Challenging Turkish rap’s machismo with Lil Zey

In interviews, rapper Lil Zey admits that in Turkey there is still bias that “women can’t rap,” but that the important thing is to focus on craft: “Whether a woman or man, if you’re a rapper in Turkey whose music is mediocre you’ll experience hardship. But if you do your job well, you can break through the prejudices about women rappers.”

Like most sectors of the entertainment industry in Turkey and the world, Turkish rap is dominated by men. Only a handful of women, such as Kolera and Ayben have been able to break through the glass ceiling of rap. Despite the renaissance that Turkish hip-hop has enjoyed in recent years, no female MCs have enjoyed the mainstream success of figures like Ezhel, Ben Fero, Gazapizm, and Şanışer. To give a sense of this disparity, Şanışer’s celebrated 2019 rap epic "#Susamam" (“#ICannotBeSilent”) brought together 20 figures from the contemporary scene but only a single woman and not even a rapper.

This is where Lil Zey comes in. Born Zeynep Tanyalçın, the 26-year-old İzmir native is poised to take not only Turkey but the world by storm. She has gained a fast following with her unique flow, expert rhymes, and equal parts swaggering and vulnerable persona. Earlier this year Lil Zey was signed to Universal Music Turkey, a division of the global music giant Universal Music. She was also nominated for the “Best Debut” category at the 17th Radyo Boğaziçi Music Awards. And her latest song “Zor” was promoted by Def Jam Recordings, the world’s most famous hip-hop label. Fans both in Turkey and abroad are eagerly awaiting her debut album in 2021.

In this age of music streaming and YouTube celebrities, a musician can be launched to stardom with just a few singles or music videos. This is certainly the case with Lil Zey, who since 2019 has been a collaborator on 4 songs and released only 3 solo tracks. Yet she has been preparing herself for years, with a journey spanning İzmir and Boston, Atlanta and Şanlıurfa.

Lil Zey left home to study music business and song writing at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Upon her graduation, she began a career as a DJ and moved to Atlanta, Georgia (that epicenter of southern rap) to intern with Grammy award-winning record producers Tricky Stewart and Terius ‘The Dream’ Nash. Back in Turkey, she hooked up with the cutting edge hip-hop company and crew RedKeys Music. Her first releases last year came out of collaborations with her fellow RedKeys rappers.

In, “Ötede Dur” her duet with KÖK$VL, one can sense the influence of American hip-hop in Lil Zey’s unique way of rapping Turkish. She lengthens her syllables lazily and pronounces her “r”s with all the emphasis of Nate Dogg’s notorious line “Smoke weed errrry day.” Her collaboration with rapper Khontkar, “Yolumuz Yol Değil,” shows off the bravado that comes with this style of speech:

They’re all cowards

They can’t do what I do

My “swag” shines like a diamond

Of course it catches your eye

Inlines like these, Lil Zey comes out swinging against her haters. Witha strong flow and a quick succession of syllables, she shows thatshe’s bringing somethingnew to the industry: “My goal is out of sight, they don’t realizethis / Ask them then, does Lil Zey give a damn about you?” The tensof millions who stream her music on Spotify clearly recognize thather ambitions are sky-high.

In interviews, Lil Zey admits that in Turkey there is still bias that “women can’t rap,” but that the important thing is to focus on craft: “Whether a woman or man, if you’re a rapper in Turkey whose music is mediocre you’ll experience hardship. But if you do your job well, you can break through the prejudices about women rappers.”

In her first solo track “Heveslenmem,” Lil Zey shows that being skilled and confident does not mean imitating the macho style. Beset by heartbreak, in this song she swears never to long for anything again. Switching effortlessly between English and Turkish she raps:

Party on a Tuesday

Bitches know I cannot lose, yeah

My value is high on the black market

But my heart hurts again

The style here combines the gloating of trap with the mopey introspection of what gets called “emo rap,” a sub-genre of hip-hop that focuses on themes like loneliness and depression with a characteristically mumbling style of delivery.

And with Lil Zey’s latest song “Zor,” released earlier this month, it is clear that we’re in the presence of an artist with serious potential. The song is told through the second-person perspective of a “you” who has lived a difficult life. Under a strong beat and melancholic guitar sample, the song starts with scene-setting descriptions that could come out of a short story: “Your bell doesn’t ring, your house is cold / Your room is dark, your window misty.” As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that the protagonist is someone from a difficult neighborhood. They have had to sell drugs to survive: “gun on your waist, your lungs moldy.” They have always dreamed of getting out of this life, but the noose is tightening as “the police raid houses one by one.”

The music video for “Zor” was shot in Şanlıurfa in southeastern Turkey. At first it seems like a strange choice and perhaps based on a stereotyped, western Turkish perspective on where life is “hard.” Yet under the direction of Osman Özel, the video tastefully builds on the lyrics and mood of the song without falling into exoticism. Lo-fi, sepia shots that look they were taken on camcorder show villages, vast wastes, and then the narrow stone streets of Urfa. Lil Zey walks with a group of young men. The video shows them sympathetically going about their lives: drinking tea, joking around, smoking cigarettes. Shots of the dusty old city flit by as Lil Zey raps the song’s chorus: “It’s hard to breathe here / It’s hard to stay alive.”

The music video’s aesthetic shifts as the song’s sequel “Zor II” begins. The hero of the song now speaks from his own perspective: “I was born amid this filth, rest assured I didn’t choose it.” His home is surrounded by police and he wonders who ratted him out and what will happen if he’s arrested. At this point in the song, Lil Zey sits before a pigeon cage in a shadowy, neon-lighted room. As a driving electric guitar riff begins, the lyrics focus on themes of freedom and constraint: “I will run forever and my soul will stay free.”

Escaping stereotypes and safeguarding her artistic freedom has also been part of Lil Zey’s journey so far. Fans eagerly await what comes next.