The massive outpouring of support for U.S. Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris by American celebrities brings to mind the difficult position of Turkish artists who dare wade into politics. 

On Aug. 11, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced California Senator Harris as his pick for running mate. Celebrities from musician Taylor Swift to basketball player LeBron James were quick to express their excitement. On Twitter, actress Halle Berry suggested that this was a historic moment, as Harris is “daughter to Jamaican & Indian parents, and the first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket!” The singer Pink said that her family was shedding “real actual tears of joy” over the news of Harris’ nomination. Whoopi Goldberg wrote that the Biden-Harris ticket would be the first step in “recovering from this nightmare presidency and building an even better future.”

When she was running her own presidential campaign, Harris was already popular with the entertainment industry. She raised $1.1 million from Hollywood, significantly more than her Democratic competitors, with massive contributions from Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio as well as musicians like Katy Perry and Ariana Grande. 

Why is Harris so loved in Hollywood? The industry loves paying lip-service to progressive causes including, especially since the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter (never mind that many of the activists and thinkers involved in the fight for racial justice are intensely critical of Harris for the damage she has done to the lives of poor Black people as a prosecutor). 

Accordingly, Trump still had trouble winning over America’s entertainment industry. Last August he described Hollywood as “racist” against conservatives—an impossible claim, of course, since conservatism is not a race. In July 2020, Ron Howard explained why so much of Hollywood hates Trump. According to the Academy Award-winning director, Trump is known in the industry as “a self-serving, dishonest, morally bankrupt ego maniac who doesn’t care about anything or anyone but his Fame & bank account.” Musicians have also come out against Trump. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and Neil Young—who are all associated with a certain kind of classic Americanness—have filed suits against Trump playing their songs during his campaign rallies. 

The list of celebrities who actually do support Trump is a lot shorter, and filled with the washed up, obviously racist, or mentally unstable: Gene Simmons of KISS, Kid Rock, actress Roseanne Barr, Kanye West, and so on. 

And so when Harris was nominated for VP last week, the overwhelming signal from Hollywood was positive. 

In Turkey, the price of being an artist vocally supporting the opposition is much higher. While Trump would certainly like to blacklist or threaten the actors and musicians who come out against him, the American political scene is not conducive to this kind of direct marginalization, at least not yet. 

It is useful to compare Hollywood’s support for Harris to the support that many high-profile Turkish celebrities gave to Ekrem İmamoğlu’s mayoral campaign in Istanbul last spring. 

It’s hard to forget that tumultuous election campaign—so tumultuous in fact that it became two campaigns. İmamoğlu was elected mayor on April 17th, 2019 only to have Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council annul the results on May 6th. He won by an even bigger margin on June 23rd

At a rousing speech in his home district of Beylikdüzü that day, İmamoğlu lashed out against a culture of silence. “I have an invitation to everyone here. [They say] an artist shouldn’t speak. The artist will speak. [They say] a business person shouldn’t speak. They will speak. Now is the time to speak up.”

Actress Demet Akbağ was one of the first celebrities to express support for İmamoğlu’s repeat mayoral campaign with the hashtag “Everything Will Be Alright.” Many other actors and musicians—some of whom had been long reticent to speak up about political matters—also voiced their support for İmamoğlu’s campaign. This included musicians Şebnem Ferah, Gökhan Özoğuz, Tarkan, and Mabel Matiz; actors Gülben Ergen, Yılmaz Erdoğan, Şebnem Bozoklu, Hazal Kaya, Ezgi Mola, and Mert Fırat; writer Ahmet Ümit and many more. 

The response from the ruling party and its supporters was swift. Binali Yıldırım, the AKP’s candidate for Istanbul mayor, wrote on Twitter that Turkey is a democratic country where everyone can express their political opinions. Yet (and there is always a “yet”) “instead of forming an ideological conglomeration and rallying behind one candidate, artists can express their opinions one by one. There’s no problem in their [gathering together], but openly choosing a side will not bring great benefit to their artistic careers.”

Other AKP figures made the veiled part of Yıldırım’s statement more explicit, like Nevşehir mayor Rasim Arı, who vowed that those artists who say “Everything Will Be Alright” would not take part in any concert, play, or festival in his municipality. 

Similarly, Türkiye Gazetesi columnist Cem Küçük’s threatened to “create a culture of paying the price” in Turkey. “What I have to say here applies to all the artists who intentionally did mischief during the İmamoğlu [campaign] and the Supreme Electoral Council process. Alright then, you’ve taken up a position against the Turkish State. In that case, if you have any honor you won’t accept work at channels like TRT [Turkey’s state radio and television], ATV, Kanal D, and Star. Because these media organizations are in alliance when it comes to national issues.”

Actor İsmail Hakkı and singer Yusuf Güney, two figures known for their closeness to the government, also took to social media to denounce the celebrities who supported İmamoğlu. This unleashed a fury of Internet trolls against them. 

Thanks to a media and political culture that is based on this kind of direct or implicit intimidation, it is no surprise that some artists choose to hitch their wagons to the ruling party, at least for the sake of convenience. 

Case in point is the “Istanbul Yeditepe Concerts” organized by the government’s Directorate of Communications. Throughout the month of June, popstars Sibel Can, Alişan, Demet Akalın, Serdar Ortaç, and many more sang to an audience-less stadium by the Bosphorus so that these concerts could be uploaded on YouTube. At the time, music critic Murat Meriç drew attention to how few viewers these recordings had online while the question of how many million TL were expended on these unpopular concerts was brought to parliament by the opposition. 

While some of the figures who performed at these concerts were unsurprising because of their closeness to the government, others were more shocking. 1960s legend Alpay, who began his musical career in the 1960s writing class conscious pop songs about workers and underdogs, has long been known as an ally of the left. Just last year he was investigated for terrorism after he showed photographs of young people “murdered by the government of the Turkish Republic” from the 1970s to the present. 

Yet speaking about the Yeditepe Concerts in an interview with the pro-government newspaper Sabah, Alpay expressed his gratitude to President Erdoğan. Countless fans reacted with disappointment.

Such is the predicament of artists and celebrities in Turkey. Those who support the opposition risk being threatened, trolled, or blacklisted. Those who want to benefit from power need to bend the knee. 

Meanwhile, the many artists and especially musicians who are not household names are less concerned about political endorsements and more about a stimulus package to keep them afloat financially while the pandemic continues.