Turkish rap scene's bridge-builder

For several years now, it has been clear that Turkish rap has gone fully mainstream. Şanışer (born Sarp Palaur) is a paradoxical figure in Turkey's rap scene. What makes Şanışer interesting is the wide appeal he has among so many sectors of Turkish society. He has many conservative fans and is also widely listened to among those who don’t normally follow rap.

For several years now, it has been clear that Turkish rap has gone fully mainstream. The more popular the genre gets, the further it moves from its underground and rebellious origins. The last nail in rap’s coffin was the launching of a special Turkish rap spin-off of the music competition The Voice. O Ses Türkiye Rap is a pet project of Acun Ilıcalı, a media mogul who enjoys close ties to the government. With rap either pushing mainstream pop off the charts or else transforming it in its own image (as with pop star Edis’ collaboration with rap producer Bugy), it is clear that now rapping can be a quick path to fame and fortune. Rap is dead. 

Long live rap. It is easy to declare rap a finished genre in Turkey, but several recent albums show that it is still alive and kicking. In the last few months, we have seen powerful albums released by Şanışer, Da Poet, and Zen-G. Each rapper shares a strong commitment to the spirit and craft of rap. Yet they each belong to quite different schools of the genre, from Da Poet’s old-school stylings to Zen-G’s gritty ghetto trap. Listening to these albums shows just how diverse Turkish-language rap has in terms of sound and spirit.
In this column, I want to focus on Şanışer’s new album, which was released last Friday. Şanışer (born Sarp Palaur) is a paradoxical figure. On the one hand, he is an immensely popular rapper. He is the best candidate for rap’s new squeaky clean image, with his blonde hair and devilish good looks, his powerful singing voice (perhaps the best vocalist among current Turkish rappers), and his political but not overly offensive message. In fact, what makes Şanışer interesting is the wide appeal he has among so many sectors of Turkish society. He has many conservative fans and is also widely listened to among those who don’t normally follow rap. His singing melodies appeal to listeners accustomed to the sounds of Turkish pop and arabesk. He is able to fill up stadiums and concert halls not only in Istanbul and Ankara but all over Anatolia.
Despite this mainstream success, as we see on his latest album “Umut” Şanışer has carefully rejected many of the trappings of mainstream success. First of all, this 19-song opus was released without the support of a major label (many of his peers are signed to Sony or Universal). And as he declares on songs like “Bıktım Dünyadan,” he refuses to go on TV and is “pissed off at the rappers who fizzle out as quickly as pop stars when they get famous.” He criticizes those who rap about buying Mercedes and Rolexes. Yet he feels the pressure to conform to mainstream success, as he says on “Döne Döne”: “I have to hide that I’m a hopeless type who only wants to disappear / Because we have to sell tickets.” On another song he declares that autonomy and freedom are the only principles that matter to him. He refuses to tone down the political message of his music, even though he knows doing this would make it easier to succeed.
If you have heard of Şanışer, it is because of his 2019 anthem “Susamam,” a collaboration with a massive cadre of other rappers. At the time, this song made serious waves for its social criticism. It proved that rap was on the frontlines of political music in Turkey. Yet after the song reached millions of listeners, it was also targeted by right-wing pundits. Several of Şanışer’s collaborators backpedaled and ended up retracting their collaboration on the song. Şanışer’s new album shows that he has no regrets. In his lyrics he openly references the backlash to “Susamam,” issues like violence against women, the Istanbul Convention, the conditions of delivery workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
The question of Şanışer’s politics is a complicated one. The message of some of his political songs feels quite vague, almost as if they are avoiding saying anything that would rock the boat too much. For example, one of the singles of the new album is “Belki Bir Gün Barışırız.” Şanışer repeats throughout the song that he “still has hope.” He has hope in the world and his country, “from the extreme left, to those who cover their heads.” In its vagueness, this message of “hope” is reminiscent of Ekrem İmamoğlu’s Istanbul mayoral campaign slogan of “Everything is going to be great” or even the CHP’s strategy of “Radical Love” which challenges social polarization by embracing voters of all sections of society. From another angle, “I still have hope” also resembles old slogans of the Turkish left, like Nazım Hikmet’s “We will see beautiful days, kids.” It is just political enough to be oppositional but vague enough not to offend. The orange fonts and fist-raising of the song’s videos make this connection to the 1970s Turkish left explicit.
However, when you listen to the songs buried deeper in Şanışer’s 1-hour-long album, a more complex image emerges. This is not a rapper who promises easy hope and cheerful optimism, but one who knows that everything is hopeless but chooses to do something anyway, because in the end this is the only way to convince yourself to get out of bed in the morning. In “Peşimde Kara Geceler” he raps, “I will sing a few folks songs of equality anyway / I’ll live free until I die, because I cannot live any other way / Another world is possible.” Perhaps things really are as simple as the slogans say: another world is possible. Whatever happens, we at least need to keep this awareness alive. Yet when it comes to identifying where he sees this hope, Şanışer is not afraid to name names. As he says in reference to the death-strikers of radical left-wing band Grup Yorum on “Beni Kır,” “As I was travelling from city to city, İbrahim and Helin died.”

Şanışer’s “Umut” is a complex and rich project. It does not have the raunchy street-savvy of Zen-G’s new album “DENGBEJ” or the old-school ethos and craft of Da Poet’s “Kendini Bul.” He is from a different current of Turkey’s diverse rap scene. Yet in bridging rap and pop sounds, political vagueness and a fierce distaste for injustice, Şanışer is a figure who can appeal to wide circles of society without compromising his vision. He has been on this path for a decade now and will likely continue down it for decades to come.