How Dislocated Minorities in Turkey turn to Hip Hop to Build Community and Resist Marginalisation
Danielle V. Schoon and Funda Oral
In the cities of Turkey today, Hip Hop offers a way for minorities and immigrants to build community and resist marginalisation. Young people gather informally in the streets of their inner-city neighbourhoods to rap and dance together. They battle in Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic. They beatbox for each other, marking time through rhythm; they form circles around freestylers, marking space in places that deny their right to be there.
Turkish Hip Hop music was originally produced by Turkish migrants in Germany in the early 1990s. The first Turkish Hip Hop album in Germany was recorded by King Size Terror in 1991 and their song, "Bir Yabancinin Hayati" ("The Life of a Stranger"), marked the beginning of a new trend. After that, Turkish Hip Hop quickly took root in the inner-city neighbourhoods of Istanbul as migrants travelled back and forth between Turkey and Germany, but it remained largely an underground phenomenon. In recent years, Hip Hop is becoming part of mainstream music in Turkey and breakdance is central to live concerts and music videos. Just like Turkish rap in Germany began by sampling “Oriental” sounds and rhythms (see Islamic Force “My Melody”), today youth in Turkey are incorporating their own folk music and dance traditions to create unique sounds and movements.
Video of My Melody (Boomin System Mix) by Islamic Force, 1992
The neighbourhood of Karagümrük, on the European side of Istanbul, was central to Hip Hop culture in the early 2000s. It was once home to Sulukule, a Roma (“Gypsy”) quarter that was famous for its musicians. The municipality began demolishing the streets and houses of Sulukule in 2008 and forcibly evicting the residents. Some of the dislocated Roma youth from Sulukule gathered regularly for several years at a local community centre, The Sulukule Children Art Atelier, run by activist, Funda Oral. The atelier was created by activists to empower the community to protect their rights and their neighbourhood. While the activists did not succeed in preventing the demolition, they succeeded in helping local children gain confidence in their identity and talent in music and dance, through which they connected to Turkish and global society. The neighbourhood youth started rapping and dancing together and three of the young men formed a successful Hip Hop group called Tahribad-ı İsyan (Rebellion Against Destruction). Youth from Sulukule also participated in the Gezi Park Protests of 2013, where Tahribad-ı İsyan gave free outdoor concerts and dance played a prominent role in bringing people together to resist the demolition of Istanbul’s central park. Halil Altindere’s rap video, "Wonderland", premiered that summer at the Istanbul Biennial – it challenged the state’s systematic gentrification projects and featured Tahribad-ı İsyan (see Danielle Schoon’s related article.)
Sulukule Hip Hop Tiyatrosu perform Sahnede İsyan (Revolt on Stage), 2012
Hip Hop has also been a tool for international activists to reach inner city youth in Istanbul. In 2012, Openvizor created a Hip Hop theatre production directed by Murat Garipağaoğlu with dislocated youth from Sulukule. The participants got to write the script and then had workshops several times a week during a three-month period. As it was not easy to find a place to meet, they often rented the gyms of neighbourhood schools. Jonzi D and Abbas Nokhasteh from OpenVizor took several of the youth from the atelier to Breakin’ Convention in London that year and introduced them to the international world of Hip Hop. Similarly, in 2016, the Turkish German rap star, Sultan Tunç, created a short documentary ("Suriye’den Sulukule’ye", “From Syria to Sulukule”), with Syrian migrants in Mardin and dislocated Roma from Sulukule. These days, the members of Tahribad-ı İsyan and other youth from Sulukule continue to use Hip Hop to reach marginalised groups in Istanbul by giving rap and dance lessons to Syrian and Iraqi immigrant and refugee children, so the cycle of community-building continues.
Funda Oral played a central role in facilitating community and experiences for young people in Sulukule from 2010-2016. By acquiring grants and recruiting volunteers, Funda was able to bring local and international guest artists and teachers to the atelier. Danielle Schoon first came to the atelier in 2011 as a graduate student doing fieldwork in Sulukule. Funda recruited Danielle to teach English lessons to the members of Tahribad-ı İsyan and the atelier became central to Danielle’s research project. Much has changed in Turkey since the atelier closed, including an increasingly conservative society and authoritarian government. The authors interviewed three of the central figures of Istanbul’s current Hip Hop dance scene to find out how they are faring in this new context. Their conversations with Gizem Nalbant, Timur Iliyaz, and Emre Önceğiz revealed a thriving Hip Hop culture in Turkey, but one that faces some challenges both from government regulations and censorship, and from the threat of mainstream trends side-lining important social issues.
