Ukraine’s Antytila band at the vanguard of rewriting rules of winning wartime’s ‘cultural front’

Ukraine’s Antytila is using their international fame to effectively aid Ukraine’s military goals.
Ukraine’s Antytila is using their international fame to effectively aid Ukraine’s military goals.

In the band’s first interview after returning from the U.S. leg of its current world tour, Antytila’s Taras Topolia sat down with NV to discuss the role of artists during war and how his group contributes to Ukraine’s war effort.

One often overlooked “front” of Russia’s war on Ukraine is one that Ukraine is soundly winning – on the cultural front.

From Kalush Orchestra winning Eurovision 2022, to Olha Kharlan’s refusal to shake hands at the 2023 Fencing World Championships, to Antytila performing with massive pop acts like Ed Sheeran and U2, Ukraine continues to rewrite the book on how to utilize culture effectively during a time of war.

“The bonus for an artist is that they have people, an audience. These people, this audience enables us to spread the truth about (Russia’s) war in Ukraine, to seek support, and to attract attention,” Topolia told NV in Budapest ahead of Antytila’s first show on the European leg of their world tour.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, after all, not only developed his own improv company (Kvartal 95 Studio) that overtook the immensely popular Soviet-era incumbent (KVN) in popularity, but he wrote and starred in an immensely successful television show where he played the Ukrainian President that must deal with, indeed, a Russian invasion.

Perhaps that explains his understanding of how Ukraine should utilize its talented cultural artists to promote Ukrainian war initiatives – virtually from the outset of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

While the state promptly banned military-aged men from leaving the country, exceptions were made for Ukrainian artists, singers, actors, and athletes. This cadre of cultural warriors has time and again brought to the world’s attention the crimes of the Russian military while, at the same time, raising funds for the defense of their home.

Whether at a ballet recital or Guiness World Record attempt, a sports competition or book reading, a concert in Ukraine or a concert abroad – wartime events in Ukraine tend to follow a particular model: engage, inform, call to action, and inspire. This is perhaps even more pronounced for those artists that take their programs abroad.

Perhaps no musical act has been so successful at these tasks than Kyiv’s Antytila, who just returned to Europe following the American leg of their current world tour.

Frontman Taras Topolia sat down with NV to discuss Antytila’s goals and motivations on their current wartime world tour.

The role of the ‘culture front’ during war

Long before making videos with Ed Sheeran (‘2step’), having members of U2 join them on stage during their performances (‘Mothers of the Disappeared’), or providing commentary to news stations worldwide, Antytila had already become one of Ukraine’s most popular musical acts.

The group won numerous awards and Ukrainian celebrities were lining up to feature in the group’s slick music videos. World championship medalist long jumper Maryna Bekh-Romanchuk starred in the group’s ‘And You Start’ video, a song about fighting for freedom that was released even before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Then-comic Zelenskyy had a memorable turn in the band’s hit ‘Lego’, from Kvartal 95 Studio’s popular film ‘I, You, He, She’ in which he stars, shortly before he would embark on his political journey that would see him become the face of freedom worldwide – and would allow him to unleash the country’s cultural warriors on missions around the world.

After Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, members of Antytila jumped to the country’s defense – first in the defense of Kyiv, then in the defense of Kharkiv.

In army fatigues and helmet, Topolia featured in English-language news interviews worldwide, using the band’s fame to help spread the message of what Russia was doing in Ukraine.

Unable to attend an early charity music event in Britain because of military commitments, Topolia asked if the group could perform remotely. Organizers declined, worried that musicians performing in military fatigues would draw attention away from the humanitarian nature of the event. So, Sheeran invited the group to feature in his hit ‘2step’, which had been filmed in Kyiv before Russia’s full-scale invasion.

‘2step’ would later win a YUNA Award as one of 12 best songs of 2022 that represent ‘Invincible Ukraine’ – a new wartime category for songs that significantly contribute to Ukraine’s war effort.

It would also introduce Antytila to a massive international audience.

“Of course, a larger number of people now come to our concerts and, of course, the tone of the concerts is fundamentally different because we have a charitable purpose. Five years ago, they came ‘just for fun’ – to sing, dance, and get some unique emotions you can only get from an ‘Antytila’ performance. Now they come because they know that in addition to that entertainment, they contribute to charity,” said Topolia, mentioning the first aid kits the group collected for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Developing a winning strategy

Antytila is aware that every Ukrainian has a role to play in the defense of the country.

“We are the same as other Ukrainians – locksmiths, teachers, factory workers, doctors. Trouble happened in Ukraine, and it called for protection, so people answered that call. It’s only logical – if people didn’t go, and ran off to Warsaw or Budapest, then we wouldn’t have a country where we could sing and raise our children,” Topolia said.

