When the Music is Stopped: the Disappearance of Festivals
and the Strangulation of Public Space in Turkey
T. Deniz Erkmen 21 December 2023

In the summer of 2023, an ominous phenomenon spread like wildfire from province to province in Turkey: the cancellation of music festivals and concerts. Just days before they were supposed to take place and generally at the request of public authorities such as mayors or governors, concerts and entire festivals were cancelled one by one. These repeated and continuous acts of cancellation, which started in the summer of 2022 and continued in 2023, generally do not make it to the international news. Even within Turkey, only concerts by more popular names like Gülşen, Mabel Matiz or Melike Şahin, or well-known festivals like Anadolu Fest, generate some public reaction on social media. Many smaller ones either go unnoticed or are ignored by the larger public.

Small as they may seem, these acts of silencing fit into a gloomy picture that constitutes life in authoritarian Turkey. They are part of the diverse arsenal that the Turkish regime has used over the past decade to consolidate its control over the country through two strategies: first, by silencing and suppressing the political and social opposition, and second, by constructing a new conservative “ideal” Turkish community through its discourse and social policies that target, among other things, everyday life and lifestyles. These two strategies are closely intertwined, as the state’s imposition of an ideal opens up the possibility of repression against everyday acts, lifestyle choices, and identities that do not conform to that ideal (such as drinking alcohol or gender identities that challenge conservative norms or the heteronormative order). This dynamic is most visible in the case of the LGBTQ movement in Turkey, which has been increasingly targeted and repressed in recent years, portrayed not only as immoral, but as a foreign-backed, organized threat to the “nation”, in fact a terrorist organization out to impose its deviant ideology on the impressionable youth.

The push of the regime is now more visible in arts and culture. Concert cancellations are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pressures in this arena. Yet, they provide strong clues about the nature of autocratization in Turkey, which has now entered a new phase in the aftermath of the momentous May 2023 elections that sealed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s grip on the “New Turkey” and dashed the opposition’s hopes for democratic transformation. Specifically, the concert cancellations demonstrate both the proliferation of everyday forms of repression and the bottom-up, societal participation in them, displaying the regime’s totalitarian tendencies in Turkey.


Welcome to “the opposition”: Who gets cancelled and why?

The artists and musicians whose concerts and shows have been banned are a diverse group; rappers like Eypio, ethnic rock singer Korhan Özyıldız, Turkish folk musician Hüseyin Turan, as well as world-renowned Kurdish musician Aynur Doğan are just a few examples. But, of course, their targeting is not random. These are all people who, in one way or another, are construed and then attacked as “opposing” or even “insulting” the regime, its policies, the nationalist-conservative Turkish-Islamic worldview reflected in those policies (generally referred to by regime supporters as the “sensibilities of the people” – halkın hassasiyetleri) and hence the “nation”. In Turkey’s highly polarized social and political life, where years of populist discourse and government policies have continuously generated us-versus-them tensions, it can be argued that they are the “enemies” who, at this juncture, simply do not belong to the imagined political community represented and commanded by Erdoğan.

Some become enemies when they voice their discontent with the state of affairs in Turkey. This was the case with the singer Melek Mosso, for example, who dedicated her prize at an award ceremony to women’s struggles and has advocated for women’s freedoms in her concerts. Similarly, both Mabel Matiz and Melike Şahin made statements at award ceremonies, standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Turkey. Hüseyin Turan, a folk singer who identifies as a dissident, openly supported the opposition on social media before the elections. In all these cases and many others, the artists in question became targets of AKP trolls on social media because of their words/views. The AKP trolls not only viciously attacked them, but also called on and even pressured the AKP mayors of the cities where they were supposed to play to cancel the musicians’ performances.

As should be clear from the above examples, it is not hard for a public figure to attract the wrath of social media trolls as well as the authorities and become a target. For others, however, their identity and language are sufficient to get them cancelled. In fact, many of the cancellations in the past three years have targeted Kurdish performers. Kurdish artists state that they cannot find venues to perform plays or concerts; that they are removed from programs when organizers see Kurdish-language songs in their repertoire. These struggles have created the suspicion that there is an unofficial ban on Kurdish performers, and that the liberalization that once included the Kurdish language in the public sphere has come to an end. In addition to the Kurds, other long-time enemies of the Turkish state, for example the radical left, have also been targeted. The mere suspicion that Grup Yorum, a well-known political and left-wing folk band with a long history of state repression, might perform at a festival is enough for the Istanbul-Sultangazi district governorship to cancel it.