Documentary of Sulukule Mon Amour, featuring Gizem and Dina by Azra Deniz Okyay, published by TrapstarT♪, 2020
Despite conservative gender norms in Turkey, several young women from Sulukule have made names for themselves as Hip Hop dancers. Gizem is from Sulukule and started dancing when she was about 12 years old. In her late teens, she trained B-Girls at the Sulukule Children Art Atelier and contributed to the Openvizor Hip Hop theatre project. Along with her friend, Dina, she starred in the short documentary, "Sulukule Mon Amour" (2016), in which she reflects on her position as a Roma woman and the expectations of her family and Turkish society. Later, Gizem performed with Anadolu Ateşi (Fire of Anatolia), a Turkish modern folkdance group that tours the globe. In her 20s, she taught dance to refugee children in Istanbul and then moved to Northern Cyprus, where she is planning some new projects.
Like a lot of youth in cities around the world, kids in Istanbul are introduced to American Hip Hop through music videos and films. Gizem was introduced through the film You Got Served (2004) and fell in love with the dancing right away. She recognised some of the social issues that are represented in the film as being similar to issues the Roma face in Turkey, like social exclusion. She remembers thinking that African Americans use music and dance to express those experiences. “What they can’t say they can sing.” Since music and dance are central to her own culture and heritage, she felt like she could also turn her difficult experiences into art. “Everything I want to be is represented in Hip Hop dance,” she explains. “Like freedom and being powerful.” As a woman, Gizem has had to work harder to prove herself in the Hip Hop dance scene, especially with moves that take a lot of upper body strength or that might be perceived as overly sexual. When she first started, there weren’t a lot of other female dancers, but that has changed. Now she has role models like Aydan Uysal, one of the first female Hip Hop dancers to become prominent in Turkey, and new dance styles like Hip Hop Heels are dominated by women.
Gizem believes that no matter how famous somebody gets, it’s important to remember where they came from. “True Hip Hop is underground,” she says. “There should still be an authentic expression of struggle.” She regrets that youth today seem to be more interested in the fun parts of Hip Hop and don’t recognise social issues. “They care less about protesting the status quo.” But there are some good role models out there, such as Turkish rapper and songwriter, Şanışer, whose 2019 collaborative song, “Susamam” (“I Can’t Stay Silent”), brought together 19 Turkish musical artists to rap about everything from domestic abuse to police brutality and climate change.
Unfortunately, it has become more difficult for artists of any kind to express themselves freely in Turkey, where government censorship has increased over the past decade. Freedom of the press has steadily declined and hundreds of journalists have been arrested and media outlets taken over by the government or companies friendly to the governing AK Party. Musical artists have also been increasingly censored and many songs have been banned from being broadcast for being “immoral.” For example, the Turkish rapper, Ezhel, was arrested in 2018 for “inciting drug use” in his songs.
Gizem feels that Hip Hop artists should be free to rap about whatever they want, but that they should remain responsible to their community. She sees Hip Hop as an open form that can incorporate a lot of different influences as well as reach wide audiences of different backgrounds and ages. “You can bring Turkish, Kurdish, and Roma music into Hip Hop, and you can also use Hip Hop to reach out with your own culture to other people.” Even if Hip Hop isn’t only for the socially excluded, the form should still express resistance because that’s what makes it authentic. For that reason, she gave dance lessons to refugee children. “Although we didn’t speak the same language, we could connect emotionally because of shared experiences of exclusion.” Hip Hop became a tool for refugee children to express themselves and connect with Roma children in the same neighbourhood. “What both communities needed to express was the same, and Hip Hop gave them the language.”
Highlights from end of year show at Sulukule Children Art Atelier, 2016
As a young person from the neighbourhood, Gizem was a regular at the Sulukule Children Art Atelier until it closed in 2016. But the atelier attracted youth from other parts of the city, as well. Timur and his friends were often seen dancing at nearby parks, and Timur eventually found his way to the atelier as a dance teacher. Although he wasn’t from Sulukule, Timur understood the experience of marginalisation. He was born in Sweden to an immigrant family from Kosovo-Pristina that moved to Istanbul in the early 1990s. Like Gizem, Timur first saw Hip Hop dance in a video shown to him by his brother. It was the Vagabonds crew at the Battle of the Year (Europe’s biggest international breakdance competition). He immediately started following battles and trying to imitate the movements. Timur and some friends created a neighbourhood dance team called Utkpöon that practiced in the streets. Soon Timur was dancing with bigger groups, like the Istanbul Style Breakers (which appeared in Fatih Akin’s 2005 documentary, "Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul"), and participating in competitions and shows around Turkey. Through the atelier, he was able to go to London for Breakin’ Convention in 2012 along with Gizem and other youth from Sulukule.
