On February 24th, the life of the music selector, DJ, producer and presenter Daria Kolomiec changed radically, as well as for all Ukrainian people. Through her most powerful weapon – music –, she is fighting to liberate her country, while educating us about Ukraine's unique culture, inspiring us to stand up for what we believe in, fight for the next generations and never tolerate war.
Let’s start from the beginning: you used to be a music selector, DJ, producer and presenter. You collaborated with top-notch brands like Dior and adidas, among others. What led you to engage yourself with music?
I was into music since I was born because music was my best friend. When I had problems at school, my first heartbreaks… music was there. The first memories I have are of listening to music. I felt like it helps me to go through all my stages of life. And every time I choose a soundtrack to express how I feel, it motivates me, it cures me. Music has been near and inside me all the time.
I remember how in Ukraine we didn’t have much variety because we were first under the oppression of the Soviet Union and the regime was trying to hide every foreign stuff from us. So the main music I remember from my very first days is Russian pop music and a lot of great Ukrainian stuff – and it wasn't easy to release. I remember when I was like 9 or 10 years old, I recorded songs on cassettes and I was trying to comment on the songs. I did it for a friend, and we exchanged those cassettes. A couple of years ago, I realised that was what today we call a podcast. I love to reflect on how I feel while I’m listening to a track – I’m really addicted to that. I played the piano, and then the CDs arrived. Everything I’ve been doing through the years I started doing when I was a child.
Later I worked as a TV host, and I remember when we were doing a report in different Ukrainian cities I asked to record a CD for the show. I understood that it's DJing, and I later did so – share music – through the first streaming services, and then YouTube. I have been a performer all my life: on TV, on stage… And then I started to learn how to do it technically. It has always been my passion and I’ve always done it with the same intention I shared my first music with a friend.
And then the full-scale Russian war against Ukraine started. How did your life change?
The war between Russia and Ukraine started 8 years ago when they first annexed Crimea attacking the Donbas region. But definitely, it was 8 months ago, on February 24th 2022, when my life changed forever. My life and my feelings also. I think I will never forget what I experienced because it affected me so deeply.
First, it affected my music, and my feelings about it. The first days, the first 3 months, I thought music died forever to me because I couldn't listen to any songs. We were running to the basement every time. We didn’t have official bomb shelters. I was living inside a basement the size of the café we’re sitting in right now. It was me plus forty different people, and my ears were focused on how to survive because we had these air raid alerts, which mean that Russian missiles were launched and you need to hide. If you don’t have a basement, you then need to hide against the wall inside your house. You have to keep your ears open to hear and understand every sound because it might be a rocket and you need to be prepared. Even during the night, while you’re sleeping, you need to have your clothes close and a backpack ready with your personal documents, because you might have two minutes to put on your clothes, take your bike, your backpack and just run away. And that’s very exhausting. You put all your energy into saving your life. And you don’t think about music.
I have a good vinyl collection at home, and I remember I thought: “I will never listen to that music again, it means nothing to me anymore.” Because I was angry, disappointed. The first few weeks I was very naïve, I was screaming through my social media. I thought the planet was fighting against this ‘man’ to protect Europe and hold the planet against the regime’s fascism and everything. But after a couple of weeks, I understood – and it was hard to admit – that in the end, it’s just us. I felt like this huge wound, like a hole inside me, and there was no place for music. That February 24th changed me.
Could you explain this a bit further?
I felt more power inside myself. I understood that I’m a fighter, and all I have and want is to fight. And how can I do this? All my friends there in Ukraine are either paramedics or volunteers or are doing everything they can. I remember being in this basement – I live in the centre of Kyiv – and Russian propaganda said they were going to invade the city in 3 days. All my friends from outside Ukraine were texting me: “Daria, please, leave Ukraine, what are you doing?” And I was like: “guys, no, don’t give me this kind of advice, you’re not here and you cannot understand what I feel.” I remember being surrounded by all these great people, many of them I didn’t know before, one close to another, and there was also a child. We were trying to protect each other from anxiety and panic attacks, and one guy started playing the guitar, and I told him to play some Ukrainian songs. Many people Googled the lyrics, trying to sing. It was great, I felt we were a community, and it was kind of healing for us.
