UPDATE: On November 29, Police conducted a raid of Grup Yorum's cultural center, destroying contents and arresting three members, Sultan Gökçek, Bergün Varan and Tuğçe Tayyar.
Over the course of three decades, Grup Yorum, a band and socialist collective from Turkey, has become known for folk-rock music that fearlessly speaks to the political realities of the country. As progressive activists, the band has taken part in most major mass protests, street demonstrations, strikes, and factory and university occupations in Turkey since the 1990s. One of the most influential musical groups in the nation, Grup Yorum has a huge following that is evinced by their distinguishable online music presence, CD sales, and concert attendance in Turkey and around the world.
Yet, since their inception, Grup Yorum’s evocative and critical songs have attracted the ire of the government. Repeated attacks on the group have included arrests of members, reports of abuse against detained members, bans on the sale of their music and concerts, and even the detention of audience members at their shows. Since the failed coup d'état in 2016, attacks on the band have reportedly increased in frequency and severity: over thirty members have been detained, with more than eleven currently serving prison sentences, six are named in the Ministry of Interior's Grey List of Turkey’s Most Wanted, and two are asylees in Europe. The İdil Cultural Centre, run by several band members, has been raided by police nine times in the last two years alone. During raids, the band’s instruments and books have been damaged or stolen and members have been arrested. Their polemical music and strong involvement in leftist political movements have led to charges of allegiance to groups like the outlawed DHKP-C, which is considered a terrorist group by the United States, European Union, United Kingdom, and Turkey.
The band was formed in 1985 against the backdrop of the violent 1980 military coup, when four students at Marmara University in Istanbul who shared similar political leanings came together to make music. Their first album, Sıyrılıp Gelen, was released in 1987, and they have released over twenty since then. The cover of their latest album, İlle Kavga (2017), which roughly translates to “struggle no matter what,” shows the band’s broken instruments. Yorum means “comment” or “interpretation” in Turkish, and songs such as “Büyü” (1987), about the 1980 Turkish coup d'état, and “Soma İçin,” about the 2014 mining disaster in Soma, critique unjust government policies, the effects of US and European intervention, global capitalism, and more.
Apart from singing original songs, the group has also recorded renditions of revolutionary anthems from around the world, such as “Çav Bella” (1994), a haunting rendition of the popular Italian folk-song of resistance “Bella Ciao.” World revolutionary music, such as Nueva canción and Anatolian folk music, has informed Grup Yorum's aesthetic and philosophy. Grup Yorum considers their work to be guided by and contributing to the legacy of Pir Sultan Abdal, Nikola Vaptsarov, Victor Jara, and Nâzım Hikmet, artists and poets across time who used their voices to fight for justice and faced violent backlash as a result. They are known for performing with socialist posters as their backdrop, dressing in simple coordinated colors of white, with red scarves around their necks. Its membership is constantly expanding and changing, in part due to the barrage of attacks the group faces, with concert line-ups ranging from full orchestras to small low-key performances.
Grup Yorum uses traditional Turkish instruments and writes lyrics in both Turkish and the threatened Kurdish language, which has been de facto criminalized in Turkey since the language was officially banned in the 1980s. This has made them an emblematic symbol for the Kurdish struggle, while also drawing punitive attention from Turkish authorities. Anti-terrorism laws are frequently used by Turkish authorities to indict Turkish and Kurdish artists and activists who voice dissent. This has helped legitimize an atmosphere of censorship and fear in the country’s cultural sector. The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) has worked with a number of Turkish artists who have faced threats and censorship as a result of this milieu, including Kurdish journalist and artist Zehra Doğan; directors of the 2015 documentary Bakur ("North") Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu; and exiled political artist, new-media printmaker, and autism advocate Serhat Tanyolaçar.
Since May 16, 2019, five of Grup Yorum’s imprisoned members have undertaken a dangerous hunger strike. Now spanning over 180 days, the strike has left the group members in perilous condition. Through their strike, they demand the release of arrested members, the dropping of charges against the group, an end to police raids of their cultural center, the removal of Grup Yorum members and supporters from the Ministry of Interior’s wanted “terrorist lists,” and the removal of the ban on Grup Yorum’s concerts and performances in public squares. You can learn more about their cause through their English and Turkish social media channels and sign an online petition in solidarity with their hunger strike.
UPDATE: On November 20, 2019, two members of Grup Yorum who had been imprisoned for almost two years and on hunger strike for over 180 days, Bahar Kurt and Helin Bölek, were released.
By Revantika Gupta, November 2019. Revantika recently completed her Masters in Arts Politics from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.