Alyona Alyona is turning the macho rules of rap on their head.
For a start, the former kindergarten teacher tries never to swear in her songs.
She proudly raps in the Ukrainian she grew up speaking in her rustic home village, rather than in English or Russian.
And she has become something of a plus-size icon for letting it all hang out in a silver swimming costume in the video for her first big hit, “Ribki” (“Fish”).
Flanked by two scantily-clad, pencil-thin women of the type that usually people rap videos, the song is a clear metaphor for young women who feel out of place.
The rapper, whose real name is Alyona Savranenko, has put body positivity, bullying and female empowerment in songs that defy the stereotype of what hip-hop should be.
The hugely popular 28-year-old has become a phenomenon in Europe, tearing it up at the Eurosonic showcase in the Groningen in the Netherlands last month after being picked out as a rising star by the New York Times.
– ‘Such a story’ –
“She’s really extraordinary, and hugely charming,” said Jean-Louis Brossard, who booked the charismatic performer for his Trans festival in the French city of Rennes last year.
“She brings people together with her smile and her enthusiasm — and she has such a story,” he told AFP.
“She is super-good, technically great, sassy, what can I say?” added music journalist Eloise Bouton, who founded the Madame Rap website.
Her videos have scored millions of hits despite their down-to-earth settings like her home village in central Ukraine, where horses and carts were a common sight in her childhood.
One clip, which starts with her parents at the kitchen table of their Soviet-era apartment, has had nearly four million views.
Ukraine’s biggest rapper began writing poetry when she was six, but discovered hip-hop at 12.
At first, she copied or translated American rap before finding her own voice and addressing young women’s place in society.
“I wasn’t a gangster, I was a kindergarten teacher,” she said.
But Alyona’s life changed when the video for “Fish”, which featured her frolicking on a jet ski, went viral.
“At the beginning, I was scared” by all the attention, she told AFP.
“The video got so many views that journalists started to come to see me” in the tiny village nursery school near Kiev where she taught.
– Facing down sexism –
Alyona realised if she was going to get serious about her musical career, she would have to give up her job.
“‘Fish’ is about women who have piercings, tattoos or strange coloured hair, or a body that is not seen as normal,” the singer said.
“We, these women, are like fish in tank. And behind the glass, we don’t hear the nasty words directed at us,” she added.
Another track “Pushka”, which roughly translates as “the bomb”, also challenges how women are seen. In it, Alyona calls herself a “pishka”, a term of abuse for someone who is overweight.
Other lyrics are more poignant: “They may have a fresh view on everything, but they never invite us home…”
Hip-hop is hardly known as a hotbed of feminist thinking, and Alyona has had to put up with some zingers.
“They have told me that women were made to cook, to look after children, to do their nails, to do their makeup,” she recalled.
– Body positive –
“But I try to show that women have their place in rap battles,” the off-the-cuff bragging contests that characterise the genre.
And Alyona has found her niche, far from the cliches of “drugs and gangs — because that is not my life. I go to see my parents or go on holiday.
“I try to inspire people. I am not just there to say to women that they can be rappers, but to tell them to believe in themselves,” she said.
Even though Alyona grew up idolising Eminem — “He represents everything you should do and not do at the same time,” she quipped — she prefers not to rap in English or in Russian, which might also bring her a bigger audience.
“I taught in Ukrainian and I want to say things in Ukrainian,” she insisted.
But she denied that it had anything to do with nationalism. “I don’t like politics. My generation is tired by politics… we want to create new things. There are so many great performers, painters, so many talented people out there.”
Kiev on Monday accused Tehran of knowing from the start that an Iranian missile had downed a Ukrainian airliner last month after leaked recordings emerged from Iranian air traffic control.
The recordings, aired on Ukraine’s 1+1 TV channel on Sunday, feature a conversation between an air traffic controller and the pilot of another plane at the time the Ukrainian airliner was hit on January 8, killing all 176 people on board.
The pilot can be heard describing “the light of a missile” on its route and then an explosion.
Iran initially denied Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 had been brought down by one of its missiles.
