In the opening bars of “Be My Guest” — Ukraine’s entry for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest — the Ukrainian surma horn suggests that something highly traditional is about to unfold. Within 15 seconds, however, strains of folk music and visions of stiff-jacketed, strutting Cossacks give way to decidedly modern pop. There’s an electronic synthesizer. There’s a distinctly European house beat. And more than anything else, there are the powerful R&B vocals of Gaitana — the only Afro-Ukrainian celebrity in her country.
Born to a Congolese father and Ukrainian mother, Gaitana has pioneered R&B music in Ukraine. The genre didn’t exactly flourish in the Soviet Union while the 32-year-old was growing up. “I found out about R&B thanks to my foreign friends, who brought me high-quality music from abroad,” she tells TIME. “I’ve been visiting closed R&B parties since I was 15 … I was lucky, because in the U.S.S.R., such style of music wasn’t available to everyone.”
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Fast-forward to Feb. 18, when Gaitana used her vocals to blow away 20 competitors in the country’s national selection contest for Eurovision, the pan-European music contest that is the world’s most watched nonsporting event. Set up in the aftermath of World War II, it allows countries to duke it out through songs rather than bombs (think of it as a combination of the Olympics and American Idol) and counts Abba and Celine Dion among its past winners. For many countries — especially those in new Europe, where fans follow the contest with a particular enthusiasm — it’s a rare chance to share the stage with Europe’s traditional powers and perhaps win. National broadcasters, like the BBC in the U.K., pour big bucks into their contestants, hoping promotional campaigns and European tours in the run-up to the contest will bring glory to the motherland.
But while Gaitana won the support of Ukrainian voters — and the honor of representing Ukraine at the Eurovision final this May — she hasn’t won over Yuriy Syrotyuk, a high-ranking member of the ultranationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party. He doesn’t object to her upbeat song or her spilling cleavage. He objects to her race. “Gaitana is not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture,” he told the Kyiv Post at the end of February, adding that he preferred Gaydamaky — a Ukrainian group that performs Cossack rock, which draws inspiration from Ukraine’s rich musical heritage. “As we want to be accepted to the European Union, it could be our opportunity to show the Europeans that we are also a European nation. We need to show our originality.” As part of his xenophobic rant, he also suggested that Gaitana “will provoke an association of Ukraine as a country of a different continent.”
Gaitana, who performed at Barack Obama’s Inauguration in 2009, says Syrotyuk’s words brought tears to her eyes. “The Svoboda Party insulted not only me personally but also all those foreign sportsmen who represent Ukraine and those people who consider themselves Ukrainians in spite of their skin color,” she says. “People should not be afraid of giving birth to their kids here or feel that they need to leave in order to find a better life.”
The response from Gaitana’s fellow celebrities and musicians has been swift, as has the response from the public. A number of NGOs have suggested publicly that Gaitana has recourse to laws that criminalize hate speech, though the chances of Syrotyuk being successfully prosecuted are slim. “We do have legislation on racism and xenophobia,” Yana Salakhova of the International Organization for Migration told EuroNews. “But it is not being used to sentence those who are guilty and to develop a culture where people are held responsible for their actions and their words.”
Syrotyuk’s ultranationalist invective seems even more vulgar when Gaitana speaks of the pride she feels in being Ukrainian. “In my childhood I played table tennis professionally,” she remembers. “I represented Ukraine together with an Asian girl at different competitions. Nobody told us that we shouldn’t represent this country. People always rejoiced at our victories. All my achievements both in music and in sport are devoted to my beloved motherland – Ukraine!” The message of inclusiveness present in Gaitana’s Eurovision entry, “Be My Guest,” will make xenophobes cringe: “Welcome/ Stay with me/ Be my friend/ You are free/ To live your life/ To share your love with the world.”
Gaitana didn’t set out to problematize identity at Eurovision. But the very nature of the contest — with the singer being a symbol of the nation — frequently forces the issue. Sometimes it is explicit and conscious. Last year, Homens da Luta (Men of Struggle) dressed as working-class protesters and sang “The Struggle Is Joy,” a song calling on the Portuguese to fight austerity measures Portugal’s parliament was discussing at the time. Ahead of the contest, demonstrators sang it in the streets, making it their unofficial war anthem.
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At other times, identity rears its head as a result of pressure from conservative forces. Orthodox Jews were aghast when Israeli voters selected transsexual Dana International for the contest in 1998. As conservative MPs pushed for Israel to withdraw from Eurovision, Dana’s single “Diva” transformed into a battle cry for the transgender community: it suggested they, like Dana, could find strength through struggle: “She is all you’ll ever dream to find/ On her stage she sings her story/ Pain and hurt will set her heart alight/ Like a queen in all her glory.” European voters were moved by her performance at the Eurovision final and crowned her the winner. “My victory proves God is on my side,” she said afterward. “I want to send my critics a message of forgiveness … I am part of the Jewish nation.”
Whether right-wing politicians like it or not, Gaitana is part of Ukraine. In the coming years, she says, she wants to create a women’s high-heeled soccer team and has plans to launch her own line of aprons devoted to world cooperation and unity. But for now, she has her eyes locked on Eurovision, which takes place in Azerbaijan from May 22 to May 26. “I’ve always dreamed of people living in peace and harmony so that they could be friendly toward each other and have an opportunity to visit foreign countries without obstacles and know that they would be welcomed,” she says. “I decided to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest not in order to present myself as a singer but because I want people to share my idea.”
Given the backlash Syrotyuk now faces, it looks like Gaitana is well on her way.
William Lee Adams is a staff writer at the London bureau of TIME. Find him on Twitter at @willyleeadams or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.