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The Turkish Rap Attack: Fighting the Status Quo with Loaded Words

It’s been said that art has the power to change the world, but does it have the power to reverse Turkey’s current Islamist trajectory?

Dr Can Erimtan
21st Century Wire

The New Turkey is all but an Islamic state in the making, a modern country caught between a seductive yet escapist modernity and a strict yet prayerful authoritarianism, caught between pleasure and duty, as it were.

And somewhere in the middle is Turkey’s youth, busily participating in the digital world like their peers elsewhere while listening to Rap music and partaking of other licit and illicit pleasures . . . And, lest we forget, the majority of Turkey’s population of nearly 84 million at present is young, with the “median age . . . at 30.9 years . . . [and with] 27% ranging from 0 to 14 years of age,” and “12.97 million people aged 15-24,” according to the TÜİK (or the Turkish Statistical Institute) – that means that young Turks (aged between 0 and 24) make up about 40% of the country’s total population. And these young people are basically no different from young people elsewhere.

Last April, the unemployment figure in Turkey was at a staggering 14.7%, with the “youth unemployment rate [at] 20.3%,” or one fifth of Turkey’s youngsters are experiencing joblessness.  The TÜİK research furthermore indicated that “[m]ore than half of young people in the country (55.4%) said [nevertheless that] they were happy last year,” which also means that nearly half of Turkey’s young population last year experienced some kind of discomfort and felt that they were not reaching their full potential in the country. Arguably, prospects of impending joblessness, and resultant hopelessness leading to escapist stratagems involving video games, drug abuse, and other harmless and less innocent pastimes – factors that could very well transform these young Turks (arguably about 20% of the population) into rebels with a cause, particularly if we keep in mind that “[o]fficial figures . . .  showed that 93% of [the] young population had internet access in 2018,” opening the prospect of the nowadays much-vaunted and -feared ‘internet radicalisation.’

In contrast. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (or the Prez), the Islamist politician who has been leading his party (the Development and Justice Party or AKP) and the country into the current post-Kemalist century, seems happily oblivious of these young people and their proclivities. After all, Erdoğan belongs to a very different demographic – born in 1954, at present 65 years of age. Rather than thinking about integrating his country’s younger generations into a global network of young people and their hopes and cares, since 2012, he has been adamant about his desire to rear pious generations that will work and pray for the benefit their home country and their god (Allah). For that reason, the 19th National Education Council (or Şura), held in December 2013, issued a momentous 179 “recommendatory decisions,” in line with the Prez’s desire for future generations of pious Turks. These recommendations “included the introduction of religious courses into the curriculum of primary schools. Whereas, middle school pupils undergoing training to memorize the Quran (known as hafızlık in Turkish) would be able to leave school for the duration of two years but will still be allowed to sit exams. At the same time religious instruction in high schools will be doubled, while the teaching of the history of Turkey’s reforms and the principles of Kemalism in middle and high schools will be subjected to a critical revision more in line with a contemporary understanding and current needs. But the most spectacular ‘recommendation’ or decision was arguably to turn the instruction of the Ottoman language (Osmanlıca, in Turkish) into a compulsory course for vocational religious high schools as well as social science high schools.”  In January 2015, I put forward the notion that “these classes in the Ottoman language are more like a backdoor to learning the Arabic alphabet, which is a prerequisite for reading the Quran.” And that is indicative of the new Turkish status quo that has replaced the Kemalist version of secularism that kept Islam hidden from view yet alive and well behind the scenes.

