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Here’s how pop culture woke Turkey’s disillusioned opposition on Friday

How rap is shaping protest in Turkey.

- September 10, 2019

Around midnight Thursday evening, September 5, 2019, two politically charged Turkish rap music videos dropped and quickly went viral. Videos of Ezhel’s “Olay” (“Event”) and Saniser’s “Susamam” (“I can’t stay silent”) seemed to galvanize Turkey’s beleaguered opposition overnight.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power 17 years, and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are employing arrests, purges and removals of elected officials to quell dissent. The trending of two videos virulently critical of Turkey’s status quo on Twitter, however, suggests that dissent is alive and well in nontraditional forms. As a case in point, Istanbul opposition lawmaker Canan Kaftancioglu tweeted the “Susamam” video with the message “Youth, today and for always, I, too, can’t stay silent” on the day she was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison — for her tweets.

With the possibility of protest in the public square essentially taken away — consider that Turkey’s regime cracks down on elderly mothers’ peaceful assemblies — social media becomes the forum of dissent. Here, rap music provides a provocative and appealing language for articulating grievances. This is particularly the case for Turkey’s youths, 93 percent of whom regularly use social media.

As my research explores, music, film, street art and other forms of pop culture serve as a uniquely effective medium of protest. Catchy and creative presentation of dissent can grab otherwise disinterested citizens’ attention, crystallizing grievances in an easily relatable and emotionally charged lyric or image. The appeal of the cleverly packaged criticism encourages sharing of the content. This, in turn, focuses attention on the grievance at hand and creates a loose form of solidarity among those “in on” the protest.

Particularly in repressive regimes, subtly veiled criticism through what is generally considered “entertainment media” can play a subversive role, chipping away at the legitimacy of those in power. This can be achieved through shared humor, as in Gezi Park protesters’ witty use of pop culture content to mock Erdogan — a “Game of Thrones”-themed takedown hashtagged #WinterIsComing is particularly memorable. The two videos reinvigorating Turkey’s opposition, however, prove that rage and grief can be as mobilizing as humor when communicated through cultural media.

Here’s how.

A recap of what has happened

Ezhel’s “Olay” video blasts the viewer through a visual journey of Turkey’s crackdown that mirrors the frustration, rage and grief felt in watching the increasingly authoritarian politics play out nonstop, breathlessly, event (olay) by event. Back-to-back images highlight police brutality, politicians’ corruption and casualties of war. The rapid onslaught reminds the viewer of the emotional toll the past 10 years or so of AKP rule have taken on society.

Blink and you will miss Berkin Elvan, the boy who was shot in the head by a tear-gas canister as he went to buy bread, or the body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee washed up on the Turkish shore.

Even for non-Turkish speakers, the visceral power of the images is raw enough to grasp how potent this cultural medium is as a form of politics. As a nontraditional source of data for researchers, I argue, pop culture media serve as an invaluable empirical window into political scientist James Scott’s “hidden transcripts” — conversations to which we might not otherwise have access.

For Turkish citizens and close Turkey observers, however, each familiar face or event serves as what I term an affective cultural heuristic — an immediately recognizable image that elicits an emotionally charged response. A penguin, for example, now instantly signals mockery of media censorship for Turkey’s opposition, ever since CNN Turk showed a penguin documentary rather than footage of the crackdown on demonstrators during the Gezi protests. The iconic image of youths dancing the traditional halay as an Islamic State bomb explodes just behind them signals rage that more than 100 of those who gathered in Ankara to promote peace were killed. With brutal economy, the culturally salient image communicates to the viewer that the status quo is unacceptable.

Taking on apathy

Similarly critical, the sprawling 15-minute video for “Susamam” features 20 artists in what one Twitter user called the magnum opus of its time. Grievances addressed rage from violence against women and animals to construction-fueled environmental destruction and jailed journalists.

As much as the jarring vignettes are an indictment of the regime, however, they are also an indictment of Turkey’s citizens for their apathy. A frequent criticism of Turkey’s opposition is that its parties fail to get enough people to the polls — particularly voters under 25. This prevents them from being able to effectively challenge Erdogan and his AKP. When the otherwise fractured opposition unites, as it did to punish the AKP for nullifying the opposition victory of Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, change becomes possible.

Mobilizing the disillusioned

Following the euphoria of the Gezi protests, however, the lack of sociopolitical change left many disillusioned. “Susamam” probes precisely this opposition sore spot. A somewhat mechanical voice intones: “You want to laugh, have fun. Life’s already so tough, so you want music to entertain you, to distance you from reality. But we believe that music can change things.” These lyrics embody the idea that pop culture’s purpose is far from simply that of entertainment, of a form of “circus” that placates the masses along with their bread.

By succinctly stating “Our weapon is language,” the artists contrast the regime’s tools of violence with their own tools of speaking truth to power. In doing so, the videos serve as a rallying cry around which the disillusioned are mobilizing.

Combined, the videos remind observers never to underestimate the ability of an enraged and grieving opposition to push back at the regime they blame, to find solidarity in each other and to rapidly spread or renew interest in their cause. Even as the government legislates new ways to censor online content and punish its creators, the artists behind the videos say they are not afraid of being arrested; indeed, artist Ezhel was arrested just last year. This resilience and the way it can be reignited via social media reflect the uniquely visceral, defiant and captivating power of pop culture.

Lisel Hintz (@LiselHintz) is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.