It later admitted that two missiles were fired at the plane by air defences on high alert, hours after Iranian armed forces fired ballistic missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said after the release of the recording that it “proves that the Iranian side knew from the start that our plane was hit by a missile.
“Everything is audible there,” Zelensky told 1+1. “Everything is recorded.”
The audio clip features the pilot of an Aseman Airlines flight from Iran’s southern city of Shiraz to Tehran communicating with air traffic control in the Iranian capital.
“There is a series of lights on our route, like a missile. Is there something?” the pilot is heard asking.
“What is the light like?” the controller asks.
“It’s the light of a missile,” the pilot replies.
The control tower then tries to contact the Ukrainian airliner, but unsuccessfully.
After a few minutes, the pilot says: “There was an explosion. We saw a very bright light here.”
It was unclear how the channel obtained the recording, though officials denied it had come from the Ukrainian authorities.
“This is a journalistic investigation. You need to ask them where they got this recording,” Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council, told AFP.
In his first nine months as Ukrainian president, former comedian Volodymyr Zelensky has found himself at the center of major international crises, including the US impeachment investigation and Iran’s downing of a passenger jet.
Yet so far Zelensky has sailed through relatively unscathed, avoiding any major gaffes, political analysts said.
The 41-year-old played a president in a popular TV sitcom before sweeping to power in elections last April on promises to “smash the old corrupt system” and end the separatist war in the east.
But many had voiced concerns about how someone without political experience could lead a country fighting a war with Russia-backed separatists while also dealing with widespread poverty and corruption.
“Fears of his inexperience turned out to be exaggerated,” said Oleksiy Melnyk, a foreign policy analyst at the Razumkov Center in Kiev.
Polls show most Ukrainians are satisfied with Zelensky’s performance.
His approval rating reached 62 percent in December after his first face-to-face meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
When it comes to international relations, the political novice has been constantly in the spotlight.
Just a few months into his first term, Zelensky found himself plunged into the impeachment scandal that threatens to take down US President Donald Trump.
Trump is accused of pressuring Zelensky to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine, making this a quid pro quo for military aid and a White House meeting. An impeachment trial is currently underway in the US Senate.
The Ukrainian leader has sought to distance himself from the scandal, stressing it is an internal affair for the United States.
For Kiev it is vital to maintain support from both major US political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats since Washington has been Kiev’s key ally in its long-running fight with Moscow.
December’s summit with Putin in Paris was the next major test for Zelensky.
Many Ukrainians feared Russia’s strongman would overwhelm the former showman, but he managed to restart peace talks that had been frozen for three years and agree on a prisoner exchange.
“Zelensky is a fast learner,” said David Stulik, senior analyst in the European Values Centre for Security Policy and former European Union diplomat in Kiev.
“With each international meeting he has acted more and more confidently,” Stulik said while adding Zelensky should have been “more insistent and even assertive” at the negotiations with Russia and the West.
Slow to blame Iran
Other analysts have also pointed to some flaws in Zelensky’s tenure as president so far.
When a Ukrainian airliner crashed in Iran in early January, killing all 176 people on board, Kiev’s reaction was rather muted.
As Ottawa and London openly stated that Iranian forces had accidentally shot the plane down with a missile, Ukraine was slow to pin the blame on Tehran, which ultimately admitted guilt.
Zelensky has faced criticism for what some see as a passive stance compared to other leaders.
“During the crisis, the political leader of Ukraine was (Canadian Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau,” analyst Mykola Davydiuk said ironically.
Yet Kiev argued that its circumspect approach meant Iran granted it access to the wreckage and the crash site to shed light on the tragedy.
Serious rifts emerged in Zelensky’s team last week with Prime Minister Oleksiy Goncharuk offering to resign after a leaked recording emerged where he questioned the president’s grasp of economics.
Zelensky seemingly smoothed over the situation, giving his PM a “second chance” and demanding an investigation into the leak.
Lacking ‘clear vision’
Such successful management of ad hoc crises does not, however, give much indication of whether Zelensky will be able to transform the country in the way he has promised.
Ukrainians want him to enact crucial reforms to root out corruption, reform the justice system and revive the economy of one of the poorest countries in Europe.
“It’s too bad he doesn’t use his great popularity to do something really big,” said Davydiuk.
