180 Videos, 55 days of Conflict: Mapping the Music in Ukraine’s Resistance

Mapping music (1)

Over the first 55 days of the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, MA student Merje Laiapea kept track of all the video material depicting musical moments in Ukrainians’ response to the war. She created an interactive map of all her findings as an assignment for her Music in Development module, as part of her MA in Global Creative and Cultural Industries

You can find the interactive map for her project ‘Mapping the Music in Ukraine’s Resistance to the 2022 Russian Invasion’ here. The work has also been published in two parts on the Sounding Out! blog. Read part 1 and part 2.

We got a chance to speak to Merje about the reasons behind her project and what she hopes people take away from it. 

Can you explain your Music Mapping project?

I have documented how music appeared in Ukraine’s resistance to the invasion by Russian forces in February 2022. During the first 55 days of the war, I kept track of social media and news sites and saved all video material that depicted musical moments in Ukrainians’ response to the war. I embedded 180 videos into an interactive map, dating them and dividing them into themed sections.

The second part of the project is a written piece analysing these findings, which have now been published in two parts on the Sounding Out! journal. I explore the genres that appear in the resistance, from national songs to folk and hip hop, and look at how the civilian performances reflect the different phases and emotions of the war, from mobilisation and resistance to survival and grief. The analysis considers Ukraine’s political history, previous protest movements, and the wider context of music, national identity and war.

How did you come up with the idea?

During the first days of the invasion, I noticed videos of Ukrainians singing their anthem next to Russian tanks, people playing instruments in shelters, and students singing together when hiding from shelling. These were all peaceful reactions to violent acts, and they kept surfacing in high numbers.

This got me thinking about how music has historically facilitated resistance to Russian / Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe. For instance, popular music was foundational in building and sustaining Estonian national identity – from the Song Festival tradition, which started in 1869, to the Singing Revolution at the end of the 1980s. Likewise, in Ukraine, music carried the feeling of both the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan.

The timing of these events was such that while I was deeply affected by the war, I also needed to choose a research topic for my Music in Development module with Angela Impey. Writing about Ukraine felt like the most pressing and relevant topic – and frankly, the only one I was able to focus on.

What is the power of music in understanding conflict or in the field of development more generally?

The sensitive representation of music in conflict is an ethical issue as often music appears simply as survival. However, these human moments caught on camera and posted online have the power to travel across borders and inspire acts of solidarity – as evident from this case study. Social meanings are deeply embedded in music, and the types of songs that appear in a war situation reveal a lot about cultural identity, allegiances and history. To bring an example from this project, in a video from Kherson in Eastern Ukraine, you can observe occupying Russian soldiers blasting the USSR anthem from their vehicles as a response to Ukrainians singing their national anthem on the street. So if there is still any confusion as to what these troops have been sent to Ukraine for – here, in the music, lies the answer.

In general, because music holds so much feeling and can offer the immediate experience of collective identity, it can also be used to incite violence between communities, which has been discussed in the development field. There has also been a focus on conflict resolution through musical practices – which cannot be applied in this case.

What did you learn from the process? 

I learned that even though my research interests are not limited to Eastern Europe, I feel much stronger writing about something I have a context of through family history and lived experience. I suppose it is the difference in understanding something because you were born into it rather than picking something up from readings. Writing about such a personal and affecting matter also taught me about emotional labour.

What do you hope people take away from it?

Firstly, I hope the map rebutts a few of Russia’s lies, which have also permeated Western media. One of them is that Ukrainians are divided on a neat East-West axis. The map offers evidence to the contrary.

To offer a more personal perspective, I have been following the words of Kyiv-based writer Asia Bazdyrieva, and somewhere in the depths of her diary, I found a quote from Arundhati Roy, which I keep going back to. It somehow relates to how I hope my project is perceived:

“To love. To be loved. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest of places. To pursue beauty. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.’ The Cost of Living by Arundhati Roy

For Ukrainians, I hope the work provides a connection to their home and culture, now stronger than ever.

How are you finding your MA Global Creative and Cultural Industries course at SOAS?

I am doing the course with a strong music focus and feel very closely linked to the Music department. Being able to combine music with film, cultural studies and curating was exactly what I was looking for. And I have learned so much.

What are your aspirations after your course?

I hope to continue developing my curatorial and research practice. I have enjoyed getting back into writing and doing audiovisual practise research in film. There is also potential for a documentary in this mapping project – something I would like to think about.

Merje Laiapea is a curator, artistic programmer and writer focusing on sound, music and film. Born and raised in Estonia, she moved to the UK in 2009 for her undergraduate studies. She is completing her MA in Global Creative and Cultural Industries in the Music Department at SOAS. Merje assists with event production and community engagement at SOAS Concert Series and is working towards the 2022 Film Africa festival as Submissions Advisor.

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