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FORMED at an Istanbul university in 1985, Grup Yorum is one of Turkey’s best known bands. During that time the collective has undergone an almost constant series of changes with its members targeted by the Turkish state because of their political stances. This has included around 400 arrests and trials, the banning of concerts and other performances and the seizure by the police of their albums.
Despite the repression they remain hugely popular among Turkish and Kurdish progressives, with hundreds of thousands turning out to their annual open air concerts, held up until 2015. Recently however the situation has worsened. Their 2016 event was cancelled at the last minute, their community centre has been raided by police eight times in the last two years and now at least 30 core members have been detained.
Six members of Grup Yorum have been placed on the Turkish state’s notorious “grey list” as wanted terrorists with a 300,000 Turkish lira bounty on their heads. More than 10 of the band members are in prison.
Five of the band members are on an indefinite hunger strike with their health seriously ailing after 192 days. They are demanding an end to police raids, removal of Grup Yorum members from the Turkish state wanted list, an end to the ban on Grup Yorum concerts, the dropping of charges and release of all Grup Yorum members.
Can you give us a little bit about the background of Grup Yorum — where, when and why did you form?
After the 1980 military coup there was a dark period. While the revolutionaries were being tortured in prisons, there were not many opposition voices. In a period when theatres closed their curtains and the songs were silenced, Grup Yorum appeared in the Ortakoy Cultural Centre. In 1985, the singing of four university students was heard from a small room. “Who are they?” The question as often asked. “Our Yorum’cular” [our commentators] was the answer. And so, Grup Yorum began with four university students coming out of the darkness during the 1980 coup: our first album was called Siyrilip Gelen – which when translated to English roughly means to “come through.”
How would you describe your style of music?
We have a revolutionary music style in the most general sense. What does that mean? Revolutionary means new. We use different musical styles in every new period. We always think about what we can do best and newest. A lot of definitions are made, but the truth may be this: we make contemporary folk music.
What are your musical and other influences?
We are fed by the people. All of our productions have a social basis. It is a fact that we are obliged to tell the age we live in because we carry the mission of being the intellectuals of this country. It’s a big responsibility for us. In this context, the joys and the pains of the people, the anger, everything that the people have lived through is what influences our work and shows us the direction of our work.
Formally, we are influenced by our history, world history masters, learning from them and presenting them in our own way. We have a long history that goes from Pir Sultan to Vapstarov, from Victor Jara to Nazim Hikmet and many others. We continue to learn from them. And we add their voices to our songs.
How important is politics to your music and how would you describe this?
All music is political to one degree or another, whether consciously or not. We make political music and we express it fearlessly. We say that we are an alternative and art can be done with the people for the benefit of the people. Not only do we say it, we show it in practice. We are also telling the people that they can live in a better system.
We say that the alternative is in the strong hands of the people, not only in art but in every sense, which scares the powerful and the capitalists. Because what we say is not in their best interests. We shout “Murderer America get out!” in our song “Amerika katil defol!” because they’re protecting the US air base in Incirlik, hoping to benefit from America. We shout “This is our country (Bu memleket bizim)” because they sell the resources of this land. These kind of messages are a danger for them and so they attack. But one thing they’ve forgotten is that they can’t cover the sun with mud.
In explaining our establishment, we tried to explain that the music we do is not independent of the periods we lived in. We live in a class society. In a place where the oppressor and the oppressed have two classes, everything must be serving a policy. There’s no neutral point between the oppressor and the oppressed, and there can never be one.
We have chosen our side centuries ago. We are in favour of the oppressed people wherever there is an oppressor. We do our art not for a group of parasites but for the benefit of millions of people. We also know that all the music made serves the interests of the people or the bourgeoisie. In this way, everyone from pop stars to rappers are making political music in some way. We accept this and we say this. Yes, we make political music. Which we believe we need to, we have to do.
Can you explain why the group is such a threat for the Turkish state?
Since the first years of our establishment, we have faced captivity and detention. Hundreds of lawsuits have been brought against us. Many of our members were arrested and tortured. Recently, eleven members were arrested with the words of a slanderer (an informant who was forced by police to speak falsely), and we have six members placed on the “grey list” as wanted terrorists with a bounty on their heads.
Although we have friends who were acquitted from this case, we still have friends who are still captive due this same case. They raided our cultural centre nine times in two years. They banned our concerts. So, they were afraid of folk songs. It is a fact; those who make the folk songs of a nation are more powerful than those who make their laws. We have seen this much better in this process. Our listeners said, “Keep singing hopeful folk songs.”
