Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

“You are a Turk from Germany.” The words are from the song “Sen Turksun” (You Are a Turk) by German-Turkish rap group Cartel. Cartel shot to prominence in 1995 in Germany and Turkey with their album, “Cartel,” which within a month of its release sold 30,000 copies in Germany and 180,000 in Turkey. The “Cartel, Number One” video aired repeatedly on Turkish television and quickly hit the top of the Turkish pop charts. Every Turkish station and newspaper wanted to interview the group, which fascinated the Turkish public with its aggressive style, its ingenious music that combined rap with elements of Turkish musical genres, and its lyrics. For example:

Cartel, number one, the greatest!
The crazy Turk from hell!
25 years old, a car worth thousands
Where did this money come from?
Don’t ask, you won’t understand,
You won’t get it, don’t ask,
Every day is war
Streets are in blood
The blood isn’t even red
It is black blood

These tough-looking young men — Turkish, Kurdish, German and Cuban, outfitted in black — produced a musical mix that employed Turkish melodies and instruments. They rapped primarily in Turkish, but also in English and German. Cartel’s lyrics, musical styles, the instruments, its members’ affiliations and modes of expression are impossible to categorize in an unambiguous way. The product is neither German, Turkish, American or European, but contains all these elements and more.

Some band members had been affiliated with Turkish anti-racist groups in Germany organized to fight neo-Nazi skinhead assaults on Turks. Cartel member Abdurrahman says he joined the anti-Nazi organization because “we need to be like a single fist against the skinheads who are attacking our families, raiding our homes, beating up Turkish women. Now we see that music allows us to do this much better than street fights.” [1] Members Alper and Kerim assert that rap music allows them to express their anger against Germans who treat Turks as inferiors. [2] Turks, they argue, should uphold their Turkish identity and refuse the second-class status that is imposed on them:

Isn’t it enough,
Hey isn’t it enough,
Hey aren’t all of these enough?
We came all the way here,
Isn’t this enough?
We worked like dogs,
We were oppressed, humiliated,
Brother and friend gave their lives
Our families spent all their lives
Aren’t all of these enough?
Not enough, damn it!
We gathered, we grew
Those who see us,
Ought to say [respectfully] “Hey look, that’s a Turk!”

Cartel’s version of diasporic identity came to be identified particularly with its song, “You Are a Turk.” The song presents the “Turk” as the marginalized subject, the “foreigner” who needs to reassert his presence in Germany on his own terms. [3] The Turk is a part of Germany, the song declared repeatedly: “Sen Turksun, Almanyali” (You are a Turk, from Germany). As Levent Soysal notes, the Turk of Cartel is not a foreigner; he belongs to Germany, although not to Germanness. Cartel focuses its discontent against the continuing disempowerment of Turkish and other diasporic communities, and against the labels “guest workers” (Gastarbeiter) or “foreigners,” which serve to feed xenophobia and neo-Nazi violence. [4] The “Turk” in Cartel’s music is an expression of the search for the acknowledgment of Turkish political and social presence in German society, not as foreign and transient, but as a constituent and permanent part of Germany. Cartel uses “Turk” as a self-identification that asserts that diasporic peoples, their lives and experiences, should be respected as part of German society.

A “Turk” Here, A “Turk” There

In Germany, however, it came as a relief when Cartel appeared to self-identify as “Turk.” The mainstream German media conveniently identified Cartel with the first phrase of the song “You are a Turk” and ignored the next phrase which identified the “Turk” as being “from Germany.” [5] The media interpreted the song as an expression of allegiance to the “newly found homeland,” Turkey, and regarded the “Turk” as a foreigner, forever connected to his/her homeland and thus unable to become a part of Germany. This convenient (mis)reading subverted Cartel’s efforts to establish the Turkish presence in Germany, and confined them to the realm of the Other, to the exterior of Germany. Although the “home” Cartel evoked in its songs was Germany, the German media asserted that Cartel’s “home” was Turkey. “You are a Turk” seemed to absolve Germans of the need to deal with hybrid identities in Germany and to justify the rejection of calls to integrate the Turkish diaspora into German society.

In Turkey, meanwhile, Cartel was celebrated as a “Turkish” product that could produce Western music as good as any Westerner. The Turkish media saw Cartel’s success as a Turkish “victory” in Europe that showed European audiences what the “Turk” can do, and it ignored the circumstances that produced Cartel and to which the group responded. Turkish audiences were amused by the hostility and passion expressed in Cartel’s songs and considered them a good imitation of American rap. Media and fans regarded these “Turkish black kids of Europe” as a new beacon of hope for the success of Turkish pop music on the global and European charts, while overlooking Cartel’s expressions of discontent toward conditions in Germany.

For nationalist and ultranationalist circles in Turkey, “Turk” was a self-evident category that could not take on different meanings in different contexts. According to this logic, a “Turkish-German” made no sense, and so the line, “You are a Turk from Germany,” was reduced to “you are a Turk.” In congruence with the dominant public discourse, this is a “universal Turk” who is a Turk no matter where he is. Cartel’s celebration of Turkish identity was thus understood as upholding the notion of “Turk” as a universal category, which is often evoked against non-Turkic identities to deny them legitimacy. In the political context of the 1990s, celebrating the “Turk” constituted a powerful statement against Kurdish struggles for recognition within the Turkish nation-state.

When Cartel arrived in Istanbul for a tour of Turkey in August 1995, they were greeted at the airport by ultranationalists and members of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, which advocates pan-Turkic nationalism. [6] The enthusiastic welcome, replete with nationalist slogans, calls for a pan-Turkic unification and expressions of animosity against separatist Kurdish movements in Turkey, left Cartel’s members baffled and confused: Cartel, an expression of resentment against ultranationalism, was being cheered by ultranationalists.

The Turkish tour was a disappointment for Cartel, as the group had to cancel most of its concerts due to organizational, financial and managerial difficulties. The following year the group split up and its former members established two new groups — Karakan (Blackblood) and Erci E, both of which produced hits in subsequent years.

The way Cartel’s music has traveled forces us to broaden our understanding of “migration.” Migration is much more than a movement of a group of people from one place to another. It is not only about crossing national boundaries but about interrogating those boundaries and contesting their limitations. Finding themselves in places that are over-determined by the language of nationalism, diasporic communities search for new ways to articulate their ambiguous presence. These articulations result in hybrid forms of cultural expression and identity that transgress and unsettle existing norms of national belonging. In the face of the powerful authority of the system and language of the nation-state, such transgressive forms are often sustained only temporarily. Yet they also provide momentary but crucial opportunities for opening up such systems of authority for negotiation and change.

Author’s Note: The author thanks Levent Soysal for sharing his research material and Jamal Malik for his insightful comments.

Endnotes

[1] Kenan Erçetinöz, “Avrupa’ daki Türklerin Sesi: Cartel” Sabah, August 4, 1995.
[2] “Al Sana Karakan” Aktüel, September 4, 1997.
[3] This “Turk” is intentionally a male subject who can express his discontent and anger through machismo.
[4] For a detailed account of the Turkish rap scene in Germany, see Levent Soysal, “Projects of Culture: An Ethnographic Episode in the Life of Migrant Youth in Berlin,” Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1999.
[5] “Turksun=Du Bist Tuerke,” Die Zeit, January 12, 1996; Spex (November 1995), cited in Soysal, op.cit.
[6] Kevin Robins and David Morley, “Almanci, Yabanci,” Cultural Studies 10/2 (May 1996), pp. 248-254.

How to cite this article:

Alev Çınar "Cartel: Travels of German-Turkish Rap Music," Middle East Report 211 (Summer 1999).
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