Turkish music goes global with the help of the diaspora

The Turkish rapper Ezhel, who spearheaded the rise of Turkish hip hop in the last few years with the success of his 2017 debut album has just released his first track with mostly non-Turkish lyrics.

The rapper is now living in Berlin after being targeted by pro-government media and arrested for ‘promoting drug use in his lyrics’.

In another recent track, Allah'ından Bul (God Give You What You Deserve), he raps,

Takamam sizleri, yakarım cannabis / I don’t care about you all, I'll burn cannabis

Silahım müzikken olamam terörist  /  When my weapon is music I can’t be a terrorist

There are other artists who want to follow in Ezhel’s footsteps and work abroad, though as the Istanbul Trip rapper Xir said in 2017, ‘Angela Merkel, I don’t have a Schengen Visa, you come to Karakoy’. The combination of political repression and the collapse in the value of the Turkish Lira means artists in Turkey are struggling to pay for imported equipment, and the amount of money they earn from streaming platforms has decreased along with the Lira’s value. 

In this context, it makes a lot of sense for Turkish artists to start appealing to audiences in other countries, and Ezhel is again at the forefront of efforts by the recent Turkish diaspora to diversify the markets they are aiming at. He has started to work with the German-Turkish diaspora in Berlin since moving there, appearing briefly in this very good 140 Journos video about hip hop godfather Killa Hakan. Along with other members of the 36 Boys gang, Killa Hakan was among the first to popularise rapping in Turkish, starting in the late 80s and 90s.

Ezhel has started working with other diaspora Turkish artists who make music for the German or Dutch markets. These crossover tracks like the recent DEVAM also include rapping in German, Spanish and English, as in the case of the Made in Turkey track from Ezhel’s album with Dutch-Turkish rapper/producer Murda.

Murda in particular makes significant use of the Tresillo beat, which has taken over a lot of European pop music in the last few years with its syncopated Reggaeton sound, and both Murda and Ezhel can be found rapping partly in Spanish on some of their tracks together.

Aside from hip hop, psych rock artist Gaye Su Akyol has been becoming increasingly popular in Europe for a few years now, and is about to release a new album. Akyol was given the Best Artist 2019 award by UK magazine Songlines, and is regularly played by legendary rocker Iggy Pop on his radio show on the BBC’s influential alternative music station BBC6 Music. 

Also in the UK, the artist Emir Taha is making interesting pop music that is sung in both English and Turkish, such as the recently released Baka Baka.

As well as these styles of music which retain a specifically Turkish feeling, there is also a lot of good electronic and dance music being produced by Turkish producers at the moment. Producers from the diaspora like Erol Alkan have been active in the dance music scene for years, but there is a new wave of Turkish producers coming through who are also responding to the globalised nature of streaming apps by making music with European electronic music influences. I particularly like some of the music that the prolific Faruk Orakci has been making recently.

I asked Orakci about why he makes music for this global audience, and he said:

“The electronic music sector in Turkey is not yet sufficient. Therefore, we may find it difficult to meet with the right audience and convey our music. The music we broadcast to other countries adds prestige to us and reaches the right audience. However, the conditions we compete in are not very fair, with those who live in Europe or USA or Australia. So, the reason we make global music is that our style has listeners all over the world, it is easier to reach the right audience and prestige. If we had only tried in Turkey, we would remain very limited. The market is small here. If you are independent, your job is difficult.”

Kenan Sharpe, writing for Duvar, recently discussed how Ezhel has been criticised for his use of multiple languages by a writer in the left wing journal Birikim, who accused him of resembling “a colonist forming a shallow relationship with other cultures.” I also think this negativity towards Ezhel’s code-switching is ridiculous, because there’s an obvious reason for doing it - it helps him reach a wider audience, which is good both from an economic point of view and reputationally. 

We live in a globalised world where K-Pop, sung mostly in Korean, has blown up in Gen-Z youth cultures across the world. The biggest Turkish global hit up to this point is still Tarkan’s Kiss Kiss (Şımarık in Turkish, released in 1997), but it surely can’t be long until we see another Turkish musical phenomenon of similar global prominence.