For Antytila, having an audience comes with responsibility. The group fights alongside Ukrainians of all stripes, and the band makes sure to document and share those stories with their worldwide audience.

“It is normal that boys and girls, who feel like (patriotic) citizens of Ukraine, took up arms and went to fight for (the country). And they absolutely could have died on the battlefield. And many did die, unfortunately – thousands and thousands. Many wounded…,” he said.

After participating in the defense of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and embarking on a European tour, the band returned to Ukraine to collect more stories from Ukraine’s frontline defenders.

The band traveled to the frontline city of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast as the Battle of Bakhmut raged to film the video for ‘Fortress Bakhmut’ – an inspirational wartime anthem that is sure to be in the running for this year’s ‘Invincible Ukraine’ YUNA.

Speaking with soldiers fighting in the war’s most brutal battle, the video was shot on location and shows clips of artillery signed with lyrics from the song being fired at Russian positions.

“’Fortress Bakhmut’ is about how we have shared principles, a shared democratic future, and shared values. It’s about how Ukrainian are not going to give up, we will only win, and we have no other option but to finish … It’s written from our own emotions and experiences at the front – its lyrics, its melody, it managed to be quite sincere, which is why I think people are drawn to it,” Topolia told NV.

After releasing ‘Fortress Bakhmut’ in February 2023, Antytila continued to tour.

From Madrid to Miami, the band shared their experiences at the front with every audience, using each concert as a separate event to raise money for the country’s defense.

By the time the tour ended in February 2023, U2’s Bono and The Edge joined Antytila on stage for a performance at London’s Trafalgar Square.

The 2022-23 tour raised UAH 2 million ($55,000 USD) for Ukraine’s defense.

Redefining wartime’s ‘cultural front’

Having developed a workable model, the group has set its sights even higher.

Antytila’s 2023-24 world tour will take them to cities across North America, Europe and, for the first time, Australia and New Zealand.

“Our goal is to raise a half million dollars during the American and European legs of the tour,” Topolia told NV, noting that they would be used to purchase 10,000 medical aid kits.

Each performance follows a four-step model: engage, inform, call to action, and inspire.

Using its fame and popularity, the group engages a wide range of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian fans alike to the event.

Each concert begins with a documentary video called ‘Culture vs War: Antytila’ that highlights the group’s experiences fighting on Ukraine’s frontlines.

The informative and emotional video is a stark reminder that while the audience is there for entertainment, there are people fighting and dying everyday for that very possibility.

The call to action is the group’s concerted effort to raise money for the defense of Ukraine.

Like most events in wartime Ukraine, concerts begin with an auction. In Budapest, the group offered unique items such as a Ukrainian flag signed by the group and including the concert city and date, and other unusual items signed by popular Ukrainian political or military figures, including Ukrainian Armed Forces commander Valerii Zaluzhny.

These items attract large sums, with bids in Budapest reaching over $500 USD per item.

A merchandise table at the back includes the shirts and albums you would expect at a concert, but also war-related items such as key chains made from used bullets.

Raffle tickets are sold throughout the event, with the winner receiving a used shoulder-fire rocket launcher.

Throughout the concert, Topolia shares the band’s stories with audiences, drawing howls of laughter and tears of sorrow from the crowds at different turns.

While over half of the audience tends to be Ukrainians – even in far away locations in America – he ensures to include stories in both Ukrainian and English.

The results have been impressive, though the group feels they can do more.

“To be honest, we were hoping to reach the ($500,000) goal during the 12 concert American leg, but it proved to be too bold. We’ve already collected about $300,000, which isn’t bad. We hope to make the final goal by December,” Topolia told NV.

The group continues the European leg of the tour throughout autumn, with plans to finish the world tour at home with a concert in Kyiv on February 24, 2024.

In another stroke of marketing genius, the final tour date is an Independence Day concert in a liberated Yalta, located in temporarily occupied Crimea.

Antytila ended its concert in Budapest the same way every event ends – with an emotional and inspiring performance of ‘Fortress Bakhmut’, the line “See you in Yalta for Independence Day 2024”, as well as the anticipated audience-participation call-and-respond “Glory to Ukraine” followed by “Glory to her heroes”.

It’s the Ukrainian government’s support of its cultural warriors – led by groups like Antytila – that allow the world to hear the stories of those heroes, though Topolia bristles at the characterization.

“There is nothing special here, just more attention to the artists – and we use this to draw attention to the war in Ukraine. No matter what – not Europe, not the new world, no one in the world has forgotten what is happening here and they continue to support us.”

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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine