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14 March 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:26pm

Jamala, the singer using Eurovision to highlight the persecution of the Crimean Tatars

Although Eurovision song lyrics are not permitted to be political, the 2016 Ukrainian entry has found a way of bringing an historical injustice into present-day popular culture.

By Ian Bateson

“They come to your house / they kill you all and say / we’re not guilty.” These are the provocative lyrics to Ukraine’s Eurovision Song Contest entry “1944” written and sung by Jamala. The song is about Joseph Stalin’s 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars, but with human rights abuses continuing in Russian-controlled Crimea the song is seen by some, including Russia, as a commentary on the situation in Crimea today. Some Russian lawmakers are even calling for Russia to boycott Eurovision if the song is allowed to compete.

Jamala, however, sees the song as a personal story. “It is a record. It is a year that changed my family,” Jamala told the New Statesman. The song mixes parts of Jamala’s musical heritage, blending post-Soviet electronic stylings with soul and eastern Crimean Tatar influences. Rather than try and tell the story of her family, the song tries to evoke the emotions of the events. In 1944 when the deportations occurred Jamala’s great-grandfather was fighting in the Soviet army when Soviet soldiers arrived to deport the Crimean Tatars. Jamala remembers her great-grandmother telling her how happy she was to see the soldiers then. “They gave them their food, their beds, their houses. They thought it meant their sons and husbands were coming back soon.”

Instead, the entire Crimean Tatar community was locked in cattle cars and sent to Central Asia without being given food or water. Thousands died on the journey, including Jamala’s great-grandmother’s daughter. Her great-grandfather never returned from the war. Officially, the Crimean Tatars were collectively accused of Nazi collaboration, but in reality it was part of a larger plan to remove distrusted ethnic and religious minorities from areas near the front.

In the Sixties the Nazi collaboration charges were dropped, but Crimean Tatars were still not allowed to return. Jamala, 32, was born in what is now Kyrgyzstan, and remembers being told again and again that the Crimean Tatars had supported the Nazis. “They told me [we had supported the Nazis] as if I didn’t know the truth,” she says.

In the late Eighties, under Mikhail Gorbachev, Jamala’s family was finally able to return to Crimea, but discrimination meant that homes were denied to Crimean Tatars. In desperation Jamala’s mother, an ethnic Armenian, formally divorced her father and lied about having children to secure a home for them.

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Jamala wants to raise awareness about the event and the suffering of the Crimean Tatars which is not taught in Ukrainian or Russian schools. “When we try and hide something like that it is like an itch on your heart,” she says. 

“I couldn’t spend my youth there because you took my world” is the Crimean Tatar chorus to Jamala’s ballad. It is the first part of the song that came to Jamala, and though it applied to the deportation of the Crimean Tatars, it also applies to the thousands of Crimean Tatars and other Crimeans who refuse to return to the peninsula as long as it is under Russian control. It is an issue Jamala knows well, as both of her parents still live in Crimea, but she has not been back or performed concerts in Russia or Crimea since the summer of 2014.

Jamala’s song has had a tremendous resonance with Ukrainians. Ukraine’s Eurovision nominee is selected by points awarded by a jury and via public SMS voting. Jamala received 5 out of 6 points from the jury, and the maximum number of points possible from the public vote. With people in Crimea unable to vote because Ukrainian mobile numbers are blocked there, Crimean Tatars took to social media and called relatives and friends, asking them to vote for Jamala. Jamala says she even knows of people who drove all the way to Ukrainian-controlled territory to send an SMS vote for her.

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That resonance is important to Jamala and she says she has long been looking to give her music greater purpose. She counts another classically trained musician who went on to embrace jazz and soul, Nina Simone, as a major influence, along with other US civil rights era musicians. With this song she sees the potential to take Eurovision beyond kitsch and spectacle.

At the same time she is careful to emphasize that at its core the song is about the story of her family and not a commentary on events today. Eurovision songs are not permitted to be political and all songs’ lyrics are assessed by the European Broadcast Union ahead of the contest to ensure compliance. Last week they approved “1944”, meaning that Jamala will now be taking Crimea centrestage at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Stockholm. Though the song makes no mention of Russia, the topic is a heated one with Russia and Ukraine often fighting over Crimea’s past as they struggle to determine its future.

During that struggle, Crimean Tatars’ support for Ukraine has won them new acceptance in the country. Crimean Tatar flags are regularly seen mixed with Ukrainian flags at rallies in Kiev and prominent Crimean Tatars are treated as national leaders. It was not always the case. Jamala remembers having to argue with children in school who told her she should leave Crimea and Ukraine and telling them that she was already home. “The children were so angry, but I knew it came from their parents.” Later, while studying music at university, a music instructor pressured her to change her surname because it was “too Tatar”.  

At Eurovision, however, Jamala will not only be representing Ukraine using her stage name derived from that same surname, Jamaladynova, but will also be the first Crimean Tatar to represent Ukraine.

When she is called a Crimean Tatar singer, however, Jamala is quick to correct and say that whether in English, Ukrainian, Crimean Tatar or Russian, she is a Ukrainian singer first. “We are two nations but one country,” she says. “Two years ago we felt the break with history and so music and motherland have been joined.” Jamala’s music is trying to represent a changing Ukraine and define what that motherland is.