In reality, these recommendations were all but following the facts on the ground, as already in 2012 religious or “Imam Hatip education was extended to middle schools for pupils aged 10 to 14,” as noted by Reuters‘ Daren Butler. The Turkish state had originally founded İmam Hatip Lyceums or High Schools to educate young men to be imams (or prayer leaders) and preachers. And according to statistics recently released by the Ministry of National Education (or Milli Eğitim Bakanlığı, commonly acronymsed as MEB), a grand total of 3, 286 İmam Hatip Middle School are at present active in the country, of which 427 are İmam Hatip Lyceums or High Schools (İHL). In time, the Prez and his henchmen would arguably like to turn all educational establishments in the land into religious establishments. These educational policies are in stark contrast to those originally espoused during the Kemalist years, when “religion was banned altogether from the schools for fourteen years between 1935 and 1949,” as remarked by Marmara University’s Dr Aylin Akpınar.  On the other hand, the social scientist Turan Bilge Kuşcu conducted some research of his own into the matter of İmam Hatip Lyceums; and, his “results . . . show that 50% of parents indicated that they had chosen to send their children to “İHL” because of their desire for their children to receive a “religious education,” as published in the periodical Derin Maarif (or ‘Deep Education, ‘a name and word choice suggestive of the conservative and Islamic nature of its editorial line).

Rap as Turkish Youth Culture

Around the world, today’s youth culture seems centred around the phenomenon known as Hip-hop.

As explained by National Geographic‘s Tom Pryor: “hip-hop culture has [currently] metastasized from its urban American roots into the global juggernaut it is today, [and]  that’s largely thanks to the insistent, irresistible appeal of rap.”

Nowadays, artists rap in English, in French, in Filipino, in any possible language, including Turkish. And last Friday, 6 September 2019, the Turkish public was exposed to a veritable rap attack targeting the nation’s youth (in the form of the rapper Ezhels song/clip ‘Olay,’ released on YouTube), a musical assault on the status quo with the potential to rival the Friday Prayer (a weekly event that embodies and reinforces the status quo with governemnt-approved sermons).  Ezhel’s  ‘Olay’ is a musical release that caused a real storm in a tea cup (or maybe not) across Turkey’s computers and virtual landscapes. The Turkish writer and music critic Barış Akpolat queries whether the day will go down in history as the day a “revolution in Turkish Rap music” occurred . . . On Twitter, the University of California, Santa Cruz-PhD Candidate Kenan Sharpe stated that the “newest song by #Ezhel & crew is out. This bold music video features news clips/footage from the last 10-ish years of traumatic events in Turkish/world history. However you read the use of these images from our collective past, this video is certain to stir up discussion” (11:19 pm, 5 Sep 2019). The clip accompanying Ezhel’s track ‘Olay’ shows a wide variety of scenes of social unrest and protests in Turkey and across the wider world – visuals of the Ankara Massacre (10 October 2015), as well as of the 2013 Gezi protests and 2016‘s Coup-that-was-no-Coup, and many other instances of national and international outrage and unrest. Watch:

In fact, the previous day (Thursday, 5 September 2019), a collective of 17 Turkish rappers, under the wing of Şanışer, “one of the best rappers of the last years,” according to the ekşi sözlük user breuer, had released their own rap attack: “Rapper #Şanışer is causing a sensation in #Turkey with an epic video, #Susamam – “I can’t stay silent” – featuring more than a dozen other artists decrying injustices, environmental destruction, violence against women, inhumanity, and apolitical inaction,” as tweeted by the Istanbul-based journalist Jennifer Hattam (10:47 am. 6 Sep 2019). This nearly 15-minute epic rapfest includes a grand variety of words dealing with things and situations that are going wrong in the New Turkey. For instance, the female rapper Deniz Tekin deals with the issue of violence against women and sexual harassment, while Şanışer himself tackles the issue of street animals and animal rights, while others deal with topics like nature, the rule of law and justice (or the lack thereof in the country), education … All in all, #Susamam purports to be a real critique of the state of affairs in AKP-led Turkey, though never explicitly and definitely not openly referring to anything or anyone specific. And, as pointed out by Akpolat, conspicuous in its absence are LGBTİ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual and Intersexed) concerns and matters – asking rightfully, “[w]hich non-homosexual rapper could do justice to this topic with his/her words?” Watch:

