In Turkey, Music Takes You Where a Travel Visa Can't
We talked with Ozoyo, a Turkish DJ and producer, about the music scene in Istanbul and what it's like to be an artist in a country where political rights and civil liberties aren't guaranteed.
All photos by Yannick Müller
A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Germany.
In Turkey, journalists at magazines critical of the government, like Cumhuriyet, are currently being thrown in prison. Authors are under constant surveillance, and since 2017 the number of academics who've been fired from their jobs in the public sector has risen to over 5,000. Under President Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish government has aggressively rescinded political rights and civil liberties, with media freedom sharply declining after a violent political coup in July 2016. According to Freedom House, Turkey's press freedom status is listed as "not free," and the country's current "Freedom in the World" score is 32 out of 100 (zero being the least free, 100 being the most free).
But what's it like to be a musician in Turkey? Noisey spoke with Ozoyo, a DJ and producer in Istanbul, to find out. The 27 year old was born in Turkey, but lived in Germany with his family for eight years during his youth. He's been back in his home country for nearly ten years now, and lives in Istanbul as a musician and student. The music he makes is largely instrumental: Chill beats with hip-hop samples, with a hint of jazz and electronic music throughout this smooth sound. We asked him about the local music scene in Istanbul, what's its like to be an artist in Turkey's political climate, and his plans for the future.
Noisey: How would you describe your sound?
Ozoyo: The music I make is pretty laid-back. When I first started my music project as Ozoyo, I was listening to a lot of jazz. And I grew up with hip-hop. But I’m not someone who just gets stuck within one genre—I’m open to new sounds and enjoy getting experimental. The first two EPs were laid-back, but my next project is definitely going to be a little harder in terms of its sound.
What sort of influences inspire you?
Everything I experience, everything I still want to experience, and everything that’s still waiting to cross my path. Might sound philosophical, but that’s the way I feel. I released my EP Wanderlust two years ago. Back then, I just wanted to travel but never had the time. So I decided to produce an EP that tells a story about traveling and the yearning for faraway places. If you take a close look at the track list, you can see what sort of trip I was imagining for myself.
From the protests in Gezi Park in 2013 to the attempted political coup in July 2016, all the way to the current imprisonment of artists and journalists who are critical of the government: The political landscape of Turkey has changed significantly in recent years. What is your impression of the current political climate in the country?
The protests didn’t go unnoticed by me. At the Gezi protests in 2013, people initially gathered together to peacefully prevent the trees there from being cut down. Of course there were then groups who acted in a questionable way. But overall, it was about solidarity with a positive underlying idea: the preservation of something old, of the green spaces in the heart of the city in opposition to the construction of another large shopping center. It’s tragic that people wound up dying in the end.
To what degree have the living conditions in Istanbul changed for you?
My life hasn’t changed drastically, but you can see that the prices have risen rapidly. Everything is getting more expensive. The minimum wage is 1,400 Lira (roughly $350 USD) a month, and a beer in a typical bar costs about 15 Lira (close to $4 USD). Of course alcohol isn’t good for your health, but having fun is a privilege for the rich here. Even traveling has become difficult and expensive. First you need to get a passport, then you have to pay to get a visa, and on top of that you have a catastrophic currency exchange rate. For one dollar you’ve got to toss out nearly 4 Lira. That doesn’t leave much room for luxuries like vacation. But luckily, music allows me to travel in a different way. For a majority of the population that just isn’t possible, which is really too bad.
How have the political changes manifested in your daily life?
Not a lot has changed in my personal, day-to-day life. I willingly moved back to Turkey with my family in 2008 after having spent eight years in Germany. But since I've come back, I've noticed that a lot of people are trying to move to Germany, England, or Austria. So I’m often asked why I came back [to Turkey]. I'm currently studying linguistics in Istanbul and I'll probably be done with my studies this year. Only once I’m finished with university will I know where I’ll be living.
What do you miss—any not miss—about Germany? What are the perks in your life in Turkey?
Döner kebab tastes way better in Germany than in Turkey. That said, I’m not a big fan of the weather in Germany. But I really need to see more cities in Turkey and in Germany. Only then will I be able to form a solid opinion about both countries. I used to live in the Stuttgart region [in southwest Germany], and now I'm in Istanbul. But it’s difficult for me to make generalizations about people. Everyone grows up differently, here and there.
How would you describe the music scene in Istanbul?
Like anywhere else, the scene is split up into different genres. Pop music, of course, sells the best. But there are a lot of people who are into less popular music. Thanks to Spotify, musicians here can show the world what they’re capable of. In terms of Istanbul specifically, I’m tight with all the hip-hop people, but also with the electronic community. I also prefer people who aren’t just all about partying, but who have a deep interest in music.
How easy is it to network with others in Istanbul?
Just like anywhere else in the world, it’s easy to connect with other people through the internet. Through SoundCloud, Facebook, or Instagram, it’s easy to contact others and make connections that way. There’s a large community for electronic music here, but sadly most of them have gotten stuck in cliché genres like house and techno. That doesn’t mean I don’t like house or techno—on the contrary. I’d just find it better if others would be more open to different styles of electronic music. But still, there are small groups of people that are interested in subgenres of electro and other sounds.
So then is there anywhere you’re even be able to perform your music?
I’ve been getting booked for shows, yeah. Here in Istanbul I sometimes perform live and play [DJ sets]. Last year I performed in Berlin, Essen, and Munich, and this summer I’ll likely be performing somewhere in Berlin again.
Where do you like to perform the most?
Anywhere there’s music. When I’m in clubs, I play danceable music, from trap to house or techno. Sometimes there are events where I perform jazz or play only instrumental beats. A DJ and producer shouldn’t limit himself to just one genre, but rather be open to all sorts of music and then perform them.
Your sound is awfully smooth. You’ve been working with more hip-hop samples recently and they have a pretty chill vibe. What inspired you to do so?
Until now, my music has mirrored the quieter side of Istanbul. But my next project will show the darker sides of the city. My next EP is already finished. This time, there won’t just be simple loops, but also entire songs. I look forward to seeing how people respond to it.
Istanbul is a city of extreme contrasts. Not just because it’s split between Asia and Europe, but also because the districts represent contrasting poles—Fatih is very religious, Beyoglu is very open and liberal. How do you experience the contrasts there? Have the different fronts become hardened?
A lot of people came to Istanbul at the end of the 80s to work—people with various backgrounds and sexual orientations. Sometimes living together works quite well, other times not so much. Sometimes a woman will get harassed because she’s wearing a short skirt, and sometimes women who are completely veiled get made fun of by other people. Everywhere you go, people are good and bad at the same time.
What keeps you in Turkey? What is it there that makes a difference for you?
My studies, my family, and the amazing weather. Besides, you always find up discovering new and amazing little spots in Istanbul.
What projects are you currently working on? Are you collaborating with musicians from other countries?
Because I’ve been living in Istanbul for almost ten years, I can’t just travel anywhere at whim. Before I travel, I have to get a visa, that’s why most collaborations take place via the internet without me having to leave the place where I live. But aside from that, I currently have some collaborations with musicians from Germany and Turkey. I’ll be releasing my new EP in May or June. It’s a mix of trap and lo-fi jazz beats. Other than that, I’m still studying and will get my degree this year. And then hopefully I’ll continue to make music for a long time, travel around the world and get to know new, creative people.