Hip hop has been slow to take off in Turkey. The music has a small but dedicated fanbase in Turkey. The Free Flow Festival is aimed at changing that, launching the biggest ever hip hop event to come to Istanbul.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — When two American rappers Ghostface Killah and Killah Priest from the renowned hip hop group named Wu-Tang Clan sang one of their all-time hits C.R.E.A.M, young men in the small but enthusiastic audience threw their fists in the air, bounced up and down and repeated the lyrics.
As Ghostface rapped “I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side” his fans in the crowd completed the verse saying “Stayin’ alive was no jive...”
It was an enchanting sight to see the non-native English speaking audience rapping eloquently in English along with the iconic American performers, who had come all the way from the United States to perform at Istanbul’s Free Flow Hip Hop festival on Sunday, which had been promoted as the biggest international rapping event in Turkey’s history.
Apart from Ghostface and Priest, many prominent names from the American hip hop industry — from MC Lyte to Big Daddy Kane to Malik Yusef — performed throughout the evening on September 30.
“The rap culture in Istanbul is fast growing,” Onder Sahin, a Turkish rapper in his early 30s, told TRT World. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Sahin and his fellow musician Sayedar rap in Turkish but they've been following the American hip hop scene from their teens.
Sayedar has even developed personal ties with some US-based rappers. He said he was gutted to hear about the demise of Sean Price, a veteran rapper from Brooklyn, New York, whom he knew, when he died in early August this year. “I spoke to his wife Bernadette over Facebook and told her that my heart hurts,” Sayedar said.
Turkey’s relationship with the English language has always been wary. It's perceived as the language of enemies, a sentiment that is embedded in the World War I era. Great Britain and its allies firstly famously attempted to invade Turkey and subsequently occupied Istanbul for about five years, until the occupying forces were forced out and modern Turkey was founded in 1923.
Ever since, many nationalist Turks have worried about English words slowly creeping into the Turkish language. The anxiety over its spread resulted in several government measures to strengthen the national language in schools and universities — but that doesn’t stop America’s hip hop culture from inspiring young Turks.
At the festival, many teenagers, adult men and women, who weren’t fluent in English language sang the hip hop numbers of various American artists — from Big Daddy Kane performing his 1990s blockbusters to covers of more recent hits. The audience members’ rap was dapper, and their rhythm, consistent.
Growing up as teenagers, it was the rhythm and the beat many young Turks first gravitated towards. After being won over, it was the lyrics, which took more effort to understand, often with the aid of a dictionary, they felt inspired to tell their own stories, the stories of survival and loss.
"It was Tu Pac who influenced my thoughts," said a young man in the audience. "I have listened to his Dear Mama song so many times. It fills me with a sense of love and sympathy for all the poor people."
In Istanbul, hip hop culture is most dominant in a 1,000 years old neighbourhood called Sulukule. Almost a decade ago, many rappers from the area, who are now in their early 20s, witnessed the demolition of several hundred housing units in Sulukule. The government imposed an emergency law, knocking down old buildings and replacing them with upscale apartment buildings. Several hundred families sold off their properties and moved to various suburbs of Istanbul. But the incident scarred many of the young people, who felt that their community was shredded apart.
In the subsequent years, even though the demolition was stopped following a court order, many Turkish rappers emerged out of that urban disruption. Tahribad-I Isyan, a group of young rappers, is one of them.
Zen G, a member of Tahribad-I Isyan, was at the festival as audience member. A short and lean man in his early 20s, Zen G insisted the security guards to let him enter the backstage area. He wanted to a picture of himself taken with Ghostface Killah.
As Ghostface finished his performance, he paced out towards the dressing room. He barely stopped for fan photographs. But when he saw Zen G approaching toward him, he paused. From Zen G’s swag, Killah could see that he belongs to his own tribe. He stood with Zen G for several pictures. Zen G gave an I-don’t-give-a-damn look into the camera and jutted his hand, his fingers looking like a trident, a common sign in America's East Coast hip hop circles.
The unspoken camaraderie between Ghostface and Zen G was one of signs of the irrelevance of cultural and geographical boundaries on the evening; of people brought together by hip hop. Malik Yusef, a Chicago-born rapper explained to TRT World why hip hop transcends class and language barriers and touches young people anywhere in the world:
“Hip hop keeps getting younger,” said 47-year-old Yusef, who’s a five-time Grammy Award winner. “Hip hop is a language, a foreign language which talks to you no matter what your mother tongue is. It’s really a strange and beautiful thing.”
Yusef was born and raised in economically impoverished and socially marginalised Southside Chicago. In his early teens, he became a member of a street gang, the Blackstone Rangers. Many of the gang members he grew up with are now either in jail or dead. Some, including Yusef, have managed to survive and break free from crime.
Yusef has worked closely with rap superstar Kanye West. The duo has co-written many songs, including the blockbuster album Yeezus, which was described by Rolling Stone as “brilliant, obsessive-compulsive career auto-correct,” referring to West's self-destructive acts.
Yusef is not only set in the circle of world’s leading hip hop artists, he is rooted in America’s poor communities, trying to help disadvantaged people through various charity projects, which include mentoring struggling rappers.
He’s also curious about rappers who exist in different corners of the world. For instance, he said he follows the work of MC Kash, a young rapper from Indian-administered Kashmir, who raps about the brutalities of Indian police in the disputed region.
“I know Kash,” said Yusef. “I don’t know him personally but I know about Kash. I see some of his videos that are like movies almost, which is nice.”
Yusef said the urge of telling the truth is what drives a rapper to continue writing poems and turning them into rap songs. His relationship with hip hip was tied to his childhood; observing his father, a construction worker, when he saw him going “far away to work”.
“He would come late at night and leave early in the morning. [He would] come over while we were asleep and leave before we woke up,” Yusef said.
“When I was about six years old, I saw my dad believing in American dream,” Yusef added. “I was like ‘Dad, it’s not real!’ I would say, ‘You believe in it because you work hard and you are smart, but America doesn’t favour smart and hard workers. It favours the person who has best connections’.”
As the signs of social unrest are quite prominent in the US and further fueled by the presidential win of Donald Trump, Yusef said more and more rappers will emerge to talk about their adverse surroundings.
MC Lyte agrees with Yusef’s prediction. A 46-year-old rapper from Brooklyn, New York, Lyte came to limelight in the late 1980s. She was among the first batch of female rappers in the US to challenge the country’s male dominated hip hop turf. Her lyrics were compassionate and unlike her male counterparts she rarely spoke about killing her opponents. She won a Grammy in 1993.
“I think that any rapper who is committed to telling truth will have to reflect upon what’s happening in the society,” Lyte told TRT World. “So if you listen to Kendrick Lemar, J Cole or any of the rappers who are conscious, they are speaking the story of what’s happening today; what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow.”
Lyte wasn’t surprised to learn that hip hop is emerging from Istanbul’s underbelly. “The rap scene has definitely grown,” she said. “I always imagined that it would go far, I just didn’t know how long it would last and how it would seep through every facet of culture on this planet.”
It’s only during the last 15 years, she said, that rappers are really being able to take advantage of monetary gain. “Prior to that, it was very difficult to break through the walls.”
For Lyte, the last two generations of rappers have made a strong impact around the world and she doesn’t see it slowing down anytime soon.
“It was the heartbeat of hip hop that really got Obama into office,” she said. “It felt good to know that we had that type of power.”
Looking at Turkey, the country's hip hop scene seem to be catching up on social commentary. Sahin pointed out during a smoke break in the middle of the event that Turkey will see more and more socially conscious rappers in near future.
"It feels good to be in touch with the truth," he said.