Against the Collective

Yet, what is going on is not just an attack on undesirable artists to restrain their speech. Beyond punishment, these cancellations are an attempt to control public space and to shape what is and is not possible in public, not only by pushing certain people, discourses, and actions out of the public arena, but also by limiting the possibilities for people (especially young people) to come together with others.

The Gezi protests of 2013, which saw a massive mobilization of diverse groups against the AKP’s policies, constituted a critical junction for the Turkish regime, demonstrating great discontent as well as enormous desire and potential for change among the population. Considering how it was turned into a bogeyman, how it led to the trial and incarceration of philanthropist Osman Kavala and other activists, and how the president and other AKP elites repeatedly use it in their discourse to discredit protest as a legitimate means of political participation, it is not a stretch to think that Gezi installed a fear of the possibility of a similar large-scale mobilization within the regime. In fact, while the acceleration of protest repression started even before the Gezi protests, Erdoğan and the AKP have increasingly targeted the protest arena over the past decade through various means, including protest bans. These bans have been used extensively to dry up oppositional protests and prevent large-scale, cross-coalition mobilizations. They have meant that in certain provinces of Turkey, protests have been effectively declared “illegal” for long stretches of time.[1]

Thus, it can be argued that festival cancellations are parallel to protest bans in Turkey, in that they attempt to extinguish the possibility of a protest before it can happen, by not allowing a critical collectivity of like-minded people to gather. It is hard to imagine that the higher echelons of the Turkish regime are unaware of the scale of discontent among at least certain portions of the youth. This discontent has no clear outlet. With the current level of political and civil rights violations in the country, especially the media and social media restrictions that suffocate free speech in public, the possibilities of expressing and discussing oppositional ideas are extremely limited and potentially risky for many. Cross-coalition protests and street politics are almost impossible. The disillusionment many feel with institutional politics only adds to the frustration. In such an environment, it is not surprising that artists who speak out publicly are cherished by the frustrated youth.[2] It is also foreseeable that the regime perceives the gathering of thousands of young people as a possible, inflammable risk, especially when a critical artist is added to the mix.[3]


Protecting “Public Sensibilities”

In contrast to protest bans, however, the authorities generally do not give a reason for the cancellations; the musicians are simply informed that their concert has been cancelled.[4] When a statement of reasons is given, the justification for the cancellation predominantly revolves around “morality,” “values” or “public sensibilities.” In the case of Niyazi Koyuncu’s canceled concert in 2022, for example, the AKP-governed Pendik municipality stated that “they cannot allow a musician who does not share the values and views of their institution to give a concert in the squares of Pendik.” After canceling both Melike Şahin’s and Hüseyin Turan’s concerts, the mayor of Bursa stated that “…we have seen that certain artists make polarizing statements which insult our values. One cannot expect that we show no reaction to that. […] I want to underline that we will continue our arts and culture programs with artists who respect the national will (milli irade) and the values of the nation.” And here is the statement of the AKP mayor of Sandıklı in the West Anatolian town of Afyon, informing about the cancellation of the singer Gökçe’s concert. During the Pride Week of 2023, Gökçe tweeted, “People can love whoever they want to. Love is love.”:

“The concert scheduled for August 11th has been canceled after my investigation due to the invited artist’s statements that are almost slanderous against our esteemed President and contain LGBT support. As we have always stated, we are the children of this country. We have not and would not accept anyone who hurts our esteemed President or our holy values! People who share this content cannot even go through the borders of our district, let alone have a concert.”

Perhaps the clearest articulation against festivals is contained in a public statement issued by an umbrella organization called the Balıkesir Civil Society Platform, made up of 25 Islamist associations, calling for the cancellation of festivals. Festivals, according to the statement, “push the youth towards immoral, haram[5] relations, to the use of alcohol and drugs, making them drunk, and towards rebellion and uprising.” This “dulls down the Turkish youth, turns them into addicts and harms the Turkish century[6]”. In addition to canceling the festivals, the platform demands that all events be regulated, made alcohol-free and have separate sections for women and men.

