Story by Alexandra Legend Siegel // Photos by Ryan Tyler Payne
ISTANBUL, Turkey – The lights were flashing green and white, the music thumped and the view couldn’t have been better from the rooftop nightclub in the hip Taksim area of this sprawling city. If only the half-empty room were full.
That’s only a matter of time said Ratna Ramasita Van Ek, also known as DJ Jane Doe, as she twisted the knobs and pushed the buttons on her sound equipment while American rap music blared through the speakers.
Until the success of Turkish rapper Ceza’s first album four years ago, hip hop music was a largely foreign genre to the people of Turkey. And although Turkish listeners still prefer house and techno music, hip hop is slowly making its way into clubs, radio stations, television programs and people’s headphones.
“They have some real hip hoppers here [in Turkey]. Hip hop is on the rise and I will do everything in my power to continue it,” said Daryl Johnson, an American club promoter and music agent-manager who played a large role in the hip hop movement in Germany and now hopes to do the same for Turkey. “[In Germany] I started doing shows and together with a strong crew of hip hoppers, brought artists like Ice-T, Ice Cube, Run DMC to Germany and hip hop blew up. I want to do the same here.”
Hip hop in Germany has been growing more successful since the early 1990s. The music itself is strongly influenced by German and American hip hop but hasn’t quite taken off in Turkey in the same way. DJ Jane Doe lives and DJs in Holland and has watched the hip-hop movement boom there. She believes that with the right environment, the same can happen for Turkey.
“I couldn’t believe that Istanbul, alone, has 20 million people. Holland only has 15 million in the whole country and hip hop is big there. All you need over here in a city of 20 million people is a thousand people … who like hip hop. It’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be, especially with the Internet,” she said.
Johnson agreed that there is a fan base in Turkey and hip hop is not reaching them because it is not presented in a way that caters to them. He believes that having events such as “Hip Hop Night” at 360 will help the movement gain momentum and eventually lead to clubs devoted solely to bringing the music to fans.
“So many people love hip hop here but venues aren’t doing it the right way,” Johnson said. “I think the problem is the venues. It’s sad when you go to a venue that’s promoted to be hip hop but has no clue about hip hop. But all of that was before I got here. I call myself ‘the game changer.’”
Many guests at 360 expressed that they would love to see more hip hop events in the future, however they said they would pass if the music played included native Turkish rappers.
“I don’t like Turkish hip hop because American hip hop is more original and Turkish language in hip hop doesn’t mesh,” said Aysegul Erin Mungen who lives in Istanbul but spent 18 years in America.
Aylant Ozarici is so passionate about hip hop that he had his idol, Tupac, tattooed on his leg. While Ozarici is an avid fan of American hip hop, he has little faith in the Turkish hip-hop scene.
“Turkish rap and hip hop is really bad. They can’t get better because they have no fun with it,” Ozarici said.
But according to Gamze Elgin, the music director for the Turkish channel Dream TV, there is a growing market in Turkey. Elgin works with T-rap, which stands for Turkish rap, a program on Dream TV that plays Turkish hip hop music and celebrates Turkey’s hip hop culture.
“Unfortunately foreign music or alternative genres are not taking attention [in Turkey]. Turkish pop music and Turkish classical and traditional music are always more important than the other genres,” said Elgin. “Yet, among young people, rap is becoming more and more important.”
Mehemet Tuluk, a student at Istanbul University, rattled off names of his favorite Turkish hip hop artists such as Cartel, Sagopa Kajmer and Fuat who are all among the most successful hip hop artists in Turkey.
“I like the lyrics,” said Tuluk’s friend Sumeyra Gurbulak, also a student at Istanbul University. “Their style is good too. I listened to a rapper yesterday and she was asking ‘why did you leave me’ and I just felt like ‘Yes! Why?’”
Recently, female Turkish rappers have been stepping into the spotlight. Sultana, one of the first female rappers in Turkey to gain success, raps about social and women’s issues in the country. Ayben, the sister to the leading Turkish rapper Ceza, proved that she could shine outside of her brother’s shadow and has made a name for herself in Turkey’s hip hop sphere.
“I really like Ayben. I don’t understand the lyrics but when you hear it you feel the passion,” said Johnson.
Still, despite the growing appreciation of the music, only one radio station, T-rap, plays Turkish rap music and hip hop does not get as much air play as house, techno and pop music.
“Turkish hip hop is not really big here because [the artists] have to work harder. The music isn’t blowing anybody away. Hip hop is not part of our culture but we have to work on it,” said Togalhan Tarim, also known as local DJ TNT.
Johnson is confident that the hip hop movement in Turkey is going to take off soon. He said he has met a variety of different people from students to corporate executives who love hip hop and he has faith that one day they will all listen and dance to hip hop side by side.
“It’s about the music, bringing worlds together,” Johnson said. “It took a while to bring hip hop to 360. Everybody said it was impossible and here we are, but we still have a ways to go.”