Turkish Rap: on the charts and in the streets

Rap has become a lucrative business in Turkey. Over the past five years, the genre has gone from one subculture among many to an essential part of the mainstream music industry.

Rap has become a lucrative business in Turkey. Over the past five years, the genre has gone from one subculture among many to an essential part of the mainstream music industry. Rap’s popularity is evident from the charts. Of the current Top 50 streaming songs on the platform Spotify, more than 25% is rap.

Rap’s return to the limelight is due in great part to the music of Ezhel, 29-year-old Ömer Sercan İpekçioğlu. 5 of the songs on the Spotify Top 50, including the #1 slot, are his. Several others, like the tracks of rising star Ben Fero, either feature Ezhel or use his production team (DJ Artz and Bugy). Several other of these top songs are Ezhel collaborations with the Dutch-Turkish rapper Murda. On YouTube, hits from this duo like “Aya” and “Bir Sonraki Hayatımda Gel” boasts over 150 million views.

Despite this mainstream success, Ezhel has maintained an oppositional persona. He began as a young, reggae-loving anarchist in Ankara who used his raps to denounce the Turkish government and the entire ‘Babylon system’ of capitalism. In 2018, after the release of his breakthrough album Müptezhel, he was arrested for encouraging drug use in his songs and faced a 5-year sentence before eventually being acquitted. He continued to make political statements through songs like “Olay,” but eventually left Turkey for Germany. This act of voluntary exile in Berlin was both a smart career move and a way to avoid further legal repression.

Fast forward to last week, when Ezhel again made the news for his political commentary. On the morning of Sept. 25, 20 politicians from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and another 62 people across the country were detained as part of a probe into the October 2014 Kobane protests. Later that day, Ezhel offered a scathing political critique through an Instagram story. 

His acapella rap, shared from a street in Berlin, seemed to comment on the day’s events. “Our everyday is suffering, man / Enough of your fraud / Putting limits on our freedom.” The diss then took on a more specific target: “In every room of your palace, my people you and I are guinea pigs.” The short song then ends with a mic drop moment when Ezhel raps “This world won’t remain yours, f**k you Mr. Erd…” Ezhel raps the last four words in English, with the video cutting off in the middle of final one.

Mainstream news sources were quick to assume the person named in the final line is a certain high-profile politician. One pro-government news site carried the headline “Drug Addict Ezhel Curses at President Erdoğan.” Former AKP MP Mehmet Metiner wrote that he hoped this “rabid dog who swears at our president worse than infidels do” would be arrested.

In contrast, exiled journalist Can Dündar quoted Ezhel’s rap approvingly, echoing the sentiment of many when he stated that posting a song like this “took guts.” Another popular post on Twitter stated that “Ezhel’s 4-story Instagram post was more effective than 20 years of CHP opposition.” 

Ezhel himself returned to Instagram to clarify that the final line of his rap was intended for “Mistah e.r.d.,” a little-known MC who Ezhel called “the worst rapper alive” in a follow-up story.

In this way, Ezhel leaves it up to the listener to draw their own conclusions. However, looking at his recently musical output it is clear that after settling in Germany, he is still closely following political events in Turkey and the world. 

Ezhel has recently been collaborating with Tilmann Otto, a famous German reggae musician known by the stage name Gentleman and recognized in Turkey for a 2010 duet with pop singer Mustafa Sandal. Last week, Ezhel and Gentleman released a music video called “Superior” from a session recording. Gentleman sings with his backup band while Ezhel joins in with a rap. His verse is actually from an older, pre-fame song called “Yarınımız Yοk” (We Have No Tomorrow). 

Though written 6 years ago, the verse Ezhel uses in “Superior” still has deep relevance today. Ezhel raps: “We have no writers because the newspapers are lies / The ones who do write spend who knows how many nights in jail… Everyone is a victim and all I want is / Justice, though its far away.” He then mentions sexual violence and a worsening economy: “The rapists are always set free / Conditions got harder every minute / Rents increase and they feel no shame.”      

Ezhel has also been part of recent protests in Germany. After the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the rapper was photographed in the streets of Berlin with signs reading “No Lives Matter Until Black Lives Matter” and “Black Trans Lives Matter.” For someone who grew up on hip-hop created by Black people in America, it is important to demonstrate awareness of and solidarity with the ongoing struggle of this community. Rap has been a fully worldwide phenomenon for decades, but Ezhel recognizes the debt he owes to the creators of this culture. 

Despite fame and a modest fortune, Ezhel shows that Turkish rap can both top the charts and take to the streets. 

October 31, 2020 'Ghosts' of the New Turkey