Decriminalisation of Kurdish singing in Turkey


Ahmet Kaya was born in the autumn of 1957 in Malatya. Soon after the 1970 coup in Turkey, Ahmet’s family immigrated to Istanbul in hope of better job opportunities. His interest in singing at an early age was noticed by his father, who encouraged him for the most part, and as a young man Ahmet soon began performing in small concerts and folk dance shows.

Throughout the 80s, Ahmet was struggling to get recording deals because of the content of his songs, which were political in essence, and difficult to gain support. His first album was taken off shelves, titled “Aglama Bebegim”, and he was arrested. The judge scrutinised his choice of words, such as “There is a land far away, in that place there is happiness”. Although the trial did not last long, but the mere arrest of him over ambiguous lyrics highlights the paranoia of the state during that period.

In 1987, Ahmet’s album “An Gelir” became the number one selling album. His career was lifted, and his popularity was acknowledge officially. All of his albums in 1990 became top-hits and his voice was loved by thousands of people.

In 1998, Ahmet Kaya was awarded the title of “Artist of the year” on SHOW TV in Turkey. On February 10, 1999, the award ceremony was held, with dozens of Turkey’s famous artists being among the audience, he went to accept his prize, and in his acknowledgement speech he said the following, which changed the entire course of his life.

“…In my next album, because of my Kurdish heritage, I will sing a Kurdish song, and I will make a clip for it […] I know there are courageous people who will broadcast it! If not, I am not sure how they will come to terms with the Turkish public”.

He was branded as a ‘traitor’ immediately, and some of the artists at the event hurled insults, threw food and silverware at him when he went off stage. Others began chanting the Turkish national anthem because the idea of being “Kurdish” or even singing in “Kurdish” was perceived to be a threat.

Ahmet left Turkey in 1999, and settled in Paris. There was an ongoing trial against him, and he was sentenced while he was in Europe to 3 years and 9 months in prison. He didn’t return to Turkey because of the arrest warrant against him. On November 16, 2000 Ahmet suffered a heart attack and died in Paris. He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Earlier today, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while giving a speech in Amed said, “I wish Ahmet Kaya was here today”. The gathering was part of the peace-settlement where the President of Southern Kurdistan expressed his support (which we covered here). What is important to note and remember is, the wounds of Kurdish suffering and injustice runs deep in history, and it will take a long period of time before these wounds heal. It will take state-sponsored efforts to eradicate discrimination and to put the wrongs of history to justice before Kurdish people trust the Turkish state – no amount of words will compensate for the injustice Kurdish people have suffered historically.