“Hip Hop is my Country”: Breaking on the Move between Istanbul and Berlin
Danielle V. Schoon and Funda Oral
This article is dedicated to the children in Turkey and Syria who lost their homes due to the recent earthquakes, and to all youth dislocated from their homes, and the people who use art to care for and hold space for them.
In our previous piece for Ink Cypher, we proposed that Hip Hop offers a way for minorities and immigrants to build community and resist marginalization in Turkey. We described how “young people gather informally in the streets of their inner-city neighbourhoods to rap and dance together.” However, in the previous two years, the Hip Hop scene in Istanbul has become much more mainstream. COVID-19 pushed artists to reach their fans through online mediums and this has expanded their reach but limited their in-person experiences. Going mainstream also threatens Hip Hop’s potential as a tool for resistance.
We also wrote about the origins of “Turkish Hip Hop” in Germany in the early 1990s. However, we recognize now that labelling the genre ‘Turkish’ overlooks the role of Kurdish, Arabic, and other languages and peoples from Turkey in Hip Hop in Germany, so we modify our usage here.
For this essay, we caught up with a couple of the artists in Istanbul that we interviewed for the original article, along with several artists living in Berlin, in order to discuss the mobility of Hip Hop culture between the two countries today. Danielle Schoon is a Lecturer in Turkish Studies and Sociology at The Ohio State University. Funda Oral is a city activist and facilitator of participatory decision making from Istanbul who has recently moved to Berlin. Danielle and Funda collaborated for several years at the Sulukule Children Art Atelier in Istanbul where Hip Hop was embraced by the dislocated youth. Inspired by the important role that Hip Hop played in Sulukule, we reached out to breakers in Germany who have also experienced the power of dance to bring people together. These artists challenge the threat of mainstream culture and attempts to nationalize Hip Hop by emphasizing its universality and the way it can overcome social and political boundaries.
Hip Hop: Istanbul
When we interviewed Emre in 2021, breakers were struggling to maintain their careers because most of the performance venues and dance studios had been shut down. We talked to Emre almost two years later, and he explained that, although those places didn’t necessarily reopen after the pandemic, most artists and fans have shifted to social media platforms rather than in-person events. Along with the circulation of dance videos on Instagram and TikTok, sites like YouTube allow artists to connect with fans globally. As for fans in Turkey, Emre suggested that a new generation has come of age and, unlike their parents, they accept Hip Hop as legitimate. In fact, many parents these days send their children to after-school breaking classes, and the more affluent schools even offer breaking as part of their curriculum. This means that B-Boys and B-Girls are in demand and are experiencing new popularity and further reach.
Emre has noticed another trend in Istanbul, which is the general interest in K Pop dance lessons. Young kids especially want to learn this style and sometimes confuse it with breaking or consider it the same thing. Emre taught himself some of the most popular K Pop moves by watching music videos online so that he can meet the demand. He feels the commonality of some of the movements in his body but recognizes that K Pop is less physically demanding and does not include floorwork. He is not concerned that K Pop will threaten to water down breaking because he feels like B-Boys and B-Girls are very adaptive and their movements change based on the music. K Pop elicits one way of moving, while rap elicits another. “The identity of the dancer changes according to the music.”
Emre suggested that part of Hip Hop’s popularity in Turkey today is due to the formation of a national breaking team. They represented Turkey in 2021 at the Europe Championship in Sochi and will represent Turkey again in the 2024 Olympics. Emre believes that the inclusion of Breakdance as a sport in the Olympics has propelled the dance form into the public eye. However, in discussing this issue with Timur and the members of Tahribad-ı İsyan, the concern is that without a lack of long-term institutional support, like a dedicated school of the Hip Hop arts, breaking will become just a hobby for children rather than a profession and art form that is taken seriously by the state and the industry. According to Asil, international companies like Red Bull want to make a profit, so the fact that the Turkish Lira is not as valuable as USD and EUR prevents them from wanting to invest in artists in Turkey.
