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Istanbul Calling: Hip-Hop in the Melting Pot

Press photo of Da Poet from

At once ancient and modern, Istanbul, one of the world's most eclectic and evolving cities, adds yet another element into its cultural melting pot: hip-hop, a music and subculture that has impassioned many Turks -- and infuriated others.

“You have to write in the language that you dream in.”

For Turkish female rappers, there is the added challenge of being taken seriously – not that the challenge is exclusive to female rappers in Turkey; that type of subjugation is fairly universal in hip-hop. But there is something to be said about a rather insular movement in Turkey that has neither the label support nor the rest of the world looking in on the scene with keen interest that makes the struggles for Turkish female rappers all the more despairing. Ayben, Derya, Kolera, Mirza and Aziza A are some of the more prominent female rappers in Turkish hip-hop. Sultana is possibly the only female rapper from Turkey to have had her music travel over to American and European shores, recording her album in New York, landing a European distribution deal and appearing on albums by North American acts.

Sultana’s breezy mix of sassy pop, traditional Turkish sounds and throbbing, sensual hip-hop rhythms is given a touch of continental cool. Her songs betray a sense of both innocent girlish glee and a confident womanly poise. The added benefit of her fashion model looks helped the rapper get a foot in the door of the European market of which her debut album, Çerkez Kızı, was released to critical acclaim. “My experience recording the album in the US was wonderful,” Sultana says, “Everyone I worked with was talented; they were amazing producers and musicians and they were all motivating. I moved to New York for a dream of making music, recording my album. When I rapped in Turkish, people would be surprised because back then in the US there were very few female rappers and I was rapping in another language.”

While Çerkez Kızı didn’t take the world by storm, Sultana did have the honour of being the first Turkish rapper to officially cross over into both the North American and European market. Back home, however, the reception was a little less than warm. Sultana would find, to her dismay, that not only had some quarters of the Turkish press and much of the hip-hop community written her album off, but that her first single, “Kuşu Kalkmaz”, was met with so much contempt that radio and TV had banned it altogether. The song explored gender issues and the resulting double standards in Turkish society.

“Kuşu Kalkmaz” in English roughly translates as “Bird Can’t Fly”, a euphemism for male impotence. Sultana clarifies: “Kuşu Kalkmaz” is not about male impotence. The song is about marriage. I have been talking about this song for so long that I don’t want to talk about it anymore! In “Kuşu Kalkmaz”, I was questioning a male in his behaviour and wanted to bring a voice for the suppressed women, who were beaten or cheated on, in a male-dominant society. It backfired. And also apparently women in Turkey didn’t want a voice on such subjects. It was very disappointing for me to see that. When I came [back home to Turkey] from New York with my first album, they were a bit shocked that a girl had made such record and I had some reactions. It is sad to say that back then I didn’t feel welcomed by the Turkish hip-hop community.”

Zeval, another Turkish female rapper who is up and coming concurs with Sultana’s viewpoint on the gender issues prevalent in Turkish hip-hop. “It's very hard to be a female MC in Turkey because people don't care about your music -- they just focus on your femininity. I'm eighteen years old and I have been trying to produce something for the last five years. If you are a woman living in a male-dominated country, you need to work harder in order to get success. And when it continues like this (for Turkish female rappers), we get more tired as a result. But we don't ever think to give up. Men stick together in the Turkish hip-hop community -- but women don't! Actually, there are many female MCs in Turkey. But unfortunately, they don't support one another.”

Zeval’s music, as a matter of fact, presents a more masculine approach favoured by her idols MC Lyte and Lady Leshurr. Her music also exhibits sly traces of the tweaked-hip-hop dynamics found in the works of such artists like alternative R&B songstress Kissey Asplund. The rapper is still finding her sound, the strains of her various influences not yet homogenized into the whole of a singular identity. However, Zeval’s raps are performed with ease and an unwavering sense of confidence, which allows her to compete against some of the bigger boys in Turkey’s male-dominated hip-hop sphere.

Record companies and sexism are only just a few of the factors keeping Turkish hip-hop from finding its full potential and blossoming as openly as those involved in the scene would like. Many cultural factors have dampened the development of the movement and as a side effect, given the subculture an unfavourable light. Rapper Saian is a notable figure in Turkey’s hip-hop community whose music eschews swagger for a more pronounced accent on mood. His most recent work, an E.P. entitled Başıbozuk, demonstrates a sinister air of danger and intensely eerie atmospherics matched only by the terrifying force of his whiplashing rhymes. It's also overtly political, taking aim at some of the conservative infrastructure of Turkey’s government.

“The title-track is a battle track against the existing system,” Saian explains, “In Turkey, there is a government that is Islam-based and against secularism – and also against democracy. There is censorship, but it's invisible and not official – not only in music, but also in art, literature and media. Turkey is a republic and has a democracy, but that democracy is only on paper a lot of the times.” Certain times that censorship has found its way into the quarters of Turkey’s hip-hop community with authorities keeping a tuned ear onto any raps that might make waves politically. “The Turkish Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) sued one of our popular MC friends who records under the name pit10 and, if I’m not mistaken, he was obliged to pay compensation to the Prime Minister.”

The issues of politics and rap in Turkey’s social culture detailed by Saian have also found their way into the religious sphere, much to the chagrin of many involved in hip-hop. Saian further elaborates, “Many years ago, rapper Sagopa Kajmer was rapping under the name Silahsız Kuvvet, usually protesting and opposing a number of issues concerning the government. In my opinion, once a lot of Islamic groups came into power in Turkey and an Islamic stream was on the rise in the country, Kajmer’s beliefs and music changed in a parallel way to this situation. His lyrics, music, the samples he used and also his way of dressing (including his entourage) changed to reflect government attitudes... and of course, his audiences evolved (with his new beliefs) and his fanbase increased many times more.”