And then, after 3 months, one morning – I remember very clearly that morning – I woke up in a very good mood and went to my window. It was a rare night; we didn’t have any alerts and I slept well. My mum was with me in my apartment in Kyiv. It was a sunny day, and I felt fine for a few minutes, like everything was just a horrible dream. So I took one vinyl – from the 70s – and I put the needle on. It was the first time I listened to a song until the end, without interruption. I felt so good that morning. My mum was smiling, so happy because she knows how important music is to me. And then I realised that if music can help me in some way, probably I can do this for other people. Before I was mixing Ukrainian music and different genres from all over the world, trying to find rare record stores in London. But from that day on, I understood that I had to play our Ukrainian music. I want to spread Ukrainian culture around the world.
What were the most recurring thoughts that crossed your mind in that basement?
I can share with you a very intimate moment. I remember it was probably midnight, and we were just laying on the floor and everyone was on the phone, probably expecting a tough night. It was the first time in my life that I thought: what if I don’t wake up tomorrow? What have I done in my life? What was the happiest moment in my life? And yeah, now it feels like a movie, but that moment was very real to me. I wrote a couple of messages to my very close people: if I don’t wake up tomorrow, this is the password to my MusiCures app – that I started during the pandemic to spread Ukrainian music. So I understood that that was my mission, that I wanted to last even if they kill me. I sent the electronic music I wrote to a Ukrainian friend who is now in Brazil, so that if something happened to me she could release it.
I also started to reflect on the happiest moments of my life, and there were actually a couple. I was sad – why didn't I have so many happy moments? But most of those moments were with my family and people I love, hugging and singing. I have a great musical community, and I remembered those moments when I was playing music and we were all together. I was really happy. That was the moment my life changed when I realised life is so simple, and it really comes to every minute. So I stopped being afraid or hesitant about being rejected by my cultural things or my music.
It's good that you still have that learning with you. Because it feels like sometimes time passes and you can disconnect, and forget how you felt.
You’re absolutely right. I remember when I woke up the next morning, and I said, “Oh my god, I'm still alive. I'm so happy. I need to remember this forever.” Probably it was one of the most important things that happened to me, and until now I had just shared it with my friends. The other crucial moment was in the basement seeing how we helped each other, and how united we were. We forgot about money and the material world. I realized I have to fight for my culture because I really love my country.
You have become an activist for Ukraine's freedom by raising awareness through information and through music. You created the Diary Of War podcast, which documents how the war has changed the lives of Ukrainians, you continuously share news and personal stories on your social media, and you promote Ukrainian music and culture throughout the world. What is the main message you want to spread?
When it comes to music, I want to spread the message that Ukrainian music is so unique and cool. During the centuries that we were under Russian control, they were trying to capitalise on those great things. So I want to spread the word about the genocide that is happening right now against Ukrainians, it's not new, it has been going on for centuries. We as a planet should remember it forever, in order not to repeat it or tolerate it. Don't just think about the price of gas or other material things, but think about human beings. Because war can arrive at any house one day.
Secondly, through the Diary of War podcast, I want people to be more involved and understand war. Those real stories are helping people from all around the world relate to what Ukrainians experienced on February 24th and think more widely too. I have received very insightful feedback, people are asking themselves: “If the war came to my town, what would I do? Would I leave my country? Do I really love my country?” These stories are helping people to admit they are a part of a planet. So, my mission is to share the reality, because nobody expected this kind of war could happen in the 21st century in the centre of Europe, raping children, women, men or cutting parts of their bodies…
You came to New York in July 2022 with a suitcase full of rare Ukrainian records, and have performed at New York Pride, The Lot Radio, and at well-known clubs like Le Bain. How's the response been so far from those who weren't familiar with Ukrainian music?
I didn't expect anything, but I've had huge feedback from Americans, New Yorkers, and people from London people who were visiting. They tell me: “Oh my god, why have I never heard that before?” Because Russia was trying to penalise everything we had for centuries, and it wasn't popular. People are surprised, and I’m happy that they feel it. I see their reactions, their goosebumps, from the stage, if they enjoy it or not. It's not about just dancing, they can just stand and listen carefully. And after the performance, usually people come and ask: “Where can I listen to this music? How can we help Ukraine right now? What should I personally do? Because it looks like you're a great country”. And this is the response that I want people to have.
It feels like you have found in music a powerful tool to get through this traumatic experience – as it has helped so many people over the years and all over the world. Do you believe that music is something that can not only heal but also unite?
