Concerts are becoming a political battleground in Turkey

Photo by Vishnu R Nair on Unsplash.

A series of concert bans are drawing backlash in Turkey with criticisms mounting against the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party for imposing conservative restrictions on citizens and the arts sector.

Most recently, officials canceled a performance by Spanish violin virtuoso Ara Malikian, that was scheduled to take place on June 11 without any clear reason. Some suspected Malikian's concert was canceled due to his Armenian heritage. Armenia and Turkey have long had a contentious relationship that is only recently beginning to improve.

If you have started messing with artists’ outfits, banning concerts, and coming up with various excuses to silence artists, you have reached the end of the road. Cheerio! #almostthere

On May 25, the Middle East Technical University (METU) rectorate canceled the university's 34th METU International Spring Festival, reportedly to honor the personnel losses the Turkish army experienced due to Operation Claw-Lock, reported Bianet. The operation, described by President and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) Chair, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an “anti-terror” operation was launched in April 2022 in northern Iraq, to “rid Iraqi lands of terrorists and guarantee the security of our borders,” said Erdogan on April 20.

On May 25, the city of Bursa's Governor's office canceled the upcoming concert of Kurdish artist Mem Ararat citing public safety as the main reason. Though some citizens suspected the move was due to Turkey's ongoing prejudice and tensions with the Kurdish people.

The systematic ban of Kurdish artists’ concerts and theater plays, is all about the Kurdish language. The same ban used against concerts of Aynur Dogan and Metin Kahraman, was used to ban Mem Ararat's concert in Bursa. This is fascism. And AKP's face towardsKurds.

Meanwhile, at least three concerts that were scheduled to take place as part of the Rose Festival in Turkey's Isparta province were also canceled. According to Bianet reporting, the concerts were canceled following a statement released by conservative, pro-Islamic National Youth Foundation (MGV) and Anatolian Youth Association (AGD) Isparta Branch claiming the municipality of Isparta was organizing concerts that were “against the morals and beliefs of the society.”

On May 23, Istanbul's Pendik municipality canceled the concert of another Kurdish singer, Niyazi Koyuncu. Koyuncu announced the municipality's decision to his followers on Twitter saying the municipality  said it cannot allow a musician “who does not share the values and ideals of the municipality to perform.”

Apolas Lermi, who was scheduled to perform in Turkey's Denizli province and in Istanbul also had his concerts canceled. According to Bianet, the artist's concerts were canceled after Lermi performed “at an event organized by the opposition-led İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality on May 19.”

Also in May, officials in Turkey's capital Ankara, canceled a performance from K-Pop band Mirae after the group was criticized online for being gay and allegedly promoting homosexuality. Last year, journalist Ceyda Nurtsch reported for DW, that Turkish officials were debating a possible ban on K-Pop music videos.

Earlier this month, municipalities of several provinces canceled planned concerts and cultural events by Kurdish artists, including Kurdish and Alevi singer Aynur Doğan, and singers Metin and Kemal-Kahraman. The artists were not provided with any explanation for the cancelation.

Voicing his criticism against the concert ban against Doğan, the head of the opposition Republican People's (CH) Party Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu shared one of Doğan's popular songs in Kurdish, Dar Hejiroke on Twitter adding:

Music at night is banned. The youth likes K-Pop, banned. Kurdish music at AKP run municipalities, banned. It will suit them if they introduce a constitutional amendment banning entertainment all together. We were born free, we will die free in this motherland. Consider this AKP. Dar Hejiroke would do well tonight.

This is not the first time, Kurdish artists have faced bans. According to Bianet reporting, over 20 Kurdish concerts and plays were banned in the last three years in Turkey.

“It is difficult to understand what this government is doing,” said Faik Oztrak, an opposition party spokesperson at a press briefing on May 20. “It is free in Turkey to sing Kurdish songs. It is not possible to understand why such a contract has been canceled.”

Last summer, as plans were announced to lift the remaining COVID-19 restrictions, the state introduced new restrictions on all music events, requiring them to end by midnight. “Excuse me, but nobody has the right to disturb anyone at night,” said Erdoğan in June 2021. The hashtag #Kusurabakiyoruz (we don't excuse you) began trending immediately on Turkish Twitter, with scores of citizens and musicians expressing their displeasure with the new ban. Following the outcry, the Interior Ministry announced this month that live music would be permitted until 1 am, instead of midnight.

Speaking to AlMonitor, anthropologist and journalist Ayse Cavdar said the bans were a “form of symbolic violence.”

“This ban in Turkey is not really about music; rather, it is a ban on gathering. There are public spaces that Erdogan’s regime is concerned about —for example, bars,” Yektan Turkyilmaz, an anthropologist at the Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Central European University in Vienna, told Al Monitor in an interview.

These are the cultural antithesis to what Erdogan stands for; places he knows people are mostly critical of him. Next, there is a social class aspect. These bans are applied to middle and upper-middle groups; they are the ones going to bars or concerts after midnight mostly. Music could generate potentially dangerous messages. Last, Erdogan must now be thinking the time is ripe to alter the cultural codes of Turkey.

On May 9, Anadolu Fest, a large music festival that was to be held in Turkey's Eskişehir province, was also canceled following an announcement by the local governor's office. Despite the organizers’ attempts to reschedule the festival to June, they were unable to reach an agreement with state officials, said the organizers on Twitter on May 27.

Kemal Kahraman whose concert was among those that were canceled said in an interview with an online television channel Megafon TV on May 16, that canceling concerts was “a cheap move by the administration to make the ban on music performances permanent.”

Prominent Turkish rapper Ezhel who spoke about concert bans in an interview with Gazete Duvar, described the recent bans as “a war against culture, arts, youth, and entertainment.” “It is a war of either ‘you will all live like us, or you will not live at all,'” added the Turkish rapper.

In a seeming attempt to prove that music and art cannot be silenced, Mor of Otesi, a popular Turkish rock band, rocked the stage in Istanbul. A well known Turkish comedian Cem Yilmaz who attended the concert tweeted:

This is how concerts should be. Mor ve Otesi had us experience a very beautiful night. They managed to be the joy and sorrow of all these people in this photo, young or old. I could not be happier.

Another singer, Gökhan Özoğuz shared a video from the concert showing the 40,000 concert participants singing to one of the band's well-known songs:

The site of a real New Turkey where I heard the most sincere words, including the political arenas. It was a unique and meaningful night for anyone who took part. Congratulations friends.

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