A key reform promoted by Zelensky is allowing the sale of farmland from 2020 — a move that is hotly anticipated by investors but feared by many farmers.
For months the process of the bill’s adoption has dragged on with more and more amendments submitted and growing protests.
“We are in a zone of great risks,” said Oleksandr Sushko, executive director of the International Renaissance Foundation, which promotes the development of civil society.
He cited the fact that the president’s team consists mainly of his former showbusiness colleagues who lack experience in solving political problems.
Zelensky has got bogged down in constant crises and the presidential routine wrote Ukrainian news site Ukrainska Pravda.
In its view, he has “failed to formulate a clear vision of the country he wants to build”.
Donald Trump demanded the dismissal of Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine and a key figure in the president’s impeachment trial, according to a video recording released to US media on Saturday.
The footage was reportedly taken during an April 2018 donor dinner at a hotel and released to news outlets by an attorney for Lev Parnas, an indicted associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman are key players in Trump’s alleged campaign to pressure the government of Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden, a potential election opponent for the president.
The issue is central to Trump’s ongoing impeachment trial in the US Senate.
His order to fire the ambassador came after Parnas told him that Yovanovich was an impediment, and claiming that she had privately disparaged the President.
“Get rid of her!” Trump says on the tape, reportedly addressing a White House aide at the dining table.
“Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”
Images taken at an awkward angle appear at the start of the one hour, 23-minute-long video. The rest of the recording shows a tan background, as if the camera were covered, but Trump’s distinctive voice is clear.
In TV interview with MSNBC News last week, Parnas said Trump “knew exactly what was going on” with his and Fruman’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian authorities to investigate Biden.
His appearance came after Democrats released documents that showed Giuliani worked with Parnas to pressure Kiev to investigate Biden.
Both Parnas and Fruman were charged with violating US campaign finance laws in October.
The documents also showed the pair, working with Ukrainian officials, trying to force out Yovanovitch, a respected career diplomat who Trump eventually removed in May 2019.
Saturday’s recording corroborates much of what Parnas said in his TV interview, including that he knew Trump — something the president has denied.
In October Yovanovitch testified to Congress that she was recalled due to “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Joseph Bondy, an attorney for Parnas, said that he submitted the evidence to investigators in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.
He also told CNN that Parnas has more recordings and photographs that may be released to the public.
The release of the tape increases pressure on US senators to subpoena witnesses for the impeachment trial, a move several polls show has strong support among the US public.
White House lawyers began Trump’s defense in the impeachment trial on Saturday.
They have argued that the president did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine and that US voters — not Congress — should decide his fate.
Trump’s lawyers will resume his defense on Monday.
New video footage has emerged showing two Iranian missiles tearing through the night sky and hitting a Ukrainian passenger plane, sending the aircraft down in flames and killing all 176 passengers and crew on board.
The projectiles were fired 30 seconds apart and explain why the plane’s transponder was not working as it hurtled to the ground — it was disabled by the first strike, before being hit by a second, said the New York Times, which published the verified security camera footage Tuesday.
The blurry film, shot from a rooftop in a village four miles from an Iranian military site, shows the Kiev-bound plane on fire and circling back to Tehran’s airport, the Times said. Minutes later, the aircraft exploded and crashed.
Iran had for days denied Western claims that the Boeing 737 had been downed by its missiles.
Tehran came clean on Saturday when Revolutionary Guards aerospace commander Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh acknowledged a missile operator had mistaken the Ukraine International Airlines plane for a cruise missile and opened fire.
The incident happened when Iran’s armed forces were on heightened alert after launching a volley of missiles at Iraqi bases hosting US troops in retaliation for the killing of top general Qasem Soleimani on January 3.
Iran has struggled to contain the fallout over its handling of the air disaster and the tragedy has seen hundreds of angry protesters, most of them students, take to the streets.
New videos circulating on social media purported to show fresh protests on Tuesday evening at universities in Tehran, along with clashes between students and Basij militia loyal to the establishment.
It was not possible to immediately verify the videos.
Earlier, AFP correspondents said around 200 mainly masked students gathered at Tehran University and were locked in a tense standoff with youths from the Basij.
