YouTube has suppressed the latest video of Turkish rapper Ezhel, hours after it went viral with a strong audiovisual message criticizing the government. The quite censorship could be interpreted as proof that digital platforms, as new gatekeepers, have the potential to become a fatal threat to free speech, especially in populous, lucrative markets with authoritarian governments in charge. To understand the significance of the latest incident, let me begin by telling the story of Turkish rap and its reflection on politics:
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost most of the largest cities to the opposition in March 31 local elections. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rare failure could be read as another striking manifestation of his party’s inability to connect with the urban youth.
The AKP and its ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), received 2.4 million fewer votes in the local elections compared to the general elections that were held in June 2018. The turnout was at the lowest among all elections since 2007, apparently meaning that many AKP voters preferred to stay at home as a silent protest amid the economic downturn.
This overall picture suggests that a key aspect of the AKP’s setback was in its failure to convert new voters to its cause to tolerate its losses in its own base. More than 1.5 million 18-year-olds were able to cast their votes for the first time but most of them apparently opted to side with opposition parties. The AKP’s struggle to convert these youngsters can be seen not only in election results and surveys, but also in the sharp-tongued lyrics of a new breed of Turkish rappers.
YouTube kids don’t follow traditional media
Neither Turkey’s Erdogan-driven construction boom nor his utter domination of the traditional media could impress these YouTube kids. “Everyone is full of hate because of the media of fake,” popular rapper Ezhel says in one of his songs.
“The city cannot be corrected by building skyscrapers in the ghettos. I will not stay silent until I die. The truth is always different than what is told in news bulletins,” Saniser adds in another song. (You can listen to all the songs referred in this article with this playlist)
Saniser was born in Istanbul in 1987 and was raised in Antalya –both cities were won back by the opposition in the latest local elections. He released his first album in 2012, a year before the massive anti-government Gezi Park protests throughout Turkey.
Here to stay, expressing their anger
Some now say that “the Gezi generation” fled the country amid political and economic pressures. If it is correct, then people like Ezher and Saniser could be seen as part of what’s left behind: Not as many white-collar hipsters and yuppies as there were among the Gezi Park protesters, but many more tougher urban street boys and girls who are either unemployed or working as blue-collars. It seems that they are here to stay and express their anger and resentment.
“We are poor but cool. Everyone is pursuing their self-interest. Islamists get rich by giving sermons,” three rappers say in their song “Vizyon.” Ezhel and Hidra are from Ankara and DJ Artz was born in Adana. These rappers from two cities that fell to the opposition in this election do not mince their words at all. For instance, the same song refers to Erdogan with references to his “palace that was built with black money” and “those little cargo ships” owned by his son. In a different song joined by another rapper, Turkish president and his family are even more directly targeted with references to “tax evasion” and “stolen billions.”
Ezhel jailed over ‘politically-motivated charges’
Some of the new Turkish rap songs have a revolutionary tone. “Ankara’s winter is like Scandinavia … And I left my mark on the uprising of Ankara,” says another song by Ezhel, who spent a month in jail last year over drug-related charges.
“Art is something that should always be left free. I will continue to express myself and make my music freely,” he was quoted as saying when he was released. Ezhel was later acquitted of all charges that some skeptics blasted as politically-motivated.
Yes, Turkish rap has been a silent undercurrent in the past but don’t get me wrong: These rappers are not fringe artists. Spotify announced that Ezhel was its most popular Turkish artist in 2018, while other rappers like Sagopa Kajmer and Gazapizm also ranked in Top 5 lists. Even less well known names, like Ben Fero, has more monthly listeners than an iconic Turkish popstar, Tarkan.
It all started in the 1990s with Cartel
How did this boom in Turkey’s popular culture happen so suddenly then? Did these underground rappers of Turkish suburbs really come out of nowhere?
It all started in the 1990s. The sons and grandsons of the first Turkish immigrants in Germany had exported hip-hop to Turkey then, particularly with the pioneering rap gang Cartel. Soon afterward, rap songs written in Turkish became popular for the first time. It was originally an artistic reaction against the anti-immigrant, neo-Nazi skinheads in Germany.