The danger of commercializing Hip Hop, along with watering down the quality, is that it threatens Hip Hop’s potential to be a force of resistance against the state and capitalist exploitation. ZenG has noticed that, as artists become more popular, they take less risks because they want to be successful and avoid state censorship. However, Emre confirmed that an underground scene still exists in Istanbul, and rappers and breakers continue to find ways to address political and social issues indirectly. Hip Hop’s potential as a tool of resistance and expression for exploited communities in Turkey remains strong, despite becoming mainstream.
Hip Hop: Berlin
An established Hip Hop breaker and choreographer in Berlin, Kadir “Amigo” Memiş has always been interested in collaboration between artists and forms across borders. However, Amigo explained to us that Hip Hop is based on the culture of battles. Competition is built in. Outsiders who don’t understand the rules might see this as combative or aggressive, but insiders recognize what the boundaries are and make choices about when to push them. This kind of competition can actually facilitate engagement and turn violence into art. For example, Amigo participated in a project in a prison that used breaking as a tool to bring enemies into conversation. “Arabs and Nazis were dancing together,” he told us. “It was amazing.” The project led to a piece choreographed by Amigo and directed by Adrian Figueroa based on discussions with the prisoners.
Amigo understands from experience what it is like to need breaking to survive. He first came to Berlin in 1984 as a young child to join his parents, who had migrated as guest workers (Gastarbeiter) a few years previously. Amigo told us how he grew up with his uncle in a small village in western Turkey where the local davulcu (a drummer who plays at important social events, like weddings and during Ramadan to wake Muslims up before fasting begins) employed him as a dancing bear. The folk dances of Anatolia often employ the movements of animals or evocation of their qualities. Replicating the movements as he told us the story, Amigo explained how, at 8 years old, he would pull a fur over his head and embody the spirit of a bear. Amigo also helped to harvest sunflower seeds in the Autumn. Holding a sunflower in one hand and a stick in the other, he would beat the seeds out as he moved the flower in a circular motion. Out of boredom, Amigo began creating rhythms, treating the sunflower like a drum.
Amigo’s sudden move from a small village to the city of Berlin was a shock. He didn’t know the German language or culture. Living with migrant parents in the inner city, he encountered the youth culture of 1980s Berlin. Thankfully, this included breaking, which became his passport through the city. In 1993, he founded the internationally acclaimed Hip Hop dance crew, Flying Steps, with Vartan Bassil, which won several world breaking championships. Amigo made his name with this crew and established his place in the Hip Hop scene in Berlin. However, he hadn’t yet had the opportunity to express himself fully as a creative artist. When he happened to meet the widely-acclaimed German dancer and choreographer, Pina Bausch, at a dance event in the mid-1990s, she encouraged him to become a choreographer. “What’s a choreographer?” Amigo remembers asking her. When he realized that he could pursue this new path, he left Flying Steps to focus on developing his own style.
Amigo describes himself as an “urban nomad” who collects gestures and sounds everywhere he goes. Tapping into his Anatolian roots, Amigo became the first Berlin Hip Hop artist to combine breaking with other elements and create a fusion style called Zeybreak. This style brings breaking together with Zeybek, a folk dance from western Turkey. In both forms, the dancer responds to the music, so this provides the basis for the synthesis. (Amigo further explains his background and artistic process here and here). Amigo went on to direct Anadolu Break, a film about three dancers who go on a journey to Anatolia to discover regional dances. He also experiments with putting calligraphy and graffiti art into conversation.
