„Music is always political”

Text and photo by Janina Hofmann –

Big buildings, clean floors, and a lot of monitoring staff. The Beyoglu Culture Road Festival in Istanbul just started – two weeks of music, poetry, and theatre. From a tourist’s point of view, the festival seemed to be a great place for cultural exchange and the arts. After talking to Istanbulites, it sounds like the festival is meant for something else.

One could assume that most pieces of art have a political background, no matter if it’s music, paintings, or poems. That can happen consciously, or unconsciously. But in the end, it’s about expressing yourself, criticising the system you’re in, or commenting on current topics and debates. One of the most common ways do to that is through music. Music can be a weapon, a cure, and an instrument of opposition.

 “Music is like a tool to quote and unquote propaganda. If you want to criticise something that’s going on within the country, you can just turn it into poetry, and then you can compose it. Turkey is a real musical country. People listen to specific lyrics and start to think about that problem. On the one hand, the creation of ideological consciousness and, on the other hand, creating. I think that’s important,” says Mustafa Avci.

 Avci works as an ethnomusicologist and cultural historian and recently published a chapter about political music in Turkey. He completed his doctorate in Philosophy and Ethnomusicology at the New York University in 2015. In his publication, Avci dived deep into the birth and diversification of dissident and conformist music from 1920 to 2000. But he’s also aware of contemporary music and the problems of taboos in Turkish music.

 “In the Turkish state, musicians and critics were not always welcome,” Mustafa Avci says. “There are some artists who are pro states, and they didn’t have problems with the state. But then you have some dissidents, including Ahmet Kaya. He was the most popular protest musician; he was like a pop star in the nineties. But then he said he would like to sing a Kurdish melody since he was Kurdish in origin. There was a huge reaction against him, and a kind of social lynching was inflicted upon him. He had to leave Turkey and went to France,” says Mustafa Avci. “And of course, it depends what kind of genre, but in rap and hip hop, I think people really criticise a lot of political parties. Yes, they can. Nothing really happened.”

 A current example of a similar case to Ahmet Kaya is the one of the Turkish rapper Ezhel, who is known for breaking taboos with his songs. In May 2018 he got arrested and was sent to pretrial detention accused of “inciting drug use” in his songs. He was acquitted within 9 minutes of the opening of his first trial hearing. But still, he moved to Berlin for more artistic freedom to speak about topics the Turkish government doesn’t like to hear.

 A musician, who prefers to stay anonymous, states: “Generally, we have to think that festivals are for commercialising. In my opinion, in Turkey, we don’t do festivals for festivals. Generally, people do that for money.” He studied Jazz and music theory, which he teaches at Bilgi University in Istanbul. He tells me if a festival gets an artist with a big fanbase, they will invite them again in the following years, just to get a huge crowd and many sold tickets. In general, that sounds reasonable.

 “Music is always political, but sometimes you don’t see it”

 In an article in the online magazine “1+1 Express” Nâzım Dikbaş criticised the Beyoglu Culture Road Festival. The festival is located in the Atatürk Kültür Merkezi in Taksim – a busy area with a big nightlife, shopping, and dining scene. The building looks more like a mall than a culture center. “Contemporary art has many problems, from censorship to commercialization. However, this does not mean that we will remain silent when a few subcontractors market our wealth to the government,” states Dikbaş. In his opinion, the festival is mainly about marketing.

Mustafa Avci thinks music always has a deeper meaning: “Music is always political, but sometimes you don’t see it. And Turkish pop music, pro-government music might not obviously seem like positive pro-government music. It definitely depends on the context.”