Alyona Alyona, the plus-sized queen of Ukrainian rap

Philippe GRELARD, Fiachra GIBBONS
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Ukraine's Alyona Alyona gave up her job as a nursery teacher when her career in rap began to take off

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."