2020: The year in music in Turkey

From dark wave to indie rock and hip hop, 2020 saw the emergence of distinctive and novel genres and acts in Turkey.

2020 is coming to a close. Though the end of the year is somewhat arbitrary, the changing calendar gives us an opportunity to take stock of everything that has happened in the previous period. Towards the close of each year, I put together a playlist of the important songs that defined the last 12 months. Looking back over the influential songs of 2020, a few trends stand out. These trends show us where music in Turkey has been and where it might be going. 

The first trend is continuity. When musical giants release new music, they can be certain that it will make waves. Both Moğollar and BaBa ZuLa put out critically acclaimed albums this year that have made waves internationally. It is no accident that both bands are associated with Anadolu Rock, known internationally as “Turkish psychedelic music,” for there seems to be an unending appetite abroad for this sound. Similarly, acts like Gaye Su Akyol and Altın Gün that draw on this tradition continue to attract and sustain listeners.

The second main trend has to do with genres, particularly the way they maintain their boundaries or else meld together. On the surface, Turkish indie rock appears to be a fairly static genre. There are a number of strong artists producing more “artsy” rock that flirt with the mainstream but maintain their authentic edge. Examples include the singer-songwriters Nilipek and Can Güngör, ironic hipster quartet Palmiyeler, and dream-pop duo Hedonutopia. All four acts produced released great new albums this year. While Nilipek gets featured occasionally on primetime commercials, the fan base for these bands remains stable as mostly urban, educated, artsy.

Yet some newer and less established artists have shown that there is money to be made putting the hip sound in a more easily consumable package. One of the oddest hits of 2020 was the song “Kafamda Kenstel Dönüşümler” (Urban Transformation in My Head) by a group called İkiye On Kala. They’ve been growing in popularity for the last few years but suddenly exploded into fame after a TikTok and YouTube music video featuring the latest single. The sound is 80s nostalgia bedroom pop—not exactly mainstream—but if you’ve been in any of Turkey’s big cities over the last 9 months, you’ve almost certainly heard someone blasting this song out of their car. The result in each case is something resembling elevator music. It makes you wish you were listening only to indie or only to pop rather than this strange amalgamation that does justice to neither style. Groups like Evdeki Saat are more successful in linking pop and indie.

2020 has also seen new genres gain strength in Turkey. Bands like She Past Away and Jakuzi have reached international success with their “darkwave” sound, an aesthetic drawing from the goth subculture and 80s bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure. The newer band Affet Robot has been working to capture this popular aesthetic and has created their first real hit with the equally dark and catchy new single “Budala.” 

Another new genre that has been interesting to watch grow in the country is R&B. This is of course an old genre with many different manifestations, but it encompasses everything from 90s classics like Destiny’s Child, Aaliyah, and Usher to contemporary R&B stars like SZA and Kehlani. The R&B sound had not inspired anything but one-off adaptations in Turkey until this last year or two. Up-and-coming singers like Seda Erciyes, Mert Demir, and Alaca are now creating a body of R&B songs in Turkish. Even more interestingly, other new artists like emir taha and Bade are singing in a mix of Turkish and English. Perhaps this is the influence of K-Pop, the wildly popular music from Korea that often mixes languages to increase global appeal, or else is part of a plan to try and break into international charts. 

Rap has often course long been around in Turkey, but 2020 is the year when it reached the height of its mainstream appeal. Spotify put up banners around Istanbul featuring the faces of once-obscure rappers like Ezhel and Khontkar to advertise the company’s latest playlist. At the same time, Ezhel has been at the forefront of a movement internationalizing Turkish rap. From his new home in Berlin, he’s been collaborating with famous musicians in the German scene and rapping in a mix of languages. 2020 has also seen a new generation of women rappers come to the fore, most notably Lil Zey and Hazel. Arabesk rap has also continued to explode with the massive popularity of Reynmen and Rozz Kalliope. Even non-rappers have realized that there’s money to be made in the genre. Influencer and YouTube celebrity Berkan Güven has been releasing songs as BEGE and doing quite well for himself in the process. 

Even mainstream pop artists have realized that rap is where the creativity is happening. The singer Edis teamed up with DJ Artz, most well-known for his collaborations with Ezhel, to produce the single “Perişanım.” Similarly, pop-folk-classical Turkish music wunderkind Mabel Matiz had Bugy, another of Ezhel’s collaborators, produce his newest single “Toy.” The song represents the best of the genre-mixing and cross-pollination of 2020 with its driving hip-hop beat, mystical lyrics, and haunting vocals that manage to be both steeped in tradition and on equal footing with global trends.

As the next year arrives I predict that rap and R&B, Black genres that first dominated the American charts and then European ones to form the mainstream of popular music worldwide, will keep growing in Turkey. At the same time, combinations of more indie and artsy music with mainstream pop will continue producing both cheap fusions and also the occasional artist who can boldly cross generic boundaries while enriching both.  

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