Grief is often impossible to express in words — it’s too primitive, too raw to be captured through the filter of language. But music can give shape to this universal feeling, conveying its vivid urgency and depth.
When violinist Kerenza Peacock first learned of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she started reaching out to her peers around the world to see what could be done, and managed to get in touch with several Ukranians over social media.
“I was shocked to learn that they were already in bomb shelters,” she told Global Citizen. “You don’t have much time to think about what to bring when you’re fleeing home, but they had their violins with them, because it’s their most treasured possession.
“They were trying to play and practice to keep themselves calm,” she said. “That’s what they knew how to do, but in between they had to think about defending themselves. Some of them were even making Molotov cocktails while practicing Beethoven. They were thinking about arming themselves, then playing their scales.”
One of the violinists she was speaking with, Illia Bondarenko, was one of the most talented she had ever met, but he was stuck in a bomb shelter and the sounds of shellings and gunfire frequently punctuated their calls.
She asked Bondarenko if he could record a video of himself playing a Ukrainian folk song. The video, filmed by his grandmother with the noise of a generator in the background, is hauntingly beautiful, both stark and uplifting.
Peacock then put out a call to action for violinists to accompany Bondarenko with their own videos. Within 48 hours, 94 musicians from 29 countries and as many artistic traditions uploaded videos. The resulting symphony is like a roaring ocean wave pulled by the moon, a powerful intervention in the name of peace.
“It was the most powerful prayer that I could think of,” Peacock said. “We gathered ourselves faster than most governments. We’re such a fellowship, we all studied the same things and have the same struggles and things in common, and I think it shows that music is a universal language. We don’t see the same boundaries as everyone else. We don’t have such an insular outlook as most people.”
The campaign, “Violinists Support Ukraine,” has since gone viral and raised more than $25,000 for charities working to support Ukrainian people. The central YouTube video directs donations to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and a Linktree directs people to additional nonprofits on the ground providing direct aid.
Since the campaign’s launch, thousands of musicians have uploaded videos in support of the call to action, and every week, musicians gather online to play together in an act of global harmony.
It was the most powerful prayer that I could think of.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has killed nearly 4,000 civilians and pushed more than 6 million people to flee the country. The war has had devastating environmental consequences and triggered a global food crisis.
Peacock has turned to music in moments of political action in the past. When the unarmed Black violinist Elijah McClain was murdered by police officers in Aurora, Colorado, she joined an ongoing vigil in Los Angeles to honor his life. She’s also joined efforts to protect orca whales through music and wants to leverage her community for climate action.
Peacock spoke with Global Citizen about the transformative potential of music and what she hopes to achieve with the campaign.
Global Citizen: What role does music have in stopping conflict?
Kerenza Peacock: Einstein said that a problem is never solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. What is the solution? Clearly the world throwing bombs at each other and shooting at each other is never going to solve anything.
I know it sounds naive that music can change the world, but we really showed that art can really affect people. The response that this video has had, and even the political response — we’ve had it shared with all sorts of representatives and ministers of parliament and things — shows that the world is not solid. It’s made of vibrations, and so it makes sense that music can affect people so much.
We have to find a different level of consciousness. Einstein was also a violinist; apparently he got his best thinking done after playing.
Why do you think people turn to music in times of crisis?
I get quite cross when people think of the arts and music specifically as a luxury. It’s really artists who have made the greatest changes on earth, not politicians.
I think it’s sometimes reported in history that art is reflecting what happened at the time, but what you see is that art is affecting those changes, creating those changes, whether it’s literature or music or dance or cinema, even.
I think also, when you look at people who really suffered the worst that life can offer, when I’ve spoken to Auschwitz survivors, for instance, they said that when they were in the camps, they were putting on plays, trying to have concerts and creating music and drama.
One of them specifically said to me — she just turned 100 — “You may think it’s ridiculous because in those camps we were fighting for our lives and trying to stay alive, but really the only thing that mattered to you is not even the food but it’s the creativity and the art and being able express yourself.”
When Putin invaded Ukraine, there was so much grief around the situation, and I think that this video gave an expression to people’s grief that they couldn’t put into words. It was beyond people’s comprehension. They say that a picture paints a thousand words, but I think music paints a million pictures.
I feel like lots of people often use phrases like, “Oh, I want there to be harmony across borders,” and the thing is — we can do that literally through music when creating harmony.
Music is such a universal language. We’ve had thousands of comments, lots that I can't understand because they’re in different languages, but everyone understood the message of that video.
How have violinists responded to this call to action?
I had a Dropbox and people were depositing their videos into it. As I watched each of them, one by one, it felt like each violinist was praying through their violins. I think it’s so powerful that everyone was focusing on the same thing at the same time. Everyone ended up very small on the final video screen, and many of them were crying, and they had to do the take again because they were crying.
Ukrainian violinists wrote to me and apologized because they couldn’t participate because they put their violins down and picked up guns.
I don't think any human really understands the power of music. I think it’s something so transcendent. It kind of speaks straight to a higher power. It has a huge power to express things that we can never express in words, to reach parts of our soul that we pay no attention to.
In the context of a crisis like this, what can music achieve?
I really believe music has the ability to heal us, not just spiritually and emotionally, but I think it can physically heal us. Scientists have found that particularly frequencies can cure certain cancer cells.
I think the greats of classical music, like Beethoven, knew this instinctively. They didn’t know the science behind it, but there’s something very nourishing about listening to the works of the great classical composers, or any music that has the ability to heal us.
We have music at the most important moments of our life. When you have a funeral, you pick songs. At a wedding, you choose a song. And even at a football game, when they’re at their most tense and exciting moments, everyone breaks into a football chant and starts singing.
It’s the way we express love and the greatest things in life, but most of the time, people are fed music as a constant background diet, in a taxi, supermarket — there’s music going on at the same time.
Why did you only reach out to violinists?
The magical thing about violins, and it’s why I chose violins, is because it was created to imitate the human voice. If you lose your voice, you can play the violin. Many of us have lost our voice since machines of war have begun
We’re also playing trees. Violins are made of trees, and we’re making the trees sing. It’s a song straight from Mother Nature.
What message do you want people to take away from this?
The main message is that the arts and music in particular is not a luxury, it’s an essential part of our existence. Even when you find yourself in a bomb shelter, that is what you find you want to do, you want to create. That's how our lives get meaning.
Music is definitely not a luxury, and I think it can be used to create social and political change. It's a shared human experience, every human being has experienced music on some level.
I was very inspired when I was 4 or 5 by Bob Geldof putting together the Live Aid concert, and I kind of grew up watching interviews of him on TV. I was so inspired by musicians from everywhere getting together for this cause.
I think that all musicians have a duty to think about how their music can make changes for humanity.
What do you hope this campaign achieves?
I hope it gives people a way to process their grief around the situation. I’m also hoping it’s a rallying cry. We gathered ourselves faster than most governments. We don’t have to sit around and wait for politicians to do something. Anything of us can take action now and gather people from other countries and create a movement.
I hope people can use it as a musical prayer or download the music and play along. Broader than that, I have a large interest in using music to create social and political change. I hope it can inspire people to do other movements in the future.
I hope we can continue with our message. We want to fill the world with music instead of gunfire.