Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has taken the contest’s entanglement with politics to new heights. The European Broadcasting Union, which organizes the contest, banned Russia from competing immediately after its invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian victory at last year’s Eurovision, awarded by a mix of jury and public votes, was widely seen as a show of solidarity with the besieged nation.
In Ukraine, which has won top honors three times since making its Eurovision debut in 2003, the contest has long been hugely popular and valued as a way for the nation to align itself culturally with Europe. Now it is also seen as a way to keep Europe’s attention focused on the war.
As Hutsuliak and Kehinde sat down for an interview at a hip restaurant in central Kyiv called Honey, they apologized for having had to delay the meeting by a day, explaining that they had some urgent business: securing the paperwork that men of fighting age need to exit the country so they could travel to Liverpool.
Their song “Heart of Steel” was inspired, Hutsuliak said, by the soldiers who worked to defend the now-ruined city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine, holding out months longer than anyone imagined possible. The soldiers made their final stand at the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.
Hutsuliak said he clearly remembered the online clips that soldiers filmed of their defense.
“When I saw these videos, I saw people with strength, staying solid even in the most terrible conditions,” he added. Soon afterward, the pair wrote the track with lyrics seemingly aimed at invading Russians.
“Get out of my way,” Kehinde sings. “’Cause I got a heart of steel.”
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February last year, martial law meant that Hutsuliak couldn’t leave, while Kehinde, a Nigerian citizen originally from Lagos, could. His mother, panicked, called him on the morning Russia started bombing Ukrainian cities and urged him to get out.