Kept apart by security forces, the groups eventually parted ways.
Around 30 people have been arrested in the protests over the air disaster, according to judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili.
On Tuesday Tehran said it had made its first arrests over the shooting down of the plane, though it gave no details.
Recent protests have been much smaller than nationwide demonstrations against fuel price hikes that turned deadly in November.
But one commentator said the latest rallies showed there was a “real rift between the people and the authorities”.
“I hope that (police restraint) will continue and that no lives are lost because this could be a catalyst for more protests,” Mehdi Rahmanian, director of reformist daily Shargh, told AFP.
In another sign of growing dissent, a group of artists canceled their participation in the Fajr festival, held each year on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to Hamshahri newspaper.
President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday Iran’s judiciary “must form a special court with a high-ranking judge and dozens of experts… The whole world will be watching.”
“Anyone who should be punished must be punished”.
The office of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he spoke to Canada’s premier Justin Trudeau on Tuesday for a third time since the crash, with the latter asking for help from Kiev in liaising with Iranian authorities to help identify bodies of Canadian citizens.
US President Donald Trump said Saturday the United States was monitoring Iranian demonstrations closely, warning against any new “massacre” as protests broke out after Tehran admitted to shooting down a passenger plane.
Iran said earlier it unintentionally downed a Ukrainian jetliner outside Tehran, killing all 176 people aboard, in an abrupt about-turn after initially denying Western claims it was struck by a missile. The firing came shortly after Iran launched missiles at bases in Iraq housing American forces.
President Hassan Rouhani said a military probe into the tragedy had found “missiles fired due to human error” brought down the Boeing 737, calling it an “unforgivable mistake.”
At a student protest to pay tribute to the crash victims on Saturday, Iranian authorities briefly detained Britain’s ambassador, in what the British government called a violation of international law. He was later released.
Trump told Iranians — in tweets in both English and Farsi — that he stands by them and is monitoring the demonstrations.
“To the brave, long-suffering people of Iran: I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my Presidency, and my Administration will continue to stand with you,” he tweeted.
“There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching,” he added, apparently referring to an Iranian crackdown on street protests that broke out in November.
“We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage,” he said.
The new demonstrations follow an Iranian crackdown on street protests that broke out in November. Amnesty International has said it left more than 300 people dead.
Internet access was reportedly cut off in multiple Iranian provinces ahead of memorials planned a month after the protests.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has demanded that Iran provide “full clarity” on the downing of the plane. Ottawa says the dead included 57 Canadians.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also offered his condolences and ordered the armed forces to address “shortcomings” so that such a disaster does not happen again.
Tehran’s acknowledgment came after officials in Iran denied for days Western claims that the Ukraine International Airlines plane had been struck by a missile in a catastrophic error.
The Kiev-bound jet slammed into a field shortly after taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport on Wednesday.
The crash came hours after Tehran launched missiles at bases hosting American forces in Iraq in response to the killing of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike.
Fears grew of an all-out war between Iran and its arch-enemy the United States, but those concerns have subsided after Trump said Tehran appeared to be standing down after targeting the US bases.
On Saturday evening, police dispersed students who had converged on Amir Kabir University in Tehran to pay tribute to the victims, after some among the hundreds gathered shouted “destructive” slogans, Fars news agency said.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said UK envoy Rob Macaire had been detained.
“The arrest of our ambassador in Tehran without grounds or explanation is a flagrant violation of international law,” Raab said in a statement. The US called on Iran to apologize.
Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, which is close to the country’s conservatives, said the envoy had been “provoking radical acts” among students. He was released a few hours later and would be summoned again by Iranian officials on Sunday, it said.
State television reported that students shouted “anti-regime” chants, while Fars reported that posters of Soleimani had been torn down.
The aerospace commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards accepted full responsibility for Wednesday’s accident.
But Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh said the missile operator acted independently, targeting the 737 after mistaking it for a “cruise missile”.
The operator failed to obtain approval from his superiors because of disruptions to a communications system, he said.
“He had 10 seconds to decide. He could have decided to strike or not to strike and under such circumstances, he took the wrong decision.”
