The Seine Musical in Paris will host the 19th edition of the Eurovision Junior contest this Sunday, marking the first time the event is hosted by France. Founded in 2003 and reserved for singers aged 9 to 14, the competition is the youth version of the Eurovision Song Contest organised each year by the European Broadcasting Company.
Nineteen countries will take part this year, with over 30 million viewers across the globe expected to tune in. But the Paris event will include another momentous premiere alongside France’s first turn as host nation, as the 2021 edition is set to make history by welcoming the first disabled participant in Eurovision Junior history.
An instant duo.
This year’s Junior Eurovision song contest will feature a special pair of contestants from Kazakhstan: 11-year-old Alinur Khamzin and 9-year-old Beknur Zhanibekuly, a nine year old musical prodigy from Nur-Sultan who was born with phocomelia (a congenital condition which caused him to be born without arms).
Beknur, who currently lives in Strasbourg but is representing his native country, has become a symbol of Kazakhstan’s moves towards inclusivity for disabled citizens. He speaks no less than four languages, having fluency in French, English, Kazakh, and Russian, and his story was recently featured by Guinness World Records, after he received a prosthetic arm built out of LEGOs by Guinness record holder David Aguilar.
It’s his singing, however, that has made people thousands of kilometres away take notice since he took part in the National Eurovision Song Contest in his native Kazakhstan. In that contest, he tied for first place with 11-year-old Alinur Khamzin after being the recipient of the audience award with the song “Human.” Alinur, for his part, snatched the jury prize with “Ertegi alemi” or ‘World of Fairytales’. In an show of unity, the academy decided to pair the two, and on Sunday, Beknur and Alinur will form a duo in Paris, where they will perform “Ertegi alemi” in front of an audience of millions.
Disability rights and reforms
Eurovision, with its history of giving a voice to disabled contestants, is an ideal setting for Beknur’s advocacy for those living with disabilities. His participation in Eurovision Junior is likely to increase the visibility of disabled young people both among the event’s audience and within Kazakhstan, a country which has increased its efforts of inclusion for citizens with disabilities.
An estimated 600,000 people with disabilities live in Kazakhstan, out of a population of 18 million. Those 600,000 disabled Kazakhstani citizens have benefited from a number of reforms since the country ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2015. Key moves taken by Kazakhstan’s government on this front include the decision to offer Paralympians the same financial compensation given to Olympians, as well as a national plan to encourage social entrepreneurship.
Inclusion efforts were strengthened this year with the introduction of a new position for teaching assistants in schools, defined by the Ministry of Education and Science. Hundreds of such trained professionals will become part of school staff, particularly focusing on children with special educational needs.
These reforms on the part of Kazakhstan’s government help mark a shift away from Soviet-era policies toward disabled citizens, and have garnered international praise. During an official visit that took place last month, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) president Rik Daems praised ongoing initiatives in areas including human rights.
Decades of visibility.
Beknur Zhanibekuly’s role in Junior Eurovision also builds off the important example set by the adult edition of the contest, where disabled performers from across Europe have been taking the stage going back decades.
The first artist with disabilities to make it to the Eurovision final was blind singer Serafin Zubiri, who represented Spain in 1992 with the song “Todo esto es la música”. Visually impaired artists performing at Eurovision also include Austria’s George Nussbaumer in 1996 with “Weil’s dr guat got” and Corinna, who represented Germany in 2002 with the song “I Can’t Live Without Music”. Diana Gurtskaya, a blind singer who is both Russian and Georgian, sang the anti-war anthem “Peace Will Come” in 2008 on behalf of Georgia at a time of open conflict between the two countries.
2015 saw wheelchair-user Monika Kuszynska make it to the final, representing Poland with the song “In the Name of Love”, while Yulia Samoylova, who has spinal muscular atrophy and has used a wheelchair since childhood, represented Russia in 2018 with the song “I Won’t Break”.
Perhaps the most prominent example of disabled visibility at Eurovision came in 2015, when Finnish band Pertti Kurikan Nimipaivat, whose members all have Down’s Syndrome or autism, caused a sensation with their iconic punk-rock performance of “Aina mun pitää”, which translates as “I always have to”. In true punk fashion, the song clocks in at only one minute and 27 seconds, making it the shortest song in Eurovision history.
Hope, humanity, and music.
The Eurovision Song Contest, as well as its Junior edition, are among the most watched artistic events in the world. Behind the oft-parodied glitzy aesthetics, the original credo of friendly competition between states continues to bring people together not just in Europe but in countries as far away as Australia.
The presence of Beknur on the stage on Sunday will contribute significantly to the visibility of children living with disabilities across the world. Beyond an act of personal courage and achievement, his performance will be a reminder of the power of events like Eurovision in reaching millions of people with a simple message of hope, humanity, and music.
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