Turkish musician Erkan Oğur and so-called 'cancel culture'

Politicians in Turkey, as elsewhere, sometimes dabble in music. So it was no big surprise when İbrahim Kalın, presidential spokesperson, released a song this week. The surprise was not Kalın’s song, it was that famous musician Erkan Oğur, who is associated with left-wing causes and has an oppositional persona, collaborated on the song. here was an immediate backlash as long-time fans of Oğur took to social media to express their disappointment and regret.

Politicians in Turkey, as elsewhere, sometimes dabble in music. So it was no big surprise when İbrahim Kalın, presidential spokesperson and special adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, released a song this week. Spokesperson Kalın plays the bağlama and has been known to perform and sing on certain occasions. Kalın’s new song “Hiç Oldum” (I Became Nothing) was released as the first single off his upcoming album. 
 
The surprise was not Kalın’s song, it was that famous musician Erkan Oğur, who is associated with left-wing causes and has an oppositional persona, collaborated on the song. There was an immediate backlash as long-time fans of this folk musician, jazz guitarist, and songwriter took to social media to express their disappointment and regret. It hurt to see a beloved musician with whom they feel close perform on a track by the President’s literal spokesperson—the man responsible for defending the government’s position on student protesters, withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, and treating LGBTQ+ people as deviants. 
 
Yet there were also many voices who came out against this “lynching” (as it’s called in Turkish) of Erkan Oğur. The result is a new front in the long-standing war about so-called “cancel culture.” 
 
For the people defending Oğur’s choice to play guitar, e-bow, and the kopuz lute on Kalın’s song, it comes down to three main arguments. First, Oğur is a great artist. Second, no one has any right to “lynch” anyone else. Third, music should be about uniting people, not dividing them further into polarized political camps. 
 
One of Oğur’s defenders was popular singer Ceylan Ertem. “I won’t let anyone say anything bad about Brother Erkan,” she wrote on Twitter (and later deleted). “He’s a giant of a musician, an innovator who has been an example to us all with his music and his personality.” She went on to complain about the culture in which people feel free to “lynch” anyone they disagree with. 
 
Interestingly, Ceylan Ertem’s argument shares much with people from the pro-government side of the political spectrum. Yeni Şafak columnist Yusuf Kaplan wrote, “One of our greatest [musical] interpreters, Erkan Oğur, is being lynched because he worked on a joint project with İbrahim Kalın. This is a sign of how unhinged polarization in our country has become. The comments being written are truly disgusting.” 
 
Liberal journalist Cüneyt Özdemir essentially argued the same thing on his YouTube channel: there is no excuse for attacking Erkan Oğur with a “cudgel.” Polarization has gotten so extreme in Turkey, he argued, that even music has been split into warring camps based on political belief. 
 
Now let’s take a look at these “unhinged” and “disgusting” comments against Erkan Oğur that are so violent as to be like a “cudgel.” 
 
Respected music critic Murat Meriç, for example, wrote that he was “heartbroken” because Oğur is a musician whose work he deeply loves. Listening to his music now, Meriç noted, “will never be like before.” He said that the sound of the fretless classical guitar, which Oğur invented, will now give him pain. 
 
Exiled journalist Can Dündar argued: “Everyone can play with whoever they want, of course… It’s their own choice. Oğur can play for the Palace, but don’t we have the right to ask, ‘Was it worth it, maestro?”
 
This is the thing about tirades against so-called “cancel culture”: they’re really against people being judged or facing consequences for their actions. But what are the consequences in this case? Just some people taking to social media to say that they’re disappointed, hurt, or will no longer listen to Oğur’s music. These are personal choices. No one is beating Oğur up. No one is threatening his life or throwing him in jail. He hasn’t been fired from any job or blacklisted from any industry. 
 
Expressing a personal criticism like this is not “canceling” and it is certainly not “lynching.” In fact, one wishes this last term would be stricken from the Turkish language. The word “lynch” came into Turkish from English, where it has a very specific historical meaning. 
 
Lynching describes the violent, racist murder of African Americans by white individuals or mobs. This often involved an innocent Black person being hanged to death from a tree (think Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit”) while jubilant white crowds took photographs and made merry. Even in Turkish, according to the Turkish Language Association, the real meaning of “linç” is “killing someone illegally and without trial because of perceived guilt.” This is certainly not an appropriate term for someone writing an overly impassioned Tweet.
 
Certainly, Erkan Oğur has the right to collaborate musically with whomever he wants, even a top government figure. As listeners and fans, we also have the right to criticize him. The fact that he might be a wonderful musician, a good man, or a creative genius does not exempt him from criticism, however harsh. 
 
What we need to remember is that art is never not political. It’s not just political when, as with Grup Yorum, the lyrics refer to political issues, or the musicians themselves engage in activism. In fact, even a song about one’s lover’s eyes is political. Why? The song was produced in a particular time and place, with its particular understandings of love, sexuality, and beauty. And if someone only writes songs about their lover’s eyes (and why not? It’s a lyrical subject as reasonable as any other) this is still a political choice, because they are choosing to write about this topic and not other, social ones.
 
But in the particular political climate of Turkey, it is particularly true that there is no such thing as non-political art. In fact, President Erdoğan’s most frequent complaint is that the AKP has failed to achieve hegemony in the realm of art and culture. A majority of the top filmmakers, musicians, and writers range from liberal to leftist but are generally on the side of the opposition. Attempts to create a pious and pro-government cultural intelligentsia have mostly been unsuccessful. The only major exceptions are Turkey’s religious- and nationalist-themed TV shows and particular artists (most of them musicians) who have decided to stand with the government or its views: Hülya Koçyiğit, Mazar Alanson, Orhan Gencebay, Yavuz Bingöl, and most recently Alpay. 
 
The fact that someone is a great artist does not except them from facing public opinion for the choices (both artistic and political) that they make.
 
Perhaps veteran rocker Aylin Aslım summed up the situation best when she tweeted: “No one is a prophet, a superhuman, such that they are exempt from criticism for their mistakes.”
 
As a person, Erkan Oğur may be against the actions of the government when it comes to the environment, human rights, femicide, and repression of protests. But if he is playing music with the person responsible for defending and expressing the positions of the government, then I’m sorry to say he can and will face criticism for lending them artistic legitimacy. 
 
I know that I, for one, won’t be able to listen to Oğur’s music in the same way again.

April 02, 2021 Aegean off-season