Turkey’s viral rap videos highlight protest power of pop culture - analyst

Two rap videos that have gone viral in Turkey in the past week highlight how, despite a harsh crackdown by authorities, dissent is alive and well in the country, particularly on social media, said an analysis in The Washington Post. 

Both released early on Friday, Ezhel’s “Olay” (“Event”) and Saniser’s “Susamam” (“I can’t stay silent”) criticise the status quo and have garnered more than 23 million views on YouTube, marking a “remarkable political earthquake”, according to one observer

“Rap music provides a provocative and appealing language for articulating grievances,” Lisel Hintz, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, wrote on Tuesday in the Washington Post. “This is particularly the case for Turkey’s youths, 93 percent of whom regularly use social media.”

Researching music, film, street art and other forms of pop culture as a medium of protest, Hintz has found that catchy and creative presentations of dissent can grab otherwise disinterested citizens’ attention and encourage online sharing. 

Particularly in repressive regimes, criticism via entertainment media can chip away at the legitimacy of those in power, said Hintz, pointing to hashtags that mocked President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the 2013 Gezi Protests.

“The two videos reinvigorating Turkey’s opposition, however, prove that rage and grief can be as mobilising as humour when communicated through cultural media,” said Hintz. 

“Olay” takes the viewer through Turkey’s years-long crackdown on journalists, academics, protesters, opposition politicians and other critics and mirrors the frustration felt watching the country’s increasingly authoritarian politics, Hintz explained. 

“The rapid onslaught reminds the viewer of the emotional toll the past 10 years or so of AKP rule have taken on society,” she said, adding that the video has a visceral power even for non-Turkish speakers. 

For Turkish citizens and Turkey watchers, Hintz argued that each famous face or event highlighted in the videos is an immediately recognisable image that elicits an emotionally charged response, such as the way a penguin brings to mind how CNN Türk showed a penguin documentary rather than authorities’ crackdown against Gezi protesters. 

The sprawling 15-minute video for “Susamam” features 20 artists expressing grievances from violence against women to jailed journalists and construction-fueled environmental destruction.

“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,” said Hintz. “When the otherwise fractured opposition unites, as it did to punish the (ruling Justice and Development Party) AKP for nullifying the opposition victory of Istanbul mayoral candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, change becomes possible.”

The videos prove that pop culture is not simply an entertainment that placates the masses, but can serve as a rallying cry, according to Hintz. 

“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,” said Hintz.