TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest in the early hours of Sunday in a clear show of support for the war-ravaged nation.
The six-man band that mixes traditional folk melodies and contemporary hip hop in a purposeful defense of Ukrainian culture was the sentimental and bookmakers' favorite among the 25 bands and performers competing in the grand finale. The public vote from home was decisive in securing their victory.
The band's front man, Oleg Psiuk, took advantage of the enormous global audience to make an impassioned plea to free fighters still trapped beneath a sprawling steel plant in the southern port city of Mariupol following the six-man band's performance.
"I ask all of you, please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal, right now,'' he said to the live crowd of some 7,500, many of whom gave a standing ovation, and global television audience of millions.
The plea to free the remaining Ukrainian fighters trapped beneath the Azovstal plant by Russians served as a somber reminder that the hugely popular and at times flamboyant Eurovision song contest was being played out against the backdrop of a war on Europe's eastern flank.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave signs that he was watching from Kyiv, and rooting for the Ukrainian band.
"Indeed, this is not a war, but nevertheless, for us today, any victory is very important,'' Zelenskyy said, according to a .presidential statement. "So, let's cheer for ours. Glory be to Ukraine!"
Fans from Spain, Britain and elsewhere entering the PalaOlimpico venue from throughout Europe were rooting for their own country to win. Still, Ukrainian music fan Iryna Lasiy said she felt global support for her country in the war and "not only for the music."
Russia was excluded this year after its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, a move organizers said was meant to keep politics out of the contest that promotes diversity and friendship among nations.
Ukraine's song, "Stefania,'' was written as a tribute to the frontman's mother, but has transformed since the war into an anthem to the beleaguered nation, as lyrics take on new meaning.
The band received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture at the music contest. One of the original members stayed to fight, and the others plan to return as soon as the contest is over.
Back in Ukraine, in the battered northeastern city of Kharkiv, Kalush Orchestra's participation in the contest is seen as giving the nation another platform to garner international support.
"The whole country is rising, everyone in the world supports us. This is extremely nice," said Julia Vashenko, a 29-year-old teacher.
"I believe that wherever there is Ukraine now and there is an opportunity to talk about the war, we need to talk," said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old make-up artist in Kharkiv. "Any competitions are important now, because of them more people learn about what is happening now."
Travis Scott and Morgan Wallen made controversial returns on the Billboard Music Awards stage on Sunday, while Mary J. Blige was honored for her musical excellence. Wallen performed in his first major awards show after he was caught on camera more than a year ago using a racial slur. The country star and his four-piece band performed “Don’t Think Jesus” then his chart-topping “Wasted on You.” Scott made his first televised performance since a massive crowd surge killed 10 people and injured thousands at his Astroworld Festival in Houston in November last year. The rapper performed his single “Mafia” in an icy, polar-themed prerecorded set that was heavily censored.