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Käärijä’s Journey From Illness And Unemployment To Eurovision Legend Written by on May 1, 2023 | 7 Comments

The Finnish representative for Eurovision in Liverpool, Jere Pöyhönen, better known as the rapper Käärijä, is far more than his three minutes on stage. The story of Käärijä’s life follows a rollercoaster journey, through hardships and triumph, all culminating in creating the character that was victorious at Finland’s Eurovision selection earlier this year. Mirella Vuorinen reports. 

29-year-old Käärijä started his interest in music very early on in his life, encouraged by his family. During kindergarten and his early elementary school times, he received his first plastic drum set as a Christmas gift, and from there, his musical skills would begin to manifest.

Käärijä was soon introduced to Rammstein by his cousins and he said that he was sold on them right away, and the band would end up becoming his all-time favourite. Nowadays he has a tattoo of the band’s logo on his chest, which he got in Thailand while on a vacation with his friends. Rammstein would also end up being a big influence on Käärijä’s Eurovision song ‘Cha Cha Cha’.

Even though Käärijä has described himself as more of a “metal kind of guy”, he gained interest in rap music when he was in middle school, and has mentioned being inspired by Finnish hip-hop duo Fintelligens and American rap star Eminem for example. He began practicing freestyling but confessed in an interview for Ylen Aamu that was never very good at it.

I then decided that I wanted to start trying to write my own songs that weren’t made on some other artist’s beat. I messaged [producer] Aleksi Nurmi and asked if he could send some instrumentals my way. That’s what he did and that’s where the journey pretty much began,” he told.

When The Journey Almost Ended

The most critical reason for Käärijä’s serious pursuit of music (before that ice hockey took a lot of his time) didn’t take off until after going through an extreme hardship. In January 2023 Käärijä revealed for the first time publicly that he is a survivor of severe, in his case life-threatening bowel disease, ulcerative colitis.

Everything started when he defecated blood when he was in 9th grade. “That happened at school, and I told my friends, “I just shat blood, what the hell?”, and we would just crack jokes about it. I was in a little bit of shock, and when I got home I didn’t tell my parents about it until the following day,” Käärijä recalled.

Käärijä’s parents then urged him to see a doctor and he had a colonoscopy. His first diagnosis was rectal inflammation, and he received medication to keep the illness under control. He then stopped taking the medication after some time believing that he was fine, but the symptoms returned right away. After his parents’ research about possible treatments, Käärijä started adjusting his diet which made his symptoms completely disappear again, this time for a full year. However, when he turned 18 he was introduced to alcohol and partying, and the new, more carefree lifestyle eventually made his bowel disease reappear. After that point, it was no longer stoppable.


“I then battled with the disease for two years. I had to stop exercising, I couldn’t see my friends, and my first relationship also ended because of that as I would sometimes spend months at the hospital at a time. At the worst point, I weighed 49 kilograms, I would have 38 bathroom breaks a day defecating only blood and bumping into doors.

“There were times when I was thinking how to end it all by myself. I would have self-destructive thoughts. I was on heavy medication though, which I think messed with my head. But I had completely given up at that point, I was just laying in bed and fading away while my parents fed me.”

Käärijä would have constant blood tests to track his condition. On one fateful Saturday evening, he received a call urging him to hurry over to the hospital as his hemoglobin was 56 and his condition was very severe. Käärijä said that he was crying and saying he didn’t want to go back there while his father packed his laptop along with The Simpsons DVDs and a pillow and dragged him to the hospital.

His rectal inflammation had spread to the large intestine. “I remember the nurse saying that it was a miracle I was still alive. I was the first patient to walk into the hospital in that kind of condition. That’s when it dawned on me how serious the situation actually was,” Käärijä revealed. He was also told by the doctor that if he had come to the hospital one or two weeks later than he did, the inflammation would have spread to the rest of his intestines at which point he couldn’t have been saved.

Käärijä had an emergency operation in which his entire large intestine was removed. His worst fear was getting a stoma, which he got in the end. He recalled being horrified because of the stoma, yet extremely relieved to be alive.

Nowadays, Käärijä has recovered extremely well. The only visible marks of his bowel disease are more frequent bathroom breaks than normal, and a scar on his lower stomach which is a trace of the stoma he ended up having for five months. Käärijä wanted to be open about his bowel disease to encourage others with strange symptoms to get themselves checked, and also to provide peer support to people with a similar illness.

“When I first got sick I was alone with it in a way. But when I was searching online I came across a story about hockey player Teemu Ramstedt, who also had the same disease. That brought me hope, like ‘god damn, that guy is out there playing hockey while having this thing!’ It was such a big thing for me to have a well-known person open up about something like that. It made me feel easier and I felt no longer alone. That’s why I wanted to bring this up, in case there is someone out there with these kinds of things I want them to know any of us could have that. And I hope people get themselves treated quickly because it can end up very bad.”

