A Tale of Two Countries in a Rapper’s Arrest

It’s been a meteoric rise for Turkish hip hop artist Ezhel. Will his fall be just as fast?

The rapper, whose real name is Omer Sercan Ipekcioglu, has become wildly popular since the release of his album, “Muptehzel” (“drug user” in Turkish slang), a year ago.

He released the record on his own, without the backing of a major label, yet still sold out concerts across the country. His music blends reggae and American rap with Turkish musical traditions, alongside sophisticated rhymes and sleek, auto-tuned vocals.

His most popular video has been viewed more than 36 million times on YouTube. That’s nearly one view for every two people in Turkey. Not even a year old, it’s already among the most watched videos in the history of Turkish hip hop.

That fact, plus the song’s anti-government message, explains why Ezhel has been charged with “encouraging drug use” and faces up to five years in jail.

Artist persecution has a long history in Turkey, but has increased in recent years under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, particularly in the lead-up to the June 23rd presidential election. The list goes on and on, from the young Kurdish painter sentenced to two years in jail last year to the novelist sentenced to life in prison a few months ago.

Enter Ezhel’s popular video. The song is "Sehrimin Tadi," or "Taste of My City," a raw evocation of life in Ezhel’s hometown, the capital of Turkey.

“Ankara wind blows the soul,” the video opens.

Sporting cornrow braids and an Oakland Raiders cap, Ezhel is seen rapping amid rubble, wire, and uprooted trees, highlighting the government’s “urban transformation” projects that were the main driver behind the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The faces of Ali Ismail Korkmaz and others killed during that violent fortnight five years ago also appear. 

Tattooed youth wear black jackets promoting Ankara Kara Kizil (Red and Black Ankara), a youth group known for its opposition to the AKP. “Those who dogmatize are cowardly,” raps Ezhel, a likely reference to Erdogan's frequent calls for Islamic adherence.

Many reports have pegged Ezhel as growing up in the ghetto, which is not entirely accurate. He was raised in Cebeci, a middle ground between the slums and Ankara’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, and thus seems well-positioned to portray the harsh realities of Turkey’s capital.

In "Sehrimin Tadi" he talks of jobless young people, having no money and stealing food. This seems an apt, if slightly exaggerated, description of the country’s economic situation. Youth unemployment is over 20 percent, the lira has plunged to record lows and inflation has stubbornly remained above 10 percent.

Turkey’s economy continues to grow (an estimated 4 percent this year), but some analysts foresee an economic crisis on the level of that which Greece has experienced. Thus, the taste of Ezhel’s city -- "soot, rust, filth, coal, plastic, trash, tires, exhaust, weed,” repeated in the chorus -- seems fitting.

Turkey’s president sees a wholly different Ankara. From his 1,100-room palace, Erdogan presides over the capital of “one of the fastest-growing” economies in the world and jumps all over those who see things differently.

In the lead-up to what may be the most important election in Turkey’s 95-year history, the attack on Ezhel seeks to muffle the rapper’s voice, scare government critics into silence, and send a message to the AKP’s base (which likely had never heard of him): “There are dangerous people out there, sullying our youth with drugs and criticizing the country and its leaders. We can’t let them stand in the way of progress.”

After his May arrest, #FreeEzhel emerged as a top trending hashtag on Twitter, spurring dozens of artists, journalists and other prominent figures to call for his release, along with Amnesty International. It’s no surprise that Ezhel has emerged as a sort of political Rorschach test.

Erdogan and the AKP government often portray Turkey’s troubled and under-developed urban areas as breeding grounds for criminals, terrorists, and drug abusers, and aim to remove the undesirables via urban renewal. Government critics, on the other hand, have long fought against such projects on the grounds that they uproot working-class families and erase urban green spaces.

For those who believe the government line that Turkey is a bright and shining Muslim success story, Ezhel is a problem. For those who see Turkey headed down a dark path, he’s a hero.

Worldly yet deeply local, he’s certainly a trailblazer. He’s also a complex, alternative role model able to inhabit both high and low culture. He received a scholarship from TED Ankara College, one of the city’s top high schools, and is a skilled musician who plays the piano, guitar, and ney, a Middle Eastern flute. He recently spoke at an event at Istanbul’s prestigious Bosphorus University.

Music critic Murat Meric calls Ezhel a spokesman for the “lost generation” of Gezi. Erdogan clings to the past, reviving Ottoman glories, denouncing the globalized West, and seeking to raise pious generations. Bold, creative, and open to global influences, Ezhel shows Turks the way forward.

He has no place in Erdogan’s Turkey, which makes him all the more necessary for the country’s future.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.