The second wave began in the early 2000s. This time it was originally made in Turkey. Lyrics and musicality were more mature in the songs of Istanbul-born artists like Ceza, but political and social criticism was not obvious anymore.
Third wave of Turkish rap: More Tupac than bling bling
With the third wave in the past few years, represented by Ezhel et al, Turkish rap is now deeper in substance and more diverse in variety and geography. If you set aside its “arabesque grotesque” subgenre, which radiates fatalism and desperation, the third wave returns to the original roots of rap: An artistic form of uncompromising criticism and protest that fits well with the strong tradition of folk poetry in Anatolia.
As such, today’s Turkish rap is more Tupac than bling bling. Disenfranchisement and dispossession of the youth, anti-consumerism, peace activism and cosmopolitanism are common themes in many of their songs. It is a rare breeding ground as a medium of free expression as the government controls most of the media.
“Although we don’t generally read them, newspapers mostly publish [celebrity news] while reporting on dying people in [smallest] font sizes,” says a song titled “Marjinal” featuring Gazapizm, a rapper from the main opposition’s western stronghold of İzmir.
Speaking out against marginalization
This is a unique generation who are back in the street to socialize face-to-face while also using Instagram and Snap when they need to communicate more distant peers. As it is referred in the name of the song, they complain of being “marginalized” in Erdogan’s Turkey but did not refrain from speaking up as they don’t have much to lose. “Police deceive us and then jail us. It is a crime that we are alive. This is what they call a dictatorship. And it is only in its first phase,” Gazapizm adds.
At first glance, one can argue that the third wave of Turkish rappers want a revolution. It is true that in one of his remarkable songs, Sehinsah talks about “outcasts will burn the world to fix the corrupt system. As we will born out of ashes like Phoenix, clean generations will replace it.”
When reviewed closely, though, their stinging criticism and apocalyptic suggestions sound more like a natural reaction as they are ignored behind the clientelism of older men and women in charge. Anil Piyanci, DJ Artz, Sehinsah, Cash Flow and Eypio say in one of their songs: “Hail! Heil! Your vision is like Recep [Tayyip Erdogan] brother, it’s insane. He sometimes gives away cakes to feed people. Your democracy is strange. You are enjoying it but please, give us a f—”
Ethical outcry targeting disenfranchisement
This stance cannot be shrugged off as an opportunistic attempt. Yes, Ezhel states that his “buddies are unemployed. You keep it all to yourself and we also want a piece,” but there are many passages in other songs arguing that there should be an ethical framework in redistributing the wealth. In “Vizyon,” for instance, he openly declares that he will keep refusing to be a government supporter simply to enrich himself.
This is a generation who grew up in the shopping malls of metropolitan suburbs, “running up on the escalators that go down.” Now in a more multicultural environment where “you can find shish kebab and sushi side by side,” they consider “neither Çinçin [an Ankara ghetto] nor Harlem but the whole world as their neighborhood.”
Stuck in this “country of concerns,” they are not content for being deprived of equal opportunity in education and employment compared to the privileged children of the ruling elite. They are the ones who work hardest but some “other people pop up to become their partners without any labor.”
Criticism of power relations
Yes, now they “have as many friends as their bills of debt” but they don’t simply aim at being rich whatever it takes. Justice should come through an ethical process. Because “your Gucci is worthless if you don’t have a soul” and “it is gross to boast with your clothes when homeless children sleep naked.” Their ethics is mostly secular as some rappers vow to “destroy empty dogmas” of mainstream religions while saluting heterodoxic sufi values.
You need power to eliminate the injustice but the dilemma is in the fact that power corrupts. They say that “the weakness of Turks is that they admire power. Turks did it so much that they embraced Tayyip [Erdogan]” but “slavery returned in the end.” And now the rappers vow that they have the willpower to resist against all odds because “freedom is in your actions when you face obstacles.” So, you should “always have your guard up and never get knocked out” to be powerful for the sake of the good.
Long-term groundswell or a blip?
Big words… But if we go back to the political reality of Turkey, could these Turkish rappers be not a social symptom of a long-term groundswell against the AKP but only an ephemeral blip in music history?
