Turkish indie music’s moment of introspection

Four of the most important figures in Turkish indie music decided that they have had enough of the city. They made the choice to escape the stresses of both urban life and the pandemic by fleeing the city. New songs released by both rock-folk and hip-hop musicians explore hidden, emotional side of the pandemic.

In mid-March, it will have been a year since COVID-19 shut down everyday life in Turkey. The pandemic has left no one untouched. Considering the alternative, just about anyone who succeeds in maintaining their health and keeping a job is lucky. But even for those who remain healthy and employed, quarantine has taken an emotional toll. Months of being trapped at home (in the best-case scenario) cannot but affect your relationships, and your inner self. If and when the pandemic finally comes to an end, many people will emerge either with their personal lives in shambles or else strengthened and more self-assured than ever. 
 
New songs released by both rock-folk and hip-hop musicians explore this more hidden, emotional side of the pandemic. Neither the quartet behind the album Evde (Nova Norda, Canozan, Sedef Sebüktekin, and Birkan Nasuhoğlu) nor the rapper Lil Zey explicitly mention quarantine in their songs. Yet their songs turn inward to explore questions of emotional transformation and the volatility of human relationships. The lyrics reveal a commitment to coming out of this ordeal even stronger and more certain of what one wants. This introspective turn is very much a part of the COVID-19 moment and helps explain why these musicians are growing in popularity.
 
Four of the most important figures in Turkish indie music decided that they have had enough of the city. They made the choice to escape the stresses of both urban life and the pandemic by fleeing the city. Like the young people in Boccaccio’s Decameron who trade 14th-century plague-ridden Florence for some fresh air in the idyllic countryside and end up producing timeless stories, our four Istanbul musicians spent 21 days near Lake Sapanca and produced a number of impactful songs. Nova Norda, Canozan, Sedef Sebüktekin, and Birkan Nasuhoğlu’s collaborative album Evde (At Home) features 8 songs written and recorded during this retreat that usefully capture aspects of our own moment. 
 
All four musicians have strong followings, but none inspires the intense fandom that Nova Norda does. With her confessional lyrics, interesting blending of mainstream pop and indie sounds, and distinctive fashion and fire-engine-red bangs, Nova has worked out a complete image.  “Bir Yol Buldum” (I Found a Way) shows her at her best. In the anthem song with its driving beat, she refuses to let hard times keep her down. She sings: “Sometimes I get confused / I’m in above my head / But I find a way/ I have become myself.” It is exactly the kind of pep talk that so many are craving at this moment of mental fogginess and burn-out.
 
“Bir Yol Buldum” is also the album’s first single. The quartet released a music video for the song that garnered 80,000 views in the first 5 days. Structured as an action film, it shows the group as a band of rebellious hackers. They manage to infiltrate some sort of national security office that is busy trying to hunt down the 4 musicians. They then gain entry to the security headquarters and make off with a top-secret flash disk. This allows them to broadcast a message of their own creation across all the televisions in the country. The 4 musketeers are then hunted down by a SWAT team, but manage to disappear into the night on a pickup truck. At first glance, the music video’s concept appears to have little to do with the theme of the song. Yet both show a refusal to let one’s self be defined from the outside, whether that outside is the government or toxic relationships.
 
Sedef Sebüktekin also fuses indie and pop, but she is still up-and-coming. With its electronic beat and funk groove, her song “Keyfim Yerinde” (I’m Feeling Good) shows why more and more people are discovering Sebüktekin’s music. The lyrics speak from a place of confidence: “Your words hurt me / Now I know nothing but I’m not lost / I’m feeling good.” The chorus says that whether people love or hate her, it’s all the same. By the end of the song, she promises to wrap up her own wounds and never “turn my tomorrow into yesterday.” Admittedly, these are not exactly revolutionary lyrics, but they offer the kind of resilience that so many who struggle are craving.           
 
Of the two men on Evde, singer-songwriter Canozan is the more experienced. His “Şehrin Işıkları” is a synth-heavy number with a well-crafted narrative. The song describes a person who cannot help but stay awake all night. He watches the darkness fall on the city, unable to be fully asleep or awake. Besides, he’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do. “It’s always on these kinds of nights / That I find the best melodies,” Canozan sings. The song shows how even boredom and claustrophobia can sometimes be channeled into creativity, gold made from the dross of routine. Contributions to the album by Birkan Nasuhoğlu feature more straightforward lyrics, but “Olacak Elbet” extols the virtues of simply being patient when misfortune comes along.      
 
The rapper Lil Zey’s song and music video for “1 gr eksik” (1 gram missing) reveals some of the harsher realizations that can stem from quarantine-era introspection. The song’s title refers to the 21 grams that the human soul is popularly believed to weigh. In “1 gr eksik,” the repeated betrayals that Lil Zey has experienced have slivered off a part of her soul. 
 
Though she has only released a handful of songs, Lil Zey is on the road to rap stardom. Whenever new music appears, it quickly causes a stir. “1 gr eksik” has racked up more than 780,000 listens in just the first few days. The song has also reached listeners abroad after it was featured on the Spotify playlist of legendary rap label Def Jam Recordings. What is the secret to this rapper’s appeal? 
 
I’ve written about Lil Zey in more depth in a previous column, but suffice it to say here that she is one of the rappers within Turkey who has best captured the sound of “trap,” a sub-genre of hip hop that uses synthesized drums, an atmospheric sound, and often heavy auto-tune. More than that, however, Lil Zey is a meticulous artist. She puts serious energy into both the word-craft and aesthetic of her singles.
 
“1 gr eksik” shows a person whose turn inward has pushed her to clarify exactly what she is willing to tolerate in relationships. The song has Lil Zey ready to confront anyone who would betray her trust. “I took the bullets off my back and laid them out / I will play with my fate, the ropes in my hands / What are the rules of this game? / “‘Always hit from behind.’” The lyrics show the cold decisiveness that comes from having been betrayed one too many times.  
   
The visually rich music video sheds light on the same themes. Directed by Hamdi Atay and Emre Barut, it shows the rapper in an abyss of black and white, gray and red, cages and masks, glass and plaster. She slowly overcomes imprisonment to discover her own face in the darkness. Finally, after being betrayed in a Final Supper-like arrangement, she uses flames to destroy her own likeness reflected in a television. It is only by undoing how others see her that she can regain the missing part of her soul.       
             
Resilience, self-confidence, creativity, self-image, and clarity: these are topics with general relevance. But at a moment when the global pandemic has also created a silent pandemic of mental health, it makes sense that songs focusing on re-defining one’s self, in one’s own terms, are finding their listeners.   

February 14, 2021 Take me to the moon!