A powerful, pitch-perfect moment at the Grammy Awards
The sudden change in mood probably came as a complete surprise to the worldwide audience watching the Grammys. Right in the middle of Sunday night’s musical performances and glitzy celebrations, a bearded wartime leader, dressed in an everyman olive-green T-shirt, made a brief yet solemn plea for the lives of his people.
“Our musicians wear body armor instead of tuxedos. They sing to our wounded in hospitals,” said Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “Support us in any way you can, but not silence. … And then peace will come.”
It was a passionate, profound message — as were Zelenskyy’s other recent video-taped statements to Congress, the European Parliament and the U.K. Parliament. At the Grammys, his stark words of controlled rage against Russia’s invasion almost seem to tumble out of him.
The moment also provided a powerful new definition of what it means to be pitch perfect. The former TV actor and comedian turned politician certainly understands the visual impact of his chosen medium.
“The T-shirt is a reminder of Mr. Zelenskyy’s origins as a regular guy; a connection between him and the citizen-soldiers fighting on the streets; a sign he shares their hardship,” wrote New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman last month. He could have chosen to wear a business suit. “That Mr. Zelenskyy chose instead to adopt what may be the single most accessible garment around — the T-shirt — is as clear a statement of solidarity with his people as any of his rhetoric.”
The brevity of the language makes Zelenskyy’s messages all the more powerful, and his brave decision to remain in Kyiv, a city still under Russian bombardment, is another reason why he is so widely admired.
“In a matter of weeks, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has become a beacon to the world, a wartime leader rallying his country, a symbol of courage in the face of personal danger, a politician who has shown anew the power of words and language,” wrote veteran political writer Dan Balz.
Direct comparisons have been made to Winston Churchill, who used the medium of radio and speeches in the House of Commons to rally the British people during the dark days of June 1940, when a German Nazi invasion was a distinct threat.
“We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender,” Prime Minister Churchill said then. In his address last month to the British Parliament, Zelenskyy echoed that famous speech.
“We shall fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches, in the cities and villages, in the streets. We shall fight in the hills … on the banks of the Kalmius and the Dnieper. And we shall not surrender,” he said. In a break with tradition, the Ukrainian president was given a long standing ovation by British lawmakers.
All of this drama comes at a trying time for democracy around the world, when autocratic leaders have become more outspoken in their dismissal of systems that protect free expression and value individual liberties. Zelenskyy’s well-chosen words at the Grammys were another powerful reminder of what’s at stake not only for his embattled nation, but for those in many other nations who need encouragement as they defend democratic values they hold dear.
— Richard Davies is a journalist, podcast consultant and host at daviescontent.com.