Compounding these problematic issues with the development of Turkish hip-hop is yet another hindrance concerning social attitudes and family life. Being a relatively new music in Turkey, hip-hop has the unfortunate reputation as being a music culture belonging to the lower class – and certainly not one belonging to Turkish culture at all. Much of hip-hop culture is relegated to small hip-hop parties thrown by event organizers and perhaps the minimal press coverage rappers receive. Kezzo, an indie-rapper, outlines the struggles for Turkish hip-hop and its difficulty in moving forward: “In Turkey, radio and TV channels generally don't play rap music. For this reason rap music has been subordinated. Pop, rock and arabesque music take precedent in our country. That is to say, there is little or no place for rap music here.”

Da Poet reflects on the more social aspects that affect the music. “I can’t count how many problems there are!” he says, “Your family doesn’t accept or understand what you are doing – you keep dealing with people, trying to explain to them what it is you are doing and why. In Turkey, families are very protective and they can’t understand new cultural ways a lot of the times.”

Unsurprisingly, many rappers in Turkey find that hip-hop remains on the margins of their lives. Family pressures enforce the ideas of stable career choices and, in fact, many Turkish rappers hold down steady careers. Rahdan, a physicist (who professes he is still a musician first), further explains: “Hip-hop is still not totally accepted by families here. I had given up rap music for two years from 2008-2010 because of education. Here there is an existing system that is accepted by most in which you cannot pursue a passion and study at the same time. Most of our young population cannot work or pursue their hobbies if they are studying at the same time. It’s our unwritten law. Education is kind of tiring. By the time people in hip-hop reach the age of twenty here in Turkey, they have to decide which part of their life they want to continue: go forward with hip-hop or a get a regular job.”

Saian, a naval architect and marine engineer, works in a shipyard when he’s not spitting rhymes on a mic onstage. “Rap is my hobby,” he says, “I could never be a full-time rapper. Would I like to? I don’t think so and I’m fine with that.” And when the situations for rappers in Turkey who choose hip-hop full-time become dire, they become downright dire. The Batarya production crew has struggled living close to poverty, forsaking a routine life for their love of all things hip-hop. “We had a lot of difficulties when we created the Batarya Company,” says Leşker Asakir, “We were starving, poor, lonely. After that whole process, we decided no one should have those same problems. We tried to make Batarya Company a place to produce hip-hop without having starvation, poorness and loneliness. Batarya Company was created to be a brotherhood centre for hip-hop – and it is. We learned you can’t do anything alone.”

As Turkish hip-hop struggles to find its footing, its proponents and champions continue to persist in the nearly impossible routine of trying to give the subculture its shape. The dominant American pop culture, which has been somewhat of a beacon to Turkish youth, has helped to give some sense or idea of how hip-hop can evolve. However, Turkish rappers are also very wary of allowing their own culture to be swallowed up in the tide of Western traditions. Saian points out the significance of the Turkish language when it comes to rapping, allowing a language that was never believed suited for rap to adapt to the rhythms and structures of hip-hop music. “With Turkish grammar, it’s not so easy to rap as it is with English or French. Turkish is one of the agglutinative languages, which means it’s more difficult to do rhymes,” he says. ‘I think that’s the disadvantage. But Turkish sounds good in my opinion.”

Finding ways to accommodate the different cultures of the East and the West is pretty much a given when creating hip-hop in Turkey. While many rappers are tuned into a new outlook outside of their social cultures, at the same time there is a need to keep their music rooted in the musical traditions that have become a staple of Turkish TV and radio. “You have to consider your own ethnic culture,” Leşker Asakir says. “What can you accept? What can you deny? We are trying to make our own musical culture here in Turkey. The American music culture made in America has an American cultural format -- different language, different religion, different beliefs, which aren’t always suitable for the musical culture of other cultures. We are always following new trends in music. Our right speaker has been playing all kinds of musical genres but our left speaker always plays only Turkish music styles. That means we always try to find a new synthesis and the main point is to mix all kinds of music styles with the Turkish style.”

Perhaps no rapper in Turkey has perched on that difficult balance between two entirely different cultures the way Da Poet has. A mainstay and a revered figure on the Turkish hip-hop scene, Da Poet’s work has travelled outside of his home country and over to the US where it caught the attention of downtempo/Nu Jazz queen Vanessa Daou, who has since enlisted the rapper for production duties on her forthcoming album, Light, Sweet, Crude. Having worked steadily for more than a decade now in hip-hop, Da Poet’s progress and struggles are still no different from what his contemporaries are currently experiencing. His brand of hip-hop provides followers of Turkish hip-hop an impressive glimpse into the power of an East-West exchange and, more importantly, the idea that the acceptance and assimilation of a foreign culture does not necessarily negate the culture of one’s own.

This sentiment is echoed in much of Turkish hip-hop today and you can hear it in the music of many Turkish rappers who continue their struggles for social and cultural acceptance. Da Poet was once left with a few impressionable words by rapper Fuat, which could very well provide Turkey’s hip-hop culture with a most encouraging adage: “You have to write in the language that you dream in.”

Special thanks to Akif Emekli (aka, Rahdan Vandal), who was instrumental in not only providing me with translations, but also with facilitating many of these interviews. See Emekli's Facebook page here.

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