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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

March 24, 2022 | 6 min read

Grammy-nominated producer Roger Leao came to a Kyiv-based creative agency with a proposition: to make a song that condemns Russia’s actions — by using real audio from the war in Ukraine.

Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, dissent has come in various forms. Governing bodies across the globe have imposed economic sanctions on Russia, global corporations have mobilized hundreds of thousands of dollars to support displaced Ukrainians and protesters have taken to the streets everywhere from ground zero in the southern city of Kherson to Japan, Iran and Australia.

News of the invasion hit close to home for Roger Leao, a multi-Grammy nominated and MTV-awarded music producer, whose husband’s family is originally from Ukraine and Russia. Leao, who is based in New York, immediately felt the need to act. “And the best way to do it was of course doing what I do best, what I have been doing for 20 years, music,” he says.

An idea takes shape

Leao formulated a plan. He reached out to ad agencies across Ukraine, proposing the concept of a resistance-focused audio project and offering his music production services for free. And some creatives, including those at Angry, a Kyiv-based agency that has done work for clients ranging from Burger King to the Ukrainian police force, were eager to team up with Leao.

The team at Angry worked alongside Leao to collect audio clips from the war. Then, they used the samples — which include sounds of real air raids, alarms, explosions, screaming and crying — to assemble a chilling two-and-a-half-minute song dubbed ‘The Anthem of True Russia.’

Leao says that bringing the project to life was personally daunting. “I didn’t expect it to be that hard,” he says. “We’re working with a lot of real audio of people being bombed, kids being bombed. [There was] a lot of audio with dogs and other animals.” One clip in particular caused him significant distress. “There was a family in an apartment, and then suddenly a bomb [went off] that was clearly close to them… and the kids started to cry. I have a niece and nephew. That was very hard.”

The sounds of silence

Outside of the emotionally taxing process of going through the audio clips, there were serious logistical and safety issues at play in collaborating with Ukrainian professionals. Leao and the team at Angry had been communicating via email for about a week when the line went dead. “Suddenly the communication came to a halt,” he says. “One day, two days… three days, no answer. And then it hit me: maybe they're dead. I wasn't really sure if they were located in Kyiv [or] if maybe they went out for their families. Maybe they were running away.”

After six days, Leao finally received a response. The internet had gone down for unknown reasons. But the experience had shaken Leao. “They're creative professionals like me — they do almost exactly what I do. And I spent a whole week imagining that they were dead.”

Thankfully, the team at Angry was safe and work on the project resumed. Leao created the virtual instrumentals that undergird the audio overlay. His sound design team helped to clean up the audio. And the Angry team went to work on packaging the song.

For the track’s artwork, the team reimagined Russia’s iconic coat of arms — which traditionally features a double-headed eagle — into a pattern of fighter jets, missiles, bombs, a mushroom cloud and two outstretched, skeletal arms. A text overlay appears alongside the image, reading “These are not the sounds of Ukraine. These are sounds of the aggressor. This is how Russia, who invaded Ukraine, sounds. This is the anthem of Russia. True Russia.”

Leao hopes that the song will strike a chord with people around the world. “Music has a certain power to transport us in space and time… We want people to understand how it feels to be there. And I think we mostly did that.”

On March 14, ‘The Anthem of True Russia’ was released. It was received positively — Leao says that there was a flurry of support from folks in England, Australia and Germany. In the US and Brazil, it hasn’t received as much publicity as the team had hoped. To expand the reach of the project, Leao says the team is reaching out to celebrities and artists with loyal followings in the hopes that they will help spread the word. The hope is that if the track is shared and streamed enough times, Leao and the team will be able to use the profits to provide financial support to Ukrainians.

Leao hints that additional creative projects in support of Ukraine could be on the horizon. He’s considered teaming up with well-known Ukrainian artists on some sort of collaborative activist project, but says that for the time being, he wants to be conscientious of the gravity of the situation. But he stresses that he is committed to offering his support in whatever ways he can. “This is something that we want to keep investing our energy [into] and focusing on. I will do anything to help.”

‘The Anthem of True Russia’ is hosted on a dedicated website and has been made available on all major music platforms, including Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and more.

Part of The Drum’s interview with Roger Leao can be seen in the third episode of The Drum Show, a 30-minute program in which we speak with experts to unpack the information war surrounding the invasion of Ukraine.

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