When the shelling started in Kharkiv, Danny Degtjar might have been on the other side of the world. But for the Seattle rapper better known as 28AV, the videos that surfaced of residential buildings destroyed by Russian forces hit incredibly close to home.
Those missile-ravaged apartment blocks looked just like the one where four generations of his father’s family made their home, up until eight years ago when Russian-backed separatists seized Kharkiv’s neighboring regions in eastern Ukraine. At the time, 28AV’s sister and her family left the Kharkiv apartment where their father was raised — a place AV had visited numerous times while growing up in Seattle.
The son of a Ukrainian father and Russian mother, 28AV arrived in Seattle as an infant after his parents fled Estonia when the Soviet Union collapsed. The veteran Central District rapper has spent his career articulating his emotions and life experiences in his music, often referencing his Russian-Ukrainian heritage. But days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, he struggled to find the words to describe how it felt watching his families’ home countries take up arms against each other.
“It’s complicated, man, because it’s like both sides of me are at war,” he said.
While his immediate family is safe, 28AV had friends and extended family in Kyiv and Kharkiv when fighting reached Ukraine’s two largest cities. He’s been sending money to his sister, who now lives in Munich and has taken a dozen refugee children into her two-bedroom apartment. Her parents-in-law were stuck in a Kharkiv subway for weeks before they were able to escape.
Though he never believed the invasion was justified, 28AV initially tried to view the war through a neutral lens and not “completely feed into Western narrative and media.” Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s state-run media have portrayed the attack as a mission to “denazify” Ukraine, part of a misinformation campaign serving as a pretext for invading its sovereign neighbor. While 28AV pointed to a battalion within the Ukrainian National Guard that has a history of neo-Nazi leanings, as the Russian incursion continued he was less inclined to try to empathize with any aspects of Russia’s attempts to justify the war.
“The Russian military invaded my dad’s homeland, they came to their soil and I see innocent civilians slaughtered,” he said. “It’s documented. Thousands of kids and women, and people getting killed and raped. … I sympathize, at the same time, with a lot of Russian people who don’t support the war, because there are a lot of people in Russia that are not for this and a lot of people in Russia don’t have the same means to getting information as we do.”
More broadly, the rapper who previously signed with Jay Park’s old H1GHR Music label feels like Ukraine became “a sacrificial lamb” in the geopolitical battle between Russia and the West, with Russia’s latest invasion coming just eight years after its annexation of Crimea was met with economic sanctions that clearly weren’t enough to deter Russia from launching a full-scale invasion this year.
“It’s like everywhere you look now there’s a Ukrainian flag,” he said. “Everybody’s pro-Ukraine — ‘We stand with Ukraine!’ But the world kinda sat back and let this [expletive] happen, too.”
28AV, who first came up in Seattle performing as Avatar Darko, has long incorporated his Slavic background into his art, which often touches on his upbringing as an Eastern European immigrant in the Central District when it was still a Black-majority neighborhood. The cover of his latest album, January’s heavy “Dark Passenger,” depicts AV standing in the snow with Moscow’s famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background. Amid the grieving and repentant standout “Vendetta” — which finds an introspective 28AV coming to grips with losing two of his closest friends to gun violence, with unflinching honesty — the veteran emcee tucks in lines about learning English as a child and soaking up life lessons from his great-grandmother.
He credits his grandparents and great grandparents and stories of the Old Country with helping instill the “Russian-Ukrainian spirit” and resiliency in him — something he tries to pass on to his two kids. “Ukrainians and Russians, we have this stoic confidence to us … like we can get through anything,” AV said. “Sometimes it may come off as brash or cocky. … It’s not that. We believe.”
When 28AV was just three months old, his mother’s side of the family immigrated to the U.S. After months of trying to leave the former Soviet Union, they first arrived in New York before settling in Seattle. “We came here with nothing,” AV said. “At first we were living in a box behind Ivar’s. We were homeless.” Growing up, he heard stories of his grandparents stealing groceries to feed the family. Eventually, his family founded Seattle’s Piroshky Piroshky bakeries. (His grandmother and uncle run the Bellevue location in Crossroads mall, where AV helps out as well.)
The popular Russian bakery employs a number of Ukrainians and has seen both support and backlash since the Russian incursion began two months ago. While some customers have left generous tips, 28AV’s grandmother, who is against the war, received a death threat over the phone one day.
Outside the family bakery, 28AV has taken issue with some of the boycotts and sanctions that hit everyday Russians the hardest or loosely target Russian culture, like the reports of bars dumping bottles of Russian vodka, including the prominent Stolichnaya brand. (Never mind the fact that any Stoli that reaches American shelves was produced in Latvia by a company run by a vocal Putin critic living in exile.)
“Should I throw away the beef burger and French fries in solidarity for all the countries that America has committed war crimes and colonialism and genocide against? Because there’s a lot of ’em,” AV said.
It’s a deep love for his Slavic culture and a feeling that “we’re deeply misunderstood” that have driven 28AV to embed his work with Russian imagery and references over the years. From James Bond movies to mafia flicks, American cinema has frequently portrayed Russians as villains or typecast them as “scary guys in leather jackets, alcoholics that love guns” — a Cold War-era narrative he said is tiresome and inaccurate. Growing up in Seattle, 28AV said he experienced “my share of stereotyping” as an elementary school kid learning to speak English.
“It’s ingrained into society to fear Russians,” he said. “People only fear Russians because they don’t truly understand what’s going on and the American propaganda is like, ‘They’re the enemy!’ which isn’t true, man. You go to Russia and most people are decent, just like they are here.”
While that love for both sides of his dual heritage is unwavering, 28AV admits he might be less likely to display elements of his Russian background as prominently as he has before, in light of the current invasion.
“Now, it’s like if you show somebody wearing a Russian flag, people automatically assume that they support genocide, support war,” he said. “It has this crazy stigma attached to it now, and it will for a long time, when that’s not what the true Russia stands for. That’s not what Russian culture and people stand for — they don’t stand for evil, bro. But the fact is there are some powerful people that run that country who do.”
Over the years, 28AV’s music has taken many forms — from dubsteppy dalliances to hard-pounding street anthems and unifying summer bops — often reflecting some of the grittier sides of Seattle. Still, it’s rare for AV to get as overtly political as he does on his latest single “6 a.m. in Ukraine,” a steely and evocative cut about the consequences of a war. Over a drumless piano track, AV — who’s wrapped in a Ukrainian flag in the video — gives a sobering denouncement of what he calls an imperialistic power struggle that doesn’t reflect the sentiments of the people with so many cultural similarities.
The song includes a nod to “Half Lit World,” another track he released eight years ago as a response to the war’s 2014 beginnings.
“The police and military, they don’t represent or define the people of Russia or Ukraine,” he said. “The majority of people in these countries, they want peace and equality in life … like we do.”