What was Zelenskyy doing at the Grammys?

Cry for help?
Cry for help?
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a surprise guest at the delayed Grammy Awards. “Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos,” he said in a pre-recorded message addressing the who’s who of the music industry on April 3. Several Ukrainian musicians have become soldiers since Russia invaded more than a month ago.

“They sing to the wounded in hospitals, even to those who can’t hear them. But the music will break through,” he said, urging assembled musicians, some of whom performed lucrative private gigs for Russian oligarchs before the war, to “fill the silence” left by Russian bombs “with your music.”

The message, shot in a Kyiv bunker and bounced around for a few days to make it untraceable, played ahead of a performance by John Legend of his new track, Free. Ukrainian musicians Mika Newton and Suzanna Iglidan accompanied Legend, while Lyuba Yakimchuk, who recently fled the country, recited a poem.

Zelenskyy has become a ubiquitous presence at major Western venues and events, but did not make an appearance at last week’s Oscars, despite Sean Penn’s threats. The message is tailored to each audience, but remains essentially the same, asking for support against Russia.

Why did Zelenskyy want Grammy air time?

Since Russia invaded the country, social media has helped Ukrainians internationalize their plight. TikTokers give an unfiltered view into everyday life during the war, sharing videos of bunkers and hideouts, trips to the grocery store through rubble, and more. Zelenskyy, too, uses Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to deliver impassioned speeches from war-torn Kyiv.

An awards show appearance that reaches millions of American TV viewers enables him to reach many generations in one go.

The vast potential audience viewership was one of the key reasons some celebrities were rallying to have Zelenskyy participate at last week’s Academy Awards. Co-host Amy Schumer pitched to have him “satellite in or make a tape” because “there are so many eyes on the Oscars”—more than 16.6 million people watched the ceremony this year.