Both Zeybreak and Anadolu Break were about cultural and artistic exchange, which define Amigo’s philosophy as an artist. Although both were well-received internationally, some folk dancers in Turkey criticized Amigo’s fusion style for threatening the conservation of traditional dances. As an artist, Amigo rejects these kinds of boundaries. His work has always questioned the lines between genres, styles, and identities. “Hip Hop is magic,” Amigo told us. “It is universal – dance doesn’t need a label.” For Amigo, Hip Hop allows many things in, and it can engage in several directions to bring different people and forms together. “I want depth in my work.” The way to go deeper, for Amigo, is to be formless. He can be a bear, a mime, an aggressor, a teacher, a facilitator, a performer, an artist. Blurring the lines between social categories gives Amigo the freedom to express his own experiences as a migrant from Turkey to Germany, an experience that many people in Germany can relate to (according to the 2011 census, there are 2.7 million people in Germany with a migration background from Turkey).
Amigo has inspired many young dancers with his courage and creativity. Saman Sebastian Hamdi, who was influenced by Amigo at the beginning of his own Hip Hop career, is a dancer, teacher, scholar, and activist based in Berlin. As the son of a German mother and Kurdish father, he acutely experienced the internal conflicts of a binary identity. Like Amigo, Hip Hop provided Saman with a home outside of national boundaries. The cypher became a place where he could connect directly to people without labels. “The shared craft, practice, and dedication to breaking is all that the dancers need to come together.” For Saman, the cypher is the purest space. While commercialized events overemphasize competition, underground-oriented practitioners continue to organize cyphers where dancers can freestyle. Saman is concerned that the pressure of mainstream culture is overwhelming Hip Hop, but, like Emre, he finds hope in counter movements that retain the political and social salience of Hip Hop culture.
Hip Hop provided Saman with the opportunity to travel all over the world, from Senegal to New York, to dance with artists like Amigo and to work with German and refugee youth. Like Asil and Zen-G in Istanbul, Saman has used Hip Hop as a tool for community engagement and the empowerment of young people. His father’s experiences with political asylum inspired him to work with refugee kids, as he recognizes their need for a home outside of national affiliations. “Hip Hop opens the door to what it means to be human – to sing and dance together, to be together in the moment, to really see each other.” Hip Hop has also provided Saman with a creative way to fight for families’ right to stay in Germany.
In recent years, Saman organized an international, week-long film festival in Germany called “Hollyhood - Hip Hop and Social Justice” with artists from Senegal, NYC, and Germany. He has also employed Hip Hop in anti-racist initiatives and social projects, such as the Knochenbrecher Crew in Berlin, in which German youth and kids from asylum-seeking families learned to dance as a path to their structural and social inclusion. Saman finds that rap and breaking are often familiar to young people as popular culture, so they provide a ready ‘in’ to discuss issues like racism, gender exclusion, and nationalism. He has used this potential in workshops in East Germany and Berlin as well as within university seminars. For Saman, recognizing Hip Hop’s African American history means recognizing its origins in a culture of resistance. But he believes that Hip Hop’s universality overcomes national and other boundaries and provides the tools for reaching displaced people and giving them a home in the Hip Hop culture and community. Breaking brings together practitioners from all over the world and the only thing that matters is their skills on the dance floor.
However, Saman is concerned that nationalism is encroaching on Hip Hop, especially with the recent inclusion of breaking as a sport in the Olympics. While he believes it is good news that breaking is now permitted in places like Iran, he worries that the divisions that Hip Hop has worked so hard to overcome are threatening to return. Nazi Hip Hop and Turkish nationalist rap in Germany are cases in point. For Saman, these do not live up to the ideals of Hip Hop. “Why Hip Hop Nation?” he asks. “How about a global Hip Hop culture?”
