forcing children to study, while they want to have fun.
For the performance, Alyona Alyona asked her mom to get her an oversized track suit, which was the total opposite to the tight-fitting clothing her peers favored at the time.
“I came on stage in this suit like a real rapper,” Alyona Alyona recalls with a laugh.
The artist’s first performance was far from flawless: She tripped over words and there was no beat, so the audience thought it was more
of a poem. She then came to the realization that rapping was scarier than anything she had done on stage before.
“It’s like getting naked in public,” she says.
But she kept taking the challenge.
10 years on
After the rapper’s family moved again, this time to the small town Baryshivka in Kyiv Oblast, a whole new world opened up for Alyona Alyona: the capital’s black markets, packed with music CDs. She skipped snacks in order to save up money and get a new CD. She says she listened to everything that fell into her hands and that’s how she got acquainted with rappers from all over the world.
“I admired music and I soaked it up like a sponge,” she says.
She learned Eminem’s songs by heart, had a blog about female rappers, hung out with the local hip hop community and continued writing music. Alyona Alyona embraced this passion as a hobby and never thought of receiving musical education.
“Someone knits socks, paints, embroiders, and I rap.”
She studied psychology and pedagogy, held numerous jobs and ended up working as a nursery school teacher in Baryshivka.
But music always had a place in the rapper’s heart.
She released her first track 10 years ago, but it didn’t make it beyond the local hip hop community. She later published more songs on social media but never reached out to any labels, as she didn’t want to impose herself on others.
“I’m a modest person,” the rapper says.
But after years of playing with rhymes, Alyona Alyona decided to give it another try.
“Ten years in the game — it’s a sin to keep quiet,” she says in one of her songs.
The release of the music video for “Rybky” in October 2018 was a long-anticipated turn in Alyona Alyona’s career. Several factors helped her conquer the local music scene: there are few good rappers in Ukraine, fewer of them rap in Ukrainian and even fewer are female. And the artist’s full-figured appearance likely made her more intriguing in Ukraine, where model-looking singers still dominate the music industry.
But, more than that, it was Ayona Alyona’s confidence and flow that made her song go viral, which she didn't expect.
“I was shocked,” she says. Catching the popularity wave, the rapper wrote and dropped new music, carefully testing the waters. As her songs attracted more and more attention, Alyona Alyona made a decision to quit her job, move to Kyiv and focus on her album. She also released a deeply symbolic hit, “Leaving My Home.”
The album “Pushka” came out as the rapper’s introduction, expressing her personal story. She says she chose to rap about her own life because she “wanted to be heard.”
In its main song — also called “Pushka” — the musician says that she is no trendy rapper with a face tattoo. Instead, she calls herself “chubby,” but also “an unread book.”
Although she raps about herself, Alyona Alyona's songs are hardly egotistical. In fact, there is a lot of self-directed irony in her lyrics — a rarity in a genre known for its boastful presentation. “Big and funny,” she describes herself in a song of the same name.
“I’m all for naturalness,” she says. “Laughing at myself another time - well, it's a buzz.”
As for dollar bills, gold chains, and fancy cars, the rapper says they can only appear in her videos to poke fun at mainstream hip-hop culture.
In recognition of Alyona Alyona’s breakthrough, the local Yuna music awards nominated her single “Rybky” for the best hip hop hit of 2018. The awards, which took place on March 22, are a fancy event with a red carpet and guests dressed to the nines.
“I walked the carpet — red or blue, it doesn’t matter,” the rapper says. “All this cocktail buzz is not really my thing.”
However, she says she was humbled by the nomination and the invitation to perform.
Although another artist, Alina Pash, took the award, Alyona Alyona performed at the ceremony. It was her first performance for such a large audience. And successful musicians were dancing and rapping along from their seats in the audience.
“That’s so cool that it grooves them,” she says.
She will start her first album tour in May, performing mostly in Ukraine, but also in Germany, Iceland, Slovakia, Poland, and Belarus.
As we talk on one of Kyiv’s central streets, a couple of people recognize Alyona Alyona and stop to thank her for her music.
“It happens regularly but not often,” she says. “It’s just that kind of a street. If we head to Obolon (a residential neighborhood in northern Kyiv), nobody will recognize me.”
But heads keep turning and passers-by continue to spot Ukraine’s newest and most modest rapper.
Ukrainian emerging rapper Alyona Alyona poses for a photograph during the interview with the Kyiv Post on April 10, 2019, in Kyiv. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)
Ukrainian up-and-coming rapper Alyona Alyona performs during the Yuna music awards in Ukraine Palace in Kyiv on March 22, 2019. The artist’s breakthrough hit “Rybky” was nominated for best hip hop song. (Volodymyr Petrov)