Can Turkey's Rebel Rapper Stay Out of Prison?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because music can spark freedom and rebellion in an authoritarian climate.
By Patrick Keddie
In the packed prison cell, without a moment’s privacy, music helped Ezhel stay sane. A fellow inmate had looked askance at the young rapper when he’d asked to play his bağlama, a traditional stringed Turkish instrument. “[But] I began to play, and for the rest of the days they treated me like a radio — as if I had a button and they would switch me on,” he grins. “Thank God there was a bağlama inside.”
The 28-year-old was Spotify’s most-streamed artist in Turkey in 2018 and is one of the country’s first mainstream rappers. But his incendiary, taboo-breaking music has made him enemies within Turkey’s authoritarian state. Over the past year or so he has faced six different criminal charges, which many believe are politically motivated.
Ezhel has sleepy turtle-like eyes, coal-black hair freshly shorn to a gray scalp and tattoos blooming over his body that reflect interests from Eastern philosophy to early Turkish rap. In near-perfect, American-inflected English, he is thoughtful and quick to laugh. We met in Istanbul, but he now feels uneasy there; a suspended prison sentence hangs over him like a snare that could be yanked at any moment.
The youth are unemployed and while you’re the boss / I say fuck the job.
Ezhel, in ‘Taste of My City’
Ezhel — real name Ömer Sercan İpekçioğlu — was raised steeped in music by his single mother in a modest housing project in an Ankara neighborhood known for slums. His mother was a singer and folk dancer with the Ministry of Culture who traveled the world and sang in around 50 different languages for foreign dignitaries and leaders.
Ezhel was a precocious kid who was reading and writing by the age of 3 and later won a scholarship to the prestigious TED Ankara College. At age 12 he became enthralled by the energy, style and culture of hip-hop. He started out listening to Eminem, Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. cassettes.
Turkish rap first emerged in the 1980s among the diaspora in Germany, but it was often maligned and remained marginal. Yet, in time, Ezhel became emboldened by more recent Turkish rappers, such as Ceza. When he was 13 or 14 he adopted the rap name ‘Ezhel,’ an Ottoman-Turkish word for one with his head in the clouds. Ezhel also discovered reggae, which transformed his thinking with its messages of love and unity.
He flunked out of TED and spent his late teens playing reggae or rapping with live bands in Ankara’s lively underground music scene. By 2016, although he had released a few tracks under the moniker Ais (Ice) Ezhel, he was effectively homeless and broke. He moved in with Bugy, a producer friend, and, along with Efe Çelik (aka DJ Artz), spent the next year making an album. After it was finally finished, the release was delayed because they didn’t even have $50 between them to independently release it on Spotify.
They thought it would make a splash in the relatively small Turkish rap scene, but 2017’s album Müptezel (Addict) was a widespread hit. Its mixture of U.S.-inspired hip-hop and trap, reggae and Anatolian folk produced a distinct sound: at once global and Turkish, fresh and seedy.
Ezhel’s lyrics, often shimmering in auto-tune, are rich in wordplay and political and cultural allusions, biting in their social commentary. And, for Turkey at least, they’re radically explicit about drugs, alcohol and sex. The music is resonating with young people in particular — a jilted generation laboring under growing authoritarianism, social conservatism and a precarious economy.
Ankara is a strong influence on the album. In the chorus of Şehrimin Tadı (Taste of My City) — which now has more than 68 million views on YouTube — he lists how his home tastes:
“Soot, rust, filth, coal, plastic, trash, tires, exhaust fumes, weed.”
You can’t escape politics in Turkey’s capital, and the song contains an oblique but clear reference to Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan:
“It’s all for you, all for you man, we want something too / The youth are unemployed and while you’re the boss / I say fuck the job.”
The academic and journalist Kenan Behzat Sharpe says Ezhel’s social commentary comes wrapped in a package that is listenable and fun, which could make it more dangerous to authorities. “It is kind of politics of everyday life that he is doing. He has an oppositional spirit, but also creates a safe space for pleasure and enjoyment, revelry and things like that,” says Sharpe. “I think it’s trying to hold open a space of freedom for now.”
Turkey has a long history of censoring and imprisoning politically or socially nonconformist artists, yet Ezhel’s arrest and detention in May 2018 for ‘encouraging drug use’ — which carried a potential five-year sentence — still came as a shock.
Although he was acquitted and released around three weeks later, prosecutors have continued to target him — the list of charges even included ‘encouraging prostitution’ for Küvet, a risqué song about bathtub sex. A suspended drug use sentence and an obscenity charge are still pending. “Thank God my lawyer is a friend of mine,” he says and laughs.
Prosecutors and many online critics have accused him of trying to corrupt Turkey’s youth. Ezhel says that is absurd and insists he is merely reflecting Turkish society. “Not talking about it will not make it go away; talking about it will not make it an epidemic,” he says.
Çelik, one of Ezhel’s main musical collaborators, thinks that the authorities don’t like their music because it shines a light on everyday reality. “That’s why they want to stop it,” he says, “because we are giving you another opinion, another perspective.”
Ezhel now spends most of this time in Berlin, where he feels more at ease. He has upcoming shows in the U.K., Germany and the Netherlands, but it was deemed safest to cancel all his festival appearances in Turkey this summer. He is now recording his second album, which will probably be released — independently again — next year.
Some critics suggest his songs have become less outspoken since his legal problems began, but Ezhel insists he’s just continuing to express himself naturally while becoming more experimental. He is eager to be outside Turkey for the upcoming release of a new song, Olay, which he says is full of political and social allusions.
While grateful for the love and acclaim he now experiences, he admits to occasionally yearning to quit being a frontman. “I still have goals in me; I still have things to say; I still have that energy,” he says. “But it’s not [always] healthy for your psychology, for your body.” In time he wants to become a producer and to soundtrack movies.
As modern Turkish hip-hop rapidly rises in popularity, the country’s love of rhyming and wordplay also goes back centuries. Ezhel feels an affinity with Ottoman aşıks and abdals — wandering troubadours who often subverted the political and religious authorities in their songs, singing rhymes about love, beauty, drugs and wine. “The culture they had is so similar to hip-hop; they were just rappers from 15th-century Anatolia!” says Ezhel. “Instead of using the bağlama, we’re using rap beats, kick drums and samplers. So I see myself as a modern version of them.”
OZY’s 5 Questions With Ezhel
- What’s the last book you read? Blindness by José Saramago.
- What do you worry about? The future. For everyone.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Let’s say music.
- Who’s your hero? My mom. She raised me by herself; she’s a warrior.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? Skydiving.
Read more: Can his rap return to Syria?
- Patrick Keddie, OZY Author Contact Patrick Keddie