From Kiev, Ukraine all the way to New York City - and far-flung corners of the world along the way - pop singer-songwriter Ryals is living proof that a dream, talent, and a lot of hard work can take you out of an oppressive situation and bring you anywhere you want to go.
Growing up in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, Ryals had an initially happy childhood. As he got older, however, he increasingly realized that his thinking was out of step with what most people seemed to believe in his conservative, formerly-Soviet country. This became especially true when he reached adolescence and realized that he was attracted to other boys. “Even though the new generation is trying to fight it, it's still not near the level of freedom for gay people in Ukraine as in America,” Ryals says. “In Ukraine, if you say you’re say, you risk getting beat up. So I couldn’t reveal who I really am, because that could have bad consequences.”
Always a natural entertainer, Ryals found solace in artistic endeavors. One of his earliest memories is singing a solo “concert” for his father and his co-workers at their office in Kiev. Throughout his childhood: every family gathering became an excuse for Ryals to sing and dance, often with a toy microphone in his hand.
When he was twelve years old, Ryals also credits this situation with the creative inspiration that would ultimately transform his entire life: “My first songwriting experience was when I developed an interest for a boy - but I knew I couldn’t openly talk about it. So I wrote about it in a vague, metaphoric way where everybody would hear it, but nobody would understand who it was really about.” Ever since then, he has used songwriting as a catharsis for pent-up emotions.
Knowing he’d never live a full life free from oppression in Ukraine, Ryals sensed that his creative talents could be his ticket out into the wider world. This was confirmed when, in fourth grade, he was able to make his first trip abroad, performing in Hungary as a member of his school dance group. His talents eventually resulted in a college scholarship, and he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Acting and Musical Theatre from the Kiev Academy of the Arts.
After college, Ryals took a lifeguard job in Virginia so that he could finally achieved his dream of moving to the United States - but he was only there a short time when tragedy struck: his father, who had been battling cancer for years, passed away. Ryals, grief-stricken, had no choice but to return to Kiev. “After my father died, adult life hit me,” he says. “Now I had to not only make money for myself, but also work to sustain my younger brother and help my mom with all the bills.”
Ryals couldn’t stay away from performing for long, though. After helping his family get stabilized, he took an acting and dancing role in the feature film Let’s Dance (released in 2019). Next, he won an audition to become a dancer on a Holland America cruise ship, a job that allowed him to satiate his wanderlust, bringing him to Europe, the Caribbean, the Panama Canal, Canada, and Alaska.
In 2017, Ryals achieved his ultimate goal when he moved to New York City. Throwing himself into performing in the New York club scene, he felt highly motivated to make it in America: “I had to be sure that my dream was not broken - I had to preserve it. It was something so fragile and precious to me at that moment.”
Creatively inspired, Ryals co-wrote Ukraine’s 2018 EUROVISION Contest song, “Under the Ladder.” That same year, he released his debut album, State of Liberty. He wrote the title track right after his dad passed away in 2013, to commemorate the fact that his father was finally free of pain and suffering. That album revealed Ryals’ skill for writing euphoric dance songs and heartfelt ballads, creating infectious pop songs that incorporate a wide range of influences, including elements of blues, rock, and jazz.
But New York is a tough place for any artist to survive, and things got even harder as the COVID-19 pandemic derailed Ryals’ artistic ambitions. Another huge blow came when his mother passed away in early 2021. Unable to perform himself, Ryals wrote songs for other artists - but it wasn’t long before he realized that he couldn’t bring himself to give any more songs away, and that he had to find a way to get his own performing career back on track.
Ryals’ resilience resulted in Forward, his EP that’s set for release in Fall 2021. “I had to go through an ocean of emotions to write these songs,” he says, “but even when we’re going through hard emotions or circumstances in life, we're all still moving forward.”
Beyond his career achievements, Ryals is also finally feeling personally fulfilled, especially since getting married in January 2020. He and his husband work with Rainbow Railroad and other human rights organizations that assist LGBTQIA people around the world. “In the 21st century, there are still countries where being gay is illegal,” Ryals says. “There are twelve countries where being gay is punishable by death.” Ryals hopes his activism work will help others have the same freedom to live and love freely, as he now can do.
Ultimately, despite all that he’s been through (and what he sees others enduring), Ryals remains a self-confessed optimist. “That's who I am - that's what got me here,” he says. It is this positive message that he hopes to get across with Forward and all his other music.
“This is your one and only life, so you can't just dwell on hard times forever,” Ryals says. “It is your perception that makes life brighter. It's up to you to notice your happy moments. And there's always hope. You are able to manifest your life. You are able to attract things with the way you think and the way you shape your reality around you. That’s why “Forward” is my motto!”