By Deniz Umutlu
More than twenty years later, hip-hop has emerged as one of the most popular and widely practiced art forms in music today. Hip-Hop probably has the greatest international reach of any musical style, inspiring musical movements all across the globe. Fueled in part by the mass production and commercialization of popularized rap, the art form also seems to undeniably capture the creative imagination and ambitions of artists and audiences worldwide: including Turkey.
Most recently, hip-hop showed up on the streets of Sur, in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır. You may have heard of Sur in the news over the past few months as one of the epicentres of the government’s military operations aimed at combating the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the region. As a part of these operations against the PKK, parts of Sur have been placed under round-the-clock curfews for months, resulting in the destruction of entire neighbourhoods and the loss of hundreds of civilian lives.
On Tuesday this past week, a rap video filmed in Sur went viral in Turkish social media circles. The clip drew lots of attention for its blatantly racist lyrics, as well as the fact that it was filmed in one of the restricted areas of Sur, an area where journalists and civilians are not even allowed to enter. The opposition and the Kurdish-backed party Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) brought the issue of the clip to the parliamentary agenda, requesting that the Department of Internal Affairs investigate the production of the offensive video in a military-controlled, restricted area.
Just two days after the video was published online, the Assistant to the Director of the Department of Internal Affairs Sebahattin Öztürk announced that the masked man appearing in the clip was identified as being a security official and was currently under suspension for his participation in the video.
Although performed through the medium of hip-hop, everything about the clip is in such direct antithesis to the philosophy of hip-hop that the piece is not only offensive as racist propaganda, but also as a direct offense to the genre itself.
Hip-hop is fundamentally about giving voice to the marginalized, the oppressed of society. Born out of a particular social context, hip-hop culture developed among the politically and economically disenfranchised communities of African American and Hispanic youth of New York City in the early 1970s.
The early founders of hip-hop participated in the art form as a way of rejecting Eurocentric musical hierarchies and a celebration of African and Latino musical traditions. In contrast to the light-hearted and shallow pop music lyrics of the era, hip-hop culture provided a space where artists could express the frustrations and aspirations of non-white communities in a white supremacist culture, and hip-hop often became a vehicle for rallying support for the cause of racial justice and challenging unjust social systems in post-Civil Rights America. In sum, hip-hop was about giving the powerless a source of power through music, the strength to “fight the power.”
An appreciation for the roots and philosophy of hip-hop reveals the extent to which the rap clip filmed in Sur is a perversion of, rather than an ode to, the genre. Firstly, the subject of the rap video, the masked man who was later revealed to be a Turkish security officer, presents a clash of medium and message. Instead of giving power to the powerless, the video ends up being the assertion of power by the powerful.
The man in the video walks through the abandoned and desolate streets of a demolished Sur, the apparent ease with which he strolls through the war zone a painful insult to all the civilians whose houses and lives have been irreparably destroyed by the conflict. His presence, as a security officer in a previously Kurdish neighbourhood where Kurdish civilians can no longer enter asserts his institutional power and claims authority over the geography.
Secondly, there is the matter of the highly problematic lyrics. The piece makes a desperate and delusional attempt to establish the speaker as a victim of oppression and marginalization, adding extra salt to the wound from the halls of power. The speaker presents snippets of incoherent conspiracy theories like “Wake up, get up, everyone is Armenian, they are all counterfeits!” and “Open the ports up to the Greeks, it’s the Zionist plan/ The right and left didn’t take, so now we have the Kurdish lie.”
The song tries to create a perception of the speaker as a singular beam of truth and social consciousness in a society where the majority of Turks are blind to the secret conspiracy of takeover by foreigners, including Armenians, Greeks, Zionists, Kurds, and missionaries. In other words, the song attempts to appropriate the element of social consciousness in hip-hop, but in reality only masks an ignorant expression of xenophobia: “Who am I, I am the son of the Turk, the marginalized…they have put curtains over their eyes, they have placed puppets over us.”
And perhaps most alarmingly, the song can be understood as a call to ethnic cleansing: “Shoot them for Allah, shoot them for the Prophet, shoot them for our martyrs…If you ask me the solution is quite simple: If things don’t change, shoot them in the head / they can keep their human rights, I just need some peace.”
Hip-hop has always had an interesting and often problematic relationship with acts of cultural appropriation, and the rap video in Sur is no exception. As an art form almost fundamentally geared towards cultural appropriation with the prominence of sampling techniques, hip-hop can feature acts of cultural appropriation ranging from the well-intentioned but ill-informed to the overtly insulting and offensive. As you might expect, the Sur video features the latter kind.
The video features an appropriation not of sounds but of fashion, which may arguably be equally significant in the world of hip-hop culture. In the video, the masked security official is wearing a scarf around his neck with skull patterns on it. The scarf is clearly intended as a reference to the Kurdish puşı, a scarf often worn by Kurdish nationalists, protesters, and militants. The symbolic imagery of the scarf in the video may serve a double purpose of meaning.
Firstly, the scarf further reinforces the perception of the speaker as a marginalized outcast, as the puşi is often worn by the outcasts of society. Secondly, the use of the scarf is another means of delegitimizing Kurdish identity. By appropriating its use in such a context that is so far removed from its original purpose, the wearing of the puşi attempts to strip the scarf of all its symbolic meaning for Kurdish communities, representing yet another conquest of Kurdish identity.
It’s not unlike the movement of graffiti street art from its native environment of the streets to the walls of an art museum, the “establishment” itself. Just as street art loses all of its oppositional value as a protest of the commercialization and institutionalization of art hanging on the walls of an art museum, so the puşi loses its oppositional value as a defiant expression of Kurdish identity hanging on the neck of a security officer spitting rhymes about eliminating Kurds.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no cultural appropriation police. In fact I have no authority to be such on matters of either Kurdish identity or American hip-hop culture as a white Turkish-American. I think Turkish hip-hop is a great idea, as long as it stays true to the original and I believe ultimate purpose of hip-hop which is to “fight the power”, which the Sur video, as “the power”, us unable to do.