In 2009, three pubescent boys from Istanbul's west side felt crushed under the government's unlawful actions and started rapping together in response. Then 15-year-olds Asil (Slang), Veysi (V.Z.), and Burak (Zen-g), from Romani, Kurdish, and Eastern Anatolian backgrounds respectively, had been watching Sulukule get torn down for an "urban transformation project" over the last few years, and they felt a strong urge to tell their side of the story. By the time the band came up with its first song, new construction equipment was already maneuvering into the spaces that once contained their friends' houses, making way for government-associated, expensive apartments the families from Sulukule could rarely afford. The historical neighborhood had been home to Romani people for over 600 years. It is no more.
What no one knew then was that in less than a decade, not just the displaced Romani people, but a whole generation in Turkey was going to find itself in the boys from Tahribad-ı İsyan's ("Destruction by Revolt") shoes: crushed, neglected, treated as a minority group with no rights, and often criminalized by the government. Following the Gezi Park protests in 2013 — the Turkish youth's most prominent uprising against President Erdogan — individual freedoms have greatly diminished. Four years of unrest, corruption scandals, bombings, mass killings in the country's Kurdish southeast, and one coup attempt later, criticizing President Erdogan's government is often punishable by jail time. Which probably has something to do with the unexpected rise and popularity of hip-hop in Turkey right now.
"All that's been going on affected our entire career: being in the middle of all this, in large part, made us who we are," says Zen-g over Skype, from Turkish artist Halil Altindere's bright, well-designed offices in Beyoglu. Altindere, originally from a mainly Kurdish town in the country's southeast, has been a longtime mentor and collaborator of the group, as well as the director of their last two music videos. There is honking and police sirens in the background, as well as the occasional seagull cry, making the soundtrack distinctively Istanbul. "We wouldn't have been able to write our lyrics without having felt the weight of these issues," Zen-g, whose rap moniker translates as "black" continues.
After years of self-released singles, the group's first studio album came out in early March, confirming that this is the most promising hip-hop act the country has seen since the peak of local heavy-hitters like Ceza and Sagopa Kajmer in the mid 2000s — the first rappers Slang, Zen-g, and V.Z. ever listened to.
Although Tahribad's eponymous first album is released with a major Turkish record label, its lyrics are critical of the government in a way that no one else dares to explore in post-coup crackdown Turkey, where over 150 journalists remain imprisoned, and a painter was recently arrested for painting a destructed Kurdish village.
"Here, corruption is the way to go, but will it always be? / Poverty is hard and you broke us, never treating us equally/ But He, He only thinks of what goes in his pockets / Sulukule is a gun and we're its bullets," goes one of the verses from the band's breakout hit, "Suç Mu?" ("Is It a Crime?"). In another song, "Ölene Kadar" ("'Till Death Do Us Part"), there is a verse about a mine disaster in which 238 miners lost their lives due to a combination of corporate greed and lack of governmental supervision.
"It's really important to us that we get to be honest with our work at a time when people are afraid to speak up," Slang says. "Because one of our utmost goals is to speak for those who have been silenced. All around the world, this is how it usually rolls: when you think you're being threatened, your first instinct is to get away, flight. But what is our end game if everyone did that?" Their families do get worried about their outspokenness, the band discloses, but the government hasn't intervened with their music so far.
Tahribad isn't the only hip-hop act that is popular in Turkey right now, but they are no doubt the most political. There is Norm Ender, a generation Y rapper who released an album via Universal Records in early February, but it mostly consists of diss tracks. There are Sansar Salvo and Selo of "Kadıköy Acil," a hip-hop collective on Istanbul's Asian side. They both stand closer to West Coast gangster rap than the East Coast style Tahribad looks up to — in particular, Public Enemy.
There's a parallel between the band members' experiences of growing up Kurdish and Romani in Turkey and the black experience elsewhere: ethnicity-based racism is rampant in Turkey, and it's being brought up in mainstream media for the first time. Tahribad's take-no-prisoners approach draws from growing up in marginalized minority communities in Turkey, and allows them to turn around reactions to current events rapidly, like a Snap capture. When asked what makes him committed to Tahribad's music, Hamza, a 20-year-old fan from Mardin (a town near Syrian border) doesn't stutter: "What draws me the most is the way they rebel against this oppressive power," he says. He has followed the band ever since their first music video, "Ghetto Machines," came out in 2012. "I remember the day they hit 28K views," he adds proudly. Ethnically Kurdish, Hamza break dances and raps himself, and is mustering the courage to release his own music, both in Turkish and Kurdish. His idol is Tupac, who "assertively defended black people and their rights, without ever losing his edge."
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, Tahribad has a completely different fan base: the art world. In 2013, their first video with Altindere, "Wonderland," was shown at the Istanbul Biennial, and met with critical acclaim. From there, the video went to London's Serpentine Gallery, and MoMA PS1, and eventually got acquired by MoMA. "We were in MoMA before we knew what those letters stood for," the band members laugh, trying to sound humble. "'Wonderland' spoke not just for Istanbul, but many other metropolises around the world, dealing with the same gentrification process at that very moment," Altindere says of the video's success. "Their songs right now could easily apply to the EU in the face of refugee crisis, or post-Trump America, as much as they do to the political situation in Turkey." "Wonderland" created a domino effect for all the artistic collaborations that came after.
While talking to Tahribad, the idea of art as a weapon comes up a lot ("we resist by making our art,"), as does the importance of intergenerationality. All three band members teach writing and hip-hop dance classes to Sulukule's remaining Romani children, as well as Syrian refugee children in Istanbul. "We had to work for 10 years, and figure it all out on our own," V.Z. says. "We've been really lucky to make it this far. But the children we teach now have access to all that we learned. In the middle of the turmoil and displacement, we think, maybe there is a way out for them in hip-hop. A way to build their confidence, and get their anger out. A way that might eventually help them get out of poverty."
Tahribad also supports the miniscule female faction of hip-hop in Turkey right now, and is consciously outspoken on violence against women in the country. In a recently released short film named Sulukule Mon Amour, director Azra Deniz Okyay follows the first two female hip-hop dancers of Sulukule, 20-year-old Gizem and 18-year-old Dina — who are part of the collective that performs with Tahribad. "The first time I met Tahribad, it was the day the news of a 20-year-old college student's rape and murder came out, and it was everywhere," she remembers. "I arrived to Sulukule for a video workshop, and there were 10 kids in the room, finishing up their class with Tahribad. They had been instructed to work on a hip-hop song against violence against women that day."
With a referendum about replacing Turkey's parliamentary system with a presidential system approaching, the air in Istanbul is very tense these days. If the "yes" vote wins, the parliament will lose the authority to monitor the president, vice president, and ministers — which would turn Turkey into a flesh and blood autocracy. When I ask Tahribad about the future of youth in Turkey, there's a brief silence. "Living in Turkey as a young person often feels like running an obstacle course," Zen-g says. "And we are jumping, crawling, falling, standing back up along the way — but we're coming. Count on us — we'll show up no matter what. Just be ready when we arrive."
Text Busra Erkara
Photography Ekin Ozbicer