Unlike Gizem, Timur does not think of Hip Hop as a tool for social resistance or protest – for him it is more like a sport than a culture. “I’m not in it to protest anything,” he explains. “Hip Hop dance was a way out for me, a way to find happiness despite a negative environment.” For Timur, Hip Hop is more personal than political. “If not for dance, my life would be really different. Dance saved me.” Timur approaches dance with the sensibilities of an athlete. He works on the same moves for years to improve them and make them his own. However, Timur agrees with Gizem that Hip Hop can bring people together. He has danced with people from all over the world, from Ankara to Azerbaijan. “When we dance together, our differences don’t matter.” The only time it becomes obvious that someone is a foreigner is when they can’t get their visa renewed and they have to leave. “Things have changed a lot. When I started paying attention to Hip Hop in 2005, graffiti was considered an act of terrorism in Turkey. Now it’s considered art.” But it’s much harder to dance in the streets now than it used to be. “Street life has changed in general. Parents are afraid to let their children play in the streets.” Along with protective parents, city streets have become more regulated, Timur explains. “It’s okay to dance at concerts and in clubs, but not in the streets.” Increasing religious conservatism has also made it more difficult to dance in public spaces. “Sometimes older people criticise us for wasting our time,” Timur tells us. “But one time, this 80-year-old man came out from the mosque after prayers, and he came over and emptied his pockets and started spinning on his head!”
Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things even harder. There are fewer places to get together and dance now, especially inside. On top of state interventions and an increasingly conservative society, the pandemic and a failing economy mean there are less and less opportunities to dance. But Timur can take comfort in the kids he has influenced, including Emre, who was introduced to Hip Hop at age 12 when he saw Timur and some other local guys dancing at a neighbourhood park. Emre started to pursue Hip Hop at the Sulukule Children Art Atelier and, like Gizem, he contributed to the Openvizor Hip Hop theatre project. For Emre, Hip Hop dance opened the door to other forms of dance and he has had a lot of success performing with groups like Anadolu Ateşi. Now the company gives Emre breaking solos in between acts because “it brings a lot of energy and audiences love it!” But when Emre first started, it was hard to find a good place to dance. He and his friends would use the marble floors of the municipality building until they got kicked out. Like Timur, he feels that increasing conservatism and state regulation of the streets make it more difficult to dance. He has mostly had to move to indoor spaces, which have been closed lately due to the pandemic. Conservatism has also meant more censorship – even producers are more cautious these days about what artists can say or show in their videos. “Hip Hop is the art of critiquing the government, including in Turkey.” Emre says that artists find ways around censorship by using indirect and nonverbal messages, especially with images and dance.
Emre keeps up with the latest dance trends through YouTube, and he also incorporates breakdance into choreographies for Anadolu Ateşi. It has become more common in Turkey in recent years for Hip Hop to integrate local folk dance styles (see Kadir Amigo Memis’ “Zeybreak” dance). Emre teaches folk dance classes for children, but they are always asking him to teach them breaking instead. And they aren’t the only ones, “Their parents want to learn too, so I had to start offering adult classes!” Emre sees his generation as the pioneers who are making Hip Hop culture common in Turkey. “Generations after us will be interested in Hip Hop.” Like Gizem and Timur, he feels that Hip Hop can bring marginalized people together. “Hip Hop comes from the street, in poor neighbourhoods, so it connects minorities, immigrants, disadvantaged communities, children at risk, and the poor.”
Sulucrew perform Para Lazim, Sony Music Turkey, 2021
Along with dancing, Emre also raps and writes his own music. He recently signed on to an agreement with Sony Music Turkey along with Asil from Tahribad-ı İsyan and other neighbourhood kids, calling themselves Sulucrew, to produce the single “Para Lazim” (“I Need Money”). Since Emre has injured himself dancing a few times, he imagines that he’ll get more into sound engineering. But he emphasises that dance will always inform his music because “music is only good if it makes people dance. If you can’t dance to it, the music isn’t good.”
Hip Hop in Turkey has gone through multiple phases, from its first arrival with Turkish migrants traveling back and forth from Germany, to its place as part of mainstream culture today. But one thing hasn’t changed, and that is Hip Hop’s ability to express the voices of the youth and the marginalised in a way that other forms cannot. Hip Hop dance doesn’t require particular instruments or equipment other than the body itself. It can be learned and practiced in the street, so it incorporates local music and dance styles as well as local social concerns. It overcomes language and other barriers to bring young people from different backgrounds together. As expressed by Gizem, Timur, and Emre, dance, in particular, works as a kind of unspoken language to bring people into the same rhythm, the same space. In Sulukule, Hip Hop was a way to get the word out about a local injustice in a global language. Although music and dance couldn’t prevent the demolition of their ‘hood, it brought displaced young people together in a community of resistance. As Gizem noted about her experiences with Syrian refugee children, shared experiences of exclusion can be expressed through Hip Hop music and dance and give young people the means to reach out and connect. The Sulukule Children Atelier facilitated those kinds of connections, and even after the atelier is gone the young people who were taught there still make the effort to reach across class, national, and gender divides using music and dance. Despite increasing censorship in Turkey, the regulation of the streets, and the threat of mainstream culture against Hip Hop’s power to resist the status quo, Hip Hop remains alive in spaces as diverse as community centres for immigrant children and international folkdance stages. Gizem, Timur, and Emre are just a few of the dancers in Turkey who are keeping Hip Hop fresh and introducing it to young people, who will carry this art form into the future.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, November 2021
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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 NELC 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 she lives between Istanbul and Berlin.
Danielle V. Schoon, Credit Timur Hammond