One hundred per cent. I think music is magical and can even bring people peace in some way. Music can help people negotiate. Because we are human beings are not perfect and we sometimes don’t know what right words to choose to express our feelings. Sometimes it’s easier to play a song for the other person to understand how you feel.
When the invasion began, the storm of media news was overwhelming. Now the world media writes less and less about it. Do you think we have somehow moved on to another topic?
It’s what the media does. But I believe now every person can count as media. Probably everyone in this coffee shop has Instagram. So I think it’s very important that, before going on with one’s routine, every person uses their social media to speak out loud about Ukraine and Russian crimes. When we tolerate these crimes, other dictators might wake up, because there’s nobody doing anything, right?
There are many wars and conflicts going on around the world in poorer countries that don’t get as much media coverage. They are somehow invisible to the general public. How do you feel about that?
Actually, every day I want to support Iranian women by sharing stories with them too. They are so inspiring, and they are changing the world. We, as a planet, should support people who are suffering. But now I know we need to clarify the devil who started all of this and name the enemy. Because if you just say you’re rooting for peace, it’s bullshit, it’s not working. It’s not like a Miss Universe competition. We should name these things if we don’t want this planet to go totally crazy.
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Did you ever see yourself as an activist for Ukraine before the war started?
I've always had an active position, since the Revolution of Dignity (2014). Every time I went to a foreign country, I tried to spread the truth, to educate that Ukraine is an independent country, that we have a different language and our own culture.
What do you miss the most about Kyiv/Ukraine?
Every day I wake up here I want to book a flight ticket. I miss my home so much. I miss my friends. I miss how we sing Ukrainian songs altogether. I miss my mum. I miss my job. I miss just sitting with people. We understand each other so well now that we don’t need to explain how we feel. I miss just having my morning coffee in my favourite street, where there are a lot of greens, a lot of shining smiley people, great service, great food… I miss my mum.
Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel?
Absolutely, I know we will win. Because I know how Ukrainians are fighting. And I know that if you want to fight for freedom, you should be ready to die. It works this way. So we're not fighting for our life, we are fighting for the next generation. That’s why I do the Diary of War. If I had children or grandchildren, I would want them to know this, to read those stories and spread them. And never forget or tolerate. We just need to remember it. This feels like a museum, and you were absolutely right that after some time our brain forgets a lot of things, especially the bad things, because it's very dramatic. Because of that, we need to record, write music, draw, take pictures…
How does that look?
As we liberated our territory, we will rebuild our country, and it will change the planet. When I'm saying this, I don't feel joy, because I know how many people have been killed right now and are dying every day, many people lost their homes… We have a common trauma. It’s hurtful that many great people are dying and won’t see those days, that’s why we need to do much more for them.
What can we do to fight against what is unfortunately happening?
The main idea that I’m trying to share is to do something as a routine every day. For example, if I brush my teeth, I share information about Ukraine, even if I’m not living in Ukraine. I feel I am a part of our planet. Also, joining protests to support Ukraine or Iranian women, for instance. If you want to help but don’t have a lot of money, you can donate one dollar per day, but do it every day until we are free. You can put the Ukrainian flag – it really helps people who have lost their homes and are now refugees somewhere to see their flag, or a sticker. Every time I see it in New York, I'm so happy. I just want to say thank you. All those things, sometimes some people think it’s nothing, but it means a lot to us. The main thing is not to tolerate war.
Could you share some Ukrainian artists, musicians, designers, photographers, writers, film directors, cooks, etc. for us to dive deeper into Ukrainian culture?
Here are some names I recommend following. Musicians: Myroslav Skoryk, Volodymyr Ivasyuk, DakhaBrakha, Jamala, KRUTЬ, Alyona Alyona, Cepasa, Odyn v Kanoe, ONUKA, Maryana Klochko. Designers/brands: Etnodim, Oliz Brand, Poustovit, Ksenia Schnaider. Photographers: Maks Levin, Julia Kochetova, Evgeniy Maloletka, Dmytro Kozatskyi. Writers: Serhii Zhadan, Yurii Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, Lina Kostenko, Oleksandr Mykhed, Vasyl Stus. Film directors:  Natalka Vorozhbyt, Antonio Lukich, Nariman Aliiev, Akhtem Seitablaiev, Iryna Tsilyk. Cooks: Yevhen Klopotenko, Stanislav Zavertailo.
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