Although the opposition still trails the ruling alliance in total votes across the country, its ability to convert more youngsters brought it their marginal but hugely important victories in Turkey’s largest cities in the latest elections.
Moreover, the AKP’s poor performance in recruiting the youth to its cause surely provides the opposition a momentum that they base their future hopes on. This is probably why the main opposition is now trying to reach out to this segment as hinted in a rap-inspired video that was recently shared by Istanbul’s new mayor Ekrem Imamoglu.
The story of a city in the Turkish heartland
As probably the most popular artistic form of critical expression in today’s Turkey, the third wave of rap music should have contributed to this picture. Ezhel says that this is “a generation composed of people who are either unintelligent or on the verge of losing their minds because of too much intelligence.”
Turkish rap’s reach is so wide today that both kinds of these youngsters are listening this kind of music. Maybe there are more of the first type among the street gangs in Turkey’s ghettos, but the ruling party’s performance of recruiting the second type has also not been brilliant.
For instance, the Central Anatolian province of Kirsehir, which was previously seen as a stronghold of the AKP, flipped to the main opposition in the latest election. If the AKP’s mismanagement of agriculture in Turkey’s heartland is the first reason of this swing, then the second one should be its better educated youth. Students from Kirsehir have been consistently ranking among the most successful in the nationwide university entrance exams in the past few years. Meanwhile, the government has been ignoring the desperate calls from millions of university students over their paralyzing loan debt in a country where higher education is free of charge only on paper.
Erdogan’s demographic nightmare
Turkish rap lyrics and exam results are the symptoms of the demographic nightmare that Erdogan has been seeing for a while. Research has been consistently providing evidence to support this assumption. Most recently, prominent research company Konda found out that the ratio of better educated, less religious, more socially active, digitally connected and culturally tolerant youth significantly increased in the past decade. These are the very segments that the AKP has been performing most poorly in elections.
There has been similarly strong undercurrents among nationalist, socialist and Islamist youngsters in Turkey’s past. But the sense of community built by the youth around the new breed of Turkish rappers is unique as it is based upon an inclusive culture of inquiry, objection and criticism. Hence it has the potential to be a uniquely progressive element for Turkey’s democratic public sphere.
Finally, many of these rapping youngsters might have voted for the opposition as an action of protest against the only government that they have seen in their lifetime so far. However, although millions of youngsters feel a deep disconnection with Erdogan’s AKP, it does not mean that they will keep supporting the opposition automatically. All parties should work hard to understand and connect with these alienated young people in order to improve, perhaps even save, Turkey’s ailing democracy.
Profit-seeking digital platforms rise as potential threat
In between rhyming expletives, the third wave of Turkish rap suggests that there may be hope after all. But profit-driven digital platforms that simply ignore the public interest rise as a serious threat against free speech, like authoritarian governments.
As the most recent example, YouTube has suppressed the latest video of Ezhel, hours after it went viral with a strong audiovisual message criticizing Turkey’s government.
The video of Ezhel’s latest single, titled “Olay” (Event), was exposed to an age restriction filter and removed from the platform’s trending list after it was watched more than a million times in a few hours following its release on Sept. 5.
The song, which ranked second on YouTube’s trending list before it was removed, was soon replaced by another video, showing the channel of a Turkish user who scares people with his pitbull. An apparent example of double standard in content moderation.
Direct criticism chimes YouTube’s alarm bells
The top video on the trending list was another Turkish rap song, “Susamam” (I Can’t Stay Silent) by Saniser, which raises several social issues like femicides and violence against stray animals. It was not as directly critical toward the Turkish government as Ezhel’s song, though.
Ezhel’s video combined footage from news reels including those from anti-government protests. It also showed the image of Erdogan’s palace when Ezhel said in his lyrics that the rapper only had “pennies while you have a wad of cash.”
It seems that YouTube, which was blocked by Erdogan’s government in 2008-2010 and 2014, can quickly switch from automatic curation to manual moderation only when its own commercial interests are at risk.
And that is a real threat to a fragile democracy like Turkey.