The Reason for Zelensky’s Surprise Grammys Appearance

Why a pretaped message from the Ukrainian president aired during a night of escapist entertainment

Volodymyr Zelensky in a pretaped message at the Grammy Awards
Getty for the Recording Academy

Addressing a room of sparkly bodices and artfully oversize jackets at the Grammy Awards, the president of Ukraine had a simple reminder to give. “Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos,” Volodymyr Zelensky said in a surprise, pretaped message that aired during last night’s ceremony. His speech was full of striking turns of phrase, but the tuxedo line stood out most—for feeling like a jab against, or at least a challenge to, the very celebrities and culture he was also asking for assistance from.

Hollywood-backed activism is often, understandably, met with cynicism; the cringe marks left on faces worldwide from Gal Gadot’s early-pandemic “Imagine” may never heal. One of the questions defining this year’s entertainment-awards season has been how to address the war in Ukraine: In March, Sean Penn pledged to destroy his Oscar if the Academy Awards didn’t invite Zelensky to speak, while Wanda Sykes expressed skepticism about the usefulness of such calls, saying, “Hollywood, we can get a little full of ourselves.” She had a point. When a dictator is bombing a nation on the other side of the world, can the rhetoric of millionaire celebrities accomplish anything other than changing the subject to themselves? The Grammys moment answered that question affirmatively, and chillingly.

Zelensky’s address, sober and forceful, immediately shifted the mood of the ceremony in Las Vegas. Wearing a signature T-shirt and speaking in English, he described the devastation Russia had inflicted, including the wrenching detail that 153 children have been killed in the war. He emphasized the power of sound—how death robs the world of it, how speaking up can save lives. “The war doesn’t let us choose who survives and who stays in eternal silence,” went one line in his speech. Another mentioned Ukraine’s musicians, who “sing to the wounded in hospitals, even to those who can’t hear them.” He also called for viewers to “tell the truth about the war on your social networks and TV”—an important ask, given that Russia’s pretenses for the war are cunningly propagated lies.

The singer John Legend anchored the performance that followed Zelensky’s speech, and both his involvement and the trappings of his set—piano, choir, darkened stage—at first felt worryingly familiar. After the specificity of Zelensky’s call, yet another telethon-ready ballad hardly seemed suitable. Still, Legend sang well, with almost shy tenderness. His song, “Free,” was new, and it mixed lyrics about rockets with quotations from the spiritual “Go Down Moses.” Most importantly, actual Ukrainian artists joined the set as the performance went on.

Siuzanna Iglidan, an Odesa-born and Denver-based musician, made a statement simply with the instrument she played: the lutelike bandura, which was once targeted by Soviet authorities trying to repress the Ukrainian folk traditions and is now a symbol of the country’s resistance. She was joined by the singer Mika Newton, whose sister, according to text onscreen, is serving in the Ukrainian army. Then the poet Lyuba Yakimchuk, who viewers were told had arrived from Ukraine only days ago, delivered a prayerlike verse: “Forgive us our destroyed cities, even though we do not forgive for them our enemies.” Her words were seething, but her delivery was matter of fact as she pleaded for the protection of her husband, parents, child, and homeland.

The showcase ended up feeling both uneasy and touching—a potentially productive brew. It pierced the dome of distraction that is intrinsic to events such as the Grammys, and it included a concrete call to action: Text directed viewers to Global Citizen’s website gathering donations for relief in Ukraine. The most effective rejoinder to doubts about the appropriateness of the moment came from Zelensky himself. Busy trying to save his nation, he clearly sees a strategic need to maintain a global sense of urgency around the war. What’s more, he understands that well-honed words, like songs, can move people by haunting them. “The war—what is more opposite of music?” he asked. “The silence of ruined cities and killed people.”