Istanbul band Elz and the Cult are using performance art to rebel against conservatism.

By Cyrus Jarvis.

Behind the facade of Turkey’s influencer hotspots and status as a popular holiday destination is a country torn by the increasingly authoritarian grip of its president. Queer artists are alongside the main groups leading the fight against his government.

By changing the legislation that would have forced him to step down at the end of his political term, after taking office in 2003, in 2021, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is still hanging onto power. So far, he’s been accused of censorship, banning political parties, dissent, corruption, de-democratization, contributing to the current currency and debt crisis, and enabling sexism and femicide. His decisions have frequently triggered mass protests in Istanbul, and his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric has created a hostile environment towards queer people in Turkey. His party has banned Istanbul Pride since 2016, but the event is still held illegally by organizers in protest.

Elz and the Cult is a darkwave synth music group based in Istanbul. They describe themselves as a “public domain clown that is here to make a scene, and put some statements out there with the power of performance art and costumes… it has always been bigger than just albums and EPs and singles.” As Erdoğan moves closer to authoritarianism, the queer community in Istanbul has become one of the biggest sources of resistance against his presidency. Elz is a part of this resistance – they participated in the Gezi Park protests in 2013 before ‘Elz’ existed as an alter ego, where they camped in a tent for four weeks. Now, they provoke and rebel through their music, reaching hundreds and thousands of streams on Spotify internationally. Elz says that Istanbul’s population is diverse, “one second you will talk to a group of queer people, but just turn your back and you’ll see a group of radical Muslims just drinking tea at a tea shop.” Despite this, it has been getting “harder and harder every day…Everything you do in Istanbul as a queer person is political. Visibility is so important, so going out into the street with my eyeliner in any Istanbul street is a political statement,” Elz says.

According to Elz, the traditional value of secularism in Turkish politics “has been lost because a whole generation of people were born into this government and learned from this government. Their whole teaching is, of course, Islamist views and propaganda, so some of our national virtues have been lost among people.” In 2012, Turkey’s president embarked on a project to raise a “pious generation” of youth, with “a computer in one hand and a Quran in the other. The national curriculum subsequently changed, with more hours dedicated to religious education and the banning of the theory of evolution from schools. Many parents are worried their children are now learning more about Islam at the expense of other subjects, while those studying at religious schools say that Islam has been stripped of its moral core and is being used to legitimize Erdoğan’s leadership. The youth are fighting back, however. “At the same time, this generation of people now have the internet, and they can see what’s happening, they can read and learn. It’s widely known now that Generation Z doesn’t want this government,” Elz explains.

In Istanbul, more and more gay clubs have opened to provide safe spaces in a city that has seen an increase in violence over the last few years. “Right now, people are getting killed and beaten up more and more because this is what the government wants. It’s like a purge,” says Elz. In the meantime, these clubs have exploded in popularity, accommodating up to “500 or 600 people for a drag performance,” giving way to a vibrant, rebellious queer scene. Elz and the Cult have performed at many of these queer spaces and clubs, and their outlandish image never fails to make a statement and challenge conservative viewpoints in Turkey. Their performative style and genre of music has been so groundbreaking in Istanbul that even older generations of punk musicians didn’t approve when they first emerged. Despite this, Elz drove their message forward to increase representation in a scene where they “never really saw” themselves. They’ve been successful so far, “the response has been so amazing, there were even people coming up to me to say thank you because coming to my gigs they’ve had the freedom to express themselves however they want.”

Outside Istanbul, ideological differences divide the country. Some are in favor of the president, yet many criticize him. The country’s geopolitical position doesn’t help either. As Elz puts it, “Turkey is more liberal than anywhere in the Middle East, but it’s more conservative than anywhere in Europe.” As the president continues to enable hate and curtail freedom, a 1928 monument commemorating the founding father of the republic stands in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. On one side, a woman wearing a headscarf looks to the west; on the other side, a woman with her hair uncovered is looking to the east.

Image Credit: Elz and the Cult