Of course, in these discussions, being a woman who does not fit into a certain conservative mold is clearly against public sensibilities. This played out in the case of the singer Gülşen, who was criticized and attacked for her risky costumes, which were seen as immodest. After being portrayed in public discussion as an immoral figure[7], Gülşen was arrested when someone filmed and circulated a joke she made on stage about people who went to religious schools in Turkey. This led not only to many cancellations, but also to a court trial, where she was sentenced to 10 months in prison.[8]

Whether the AKP and Erdoğan’s regime wants to transform the Turkish society has been a hot topic of contention in Turkish politics. The ban on the sale of alcohol after 10 pm, the exorbitant taxes on alcoholic drinks, and the ban on music after midnight during the pandemic, which continued even after all pandemic restrictions were lifted, have been interpreted by some as the regime’s interference in lifestyles. While concert cancellations push critical speech and oppositional views as well as certain identities out of public life, they also reenact and become part of the attempt to impose a conservative ideal on Turkish society. This ideal imagines a homogeneous, Turkish nationalist, Sunni-Islamic and strongly patriarchal community, which has no place for vocal minorities, queer identities, or women outside of the family unit, except behind closed doors or on the margins, to be “tolerated”. The music cancellations should hence be seen in tandem with social policies that promote this conservative ideal. These include policies that make it harder for women to get abortions, that have increased the number of religious schools, as well as Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, the human rights treaty that combats domestic violence and violence against women. The mainstream media, controlled by the regime, also propagates this worldview through entertainment and advertising.

It is this goal of transforming the society that gives what political scientists call the competitive authoritarian regime in Turkey, its totalitarian tendencies. Concert cancellations also signal these tendencies, as they involve not only top-down but also bottom-up dynamics. As noted above, in a significant number of cases, the cancellations came after artists were attacked on social media, with mayors of AKP-dominated districts following suit.[9] We do not know whether these social media attacks are coordinated or whether they are civilians acting autonomously. Similarly, we do not know whether the pressure on the mayors (and governors) is coming from the party, or whether they are acting on their own, either responding to popular pressure or acting for political gain and the approval of the leader. Reading between the lines of the news, however, one does get the sense that there is at least some participation from the conservative population, which is now – maybe – more daring to impose its will on others. Just as insidious as the social media trolls (in fact, sometimes leading and acting with them) are certain civil society associations of an Islamic bend who publicly pressure officials, like the Balıkesir Civil Society Platform mentioned above. Anadolu Youth Association (Anadolu Gençlik Derneği), an association closely related to the Islamic Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi), is one that is particularly active. These associations are the results of AKP policies aimed at fostering a regime-friendly civil society who assists the regime in its attempt to create cultural hegemony;[10] their role in music cancellations is just one example in how they mobilize for that goal.


On the Desertification of the Public Sphere

These pressures on artists and art are not only directed towards musicians. Just a few months ago an exhibition in the new art space in Istanbul, Feshane, was attacked by a group of activists who claimed it was “LGBTQ propaganda” and demanded its closing.[11] Similarly, an illustration by Ersin Karabulut at the Cartoon and Illustration Festival at another municipal art-space, Gazhane in Istanbul, was removed after complaints of its “indecency”. Events like these create an environment of fear and may trigger cycles of self-censorship in that artists may tone down their voice in conformity, or even non-AKP districts and art institutions might cancel people or events out of fear of potential reprisal without anyone targeting them[12]. Overall, these seriously hinder opportunities for critical artists to thrive in Turkey. In an environment strapped by economic crisis, they also mean economic troubles for them following years of pandemic that particularly hit musicians, who were not able to work and who did not get any state support.

Along with the hardship and danger for artists, one anticipates a certain desertification of the public sphere in Turkey as a result. The attempt to impose an Islamic worldview onto the cultural sphere feels like plucking out indigenous plants from a meadow, with the goal of manicuring it with a monocrop, except in the Turkish case, there is no meaningful regime supported artistic and cultural production that may replace what is being torn out. The passing of the musician Erkin Koray this year, the “father of Anatolian Rock”, is a sad reminder that the potential that was once inherent in the rich, complex, and varied cultural traditions of this country, which includes its secular, republican legacy, is being depleted.