Käärijä backstage at the Finnish selection show in Feburary (Photo: Nelli Kentää, YLE)

Käärijä also thinks that going through an experience like that was very vital for him because it made him a better person and he learned to appreciate the smaller things in life. He also thinks that in the grand scheme of things, being healthy is the most important thing in life. Käärijä described on the Kolme käännekohtaa podcast:

“I wouldn’t change a single day because it has made me what I am today. Of course, things like that tend to get forgotten during my everyday life when all kinds of things happen, but sometimes I need to pause and think about where I was about ten years ago. How for example I was in the hospital looking out of the window at people and hoping I could be there too. That’s when I start to feel better and realize that I’m actually doing well, even if I have relationship or money problems, or whatever there can be. I realize that those are just small things.”

How Illness Became Inspiration

The bowel disease ended up becoming a very drastic turning point in Käärijä’s life for another reason as well. While he was staying at the hospital, he decided that if he were to survive he would start seriously pursuing music.

“I had made one song before being admitted (to the hospital) and I would write more while being there,”he told later in an interview for Yle’s Efter Nio. “Sometimes other patients would come over wondering what I was doing as I wrote a song with my earphones playing background music. While I was there I decided that music would become my thing if I survived and got out of there. I would at least try and see where it would take me. I had faith in it from the very beginning.”

Käärijä’s theme and character were well thought out from the get-go. The artist name Käärijä comes from the world of gambling. “I’ve been gambling since I was 15, back in the day it was allowed to gamble at that age. It hasn’t caused me problems or anything. It’s a big part of my life and a hobby. You can’t call it a source of revenue, as I tend to rather lose,” Käärijä has said. One time before his music career Käärijä had won some money from a slot machine that made his friend say to him, ‘’You’re a total käärijä!’’ The Finnish term käärijä comes from the slang term for someone who cashes in lots of money, notoriously from gambling.

‘’I started thinking of what I wanted to make music about. Then it came to me: gambling! At that time there was JVG (a Finnish rap duo) that made music about sports, and I was thinking that I need to have a thing as well. Then I went ahead to think of a fitting artist name, and I remembered getting called Käärijä by my friend. I decided to use that, as it fit perfectly,’’ he told Efter Nio.

Along with a theme for his music, Käärijä started to plan his alter ego. The famous bowl cut came into the picture from very early on and would be accompanied by a yellow suitIn Käärijä’s own words, “I just started to goof around. But it’s not a performance, as it all comes from me naturally. I am 150 percent sure that everything Käärijä does is also something Jere would do. But I don’t do it as Jere. For me, goofing around is not about being an ass or doing something malevolent. It’s about embarrassing myself. That’s what I like.”

In 2016 Käärijä self-published his first single, ‘Urheilujätkä’. In 2017 he signed with Monsp Records, which would release Käärijä’s double single which included tracks ‘Koppi tules’ and ‘No roblem’. In the following year his first EP, Peliä, was released. Gambling was a recurring theme of his early music, but Käärijä himself doesn’t want to glorify gambling in any way. Like he once stated in an interview for Ilta-Sanomat: ‘’In one of my songs, I’ve addressed that gambling has a downside, and I don’t want to encourage anyone to gamble. If you go down that road, it can end up being very harmful.’’

At first, Käärijä’s style varied from traditional rap to pop, until he found his own thing by chance. He once yelled into a mike as a joke, and it sounded surprisingly good. His music started to become more aggressive in tempo with metallic beats.

Over the years, Käärijä gained a decent amount of listeners, but never really made a breakthrough into the Finnish mainstream. He would perform at hip-hop festivals and other music events for example, mainly doing shows around the Helsinki area. As his music career wasn’t bringing in enough money, he would work full-time as a car photographer.

From his shows Käärijä also earned another trademark; being shirtless. During those shows, he would get hot in his yellow suit and remove his shirt while performing, which would become a standard of his shows. This tradition is also evident in his social media handle, paidatonriehuja, which means shirtless raver.

It All Changed Within A Month

Käärijä’s debut album came out in early February 2020. During this time Käärijä was also starting to get more gig bookings and things were looking up in his music career. Then came Covid-19.

In the Urheilucast podcast, Käärijä also talked about these pandemic struggles. First, all Käärijä’s gigs got canceled, and not long after that, his girlfriend of five years left him and he also lost his day job. He described his situation as “being left with absolutely nothing for a while”. Due to his break-up, Käärijä had to move into his own apartment and live alone for the very first time in his life, which took a great toll on him.

“At first, I succumbed to certain kinds of things right after it all happened. Somehow I instantly tried to find a new partner by my side and numb the feelings of unhappiness and loneliness. I might’ve taken on a bit of drinking as well to make it easier to be alone,” Käärijä admitted on the podcast.

He also lost interest in music momentarily, and he would be late or a total no-show at the studio. His producers and friends would see the changes in his behavior, as Käärijä had become much less talkative and would spend most of his time just on his phone.

