The birth and death of Hrant Dink are now part of our yearly calendar. Every Jan. 19, those who feel close to the message and struggle of the Turkish-Armenian journalist, intellectual, and activist gather in front of the Agos building in Istanbul’s Şişli district, where a Turkish nationalist assassinated him in 2007. Hrant’s funeral that year brought out over a hundred thousand mourners, shouting in unison the powerful slogan “We are all Hrant Dink” and “We are all Armenian.” Every year in January, on the day of his death, thousands still gather despite the winter chill to honor Hrant’s memory in front of the building where he worked to transform Turkey “from the hell where we live into heaven,” as he put it.
Hrant’s birthday, in contrast, is a day of celebration. This Sept. 15 marked the 13th annual Hrant Dink Award Ceremony. The ceremony is organized by the International Hrant Dink Foundation. Each year, awards are given to two individuals or organizations (one from Turkey and one from abroad) that “give inspiration and hope to people for holding on to their struggle, that work for a more liberal and fair world free from discrimination, racism, and violence, who take personal risks for achieving those ideals, who break the stereotypes and use the language of peace.”
Despite the high-minded purpose of the event, each year it truly does feel like a celebration, or even a concert, rather than a somber ceremony or a dry NGO event. Streamed online in both Turkish and English, the event features numerous singers and musicians from Turkey, Armenia, and beyond. This year the highlights were feminist pop-rocker Nazan Öncel, LGBT activist and chanteuse Ayta Sözeri, and the folk-rock orchestra TmbaTa. Yet the biggest and most mainstream figure to join the ceremony this year was Ezhel, the Turkish rapper living in self-imposed Berlin exile. He participated with a new song, Mayrig (”mother” in Armenian) written specifically for the occasion of Hrant’s birthday.
The first award this year was given to Maria Ressa. This impressive figure is from Manila. In the 1980s, she studied molecular biology and theater. After the fall of the Marcos dictatorship, she returned to the Philippines and worked as a researcher and reporter news outlets like CNN. In 2012, she founded the media platform Rappler with three other female journalists. Her important work on fake news and disinformation won her mention as one of Time Magazine’s “people of the year” in 2018.
In Ressa’s acceptance speech for the Hrant Dink Award, she described how she has come up against the authoritarian rule of Rodrigo Duterte, even receiving direct threats from her country’s president. She argued that social media companies like Facebook are creating a dystopian future in which democracy is undermined by the proliferation of fake news that stirs up emotions and increases social polarization.
The second award went to Canan Arın, a Turkish lawyer and women’s rights activist. She studied constitutional law at the London School of Economics in the 1970s. In the 1980s, she was one of the central figures in the second-wave feminist movement in Turkey. She helped form the Mor Çatı Women’s Shelter Foundation in 1990 and has fought tirelessly on the legal front against domestic abuse and femicide.
In her acceptance speech, Arın described a long history of political murders and violence in Turkey, from the exile and imprisonment of Nazım Hikmet to the assassination of Hrant Dink. She argues that the rule of law in Turkey has completely disappeared. However, in the midst of this hopelessness, Arın declared, Turkeys’ militant and active feminist movement remains one of the few rays of hope.
As for the music, Nazan Öncel gave one of the most moving performances. Beginning as a pop singer in the late 1970s, with her 1996 album Sokak Kızı (Street Girl), Öncel made a name for herself both as a rocker and as an original and bold songwriter. For the Hrant Dink ceremony this year, Öncel shared a new music video for the 1999 song “Demir Leblebi.” The once-controversial song hauntingly describes Öncel’s own experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her father and the way that her mother remained silent. In the music video, including well-known actresses like Ayça Bildik and Gülçin Kültür Şahin, one woman sing-speaks the lyrics while the other women at the table look away in silence and confusion. Öncel’s other song for the ceremony was “İmdat,” a powerful anthem for the feminist movement and the struggle against femicide released earlier this year for International Women’s Day.
Actress, singer, and LGBTI+ activist Ayta Sözeri gave a moving rendition of Kurumuş Bir Dal Gibiyim (a Turkish-language version of Fairuz’s Arabic classic “La Enta Habiba”). She performed this tango-like old tune in a classic theater with red velvet seats, all of them empty. During a year in which queer and particularly trans people have been increasingly targeted in Turkey, Sözeri’s powerful presence at the Dink Awards was highly significant.
There were also many Armenian musicians participating in the awards, from the legendary Arto Tunçboyacıyan to the Yerevan Saxophone Quartet. However, it was TmbaTA that stole the show. This crowded group with multiple singers, horn players, guitarists, and drums performs modern interpretations of traditional Armenian folk music. The group began as a musical workshop in Yerevan, but now is an independent band performing at the prestigious Folklife Festival in Washington, DC and beyond. Their performance at the award ceremony showed just how powerful the re-interpretation of classical folk music can be for keeping a tradition alive among the new generation. Their jazzed-up, head-banging rendition of “Shkhrtan Aghjik” is sure to stick with you.
Finally, it was a treat to watch Ezhel participate in the ceremony. After the 2017 breakthrough album Müptezhel, the Ankara rapper was launched to the heights of fame and helped propel rap to the mainstream of Turkish pop. Ezhel has an anarchist background and has long been outspoken (landing himself in legal trouble and even jail in Turkey), so it is heartening to see a pop culture figure of his magnitude continue to align himself with struggles in Turkey.
Ezhel’s performance began with a stripped-down, more acoustic version of his song “Sakatat,” a slightly absurd allegory about political oppression that uses the rich vocabulary of Turkish meat products. The highlight of his performance, however, was a new song. “Mayrig” was written particularly for the occasion of Hrant’s birthday. The song has a breezy, reggae sound, a melodic chorus, and rap verses. The lyrics are somewhat trite (describing how “hard it is to dream in a place like this” or how “we’re all the same inside”) but are still valuable for introducing the rapper’s massive, Gen-Z following to Hrant’s story and struggle.
Like Ezhel’s lyrics, the event is full of catchphrases designed to inspire. Some of these are inevitably cliche. For example, the slogan #UmuduÇoğalt (multiply hope) was repeated throughout the ceremony. While normally these kinds of phrases can fall flat, watching all these powerful musical performances I found myself surprisingly optimistic by the end of the event. While the people who want us to despair are incredibly organized and united, it is important to have days of the year in which those on the side of life and peace come together just to celebrate and sing.