Turkish Rap has become very popular in recent years and is reaching mainstream audiences. Meanwhile Kurdish rap still remains underground. Guess why.

Back in 2019, when Turkish hip-hop star Ezhel’s video of himself playing the bağlama and singing an old Kurdish folk song went viral, Turkish Twitter went bonkers with people who appreciated the artist’s – who himself is not Kurdish – peaceful gesture and others who condemned him for being a traitor to Turkey. Although Ezhel is not very upfront with his political thoughts, he has the natural vibe of a person who is against discrimination towards Kurds, sharing Kurdish music on his Instagram, even using Kurdish words in his music and openly supporting Kurdish rappers. 

Kurdish rappers address their audiences in a banned language (Illustration: SPEX).

But he is a rare example. Normally and lately increasingly, Kurds and Kurdish culture are being condemned in the Turkish mainstream entertainment world as well as in social media, and are always the subject of huge debates. Even very famous and successful artists such as the late Ahmet Kaya, who had to flee the country in the late nineties due to the racism he experienced, are bound to live with this. In Turkey, Kurdish art is considered only a minor part of Turkish culture and anyone who even dares to celebrate it as something independent will have to face the consequences. 

When in 1999, while receiving an award, Kaya told the crowd of a live TV show that he dreamt of being able to record an album in Kurdish one day, the audience, with the encouragement of other artists in the studio, started throwing stuff at him. When Aynur, a beloved Kurdish singer who is now living abroad, went up on stage with Sezen Aksu at one of her concerts in 2011 and started singing in Aksu’s native language Kurdish, many people left the arena booing. 

The tradition of hate against the Kurdish language and against the thought of someone singing or speaking in Kurdish in daily life surely is a reflection of Turkey’s politics. It systematically swept aside ethnic and religious minorities and built the nation’s character around the nascent Turkish identity. 20 to 25 million Kurds, about one third of the overall Turkish population, to this day do not have the right to education in their mother tongues and though it’s not technically illegal, they still cannot speak in their own language in public spaces for fear of being attacked. 

A Banned Language

In 2014, when the AKP was considering certain reforms regarding  Kurdish minority rights and the de-weaponizing of the PKK was in talks, the environment for people to be able to talk in Kurdish seemed far more open. There were even some artists who were openly supporting this process with their art. Dezz Deniz for example, who dedicated a song in Kurdish to the ongoing peace process. But it’s worth noting that Deniz has been living in Germany for a long time, which makes things relatively easy for her when singing in Kurdish about the Kurdish conflict.

And that’s exactly why most Kurdish musicians, or at least the ones who can afford it, move abroad at some point in their lives – to be able to make their music comfortably and without fear of repercussions. Aynur has moved to Germany and Kaya to Paris where he died only one year after the horrendous incident at the award show. Contemporary Kurdish hip-hop musicians, or at least the ones who are more visible, are also mostly living abroad. Serhado, who is commonly regarded as one of the first Kurdish rappers and who has a broad fanbase, is from Mardin, Turkey but lives in Sweden. 

A good portion of the emerging wave of popular Turkish rappers benefit from their ethnic origin and/or their ideological closeness to the secular elite. Many of them such as Server Uraz, Ceg or Anıl Piyancı identify as secularist and their social media posts reveal a nationalist and Kemalist ideology. On the other hand, Khontkar and Ezhel are known to be speaking good English, and the latter has even studied at a famous private college in Ankara for a while on a scholarship. This means there’s still some kind of a kinship between these rappers and the new scene they have entered into; ethnical or ideological bonds or class affiliation. Unlike them, Kurdish rappers are still mostly overseen. Take the case of Heijan, a Kurdish MC from one of the poorest neighborhoods in İstanbul, Bağcılar. 

Heijan became an internet phenomenon with his track “Bonzai Bom“ in 2015. In the song, he raps about a popular street drug known as Bonzai. In the aftermath of his track going viral, he was charged with using and promoting drugs and imprisoned for four months. However, there wasn’t a comparable social media outcry defending his right to free speech as there would be in Ezhel’s case only four years later. This demonstrates the relevance of ethnicity in determining who gets to sing about what and who can benefit from national networks of solidarity. In one of his tracks titled “Ez Kurdistanım“, Heijan sings: “I talk to you in a banned language’’ in Kurdish, underlining the fact that the need to recognize a person’s existence is very much related to letting them speak. 

Sex, Drugs & AKP

Another difference between Kurdish and mainstream Turkish rap is the subject matter of their music. While most mainstream Turkish rappers now tend to sing about hedonistic ways of living, including having sex and using drugs, and don’t touch on anything political, Kurdish rappers almost always rap about political conditions through a personal and public lens. In an interview with the Turkish newspaper Duvar, rapper Roni Artin rightly accuses White Turkish, i.e. urban, Western-oriented rappers of appropriating American hip-hop culture in their lyrics – even though it has nothing to do with their own reality. Many Istanbulite rappers would try to justify their overly hedonistic lyrics by saying: “This is hip-hop culture”. Most of the time however, that won’t mean anything else than imitating.

Ben Fero for instance is a successful Migos imposter, appropriating their trademark trap sound as well as the shallow, materialistic lyrics, while even sometimes naming the same luxury brands as the rap trio. As members of a downtrodden minority, for Kurdish rappers hip-hop really means a way out and a means to voice their socio-political concerns. “We sometimes sing about our problems and sometimes we’d laugh, but all of our lyrics are real,” Roni says. Cash Ömer, who is Heijans little brother and also a rapper, emphasizes the terrible situation of Syrian immigrants in the neighborhood. He makes the point that the poorest Syrians live there, with sometimes up to 15 people in a basements, working for very low wages to make ends meet. “Some of them even get into drug dealing,” he says.  

Leaving Traces

In Turkey, the Kurdish language is always associated with terrorism and Kurdish music in every form is considered to be protest music. Hence certain genres are not seen as fit to this language – with hip-hop being one of them. The tendency to label Kurdish people as “unmodern” – hip-hop and other popular music is associated with Western values, hence widely considered modern and better – and therefore as not suited for popular culture is just another version of the ancient racist allegations that the Kurdish language is underdeveloped. This is how culture works as class performance. 

In fact, rap may have been a part of Kurdish culture for a longer time than it seems. The Kurdish tradition of Dengbejic is a form of spoken word art that dates back thousands of years. A “dengbej” is a person who tells stories through a vocal-only, melismatic way of half singing, half speaking. Some of their songs are more than one hour long. This tradition remains very important to Kurdish culture since it has historically helped to prevent the assimilation of their culture through the Turkish one. Storytelling is therefore innate to Kurdish culture, a means to leave a trace in a world that is so keen on ignoring you. It is no wonder then that rapping became a new form of passing these stories to one another. For people whose culture was systematically marginalized, stolen, assimilated and erased, speaking matters. Speaking matters as it functions as a means to not forget what happened and is happening. Or as the rapper Zımanbaz says: “Rapping in Kurdish is my way of protesting in itself. Every song sung in Kurdish is way of telling the world that I am here’’. 

In September 2019, German Netflix launched a series called Skylines. Its main character is a rap musician of Kurdish descent. Remembering that Turkish rap was born in Berlin in the nineties as a reaction to the discrimination Turkish people were facing in Germany, one cannot help but wonder if late the twenty-tens would be the decade Kurdish rap finally broke into existence. It’s exciting to see these artists walking surely through the thick cloud of prejudices against Kurds and insisting on speaking their stories in Kurdish. Hopefully this is just the beginning.