Eventually, Käärijä had his wakeup call in a rather unexpected manner. ‘’You know how there’s cyber bullying and people go around leaving hate comments,’’ Käärijä recalled. ‘’I was also one of them. I went ahead and posted my first-ever anonymous hate comment. Right after posting that I realized, I am so f*cking unhappy. I have never experienced something like that before, but I collapsed onto my bed and just started crying loudly. It felt like all the walls were falling on me.’’

After that, Käärijä began his journey of self discovery, reflecting on who he really was and what he wanted from life. According to him, the most crucial part in starting to get better was opening up to his friends and family, and talking about his issues and feelings. Nowadays he recognizes the efforts of people around him and has said that if it wasn’t for them, he is not sure where he would’ve ended up. His older brother, who is a photographer, even hired Käärijä as his photo editor – a job he would have all the way until his UMK win.

Käärijä regained his passion for music, and continued to release singles on a regular basis. As the pandemic precautions started to ease off in Finland, he was also able to get to perform occasionally.

Creating A Eurovision Contender

Participating in UMK has been at the back of Käärijä’s mind for a couple of years before eventually sending his application. He has revealed that Yle had reached out to Käärijä asking if he was interested in participating in the contest during previous years. Back then he didn’t have a song he wanted to participate with. “I didn’t want to participate just for the sake of being there. I wasn’t after a participation trophy, I wanted to win the entire thing,” he told the Kolme käännekohtaa podcast.

The first demo of ‘Cha Cha Cha’ was created in February 2022. Käärijä and his producers made a trip to Jyväskylä with the intention of just making music and having fun. The team was listening to Rammstein and getting influenced by the music, and started making beats.

At one point during the process, Käärijä was goofing around and shaking his hips while dancing, and one of the producers pointed out that it looked like cha cha dancing. In all of its weirdness the name of the dance fit the song perfectly, and the iconic Cha Cha Cha chant was born.

“I thought that this was something I could conquer with. My team and I believed it was something that could work out internationally,” Käärijä recalled on the podcast. In May 2022 Käärijä told his producer that ‘Cha Cha Cha’ was the song he wanted to participate in UMK with. The final recording was then done, and it included all the elements, melody and the vision of the original version; only the lyrics were changed. A song that was first supposed to tell a story about Mr. Cha Cha, a character that bought the party, eventually became an ironic piece about Finnish drinking culture and freeing yourself.

When the final version of the song was finished, Käärijä filled his application for Yle to participate in UMK. Four months later, in September, Käärijä and his team were invited to meet at Yle to discuss his application and sure enough he had been selected as one of the seven participants of Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu. According to Käärijä, his first reaction was to run down the stairs of his apartment building and run outside to cheer loudly.

Some concerns were raised about Käärijä’s song however, as Käärijä has told that someone at his label said that his song might be a little too ‘scary’, and recalled answering: ‘’What the heck, wasn’t Lordi at all scary? Käärijä cannot be scary. Look at me and listen to the lyrics!’’

Käärijä has also revealed that it was completely because of himself and his team of producers that he had gotten to that point, and not because of his label. He thinks a record label is a good tool and a form of business, but he sometimes has to fight tooth and nail to have his vision approved. ‘’No hate towards my label, but even they didn’t believe in me at first. I have been at meetings where I have disagreed to do a certain thing and got someone offended. They would ask me, why won’t you let us touch up on this and why aren’t you open to this and this? I would say, it’s because my team and I have a vision of what we want. You guys are here to help me out, so just give us what we need,’’ Käärijä recalled.

When finally in January of 2023 the participants of the new UMK participants were released to the public, Käärijä was the immediate underdog, a name that didn’t stand out among much better-known artists. But when ‘Cha Cha Cha’ was finally released on January 17th, the unknown rapper became an overnight sensation. The catchy song immediately caught the attention of the Finnish public and worldwide Eurovision fandom.

Time will tell if ‘Cha Cha Cha’ does more than just catch attention this May, and instead cements a place in the Eurovision record books for years to come.

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7 responses to “Käärijä’s Journey From Illness And Unemployment To Eurovision Legend”

  1. Simon says:

    Fantastic article. What a story! Thank you

  2. Nathalia says:

    So well written! I’m glad to be able to learn more about Käärijä! This is exactly what I was looking for, thank you!

  3. Beth Owen says:

    Awesome article! And you provided extremely relevant links at all the right places.

  4. kaarija-fan-from-poland says:

    So informative! It’s great to find a long article that’s actually filled with quotes and links to references, good job : D And thank you for writing it!

  5. Serbia loves Kaarija says:

    Thanks for this article! Finally something substantial, informative and in English about our dear sweet Käärijä 💚

  6. Irene Steinweg says:

    interesting story. thanks for this background information.
    KÄÄRIJÄ is a great performer, with charisma, kreative, with brain and humor

  7. Marc says:

    Hi Mirella. Thank you so much for your article. It is as inspirational as Käärihä’s own life story.

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