Lyoka in front of the Yerevan Train Station

From the Big Stage of Entertainment to the Frontline of Humanitarian Aid: Lyoka’s Unwavering Journey

303
0

By Victoria Pisarenko

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Lyoka, also known as Valeri Ghazaryan, shifted from performing in the largest Armenian stadium to a different kind of stage – a new frontline. There, he witnessed over 50,000 of his compatriots, compelled to leave their homes against their will.

Despite the never-ending war in the region, Yerevan was set to host several famous artists over the past few months. However, each time, as the date approached, a significant event would be canceled, allegedly due to the “upcoming escalation” in a formerly disputed region of Artsakh.

Snoop Dogg’s concert was different — on a larger scale, with more preparations in the city, including murals, ads spread throughout, and, most importantly, an exciting lineup crafted for the opening ceremony. Among the well-known performers in the heart of Armenia was a relatively new name in the big city music scene — Lyoka.

Lyoka (Valeri Ghazaryan)

Ghazaryan, better known as Lyoka, emerged as a beacon of resilience. Hailing from the Mardakert region of Artsakh, his musical prominence soared after the 44-day war, a period when people yearned to return home – echoing the sentiment in the lyrics of his song “Sուն Տարեկ” [Toun Tarek – Take me home]. He was slowly gaining well-deserved fame over the past three years.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

The singer easily transitions from a wide smile to a more pensive face while introducing himself. Lyoka is a rap singer who chose this genre, describing it as “a means to contest something,” which, in his life, were numerous challenges. Regarding the genre of his music, Lyoka self-proclaimed that it is “rap devoted to motherland.” Judging based on his actions, including military service, it truly encapsulates the essence of his music.

A significant breakthrough in his career was supposed to be the Snoop Dogg concert in September, 2023. Lyoka was thrilled about the idea of simply sharing the dressing room with the “legendary man” himself. The Hrazdan Stadium, meant for 50,000+ spectators, was a colossal stage for Lyoka’s debut. Reflecting on the concert, he shares, “I would not only represent my story but also my family, friends, and compatriots. People with different faiths, my friends who are not present anymore. I needed to represent everyone.”

Lyoka inside the Yerevan Train Station

Amidst uncertainties about the concert due to the war, Lyoka swiftly pivoted from entertainment to a frontline role in the war effort. On September 20, he drove towards the new border of his soon-to-cease-to-exist home – Artsakh. Recounting the sleepless nights in his car, awaiting the arrival of family and friends, he describes the arduous journeys endured by his sister’s and brother’s families, 30+ hours on the road without sustenance, and the uncertainty at the border crossing.

The memories of September’s horrors linger, leaving some in slow recovery, others in nostalgic reflection, and some grappling with the harsh reality. For Lyoka, the abrupt transition from a promising breakthrough to the loss of his homeland is palpable. Yet, he embraces a philosophy rooted in the present: “Tears, cries won’t help the situation. How much looking back will help us? It is better to accept the reality and jump into work right away.”

Throughout our nearly two-hour conversation, it became apparent that the singer’s roots lie in a large Armenian family, where the ethos of thinking for everyone, rather than being selfish, is ingrained. His dialogue was interspersed with phrases like “not just me, but also my compatriots.” He demonstrated an admirable inability to differentiate one Armenian from another, a commendable quality in a small nation and a challenging feat in practical terms.

Due to anger or rage stemming from his self-made success, some individuals sent death threats to Lyoka before the upcoming Snoop Dogg concert, questioning his political involvement with the ruling forces. However, it is hard to comprehend how an unknown ghost user can harbor hatred toward a person whose art is wholly devoted to his motherland. Lyoka’s music videos are entirely produced in Armenia, showcasing the country and incorporating old Armenian singing traditions. This type of art appears to have uplifted and given hope, seemingly harming no one.

Lyoka looks towards the Yerevan Train Station

At 34, Valeri bears the weight of experiences aging his face prematurely. Instability near his home border has left visible marks over five years. His once broad smile transformed into a serious expression, evident in YouTube music videos. You can trace this journey through the music video series on his page, from searching for his childhood home to discovering and renovating it.

Lyoka was born into a family residing in the Mardakert region, situated right on the frontline. Growing up in impoverished conditions, his father was drafted, and his mother grappled with providing for five children while caring for them. When discussing his upbringing, the 34-year-old Valeri appears reflective, wearing a subtle smile on his face as he recounts a small yet significant episode from his life: “Back at school, kids would call me a refugee since I lost my home early on. To me, my classmates seemed to be from wealthy families. Perhaps it was my perspective because I had to collect plastic bottles to earn 300 AMD in case we celebrated someone’s birthday at school.”

At the age of 34, Valeri has already witnessed six wars, some of them silent. “There was always war, diversion attacks, shootings, etc. It has been a part of my life. Even when entering a building, I first try to identify exit routes in case of war or shooting,” Ghazaryan remarked with a touch of humor. He jokingly added that over the years, he has been injured multiple times, and his body is predominantly composed of metal constructions. In his opinion, the only thing missing is a socket for charging right next to the heart.

It is challenging to fathom what it takes to break someone who is almost constructed of metal. When asked about the recent loss, Valeri states, almost emotionlessly, that he left his newly built home after living there for only two months. The blockade began, and Valeri desperately wanted to break through. He speaks in a serious tone, gesturing as if a map were in front of him, explaining that there were ways to reach his family, and he genuinely tried but did not succeed. The immediate thought of things we would get that crossed his mind was a small wooden house from his soon-to-cease-to-exist home, bearing the inscription “տունն է մենք ենք” [tounn e menk enk – We are the home]. It was a small gift received before filming a music video for his song, later serving as inspiration for the video.

Currently, Lyoka is gearing up to release multiple singles that have been in the making for an extended period. The “կյանք” [kyank – word play between life and existence in Armenian] series focuses on navigating the current situation where Armenians from Artsakh feel like guests in their own homeland. In Lyoka’s words, “We can’t access the schools we attended, we haven’t connected with our lifelong neighbors, and the new ones seem to show their faces only when reminding us that this place is not intended for parking. It is not life, it is existence.”

Lyoka now resides at ImpactHub, where he has been granted a co-working space to dedicate himself to his music and personal merch brand. Situated right next to the central station, this subtly hints at the fast-paced life of the singer. While posing for pictures in a pristine white outfit beside the boldly written “Yerevan,” it appears to signify a new beginning, a new chapter in the already seemingly lengthy life of Valeri Ghazaryan.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: