Grup Yorum is a popular band among both the Turkish left and Kurdish communities alike. The band’s original four members, Metin Kahraman, Ali Çağlar, Orhan Emek, and Raşit (last name unknown) founded the band in 1984 in the backdrop of a fascistic military-coup government. Their purpose was to spread a revolutionary communist consciousness through their music, across the entire country, sung in a variety of languages.
To this end, they’d succeeded far too effectively for the government to tolerate. Grup Yorum became synonymous with left-wing revolution across the Turkish state – nearly all oppressed minorities and working-class people knew their songs. I’d hear their songs from my working-class Kurdish family, I’d hear it from their friends, and I’d hear it in the streets being shouted at the riot police seconds before they swarmed in. Yet even then I was exposed to only a sliver of the impact they would have.
They and their songs represented a movement of the people. Their membership would reflect this: the founders of the band were imprisoned soon after their founding, and the band became a collective. As a collective, Grup Yorum had a rotating membership with band members from the working class, all varied in their identity. Kurds, Turks, LGBTQ+ – they represented the people they sang for. In the 35 years of its existence, the band has seen three generations (1984-1990, 1990-2000, then 2000- to the present).
It’s hard to release songs from a prison cell, but Grup Yorum refused to defect to neo-liberalism. They never softened their ideas to avoid prison, knowing their movement would survive if their ideals did, no matter the cost to the individual. As the great Turkish revolutionary Deniz Gezmiş stated before his execution in 1972, “The only thing which dies here is my body... but you can’t kill my thoughts. My thoughts will survive.”
Grup Yorum knew its members might be killed or imprisoned. Still, the collective movement would continue onward – their ideas would never die. The fact their songs would invite their deaths proved they were the righteous side. The injustices they faced were the manifestation of what they sang. For as long as they were imprisoned, they knew they had to never fade into silence or compromise their music.
Since 2016, Grup Yorum has been facing one of its most significant threats to its existence. In the aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the President was handed emergency powers, and he soon decreed the arrests and imprisonments of all political critics against his government. 160,000 people were been either detained, arrested, or dismissed from their work since 2016. The governing conservative AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) has detained and then seized the position of 69% of mayors from opposition parties and imprisoned the leaders of the third-largest party in the Parliament. Currently, Turkey has become the biggest jailer of journalists at 160 imprisoned, while academics have become the hardest hit, with 36,000 purged, alongside 15 universities and 19 trade unions shut down. The vast majority of those purged had no relation to the coup attempt, which is increasingly understood to be a false flag justification for the President's purge.
The purge affected Grup Yorum as well. Freedom of assembly, which would include concerts, was already outlawed in 2015. Grup Yorum took to the streets to sing their songs, but this too saw police repression. A Die Tageszeitung article writes:
“The concert they planned to host on April 12, 2015, was banned. Since then, no major Grup Yorum event has ever been granted permission. The band then tried to put their music on the street. But even there the police took massive action against the musicians and their stubborn listeners. At first, they played on truck trailers, when the police chased them away from there, they moved to the roofs of the houses or tried to give live streams on the Internet.”
A Guardian article expands on this:
“In January 2016, Lyndon Way was heading for the Atatürk Theatre in İzmir, western Turkey, to see the band Grup Yorum. “When we arrived outside,” says the music academic, “we were greeted by police in helmets, riot gear and shields blocking the path to the concert hall.” In the street battles that ensued, he says, police used water cannon and pepper spray on approximately 50 people.
“One by one, the protesters were separated and dragged on to waiting police vans. The authorities had cancelled the concert at the last moment and arrested the group. There was no news about the cancellation or the arrests in mainstream media.” Way, who is now a lecturer in media and communications at Liverpool Hope University, says the clash showed “how fans and the authorities view the band – fans will do battle for them while the authorities are afraid of them”.