TGIF in Turkey

The timing of both releases seems very deliberate, or maybe it is just the result of fortuitous marketting. Ezhel’s song was released on a Friday, and as is probably well-known by now, the last day of the West’s working week carries a exceptional status in the Muslim world: “On Fridays, Muslims gather for a special congregational prayer in the early afternoon, which is required of all Muslim men . . . It replaces the dhuhr prayer at noon [one of the five prayer sessions Muslims are meant to observe]. Directly before this prayer, worshipers listen to a lecture delivered by the Imam or another religious leader from the community,” as can be read on the educational website Learn Religions.  In Turkey, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (also known simply as Diyanet, in Turkish) has been taking care of these sermons since 1924, when Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk, 1881-1938) abolished the Caliphate in conjunction with the Office of the Sheikh-ul-Islam (or Meşihat/Şeyhülislamlık, in Turkish), which also included Ministry of Pious Endowments. The Sheikh-ul-Islam had been responsible for all aspects of religious life in the Ottoman lands, given that Islam had been the official religion of the state. And following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey (1923), the Office of the Sheikh-ul-Islam was simply replaced by the Diyanet or Directorate of Religious Affairs (1924), as a branch of government attached to the office of the prime minister.

During the Kemalist period (1923-2002), the influence of the Diyanet was limited at best, and Friday Prayers were only sparsely attended. Particularly, as the day had become the end of the working week in 1935, with the “weekly holiday [commencing] from 1 p.m. Saturday until Monday morning,” centred around Sunday, as expressed by the eminent (yet Arab-hating) Islamic studies specialist Bernard Lewis (1916-2018). In January 2016, the official Turkish news agency Anadolu Ajansı released the following statement: in Ottoman times, “there was no defined weekend for officials living in the Ottoman Empire. The overall tendency was to have a day off on Fridays for Muslims, on Saturday for Jews and on Sunday for Christians — holy days for each religion.” In Kemalist Turkey, by contrast, and particularly, during the years of One-Party Rule (1923-59), “Islam was literally crowded out of the public sphere,” as worded by E. S. Çarmıklı. But in the New Turkey, led by the Prez and his AKP henchmen, Islam has made a not-so sudden comeback to the public sphere and private as well as political life, and “on 8 Jan 2016, to be precise, [then-Prime Minster Ahmed Davutoğlu] issued the Friday Prayer circular that allows male public servants to attend the obligatory Friday prayers (Salatul Jumu’ah) without interrupting their office hours (female believers are obviously exempt from fulfilling this religious duty, as it would lead to a mixing of the sexes at the mosque),” as I related in March 2016. Hence, Friday has again acquired sacred and sacrosanct properties amongst many Turks, with men now regularly and fastidiously attending Friday Prayers to listen to AKP-sanctioned sermons, delivered by their local Imams emanating from the Diyanet‘s Ankara offices.

As a result, public displays of personal piety have now become rather commonplace. And, many pious people thus tend to regard Thursday night equally sacred and sacrosanct, as it is but the preamble to Friday. As wordsmiths, clearly cognizant of what is happening all around, Ezhel and Şanışer released their visual and verbal assaults on the new status quo on symbolically charged days of the week

Backlash or Blowback?!?

The reaction was not slow in coming: in the Islamist propaganda rag Yeni Şafak, the columnist Ali Saydam published his response to these sounds ostensibly challenging the nation’s faith and political system. Saydam starts off his piece by indicating that “this type of music,” referring to Rap and Hip hop, “emerged as a product of black subculture in the western world.”  And he continues that as a result, “characteristics of ‘protest’ constitute a large part of its identity.” He even utilises the term ‘counterculture’ in his argument, stating that in Scandinavian countries where the GNP is “high” and the “distribution of income balanced,” musical products of this nature do not find the same amount of “consumers” (or “buyers”) as in the United States, where “income injustice” is rife and social protests widespread. These insights lead Saydam to declare that Rap (and Hip hop music) is an “imported cultural artifact,” with its roots in “America’s Lumpenproletariat,” that as a natural consequence cannot fulfill an “oppositional function” in Turkey. Saydam literally declares that the “words used,” oftentimes “in broken Turkish, [and] sometimes in need of subtitles,” display a “mechanical understanding of protest,” and that, “in a way,” these songs therefore constitute “the most primitive dimension of protest.”

