Eurovision is commonly thought of as a lightweight pop song competition where, at best, one ends up with a lighthearted and whimsical performance like that of ABBA’s winning entry in 1974, “Waterloo,” where the band dressed for their performance in costumes and sang a number comparing Wellington’s near run thing to a romance. While there are frequent complaints about the vapid and bland nature of the competition, occasionally there are controversies. Unsurprisingly, many of these controversies have involved Israel, with Jordanian television refusing to show Israel’s entry or announce their victory in the competition, and with Lebanon banning sales of the Eurovision cd because Israeli songs tend to be on them. This year, though, the controversy is most heated because of its winner, a talented pop and opera singer of complex ethnic origin, representing the Ukraine, born in Kyrgyzstan to a Crimean Tartar father and an Armenian mother from Nagorno-Karabakh and whose homeland is under Russian occupation.
Susana Jamaladinova, who goes by the performing name Jamala, would seem at first glance to be an unusual person to cause such an intense controversy. Besides her complicated heritage, she has long had a love of music, making her first professional recording as a nine year old singing a dozen folk and children’s songs in her native Crimean Tartar. She graduated from the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine as an opera singer but chose to make a career in pop music, likely believing it more lucrative. In 2011 she had an entry in the Ukrainian competition for Eurovision with a song called “Smile,” but withdrew before she could perform in the finals. None of that history as a musician, nor her diverse body of work in many genres, would indicate why she would become a lightning rod both for success as well as for criticism on the part of Russia. We should note, at least to start, that Russia had the third place winner, with Australia a close runner up in second, and so at least part of Russia’s criticism of Jamala and her song, “1944,” is due to sour grapes about not winning the competition.
There is, however, legitimate beef. 1944 tells a personal story from the singer’s own personal background. In that year, some of her ancestors were forcibly removed from the Crimean Peninsula and exiled to Central Asia, where one of her great-aunts died on the truck ride there and was thrown from the wagon “like garbage .” Her song pulls no punches about her feelings about Russia, opening with the chilling lines: “When strangers are coming / They come to your house / They kill you all / And say / We’re not guilty / Not guilty.” Russia, quite naturally, complained that the song was clear political speech, and anti-Russian to boot, but the song was allowed because Jamala had cleverly chosen to sing about a historical disaster, one in which she has a very intense personal stake, rather than the 2014 annexation of Crimea, which would have run afoul of the strict Eurovision rules against political speech, or at least songs that address contemporary politics, it should be noted. For her part, Jamala has stated that “musicians should express their feelings, their real feelings, not sing meaningless words like we hear all the time.”
Yet one can hardly blame Jamala for choosing a historical atrocity to sing about, one which had a powerful effect on her own life, seeing as she herself was born in late Soviet-era Central Asia with her family still in exile, unable to return home until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor is the choice of using a historical event to cast light on the past behavior of Russia’s aggression a disingenuous choice, the fact that she sang about her own personal and family history notwithstanding . In Japan, for example, prohibition on writing about the contentious present during the rule of various shoguns led to the proliferation of plays dealing with the same concerns from the far more distant past. Less legitimately, opposition to various aspects of our contemporary cultural decadence has been equated with past struggles over human rights, painting moral defenders in the same color scheme as dyed-in-the-wool racists. Nor can one blame Russia for being upset about their past being used as a reminder of the unpleasant present, but the best solution would be to stop the bullying that other people sing about. Victims have voices too—some of them are singing voices, some of them pens or keyboards that publish lengthy accounts of what has been done. Sometimes dead bodies tossed off of trucks like garbage or mass graves buried in forests and swamps tell their own forensic tale.
Even so, it is fair to wonder how a mainstream American audience would feel about a longtime Mexican-American musician singing a passionate song about the dispossession of her family’s land by rapacious Americans spreading slavery, called, say, “1844,” a more downcast version of ABBA’s song “Fernando.” Although Russia is certainly illustrious in world history in dispossessing other nations and in dealing brutally with their populations, they are far from alone in that noble task. Even a casual look at our own borders and how they have expanded will demonstrate the expansion of our nation via diplomacy coupled with force—the taking of the Midwest during the American Revolution, the seizure of Florida bit by bit from Spain, the brinksmanship over Oregon and the San Juan Islands, the victorious conquest of the Far West over Mexico, the overthrow of Hawaii’s native monarchy, the occupation of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the Philippines, the support of Panamanian rebels in exchange for the granting of U.S. control of the Canal Zone. In many of those cases, victory over the European or post-colonial enemies for title to the land then required further warfare to pacify and control the actual inhabitants of the land. Thus the granting of Florida to American rule led to a series of wars against the Seminole, the division of the Oregon territory between the US and Great Britain led to a series of wars in that territory against the Modoc, Shoshone, Nez Perce, and others.
This is not in any way to imply that the United States is worse than any other nation, as is commonly bemoaned by those who are hostile to patriotism. The reminder is simply that what we praise depends in great deal upon our position. Those of us who hold the title to deeds of property purchased by fraud or conquest are not generally very fond of having the dubious and illegitimate nature of those deeds brought to mind by the writing and singing of others. Jamala’s passionate song about the loss of her own ancestral homeland as a result of Soviet aggression, where her great-grandfather fighting in the Soviet army was unable to protect his own wife and children from exile and dispossession, despite his own patriotism, is not a song that Russians want to hear. Many such songs could be sung the whole world over—the Crimean Tartars, it should be noted, were once a scourge themselves in Eastern Europe, raiding and pillaging across the steppe, sacking cities, enslaving peasants and sending them to the Porte (Istanbul, who was the nominal lord of the Crimean khanate). Even more to the point, the Tartars are where they were because they were a part of the Mongol conquest. No one, at least no one that I have heard of, would wish to blame Jamala for the historical wrongs of her long-distant ancestors who fought with the Golden horde. But that too is a historical wrong that someone could sing about with equal justice to her own songs. And short of people making an honest and open apology for the wrongs that they have done while no longer profiting from those past wrongs nor engaging in present wrongs of the same kind, and short of people forgiving those who have wronged them, I do not see any way that the endless blaming  and recrimination can end.
 Colin Freeman, (14 May 2016). “‘They kill you all’: why Ukrainian Eurovision winner, Jamala, angered Russia with her 1944 song”. The Telegraph. Retrieved 16 May 2016
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