Current Turkish rap scene : fight against silenciation and adaptation to market
When I’m Done Dying, directed by the young Turkish director Nisan Dağ, is a movie that was broadcasted during the Estonia’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival 2020 and the 47th Seattle International Film Festival. The movie deals with the hip hop subculture established in the slums of Istanbul, with a background of drugs, poverty, and rap as a tool of expression. When I’m Done Dying is an emotional roller coaster into Istanbul youth, steeped into edgy rap composed by one of the most acclaimed beatmakers and rappers in Turkey, Da Poet.
This recognition of Turkish rap scene through cinema is a great indicator of the cultural importance that this movement took in the country. Although rap isn’t broadcasted on national television or radio because of its political content, some alternative channels like social media allow the rise of this music.
Therefore, even if the mainstream cultural institutions are not eager to let Turkish rap become the number 1 genre in Turkey, the phenomenon is growing more and more thanks to some singular figures that link their artistic career with their political commitment.
Rap as a way to make the margin visibles
Back in 2014, StreetWalking – one of the platforms of InEnArt – hosted a short documentary about the work undertaken by Tahribad-ı İsyan in the district of Sulukule, Istanbul. The video is to be seen by clicking on the upper picture.
Tahribad-ı İsyan is a well known rap band from an unfortunately famous place of Istanbul, Sulukule, a Romani neighborhood. It went through a huge process of urban transformation in the last decade, facing a massive destruction of its dwellings to make way for luxury housing in which the Roma population obviously could not afford to relocate.
This violent change led to a displacement of the population to the outskirts of the city, taking them away from their place of work, as well as from the original place where the Roma population had settled and concentrated in Istanbul. The destruction of the houses also means the destruction of a place of life, of a collective memory, of a population already stigmatized in the country. It is challenging to transmit a memory within a community when it is uprooted from its place of life, in response to which the rap group Tahribad-ı İsyan undertakes a major artistic work.
They are participating in a « çocuk sanat atölyesi », a hip hop workshop with the kids of the neighborhood. « Instead of smoking pot, they do hip hop here » can we hear from one of the members of Tahribad-ı İsyan. They are taught to turn into lyrics their life, and to deal with the urban changes of the place where they grew up through music :
Sulukele artık bir burjuva yeri
Devir değişti tabi
Romanlara kötü gözle bakana
Irkçı denmez aga
Sulukele became a place of bourgeoisie
The ones discriminating the Roma
Are not called racists anymore
Rap and resistance
Umut Mişe, a researcher from Boğaziçi University, opened the field of research on Turkish rap. He published an article in 2020 in the Anthropology of East Europe Review, derived from his thesis in political sciences, called “Rap Music as Resistance and Its Limits, Two Diverging Cases: Sulukule and Bağcılar Rap”.
He highlights in his work the clear link between urban context and emergence of rap : « On the one hand, neoliberal policies resulted in exclusion, poverty, and discrimination in the megacity of Istanbul, Sulukele and Bağcılar [being deprived] of services like infrastructure and education. On the other hand, in the cosmopolitan structure of Istanbul, through space people develop local ties and subcultures. Hence, while it is the phenomenon via certain people are discriminated discursively, economically and socially ; it also creates the web of relations through which resistance occurs. »
Turkish rap is a constant reaction to its environment, as a way of narrating a singular situation when the traditional means of expression are not sufficient anymore to make your voice heard. As we mentioned in the first part of this article, rap and resistance are interlinked topics. The examples of Turkish rappers expressing dissent through their artwork are numerous : we can mention on this subject the song Susamam – We cannot stay silent –, a 15 minutes tune released in 2019, reuniting 20 rappers among which Tahribad-ı İsyan, Fuat, Ados, Deniz Tekin…
Each one evokes in his verse a different subject dealing with a political or social failing in the country, from education, to justice, law, privilege, domestic violence, or corruption. Gathering more than 50 millions of views up to this day, this music project is a great demonstration of power and dissent if we take into account the fact that rappers are not exempt from being targeted by the power in place for expressing a disagreement.
This is the case of one of the most internationally known Turkish rappers, Ezhel, who has been taken into custody because the authorities considered that his songs were inciting drug use. However, now living in Germany, he didn’t hesitate to take part into the protests in Berlin in support of the demonstrations of Boğaziçi University, following the undemocratic appointment of a new rector in January 2021.
Rap and adaptation to market
After an interview with Umut Mişe about his thesis topic, what now appears undeniable is that rap has become one of the most popular means of expression in a Turkey where the spaces for public expression are severely shrinking. However, it can also be seen as a popular genre used by the precarious fringes of Turkish society to reach a successful and rich life.
He takes to this extent the example of Bağcılar rappers who, as he writes it, « prefer to “amateurishly” publish their works on social media – unlike Sulukule rappers who release professionally produced albums – becoming more moderate in terms of critique and resistance, as the competitive market logic dominates their logic when writing new songs ».
Mişe also mentioned the arrival of autotune in Turkish rap, making the exercise of rap something accessible to many more people than before, no matter how deep in the discourse of the rapper. The researcher brings up this topic as one of the potential limits to rap being still a tool of resistance, mentioning also the large number of Youtubers who start a career in rap because of their already large audience, by first addressing the financial aspect of this music scene.
In spite of all this, it is still worth noting the broad support that some Turkish rappers have managed to generate through their musical commitment. We are not yet at the stage of an aseptic rap. Turkish rap and its most famous figures are still able to make visible a public opinion that has difficulty in expressing itself in the rare interstices of popular expression left by the power in place in Turkey.