In contrast, nowadays Rap music and culture is highly popular in Turkey, particularly among young and younger Turks. In other words, as a whole the country appears to possess a large potential audience for Rap and Hip hop music. And as a result, Şanışer and Ezhel do have a large market for their message. In fact, various members of the opposition CHP (or Republican People’s Party), recently on a high as a result of Ekrem İmamoğlu’s entry to the offices of the İBB (or İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality) in İstanbul’s Saraçhane district, quickly realised the explosive potential harboured by the Rap songs: the social media account of the Şişli Municipality in İstanbul, as well as those handled by the municipalities of Datça, Borçka, and the city of Eskişehir shared the “epic video, #Susamam” with their followers. Even Eskişehir’s Mayor Yılmaz Büyükerşen and İstanbul district Maltepe’s mayor Ali Kılıç shared the track on their personal social media accounts. In contrast, the lawyer and AKP member Hamza Dağ took to Twitter to criticise the rappers and their songs, saying that “[a]rt should not be [used] as a vehicle for provocation and political manipulation,” adding that “we know very well how those who say #Susamam [“I can’t stay silent”] remained voiceless during Turkey’s most critical eras,” insinuating that opponents of AKP rule are people who have in the past welcomed military interventions, a slur oftentimes used in connection with the CHP and its members. As such, Dağ also posted a link to a video on the YouTube channel Gayri Resmi Hesap, showing an anonymous man vocally criticising the Rap song, its singers and listeners. In addition, the speaker on the YouTube video easily manages to insert the PKK into his monologue, insinuating that the Kurdish terror group is responsible for most of the violence and unrest in Turkey. On Sunday, 8 September, the propaganda rag Yeni Şafak directly targeted the rapper Şanışer, calling his track #Susamam a “joint PKK/FETÖ production,” using the two favourite slurs used by AKP henchmen to slander enemies and malign malcontents.

And now, Turkey’s television channels and internet broadcasters are busily discussing the songs and its contents, while the underlying message seems all but lost. Though the tracks are invigorating and stirring, the likelihood that these rappers will have an actual impact on the wider population of the New Turkey seems distant . . . Ezhel and Şanışer are all but preaching to the converted, Turkey’s voiceless urban youth mired in video games and 24-hour internet access – “this nation’s hopeless youth.”  The one-time Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, now famously infamous for supporting the guardian angel of the free press, Julian Assange, joined in the mood, tweeting Şanışer’s track to a much wider and non-Turkish audience.

The journalist Burak Abatay seems optimistic: “[i]n a place like Turkey, where the youth’s life has been taken out of its hands for the past 17 [AKP-led] years, such a young ‘thing’ like Rap’s flag of rebellion should be flying very high.” Abatay sees Rap as a “raised first” moving into the future “with hope.”  And, while it is true that the songs communicate a spirit of rebellion and youthful revolt, Ezhel and Şanışer hardly are the New Turkey’s Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. Their words may be loaded with a strong message, but will these heavy words manage to penetrate the intolerable wall of silence surrounding the Prez and his AKP henchmen.

Still, as tweeted by Pamela Anderson, “[a]rtists can change the world – artists are #freedomfighters.”

I grew up apolitical, never voted

Only worried about traveling, debt

Then justice died, and until it touched me,

I just shut up, became complicit

Now I think twice before I tweet

Find myself fearing my own country’s police

I’m sorry, your legacy is this nation’s hopeless youth

(Verse from  #Susamam. Translated by Can Okar on Twitter)

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans. the greater Middle East, and the world beyond.. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

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