Turkey’s jailing of rapper over lyrics a sign of weakness
The debate on free speech in the West has become confused in recent years by people who claim their human rights are being violated when they are banned from Twitter. You will know when your freedom of expression is really being violated when you are arrested and thrown in jail.
Two instructive examples on Thursday showed freedom of expression is still being violated in many countries. First was the news that Catalan rapper Valtònyc had left Spain to avoid a three-and-a-half-year jail term for lyrics mentioning Basque separatism and imagining the hanging of Spain’s king. Personally I’m no fan of the British monarchy, but I think I’m unlikely to be jailed for suggesting that regicide is a valid option in a song lyric. The British government is far too busy making a mess of Brexit to care about something so petty anyway.
The second example was the news that one of Turkey’s biggest and most talented rap artists, Ezhel, had been arrested for talking about drugs in his lyrics. Even by the standards of the Turkish government, the arrest appears to a particularly egregious action by an oppressive regime.
While Ezhel is a talent within the Turkish rap scene younger than artists like Ceza and Sagopa Kajmer, the release of his debut album in 2017 moved rap into the mainstream of Turkish music, with many tracks appearing in charts usually dominated by pop. Despite releasing his album independently, his concerts around Turkey have been sold out, making his success an organic one, without the backing and promotion of a major label.
Ezhel appeals to rebels, the politically dispossessed, the open-minded, progressive Turkish youth who find their lifestyles looked down upon by the conservative, reactionary supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Here is a couple of examples of Ezhel’s lyrics, so you can judge for yourself what a danger to society he is.
This is not Ezhel’s first run in with the authorities. I spoke to him in April at a live event, and he told me he had been repeatedly followed and questioned by police, but he seemed unconcerned. He had his first live performance in Britain just last weekend, as well as recent shows in Berlin, Utrecht, and Zurich. His English is good, with an endearing American intonation learned from many years of listening to American rap, and he is clearly an intelligent and thoughtful person. If any Turkish hip-hop artist were likely to make it big in other countries, it would be Ezhel.Perhaps something is lost in translation, but it’s rap meant to capture the sensibility of the young and disenfranchised, rather than start a political revolution. Nevertheless, it certainly represents a fundamental challenge to Erdoğan’s pet project to raise a ‘pious generation’ of Turkish youth through the heavy promotion of religion in schools. This campaign, interestingly, does not seem to be having any effect, as Turks are reportedly becoming more secular.
Before previous Turkish elections, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has previously attempted to present itself as more lenient and democratic. But the government no longer attempts to hide its authoritarian tendencies. As the value of the Turkish lira has depreciated in recent months, government officials have cast about for suitable scapegoats to avoid responsibility for their own poor monetary policy decisions.
Turkey has serious problems, both social and economic, and like the unwillingness of the government to engage seriously with high inflation and currency depreciation, the arrest of a popular musician is a distraction from the systemic failures that the Turkish government cannot bear to address. Coming in the run up to an important election that threatens to loosen the AKP’s grip on power, these kind of arbitrary arrests appear like desperate acts.
Like many things in the new Turkey, arresting artists for their art feels like a return to the bad old days of the 1990s, when Ahmet Kaya was hounded out of Turkey for daring to suggest he would sing in Kurdish. Ezhel is not the only artist suffering for their art in the new Turkey. Kurdish artist Zehra Doğan was arrested for painting a picture of the destruction of the southeastern town of Nusaybin in 2017.
Despite the shock among Turkish music fans that the judicial witch-hunt is now extending to the arts, the persecution of Ezhel may yet backfire against Turkey. It is likely to bring him more domestic and international fame, bolster his edgy reputation and instil greater loyalty in his fans. It also makes Turkey look bad, though like the notorious fans of English football club Millwall, the Turkish government increasingly displays an attitude of ‘nobody likes us, we don’t care’.
Ezhel is the kind of artist who makes people think and question accepted narratives. Perhaps this is why the Turkish government sees artists like him as a kind of existential threat to its quest to ‘Make Turkey Great Again’. Thinking outside the box in Turkey these days is increasingly likely to bring you unwanted political problems. While these sideshows carry on, the more serious problem of the weakness of the Turkish economy looms ever larger. It is just this kind of problem that could do with the kind of critical thinking that Erdoğan seems to have purged from his government.