Back in the carefree days of early March, when we could still stroll around Istanbul, I was walking home when I noticed a familiar face staring at me from a poster.
The face belonged to the Turkish rapper Ezhel. And the poster was advertising a new book, Ezhel: Kazıdım Tırnaklarla, by music journalist Barış Akpolat. The book’s title comes from the lyrics of an Ezhel song roughly translatable as “I Clawed My Way Up.” As a blurb on the cover notes, Akpolat spent “200 Hours with Ezhel” conducting interviews that shed light on Ezhel’s musical journey from street concerts in Ankara to sold-out stadiums, from a jail cell in Istanbul to the New York Times list of the most important emerging artists in Europe. Aside from the foreign press, Ezhel has been recognized by the likes of Sezen Aksu, Sertab Erener, Moğollar, and Hayko Cepkin as an important voice bringing Turkish rap into the mainstream.
Yet the journey hasn’t been an easy one. As Ezhel told the New York Times, “Struggle of life, or class struggle. Rap made me resist against my difficulties by using my art.” Akpolat’s book fills some of the gaps in the story of Ezhel’s meteoric rise.
Akpolat has worked for the newspapers Hürriyet and BirGün. As a music writer, he has published interviews with the likes of Neil Young, Stevie Wonder, Alice Cooper the rapper Ceza as well as members of Judas Priest, Deep Purple, Duman, and One Direction. He first interviewed Ezhel in 2017 for the YouTube series 3N1K. The good rapport formed between the journalist and the rapper lead Akpolat to spend several days as a guest at Ezhel’s and his crew’s studio-home in the Birlik Mahallesi of Ankara. Akpolat’s breezy, 164-page book is made up of the interviews conducted there.
I’ve long been an advocate for Ezhel’s music. Whilst attempting to snag an interview of my own, I found myself in touch with Ezhel’s longtime collaborator and friend DJ Artz (Efe Çelik). At that time, Artz had recently finished watching a documentary about American rapper Travis Scott on Netflix. “Ezhel’s story is so much bigger,” he told me. Akpolat’s interviews confirm that it has indeed been a wild ride.
Ezhel was born Ömer Sercan İpekçioğlu in Ankara on 1 July 1991. He grew up in Cebeci, smack in between the Turkish capital’s middle-class neighborhoods and its slums. His father left the family when Sercan was one-year-old and continued to father children with other women only to subsequently divorce them. So Sercan was raised by his mother, a professional folk dancer with the state dance troupe. Coming from a musical family, he learned the shepherd’s panpipe at a young age.
Sercan has kept his ties to folk music, but in 5th grade his world changed when he discovered MTV at a friend’s house. While debt ruined his family’s finances and repo men became a common sight at home, Sercan found refuge in rap. 50 Cent, Ceza, and Eminem’s film 8 Mile cast a spell on his imagination. Initially, Sercan was a good student, winning a scholarship to Ankara’ prestigious TED Koleji. Though Sercan’s knowledge of English was (and continues to be) fantastic, he began skipping classes. Eventually, he transferred to a state high school and at 15 abandoned both his studies and his mother’s home. He started sleeping on friends’ couches and devoting his time to music. Sercan wanted to become a rapper. He began performing under the names CJ, Ice, Ais Ezhel, and finally just Ezhel.
Akpolat’s book also provides insight into Ezhel’s political beliefs. The experience of being in a downwardly-mobile middle-class family began to politically click for Sercan once he discovered Bob Marley. He began looking into Rastafarianism, combining that philosophy with the sense of rebellion he learned from rap. As an adult, he began reading anarchist thinkers like Bakunin and Kropotkin, eventually joining up with the Ankara group Anarşi İnisiyatifi. During the Gezi Park protests of 2013, Sercan was involved with the highly political Kara Kızıl fan group of the Ankara soccer team Gençlerbirliği. He was out on the streets during this period and one of his friends lost an eye during street demonstrations.
Yet Sercan is critical of the organized left. In his interviews with Akpolat, he argues that the rhetorical style of the Turkish left has remained stagnant. He adopts a more materialist approach: “With time you understand that everything takes shape according to the reigning conditions [. . .]. Other than that, I’ve become alienated from the more politicized approach.” These comments help explain why Ezhel has stepped back from some of the explicitly radical songs of his early days, like Katili Katlet and Bombok. Still, last year’s single Olay, with its incendiary music video, shows that he still regards music as an oppositional force.
Through these interviews one also see step-by-step how Sercan went from Ais Ezhel, a familiar face on the streets of Ankara and a respected rapper among devoted fans of the genre, to the chart-topping Ezhel, an artist who has gained both wealth and fame by the age of 29.
Ezhel’s success is due to his debut album Müptezhel. After a period of releasing collaborations with other rappers, Ezhel wanted to release a full-length solo work. In a basement and living room studio in Ankara’s Dikmen district, he began working with producer and beat-maker Bugy (Anıl Buğra Gürel). Though they knew the songs were good, they didn’t want to release singles but wait until they had an entire album with a coherent sound and story. When Müptezhel dropped in May of 2017, it was the right album at the right moment. Hardcore rap fans had been waiting for new music from Ezhel for some time. Yet the style here was something new: with the album’s heavy auto-tone and down-tempo rhythm, it was firmly in the “trap” style of hip-hop first associated with the American south. While trap had become fully mainstream in the US, no one had fully adapted the style to Turkish rap. The album exploded, sending shockwaves not only through the rap scene but to Turkey’s larger musical world.
Artz told me that when Müptehzel’s release date was delayed for two weeks because they couldn’t even come up with the $50 dollars it took to put the album on Spotify. While Ezhel and friends were expecting to perhaps sell a few thousand records and pay back some of their debts, within no time they were racking up tens of thousands of dollars in streaming fees and went on a three-month tour during which they played more than 70 concerts. When they began booking sold-out stadium shows, it became clear that there was no turning back.
Akpolat’s book offers rich behind-the-scenes detail into the how’s and why’s of Ezhel’s rise to success. But for a book released in 2020, it is unfortunate that it hardly covers the events of the previous year and a half, during which Ezhel was arrested and subsequently freed, moved semi-permanently to Berlin to escape repression and begin a new period of collaborating with Turkish diaspora rappers, and released a second album.
Kazıdım Tırnaklarla offers a snapshot of a period in Ezhel’s life shortly after the success of his first album yet before the story became even wilder. Let us hope more work will be done that will help us make sense of the changed place of rap in the Turkish musical scene, the role of Turkish musicians on the world scene, and the transformations that have shaped Sercan’s own life from scrappy upstart to exiled superstar.