Zu Gast bei Kadir [Amigo] Memiş: Meine Heimat sind meine Erinnerungen, Published by renk Magazin, 2015
Hip Hop: On The Move
While Hip Hop is defined by several essential elements, including rap, breaking, and graffiti, it is not tied to one national context or culture. The form maintains its recognizable features while adapting to the sounds, languages, movements, and social issues of a particular place and mixing diverse influences. Like Emre suggested, the breaker responds to the music and his or her identity changes as the music changes. Hip Hop’s openness and fluidity have allowed it to flourish all over the world, from South Korea to Palestine to Brazil, especially as an expression of frustration for members of society who are treated as outsiders. In Germany, migrants from Turkey were some of the first to turn to Hip Hop to facilitate their own integration and build a community of practice defined by art rather than national origins. Rappers and breakers who returned to Turkey brought this developing form with them, where Hip Hop was taken up as a tool of expression for minorities and marginalized groups who were having similar experiences of dislocation and exclusion. Hip Hop artists in Turkey today are using rap and breaking to reach out to refugees from Syria and Iraq who are struggling to find their way in a new place.
Artists like Saman and Amigo, whose identities and experiences are less defined by their national origins than by their mobility between places and categories, found a home in Hip Hop and are now dedicated to opening that home to other people. One of Amigo’s recent projects with B-Boy Ferhat Duz (“Fero”) was “Creative Time: Creativity. Solidarity. Cohesion.” funded by the Goethe Institute Istanbul. It sought to create a dance dialogue for youth in Gaziantep (known informally as Antep), a city in southern Turkey. Located close to the Syrian border, Antep is now home to close to 500,000 refugees. Amigo and Fero believe that Hip Hop is the greatest cross-border, positive force today, more so than any religion or party. Navdar is a young man who escaped war in Kobani with his family and found a refuge in Amigo and Fero’s dance workshops in Antep. As a refugee his freedom of movement was highly restricted by the Turkish state; dance provided Navdar with a sense of freedom and empowerment. He went on to become a dedicated B-Boy and lead his own breaking workshops. Today he is living and working in Berlin.
The work of dancers like Emre, Amigo, Saman, and Navdar demonstrates that the fluidity and mobility of Hip Hop can overcome attempts to categorize or restrict it. When Amigo is in Germany, he is considered a Turk; when he is in Turkey, he is considered German. That experience of always being categorized an outsider has defined the direction of his work towards overcoming imposed boundaries and tapping into the potential universality of Hip Hop. In Hip Hop, Amigo is simply an artist. As he says, “Hip Hop is my country.”
Kadir Memiş Company „Opferschicht – Narben und Namen, Published by tanzhaus nrw, 2021
We would like to thank the Ohio State University Global Arts + Humanities Discovery Theme "Audiences and Online Reception: Before and After COVID" Grant for funding our research for this piece. Danielle Schoon acknowledges her guest affiliation with the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Ethnic and Religious Diversity (February - May 2023). We would also like to express our appreciation and profound thanks to all of the artists who agreed to tell us about their work, along with the Sulukule Cocuk Sanat Atölyesi, Ahmet Sinoplu, Timo Weishaupt, and Eric Schoon for their contributions. Finally, many thanks to Ian Abbott and the Ink Cypher community for providing this opportunity.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to How Dislocated Minorities in Turkey turn to Hip Hop to Build Community and Resist Marginalisation by Danielle V. Schoon and Funda Oral
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Danielle V. Schoon
Danielle is a cultural anthropologist with interests in migration, performance, and the politics of identity. She teaches the Turkish Studies curriculum in NESA at The Ohio State University. Her current research focuses on the 'politics of presence' for Roma ("Gypsies") in Turkey and Turkish migrants in Europe and the United States.
Following several years of work experience and duties in finance, import-export and management, Funda is interested in the design and implementation of methods for efficient team work, self-organization, empowerment and inclusion. She has various experience regarding facilitation for diverse groups.
She is a city activist for the protection of cultural heritage and the environment in Istanbul. Being one of the founders of Sulukule Platform, as a volunteer in community services for children and youth, she coordinated the Sulukule Children Art Atelier in Istanbul. She participated in the United States Department of States International Visitor Leadership Program About Promoting Social Change Through the Arts in 2013 and received the Roma Integration Award from European Commission in 2014.
She speaks French and English as foreign languages and lives between Istanbul and Berlin.
Danielle V. Schoon, Credit Timur Hammond