Music festivals are among the many things that COVID-19 has taken away from us. There is simply no way to cram into a sweaty mass of dancing people and preserve one’s social distance. Yet event organizers are trying their best to find creative ways to keep the festival spirit alive while also doing something good for the world. These efforts are as inspiring as they are short-sighted.
This is where Festtogether comes in. The music festival was launched on July 14, 2019 at Istanbul’s Küçükçiftlik Park with performances by local and foreign performers including Athena, Son Feci Bisiklet, Mor ve Ötesi, Bob Geldof, UNKLE, and Kimbra. Advertised as Turkey’s first sustainable music festival, Festtogether aims to produce zero waste. Mobilizing the slogan “have fun, leave no trace!” this festival—attended by over 10,000 participants in its first year—sought to counter the typically negative environmental impact of large events. The income of the festival is also shared with various NGOs, whose presence at the event is keenly felt.
In 2020, no music festival, however sustainable, can be justified in terms of public health. And so the organizers of Festtogether decided to follow the footsteps of others in the culture and entertainment industries and move the event online.
After much advertising and fanfare, last Saturday Festtogether (At Home) was streamed live on the netD Müzik and YouTube Türkiye accounts. The event was hosted by some high-profile names including actors Hazal Kaya, Mert Fırat, and Şebnem Bozoklu writer; writer and music journalist Yekta Kopan; and film-reviewer-turned-Instagram-comedy-phenomenon Melikşah Altuntaş. Funds raised from the event went towards İhtiyaç Haritası (Needs Map), a collaboration among 350 NGOs that provides money for those in need. The celebrities in attendance encouraged the festival’s viewers to donate and help İhtiyaç Haritası reach its goals of sending financial support to health workers, students in need of computers for remote education, stage performers, and technical workers in the music industry.
More than a million people tuned in to support the project, drawn in by musical performances from diva Nükhet Duru; pianist Fazıl Say; Grammy-nominated jazz composer Kerem Görsev; singer Sıla; popstar Sertab Erener; former Eurovision contestant Can Bonomo; Yeni Türkü frontman Derya Köroğlu; rappers Ayben and Gazapizm; psych rockers Baba Zula and Gaye Su Akyol; indie darlings Evrencan Gündüz, Ekin Beril, Nova Norda; and many others.
One of the most memorable performances was given by rock group Büyük Ev Ablukada. The band sang electronic, funkified versions of their classic songs “Boşluk” and “Ay Şuram Hala Ağrıyo.” Vocalists Gülin Kılıçay and Bartu Küçükçağlayan combined live home-studio footage with pre-recorded music video clips. The latter show Gülin and Bartu roaming around their swanky neighborhood of Moda wearing the ubiquitous white masks of this COVID-19 era. Standing under a piece of graffiti ironically announcing “To the best years of your life!” they play with local children and “shake hands” by touching shoes.
The rapper Şanışer also gave a standout performance with his songs “Kara Geceler” (originaly a duet with Sezen Aksu) and “Gel.” Though Şanışer has long enjoyed a loyal fanbase, he was catapulted to even greater fame (and notoriety) with last year’s collaborative protest opus “Susamam.” In “Gel” he touches on class divisions and exploitation, two abiding themes in his work, with the line “This is how the world is ordered: The poor work and the king steals.” Whatever one thinks of Şanışer’s music, this live performance once again proved that in addition to being a talented rapper, he also has one the strongest singing voices in Turkish hip-hop. The Şanışer segment of Festtogether also featured a short interview by young actor Kubilay Aka of Love 101-fame. Şanışer told Aka that quarantine has been a productive period for him. He is producing lots of new work and feels that artists should have much to say regarding what the world is experiencing right now.
Starting at 10am and lasting until 1:30am the next morning, Festtogether featured a variety of performances in diverse genres. The experience felt more like a music festival than one might have expected. Tuning in and out of the livestream to catch different musicians felt almost like wandering from stage to stage at an outdoor event.
The earlier hours of the festival also featured a number of discussions. These included roundtables on “Innovative Solutions to the Pandemic” and “Digital Parenthood” with local NGO members, academics, and representatives of the UNDP and European Union. Throughout the broadcast, viewers were asked to donate to İhtiyaç Haritası. The festival reached 80% of its projected fundraising goal and is still asking supporters to donate.
Raising funds for health workers, students, stage workers, and music technicians in the context of a global pandemic is certainly a noble goal. However, watching he impassioned speeches given by celebrities and musicians it is difficult not to see these charitable efforts as amounting to little more than a finger in the dam. The economic repercussions of COVID-19 are set to be so overwhelming that individual generosity will do little to stop the flood.
As the pandemic pushes those who are already vulnerable even further under the water, perhaps we need less positivity or unity but more rage at the longstanding conditions that have made the consequences of the virus so unevenly felt across divisions of class, gender, citizenship, and geography.
As Şanışer says, “The poor work and the rich steal.” This was true before COVID-19 and it remains true now. It will take a lot of more than donations to change this order.
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