The state once again targeted the main members of the band, members who were previously imprisoned in 2013 for alleged membership with the DHKP-C (A Marxist-Leninist armed militia, now the leaders of an anti-gentrification movement in Turkey). The first sign of things to come was the police raid of the Idil Cultural Centre, which the band owned. The police smashed their instruments, but Grup Yorum would use these instruments for a new album ("İlle Kavga") the following year. By 2018, a 300,000 lira bounty was be placed on the band members by the Turkish state; two became political refugees in Europe the same year. Police continued to raid the cultural centre until they arrested 11 members of the band – now, all but one members are detained or dead.
In a video published earlier this month, some remaining and new members, alongside the parents of Helin Bölek and İbrahim Gökçek, addressed why Grup Yorum was banned:
“From 1950 onwards, Turkey has become an imperialist agent of the USA. The imperialists silenced the voice of the workers. Grup Yorum thus became the voice of the cause of freedom for the people. We organised millions in concerts while AKP fascism wanted full control of our homeland. That is why the fascists want us silenced.”
– Bahar Kurt
“[The government] killed Berkin.* Berkin was like a son to Grup Yorum, and we immortalised him through our songs. That is why we’re illegal.”
– Dilan Poyraz
“When the AKP came to power, they killed the workers on the street. Grup Yorum stood for the miners in Soma,** provided the workers with a voice, and opposed the repression of the workers. That is why we’re illegal.”
– Seher Adıgüzel
“They sang the songs that we sing to our kids, the songs in our head about the struggles we face every day. They sang the songs we wish we could sing; they sang our songs to millions in concert stages. And for that, they became illegal.”
– Aygül Bilgi
*Berkin Elvan was a 13-year-old victim of police brutality
**Soma is a city in Western Turkey; in 2014, a coal mine explosion there killed 340+ miners, two weeks after the government voted against safety checks for the mine.
In 2019, following the arrests of Grup Yorum's remaining membership, several members started a hunger strike demanding the release of three other members: Bahar Kurt, Helin Bölek, and İbrahim Gökçek, along with another demand that the band regain the freedom to hold concerts. The government conceded to the former demand, but only Kurt and Bölek were freed. Kurt ended her hunger strike at its 219th day while Helin Bölek, Mustafa Koçak, and İbrahim Gökçek turned theirs into a death fast. All those who have held and continue to hold the hunger strike have embodied the message of Deniz Gezmiş.
Helin Bölek died last month from her death fast, and her funeral was raided by police who then stole her body, throwing tear gas, while she was being buried in the cemetery. She was later buried by the police, with no family or friends in attendance. Within the same month, Mustafa Koçak died too – his grave was later vandalized, which is legal to do in Turkey. On May 5th, İbrahim Gökçek announced an agreement in which Grup Yorum concerts were to become legal again. He was hospitalized for recovery from his hunger strike, but died two days later. Of the five years he had been married, 4 had been spent with both spouses in jail.
The government has since rescinded the agreement. Police attempted to raid İbrahim Gökçek's funeral, but attendees barricaded the entrances to the building. Still, however, they eventually surrendered his body to the police, as no escape was possible. The police procession for Gökçek's burial was blocked by fascist Grey Wolf members who began to shout, “Even if they bury him, we will take his body out [from the grave] and burn him”. He was later buried with only the police allowed in attendance. The same people who had arrested Gökçek and Bölek countless times before, the people who beat their supporters, were now keeping his funeral exclusive to themselves.
Grup Yorum was with the people since the military government overcame Turkey in the 1980s. They've been the voice of Soma, the voice of Berkin, the voice of the workers. They experience what we, the oppressed workers, experience, and for that they embody our struggle, a struggle that will never die. Our struggle is immortal, Grup Yorum is immortal.
“We are the people. We are millions. Our mother is one, we are all brothers. Our fight is for bread. Our fight is for liberation. We will end hunger. We will end poverty. To those who exploit us. We will organize against. For our martyrs. For justice. For our freedom. Everywhere. Everyone. We will fight till victory! Halkız, haklıyız, kazanacağız! (We’re the people, we’re right, and we will win!)”
– İbrahim Gökçek
Mustafa Koçak Ölümsüzdür! Mustafa Koçak is immortal!
Helin Bölek Ölümsüzdür! Helin Bölek is immortal!
İbrahim Gökçek Ölümsüzdür! İbrahim Gökçek is immortal