We are aware of our mission. We can bring together millions of people, and with those millions we sing our folk songs. They feared this, and this is why they attempted to terrorise us, tried to break our ties with the people. But their attacks are worthless, we have a huge strong root of 34 years.
You are believed to be the first band to have sung in Kurdish. Can you explain why you did this? Our readers may not be aware that Kurdish was banned and even after the law was relaxed on this slightly, attitudes have not. What was the fallout from this? Ahmet Kaya famously had cutlery thrown at him after he sang in Kurdish at a music award ceremony.
We put Kurdish songs on a cassette tape during a period when Kurdish people were ignored, slaughtered, when Kurdish language was forbidden, when Kurdish halays [folk dances] could not be played even at weddings. We were the first, and they wanted us to pay the price for this by shooting our albums with live ammunition. They thought we’d get scared, but just because they were ignoring the Kurdish people, we could not ignore them. Why? Because we came from those people who were being silenced, some of our friends and our relatives are experiencing the anger of not being able to speak their mother tongue.
Singing Kurdish songs is our clear attitude towards assimilation policies. Even now Kurdish is supposedly not banned and the state itself seems to have opened the TRT KURDI channel, but this is also an assimilation policy. Because they say “speak Kurdish within my limits, and how I want you to speak.” Although it now supposedly “embraces” the language due to the opening period, this is a deceptive situation. Just lately, a viewer called and connected to a show and spoke in Zaza, and the presenter called Muge Anli cut them off. Muge Anli then said “We don’t understand, why should we listen.” This never would have happened if the caller spoke English, but when it comes to Kurdish and Zaza, the situation changes and they silence the caller.
Why did you decide on the hunger strike as a protest? Was there any link or connection to the hunger strikes led by Leyla Guven?
The hunger strike was perhaps our last resort. We tried many things to frustrate these concert bans, arrests, wanted lists, raids. But we had to turn it into a stronger action. There are very good examples in history, there are gains. Our cultural centre is named after Ayce Idil Erkmen. Ayce is not just a flower’s name. She is the world’s first female “death fast” martyr. We are her students. With this aspect, we have chosen to resist the persecution. Because this is a struggle for existence. They tell us to shut up and submit. But where has it been seen that we have bowed down and submitted to oppression? Never. We chose resistance to expose the persecution, and to protect our dignity. When we come to the hunger strike of Leyla Guven, there is no connection.
How is the group’s health? How are they being treated?
Five of our friends are on hunger strike indefinitely. Baris Yuksel, Bahar Kurt, Ibrahim Gokcek, Helin Bolek and Ali Araci. They all have muscle problems. Helin also has kidney pains and insomnia problems. Ibrahim and Bahar experienced weight loss very fast because there are difficulties in taking vitamin B1. Prison administrations are not providing them with the B1 vitamin. They’re giving them a complex drug. But this doesn’t meet the requirements enough. They are experiencing the effects of the hunger strike faster.
The Silivri prison administration is threatening to intervene in the hunger strike of Grup Yorum members Ibrahim and Baris. This means force feeding. Force feeding means torture, force feeding may leave the members physically disabled. But they are very enthusiastic. They have great faith in winning.
[Five members were released ahead of their trial date on November 20 – the hunger strike continues.]
Can you explain a bit about the solidarity movement? Is there support from other musicians, if so who? What are the demands and what can people in Britain do to support?
We are in contact with our musician friends. They are following the process. Our main issue is to be on the agenda: break down censorship. Grup Yorum should be everywhere. This is really important. We recently experienced the Nuriye and Semih period [Nuriye Gulmen and Semih Ozakca were left-wing teachers who went on a successful hunger strike in protest at their dismissal and designation as terrorists in the mass sacking of thousands of public servants following the 2016 failed coup attempt and subsequent state of emergency in Turkey.]
Even in Tokyo, there were writings on the walls about Nuriye and Semih, people offering their support without thinking about the thousands of kilometres. They were involved in a wide variety of activities. This could happen again. It is important for us to have an echo in international public opinion. For example, even writing “Free Grup Yorum!” on a piece of paper in whichever city you are, and then holding this up in the air and sharing it on social media will break the censorship. In the United Kingdom, the Britain Grup Yorum Volunteers are in touch with a couple of music organisations. They have also been organising weekly protests in front of the Turkish embassy. They’ve written letters to our imprisoned members. We have members in Europe, and so Grup Yorum had a concert in Athens this month where hundreds of people joined them in singing their songs — the Greek people showed great solidarity.
Finally, what message would you give to the readers of the Morning Star and the British labour movement?
We’re not just resisting for ourselves. Our resistance is in the name of all oppressed peoples of the world.
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