Millions find their voice as Turkish rappers rise against oppression

Turkish rap stars have declared that they will not remain politically silent in two remarkable tracks that captured the country’s social media within hours of dropping on Friday.

The songs and their video clips present a long list of grievances and open wounds that have stricken Turkish society over the last decades, complete with striking footage of harrowing events that have shaped the country’s recent history.

Sarp Palaur, better known by his stage name Şanışer, has made a name for himself as a protest rapper in Turkey with popular tracks like “Yalan” (Lie) and “Günleri geride bırak” (Leave the days behind).

But the rapper outdid himself with Friday’s release Susamam – “I can’t stay silent” – a 15-minute epic recorded featuring 17 other Turkish rappers. At 3:30 p.m. (GMT), 17 hours after it was uploaded to YouTube, the song’s video had racked up nearly 3.5 million views.

On the same morning Ömer Sercan İpekçioğlu, stage name Ezhel, who has become a leading name in Turkish rap with tracks fusing trap with various other musical styles, released “Olay” – loosely translating to “event” or “incident”, another powerful howl of anger at the state of the country that was viewed  on YouTube more than 1.6 million times by 3:30 p.m., 17 hours after launch.

The lyrics of “Olay”, sung repetitively and in slightly muffled tones in Ezhel’s trademark style, create the image of a police state in which “incidents” – killings, rape, theft, harsh police interventions – happen every day under a government that uses its people as “test subjects”.

“There’s no reason not to be a psychopath – so steal. I have coins, you have wads of money,” Ezhel raps as the video zooms in on the Presidential Complex built by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It is this video clip that has captured the biggest plaudits from many Turkish social media users who helped it go viral.

A collection of fast-edited documentary footage, the clip gives a swift history of over a decade of events that have shaped today’s Turkey, from the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, to protesters killed in the nationwide anti-government protests in 2013, to mining accidents and bombing attacks.

If the “Olay” video gives a potted history of Turkey’s recent traumas, “Susamam” provides a comprehensive list over 15 minutes of the country’s greatest sources of social anxiety, ranging from corruption, to political oppression, to the normalisation of violence.

“I grew up apolitical, never voted, I spent my time thinking of holidays and debt. Then justice died, and until it touched me, I stayed quiet and became complicit. Now I’m afraid to even tweet,” the rapper says in one verse dealing with the law.

“If they unjustly throw you in jail one night, you won’t even find a journalist to make news about it. They’re all locked up!” he says.

Both tracks focus on the growing outrage at Turkey’s record on violence against women – an issue that has come to the fore intermittently over recent years with new reports of murdered women.

They also reflect the growing dissent at living in harsh economic conditions under a government that routinely responds to challenges with authoritarian practices – as Turkey’s three-year record as the world’s worst jailer of journalists illustrates.

The two tracks have been praised for their bravery under these conditions – especially given that rappers in Turkey have already been targeted by the authorities.

Ezhel was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison in June under laws against promoting drug use in song lyrics and internet postings. The rapper references the arrest in the video of “Olay” – a swift rejoinder to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that the deferred sentence will not silence him.

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