Traditional instrument from the Middle East and Asia called Oud  - © Quetar Abdrezzak/Shutterstock

© Quetar Abdrezzak/Shutterstock

In recent weeks, Turkey has seen numerous cancellations of concerts and music festivals by authorities linked to President Erdogan's AKP: political repression against opposition and minorities now also affects music

10/06/2022 -  Kenan Behzat Sharpe Istanbul

Two days before he was set to give a concert in Istanbul, a singer was told by an AKP-run municipality in Istanbul that the concert would not go on as planned because he does not share the municipality’s “values and perspectives”. Earlier in May, a four-day youth festival set to begin in a western Turkish province was cancelled at the last minute by the governor with a blanket ban on all gatherings except those seen as “acceptable”. A few days later, a world-famous Kurdish singer had her concert cancelled by another AKP-run provincial municipality in Turkey on the grounds that her music is “inappropriate”.

Throughout May, there was an avalanche of concert bans by municipalities or governorships run by Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Both music fans and politicians from the opposition decry these bans as ideological. As the courts hand down heavy sentences  to dissident figures from philanthropist Osman Kavala to Canan Kaftancioglu, Istanbul chairperson of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), music and the arts have become another site of this wide-ranging crackdown on Turkish civil society.

Singer Niyazi Koyuncu is part of the Laz minority of Turkey’s Black Sea region and the brother of late singer Kazım Koyuncu, who combined outspoken minority and linguistic identity with radical left-wing politics until his death in 2005. The AKP municipality of Istanbul’s Pendik district did not specify exactly which of their “values and perspectives” Niyazi Koyuncu does not share when they cancelled his concert two days before it was supposed to take place on May 25. However, in his statement on Twitter, the singer expressed his belief that the ban was political: “Despite all the bans and attempts to marginalise others, we will continue all together to sing our songs even louder”.

Koyuncu was referring to a series of high-profile bans that have outraged many in Turkey over the last month. The first was Anadolu Fest, an event in Eskisehir that was to host famous musicians like pop singer Levent Yuksel, rapper Sagopa Kajmer, and indie musician Deniz Tekin. With 10,000 tickets sold and only three days left until the event, the local governor’s office announced that all events would be banned for 15 days. While Anadolu Fest was not specifically mentioned in the statement, the decision effectively cancelled it.

The festival’s organisers immediately released a statement on May 9: “We planned this festival months in advance and had begun our work. After the decision announced today, we are as much in shock as all of you. This decision designed to ban our festival has deeply saddened us ”. The statement went on to describe how the police came to the festival grounds to stop the work crews from setting up the stages though they did not show a warrant or any legally binding written statement from the public prosecutor. “We condemn these illegal acts and this attempt to get in the way of young people’s love of art and the labour of thousands of people”, the organisers’ statement read.

The news of the banned festival quickly spread on social media as the hashtag #FestivalimeDokunma (Don’t Touch My Festival) went viral. Many drew attention to the fact that a group of Islamist organisations had published a joint letter campaigning for the cancellation of the festival on the grounds that is an event “sponsored by alcohol companies [and] in which boys and girls stay together in tents, and unfortunate sights occur with people under the influence of alcohol and drugs”.

It also emerged that Eskisehir Governor Erol Ayyildiz had previously visited similar organisations, including one run by the ultra-religious Ismailaga order. In a tweet drawing a connection between the governor’s warm relations with Islamic religious orders and his banning of the festival, Workers’ Party of Turkey (TIP) MP Baris Atay wrote, “Are you there to fulfil the wishes of these reactionaries and bigots, Erol Ayyildiz? […] This festival will happen . You cannot silence art”.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19, both alcohol and music have been hot topics of contention between the government and the opposition. In April 2021, Erdogan announced that alcohol sales would be banned during a three-week lockdown . A similarly unconventional measure for stopping the spread of COVID-19 was imposed on music. While musicians struggled throughout the pandemic in Turkey as venues and bars were closed, when Erdogan lifted the remaining COVID-19 restrictions on July 1, 2021, he added a new one: all music in bars and venues must stop at midnight. Though recently this was pushed back to 1 a.m., many still argue the ban is not about stopping the pandemic or noise pollution but ideology.

One pro-government figure's comments on the banning of Anadolu Fest confirmed widespread suspicions that the recent string of concert bans is related to the government’s larger project of engineering a more pious society by intervening in citizens’ lifestyles. Speaking of the event in Eskisehir , Mustafa Destici, chair of AKP’s junior alliance partner the Great Unity Party (BBP), said: “Let me be clear. These things are haram. This is a wine and beer festival pretending to be a music festival. Under the cover of art, [they do things] that do not correspond with our values. It’s immoral”.

However, not all the recent bans are about lifestyle. As with Koyuncu’s cancelled concert in Istanbul, these bans often seek to silence people whose politics or ethnic identity the government does not see as acceptable.

One case in point is Aynur Dogan, whose concert planned for May 2 was cancelled by the Derince municipality in Turkey’s Kocaeli province after an “investigation” that deemed the concert “inappropriate”. Dogan is a Kurdish musician from Turkey. She has performed concerts around the world with figures like Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. In 2021 she was given the WOMEX Award for Professional Excellence, just one of her several international honours.

Speaking in Turkey’s parliament, CHP MP Nurhayat Altaca Kayisoglu argued that Dogan’s concert was cancelled simply because she sings in Kurdish. To make this point, she sang lines in English from Turkish singer Sertab Erener’s 2003 Eurovision-winning English song “Every Way That I Can”, then some lines from the Kurdish song “Dar Hejiroke”. “This we can sing. The other we can’t”, Altaca Kayisoglu said.

This point was driven home by yet another ban, involving Metin and Kemal Kahraman’s concert in Mus. The sibling duo performs songs in various Kurdish dialects celebrating the Kurdish and Alevi heritage of Dersim province.

When the AKP came to power in 2002, it accelerated a process of liberalising use of the Kurdish language in public, music, and media. However, since the failure of a peace process between the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in 2015, the state approach to Kurdish identity has again begun to be dominated by the rubric of “terrorism.”

As AKP Group Deputy Chairman Mustafa Elitas said of Dogan after her concert was banned, “She’s someone who is engaged in PKK propaganda”. Elitas put forward no proof for this accusation, but he seems to be referring simply to the fact that Dogan sings in the Kurdish language.

While the world is reeling from the high-profile imprisonment of opposition figures in Turkey, the recent banning of concerts by local governorships and municipalities sheds a different light on how political repression functions in Turkey. It is not just dissidents who are being targeted. Rather, anyone who departs from the government’s norm of the pious, Sunni, Turkish citizen is increasingly subject to arbitrary bans and restrictions, including on their music.

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