Bilgin Özçalkan, aka Ceza, has just put an end to his five-year silence with a new album of original material released late last month.
The 37-year-old rapper, one of the most popular representatives of the genre in Turkey, offers 13 original tracks in which he samples several well-known songs by Turkey’s Cahit Berkay and Italy’s Giorgio Moroder in “Suspus” (Speechless), released on May 26 in music stores and on iTunes.
“Suspus,” which also features the rapper as its musical director, is Ceza’s fifth studio release and it comes five years after his most recent LP, the 15-track “Onuncu Köy” (The 10th Village), released in 2010.
In a recent interview with Sunday’s Zaman, Ceza speaks about his new album and how he feels about the future of rap music in Turkey.
Your new album comes five years after your last one. Why did you need such a lengthy break?
Yes, it’s been a while, but I wasn’t fooling around during all those years. I made singles, I took part in an album with various artists in memory of [Kurdish protest singer-songwriter] Ahmet Kaya, and I kept writing songs for this album. I also made songs that I didn’t include in “Suspus.” As I got older and gained more experience and knowledge, and as my way of perceiving certain things changed, I came to realize that I was aiming for something different and that’s why it has taken me this long to release this album. And I’m very satisfied with the outcome. It all goes to show that I needed that five-year break to come up with this result.
Were there other reasons?
Well, in the meantime Turkey underwent numerous social changes, which of course to a certain extent have had effects on my musical production. As a matter of fact, I not only had to postpone the album, but also had to put off several concert appearances. But on the other hand, that gained me more time; in the process my thoughts and my feelings changed and all this are reflected in my music, in a positive way. To say “I must release an album” is one thing, releasing an album of songs you’ve made from your heart is another. This new album for me represents the latter. I loved every single syllable in every single song.
“Suspus” is billed by critics as a “mature piece of work,” both musically and regarding its lyrics. How do you compare it to your previous albums?
I can say this is the best album I’ve ever made. Of course after every album I release I think that one’s the best I’ve done until then, but now, after “Suspus,” I look back on my previous albums and I see that actually I could’ve done even better. Still, if I hadn’t done those, I could’ve never made this album, because I write music by myself — no one has taught me this business; this business has no master who can teach others. Being one of Turkey’s first rappers, [music] is always a trial-and-error process for me in which I learn from my own experience. Having said that, my next album may be in a totally different [style], but one thing is for sure: I will not put another five years between this one and my next album.
The album is very composed and mature. You sounded more enthusiastic before.
True. But I can never know what the next album will be like. I cover a huge ground in my music, emotionally and theme-wise. But these days I’m “speechless.”
Were you upset with the music industry in Turkey during the five years you were away? Does the current state of rap music in Turkey annoy you?
I was upset. Younger generations think rap is merely the practice of uttering emotional lyrics over [samples]; they have no concept of the culture of rap music or its history. Some of these people are even my fans, but that’s not rap music. Rap has everything in it — it has fun, it has emotions, it has politics. You can tell about anything you like in a rap song. And I don’t think what we hear from American rappers and elsewhere in the world today represent the essence of rap. Songs that insult or denigrate women or those that promote excessive wealth cannot be rap.
Turkey now has many rap musicians. Yet your comeback has incited quite a lot of excitement among rap lovers.
[During the time I was away] people have seen the difference [between my songs and others]. I believe every single work I release underlines this difference and this is highlighted even more in this album. I don’t appear on TVs and my video [“for Suspus”] is only aired on music channels. And yet my album has hit number one in numerous digital platforms and in music stores. … I knew there was a certain [expectation for new material among rap music fans in Turkey] and in a way my album has satisfied that expectation. … Young [rappers in Turkey] tend to blend arabesque music with rap. Even their lyrics are arabesque lyrics recited in rap style. But that’s definitely not my style. I don’t listen to that kind of music.
“Suspus” offers something new musically that we’re not used to seeing in rap music: live instruments.
That’s got to do with my musical choices. I often think of the end [result] while working on the samples. Using live instruments on this album proved to be a good choice. I perform in concerts with a live orchestra too and my team is really good. Rap music is not just about lyrics. This album can speak to people who never listen to rap; because we’ve given equal importance to the music. The instruments played on this album range from bass [guitar] to electronic guitar and from piano to lavta.
The themes you touch upon in your lyrics are also varied — from politics to relationships.
