Turkish music beyond Turkishness

For those of us who were raised in Turkish families outside of Turkey, something about the way Ezhel mixes language feels perfectly natural. If there’s a positive aspect to the digital music industry with its tentacles all over the world, it’s this ability to challenge notions of authenticity and national belonging.

The chart-topping musician Ezhel has brought rap from Turkey to the world’s attention. The interesting mix of languages in his songs challenges our understanding of the word “Turkish” in Turkish rap.  
 
Earlier this week, an article published in the left-wing journal Birikim raised a simple but thought-provoking question: “Why Does Ezhel Write Songs in Spanish?” In her article with this title, Sezen Ünlüönen asks whether Ezhel’s increasing use of foreign languages is snobbery, a reflection of his life experiences, or something else altogether. The ensuing debate provides an opportunity to ponder upon Turkish music beyond national borders.
 
As an example of Ezhel’s use of language, Ünlüönen quotes some lines from Ezhel and Turkish-Dutch rapper Murda’s joint album “Made in Turkey,” released earlier this year. In the song “Duman,” Ezhel raps: “Çekmişsin kız anana / Al bende var banana / Her noche, her mañana / Yan yana.” In her article, Ünlüönen draws attention to the mix of languages in the rhymes “anana” (meaning “to your mother” in Anatolian Turkish), “banana,” and “mañana” (“tomorrow” in Spanish). She compares this rhyme scheme to a childish tongue-twister.  
 
Ünlüönen notes that the mixing of languages sometimes reflects the experience of migrants or marginalized people. These groups challenge the idea that there’s one “correct” way to speak. Yet she argues that because Ezhel did not grow up in one of these environments (he was raised in a middle-class neighborhood of Ankara), his use of languages resembles “a colonist forming a shallow relationship with other cultures.” When he sings songs in Kurdish it’s political, but when he sings in Spanish it’s empty theatrics.
 
In a critique of Ünlüönen’s article published in Birikim a couple of days later, Ümit Güçlü retorted that rhythm and repetition are the main elements of rap. For him, there is nothing childish about combining languages—in fact, it can even be a political act. Certainly the example of “Çekmişsin kız anana / Al bende var banana” is lyrically little more than a silly penis joke. Yet Güçlü is right that there is something potentially subversive about expanding the boundaries of Turkish rap to bring in other languages, even if it’s just for the sake of an unexpected rhyme. 
 
For those of us who were raised in Turkish families outside of Turkey, something about the way Ezhel mixes language feels perfectly natural. Take the song “Boynumdaki Chain” as an example. Ezhel raps, “Para on my mind, I'm focused / Tırmandım koştum çok yokuş / Ama bazen stay a boss / People call us Turcos locos.” My grandmother spoke this kind of “Turklish,” as this mixed language is sometimes called. Though of course I never heard her talking about struggling to get rich as a rapper, this melding of languages that linguists call “code-switching” is all too familiar. 
 
Ezhel takes code-switching a step further later in the same song. Besides using Spanish, he also rhymes French “La bouche” with German “Wanderlust.” The next lines rhyme the Turkish word “misket” with the name of the Nigerian musician “WizKid,” and the London borough of “Hackney” (home to many Turkish immigrants) with the word “exactly.” 
 
The fact that intellectuals and fans alike are debating Ezhel’s mixing of languages shows that it is doing something new. While Ünlüönen suggests that it is colonial and Güçlü argues that it is about hip-hop craftsmanship, we can go a step further. 
 
Both the songs mentioned above are from the album titled Made in Turkey. Ezhel was raised in Ankara but now lives in semi-exile in Berlin; Murda grew up to Turkish parents in the Netherlands. So on one level, the title points to the familial origins of both musicians. Though they don’t live in Turkey they were “made” there. While a title like “Made in Turkey” might sound uncomfortably nationalist within the country, it means something different for the diaspora and voluntary exiles alike. 
 
Ezhel and Murda refer to themselves as “Turco” rather than “Türk” or “Turkish.” The fact that they use Spanish to describe themselves shows that they embrace how people see them from outside. While living in Germany or Holland, they have a positive reputation for being “Los Turcos locos.” This is partly a reference to the trailblazing German-Turkish hip-hop group Cartel, who brought rap to Turkey in the 1990s. Cartel’s members referred to themselves as the “crazy Turks straight from hell.” Despite some nationalistic lyrics, Cartel had an inclusive image. They had lyrics about Turkish-Kurdish unity and the crew included a white German and an Afro-Cuban who rapped in their own languages. The message was that being a “crazy Turk” was less about national origin and more about being an outsider.
 
Ezhel and Murda are doing something similar with their mixing of languages. In “Duman” Ezhel raps “Tüm dünyadayız like yeni Cartel” (We’re around the world like the new Cartel). But the requirement for embracing the world like this today shouldn’t have reflect the “authentic” experience of being a migrant, like Ünlüönen suggests. Even back in Turkey, young artists like Ezhel grow up on a mixed diet of music and art from all over the world. In the age of YouTube, it’s hard to see any music as particularly belonging to one nation. 
 
Ezhel has never lived in the U.S., but he speaks English like someone from New York thanks to all the years of listening to East Coast rappers like Nas. Yet in some songs, his English lines are tinted with a working-class London accent. Living in Germany and visiting Spain, he’s also picked up some German and Spanish. While Ezhel might be something of a linguistic chameleon with a brain like a sponge, he’s just one extreme example of the jumbled, international reality many of us are already living—if not in reality then in our minds and tastes. 
 
If there’s a positive aspect to the digital music industry with its tentacles all over the world, it’s this ability to challenge notions of authenticity and national belonging. Back in 1848, Marx and Engels predicted that the world market created by capitalism would make “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness more and more impossible.” Local literatures would be replaced by a world literature. Today, as populism rears its ugly head it’s clear that national narrow-mindedness has not disappeared—quite the opposite. Yet anything artists can do chip away at the poisonous ideas of One Nation, One Flag, One State is positive. Even if it’s just rapping in a mix of languages to make a silly pun. 

October 31, 2020 'Ghosts' of the New Turkey