Iran had been under mounting international pressure to allow a “credible” investigation after video emerged appearing to show the moment the airliner was hit.
In footage that the New York Times said it had verified, a fast-moving object is seen rising into the sky before a bright flash appears. Several seconds later, an explosion is heard.
Iran’s military said it had been at the highest level of alert after American “threats” and that the plane had turned and come close to a “sensitive” military site before it was targeted due to “human error.”
Rouhani said Iran had been on alert for possible US attacks after Soleimani’s “martyrdom.”
Rouhani added he had ordered “all relevant bodies to take all necessary actions (to ensure) compensation” to the families of those killed.
The majority of passengers on Flight PS752 were Iranians and Canadians, including dual nationals, while Ukrainians, Afghans, Britons, and Swedes were also aboard.
Rouhani told his Ukrainian counterpart Saturday that “all the persons involved in this air disaster will be brought to justice,” Ukraine’s presidency said.
This is Iran’s worst civil aviation disaster since 1988 when the US military said it shot down an Iran Airplane over the Gulf by mistake, killing all 290 people on board.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was due to speak on the phone with Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Saturday after Tehran admitted downing a Ukrainian airliner, officials said.
Zelensky scheduled a “telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for 5 pm (1500 GMT),” Zelensky’s presidential press office said in a statement.
Tehran admitted Saturday that it accidentally downed the Ukraine International Airlines (UIA) plane, killing all 176 people on board on Wednesday, shortly after launching missiles at bases hosting US forces in Iraq.
Rouhani said that Tehran “deeply regrets this disastrous mistake”.
Tehran has now provided Ukrainian experts with enough data including “all the photos, videos, and other materials” to show the probe into the downing of the passenger jet “will be carried out objectively and promptly,” Zelensky’s office said.
Zelensky earlier Saturday demanded that Iran provide “total access” to the full inquiry for Ukrainian aviation experts and security officials sent to investigate the crash on the president’s request.
He also called for Tehran to punish those responsible for the accidental downing, pay compensation and apologise.
Iran’s downing of the plane comes after a Malaysia Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014 with the loss of 296 people on board.
Investigators say a Russian-made BUK missile fired by pro-Russian separatists was to blame and the trial of four people over the crash is due to start in the Netherlands in March.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any involvement in the plane’s downing.
Herewith are some of the remarks made by top leaders in response to the Iranian statement on its responsibility for the crash.
Ukraine: ‘Bring The Guilty To Court’
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky demanded that Iran punish those responsible, pay compensation and apologise.
“We expect Iran… to bring the guilty to the courts,” the Ukrainian leader wrote on Facebook, calling for the “payment of compensation” and the return of remains.
“We hope the inquiry will be pursued without deliberate delay and without obstruction,” Zelensky added
He also urged “total access” to the full inquiry for 45 Ukrainian experts and in a tweet also sought an “official apology”.
Canada: ‘Transparency, Justice’
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with the country mourning the loss of many of its nationals, said closure and accountability were needed after Iran’s announcement.
He demanded “transparency, and justice for the families and loved ones of the victims.
“This is a national tragedy, and all Canadians are mourning together,” Trudeau’s office said in a statement.
Russia: ‘Must Learn Lessons’
Iran must “learn lessons” from the disaster, the chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign affairs committee said.
“If decryption of the black boxes and the work of the investigation do not prove that the Iranian army did this intentionally, and there are no logical reasons for this, the incident must be closed.
“Hoping that lessons will be learned and action taken by all parties,” Konstantin Kosachev was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
France: ‘End Escalation’
French Defence Minister Florence Parly said it was “important to seize this moment to give space to discussions and negotiations” on the Iran nuclear deal.
“The lessons that we should learn from the dramatic sequence of events that we have experienced… is that we must put an end to this escalation,” Parly told France Inter radio.
She reiterated the French position that everything must be done to salvage the landmark 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, which US President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018.
Germany: ‘Draw The Right Consequences’
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “it was important that Iran brought clarity to this issue.
“Now Tehran needs to draw the right consequences in the continued appraisal of this dreadful catastrophe, and take measures to ensure that something like this cannot happen again,” Mass told Funke media.