I’m a very emotional person. Even the slightest occurrence in my daily life can have a huge impact on me; they remain with me in the form of tiny little traumas. And then they pour into the lyrics. I use a lot of metaphors and irony in my lyrics. Not all of my words are what they seem — some of them stand for other things.
In what kind of a mindset did you write these songs?
Actually, I was continuously troubled. I was going through a troubled time of my life … on many different levels. Troubles that many people in our society have been going through lately. I’m an emotional person and sometimes [those troubles] are a bit more than I can take. … During those times, whenever I’m depressed and detached I can write more; I become more creative in tough times.
Everybody’s curious as to how you keep all those lengthy lyrics to all your songs in your mind. Is there a secret to it?
I perform live in all my concerts without any kind of help [with the lyrics]. I still haven’t learned the mobile phone number I’ve been using for the past two years, but I remember all the lyrics to all my songs. Strangely, I memorize the words while I’m writing them and I can bear them all in my mind after I read them for a second time.
Some in Turkey’s music industry have commented that “Suspus” includes lessons for the younger generations.
I believe it does. This album includes everything there is to rap music — from technique to lyrics. It’s a sad fact that our daily vocabulary in Turkey is not rich enough, but I try my best to use a more varied vocabulary in my songs. Sometimes I even have to “redesign” some words while writing the songs, but in any case I spend a lot of time on my lyrics.
The video you shot for the album’s title track has also made quite an impact. Is there a huge production behind it?
There is a story to that video: I make rap music, but in the meantime the world is going through many things. How much do people really care about what I do? I may talk about subjects of social importance in my songs, but when I’m inside the real world people don’t see me; the music I make, how famous I am don’t matter at all, people are busy with their own troubles. But on the other hand, I’m a musician and I witness everything that goes on around me. I’m aware of it all.
The video intends to speak about everything that’s going on around the world in our present day. I wanted the video to be something of global quality.
We shot it with a 400-strong crew and I believe it was worth the effort.
Does the title of the album say something about the “silence” of the masses, worldwide?
It does. There’s chaos in the world today but on the other hand everybody only cares about his-her own troubles. The video aims to visually portray this situation. It starts with a small quarrel in traffic and goes on to show social uprisings and wars.
What bothers you the most in Turkey these days?
Social polarization. It’s too bad that the members of [this] society are increasingly divided into camps based on religious beliefs or ethnicity. Also there’s hate speech by political figures. We need more peace.
Artists in Turkey are constantly being criticized either for having a firm political stance or not having one at all. At what point in that spectrum do you see yourself?
What’s important for me are my fans. I have listeners from all walks of life; from every class and from every ethnic background. I have never been on the side of one particular segment of the society or pointed a finger at another one; I’m just a person who tries his best to draw attention to mistakes and injustice in this society in my songs.
What do you think about the future of rap music in Turkey?
I hope and want for it to have a bright future. Its progress has been slower than I expected it to be and to this day rap has still not carved itself a place in the mainstream music market. Its popularity rises from time to time, but it still remains in its own little niche. Mainstream music media [music TV channels, radio stations in Turkey] still treat rap as a stepchild. As a rule, the simpler and cheaper something is, it becomes more trendy among larger crowds and this is not only true for Turkey. … Alternative music [genres are] capable of touching a chord with young people, and I’m not only talking about rap, but also rock music, whereas in Turkey these genres cannot survive because of obstacles in mainstream music media.
How do you feel about your songs in such an environment?
Some of my songs that I wrote years ago are still being sung by people. They have become classics in their own right. Right now my songs only mean something to my fans, but years from now they will turn into unforgettable songs. [The rise of rap music] can’t be stopped. This [mainstream music] system will have to change.
These days you’re also appearing in a TV commercial and it has drawn some criticism. What do you think about those comments?
My job is to make music. I make the kind of music I truly love and I share it with the audience on my albums and in concerts. As for commercials, that’s a totally different thing. It’s got to do with money. We [musicians] sometimes do that to earn a living. Even cartoonists these days can appear in commercials. I used the money I earned from that commercial in the video [for “Suspus”]. Had I not acted in that commercial, that video wouldn’t have been possible. As it is, I channel all the money that I make into my music. I’m not a musician who earns from the music he makes and lives the life; and I don’t make music for money, to begin with. … People may not like the commercial but they have no right to judge me as though I’ve committed a crime.