If there is one driving theme of this column, it’s that Turkey has a vibrant cultural scene that deserves greater recognition. In literature, cinema, TV, and especially music, we see a variety of powerful creative voices that are often left out of more dry accounts of the country’s political, international, economic entanglements. Yet this art often provides a different window onto Turkey’s problems. Even when it is not directly political, it shows the spirit of resistance that pushes artists to continue creating even when everything seems hopeless. Recent singles by musicians Nova Norda, Ekin Beril, Lara Di Lara, and Sedef Sebüktekin show once again that women are at the heart of this cultural resilience.
The last week has been a particularly dark one, from political repression and economic crisis to dangerous backsliding on women’s and LGBTQ+ rights. Most frightening was the onvernight declaration by the President’s office that Turkey has withdrawn from the Istanbul Convention, known more formally as the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence. At a time when femicide rates soar nationwide and LGBTQ+ people are increasingly targeted, this decision has brought dark clouds of pessimism upon anyone who cares about gender equality and the right to live in safety.
Nova Norda, Ekin Beril, Lara Di Lara, and Sedef Sebüktekin couldn’t have known that this decision was coming when they were writing, preparing, and releasing their new songs. However, the music powerfully resonates with the political moment we are going through.
As I’ve written about in previous columns, Nova Norda has been at the forefront of a new trend dissolving the boundaries between indie music, pop, folk, and even rap. Since 2018, she has been independently releasing catchy anthems that focus on themes like self-reliance (“Çıktım Bi Yola”), empowerment (“Varım”), and individual freedom (”Beteri Yok Uslanmaktan”). Her latest single “Cehennem” (Hell) perfectly encapsulates how many young people, and especially women, are feeling about the society they live in.
The political themes of “Cehennem” are front and center in the music video. We see street children, paper collectors, and homeless people in Istanbul’s Karaköy neighborhood. Occasionally flashes of stock market figures link this dilapidated urban environment with macro-economic conditions. “Maybe hell was a place like this,” she sings. Nova herself wanders through the city wearing a punk outfit of sunglasses, a brightly colored tulle skirt, and a black T-shirt of the rock band Kiss. At one point, we see her walk through a protest where women are carrying feminist banners and dancing the halay.
Musically, the song is propelled forward by electronic kick-drum and a siren-like wailing in the background. It sounds a little like the rap-rock trend of the 2000s and Nova’s sing-speaking vocal delivery is reminiscent of Limp Bizkit. The song takes jazzy turn at the climax with a long solo by famous saxophonist Korhan Futacı.
As for the lyrics, they are both apocalyptic and defiant: “Given that the world is this awful / And what we call life is always pain and suffering / I said, ‘Can a life pass like this?’” In the chorus, her voice rises against this situation: “I don’t give a damn! / Let the wind blow, I’m the storm!” She goes on: “Take a look, you’ve even made me go crazy! / I’m sure you’re feeling just fine / Take it, go, burn the rest / Just give me back my enthusiasm.” The song ends with a deep, world-weary sigh.
Ekin Beril is another woman at the front of the genre-dissolving new trend in Turkish music. Her 2020 debut album Dualite, released by EBM, put her on the radar for lover’s of alternative music in Turkey. Her latest single “Körkütük” shows us a different side of the musician. It is both more electronic and grittier than her earlier work, featuring a Ladytron-esque beat and auto-tuned vocals.
On the surface, “Körkütük” is a simple love song. The name in Turkish means something like “blind drunk” and can refer to both intoxication and romantic infatuation. The lyrics speak of an almost toxic love: “It’s no big deal for me / Let my clothes and hair be disheveled / None of it hurts like your words do / It’s not hard for me to forget myself.” But there is also something inspiring or even ennobling about this hopeless love. Her lover’s eyes may trick her, but they also make her believe that “life has meaning / I have found heaven / God exists.” She sings, “I was born to burn to ash and follow your path.”
This theme of intoxicating love is familiar from mainstream pop songs but also has a much older, and often political, pedigree. The folk tale of Leyla and Mecnun shows how the lover abandons all worldly things and wanders half-naked in the desert communing with nature and wild animals. Similarly, in Ottoman courtly (“divan”) poetry, we see erotic love blend with divine love. This was most often expressed through the symbol of wine, whose intoxication provides mystic insight. Similarly, in “Körkütük” love is both poison and cure. It teaches the lover that heaven is here and now, not in the afterlife.
At a time when certain Islamist circles in Turkey are debating bringing back anti-adultery laws (which would presumably include premarital sex), it is helpful to remember that historically poems and songs about erotic passion have been subtle expressions of rebellion. The medieval French troubadours were famous for the “madrigal” (dawn) poems, which describe lovers clandestinely having sex in the outdoors and then parting before dawn—before the watchmen and the forces of order can catch them. And Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” describes a forbidden love that could only be realized by violating every law and conservative convention of the lovers’ society.
Lara Di Lara’s new song “Bedeninin Her Bir Kıvrımında” (Every Curve of Your Body) focuses on another taboo: nakedness. To a background of syncopated rhythms and soulful synths, Lara spins a ‘90s R&B-style vocal groove: “Every morning when you wake up / To imposed, invisible rules / Look in the mirror so that you can sense yourself.” It is a song about self-affirmation, about not being ashamed of your body and learning to see the beauty in your own physical being. She sings: “Only you can free yourself / Your inside and out, only you can decide / Your skin, your color.” It is a fitting addition to a strong collection of work by this singer-songwriter who straddles jazz, folk, and indie rock, as with last year’s album “Sudaki Çığlık” (The Scream in the Water).
Sedef Sebüktekin’s song “Çıplak” (Naked) was also released last week. Sebüktekin has been making a name for herself over the last 5 years with well-crafted songs, powerful vocal delivery, and heartbreaking but compelling lyrics. Her new song calls for emotional vulnerability, standing naked in one’s feelings. In the chorus, her crystalline voice rises to sing: “Naked, appear to me as you are / Let go, let me love you like I know how / Far away, don’t stop, you see in me an unending passion.”
My translation can’t do justice to the simple but impactful words and the way they blend with the slowly picked guitar chords and the low humming of the stand-up bass. However, when the weight and stress of historical events make sharing the kind of emotional nakedness Sebüktekin describes feel more and more impossible, music like this is both courageous and necessary.