This is not to say that cultural production has stopped; creative endeavors, while under serious pressure, continue against all odds. Yet, for many citizens in Turkey, particularly for the urban youth, these developments add to a life that is becoming joyless and bleak by the day. The ongoing economic crisis defined by soaring inflation and exchange rate hikes is squeezing out the urban middle class, who had to give up practices that are the cornerstones of the middle-class life, like cultural activities, eating out, holidays and traveling. Between political repression and economic hardship, 73 percent of respondents in a survey on youth in 2022, for whom a decent life seems to be out of reach, state that they will leave the country if they get a chance. It is no wonder that there is an accelerating brain-drain from Turkey involving mainly middle-class professionals like IT, engineering, doctors, and academics. When it looks like the ideal that the Turkish regime desires for its people is working for bare survival for most, and consumption in Dubai-like spaces for the rich, no one can really blame them.




[1] https://birikimdergisi.com/guncel/10211/mobil-ohal-yonetimi-ve-turkiyede-protesto-yasaklari; see also Mert Arslanalp & T. Deniz Erkmen (2020) Mobile emergency rule in Turkey: legal repression of protests during authoritarian transformation, Democratization, 27:6, 947-969.

[2] This was clearly shown when the famous Turkish singer Tarkan’s song “Geçcek” as well as rappers Ezhel’s and Saniser’s politically charged and critical videos (Olay and Susamam respectively) went viral. See a discussion of rap and pop artists galvanizing the opposition in Turkey as well as the role of ambiquity in songs communicating dissent: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/10/how-rap-is-making-changes-turkey/


[3] In fact, many suspected that the goal of keeping students away from each other, and hence away from protesting, was the actual reason why the administration ordered all universities to go online after the devastating earthquakes of February 2023.

[4] Generally, protest bans in Turkey contain a justification that bases itself on multiple laws to use legality for its legitimization; they count public order, public security, economic reasons, as well as “public sensibilities” among the reasons. See Arslanalp and Erkmen (2020) above for a discussion.

[5] Meaning prohibited by the Quran, hence forbidden.

[6] Turkish Century Türkiye Yüzyılı is the name of the program reflecting the vision promoted by President Erdoğan, which symbolically marks 2023, the centennial of the Republic, as the beginning of a new, grandiose Turkish century; a new chapter in Turkish history. This vision of Turkish power and prosperity reflects all the key ideological elements of the regime. Erdoğan has introduced this program in October 2022 and refers to it and the projects it entails, such as constitutional changes to protect and strengthen the family unit, the production of the Turkish car TOGG, or advancements in Turkish military industry in his speeches regularly. See https://turkiyeyuzyili.com.

[7] AKP media regularly depict her as an immoral, scandalous woman; see for example https://www.yeniakit.com.tr/haber/gulsenden-yeni-skandal-bu-kadin-iyice-raydan-cikti-1662232.html.

[8] She will, however, not go to prison, granted that she does not engage in an illegal act for 5 years. https://www.bbc.com/turkce/articles/clm9g1pjlp0o

[9] In fact, in one case, a mayor who did not cancel a concert in face of pressures, had to issue an apology and resign. https://www.evrensel.net/haber/492526/melek-mosso-konseri-nedeniyle-hedef-alinan-akpli-belediye-baskani-istifa-etti

[10] See Yabanci, B. (2019). Turkey’s tamed civil society: Containment and appropriation under a competitive authoritarian regime. Journal of Civil Society15(4), 285-306.

[11] In their statement they said that “the things that are exhibited here under the banner of “art” do not fit into and conflict with our moral fabric and national culture, they encourage perversion.” https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/ibbnin-artistanbul-feshanede-actigi-sergiye-saldiri-girisimi-haber-1627378

[12] See for example Genç’s discussion about the lack of “bravery” of certain key institutions like the renovated Istanbul Modern Museum in offering a platform to LGBTQ voices https://artreview.com/what-is-the-future-of-istanbuls-lgbtq-art-scene/


This article was first published in German by Bpb on November 11, 2023.

Cover photo: Turkish singer Melek Mosso performs on stage in Shishane Square in Istanbul, on June 1, 2022. (Photo by Yasin AKGUL / AFP.)

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