how the world sees america

Night Out: Hip Hop in Istanbul

Riddim's formidable entrance.

ISTANBUL - Girls with bright red garters grind on tables three stories underground to the suggestive lyrics, "You Can Lick My Lollipop." One thousand sweaty bodies crush together in the dark, battling smoke and heat for fresh air.

It looks like a 50 Cent music video gone wrong. Too much bling, too many bodies. But this is where I meet up with two readers of How the World Sees America over the weekend to unwind, and watch U.S. pop culture in ferocious action.

HTWSA reader Holiday Dmitri emailed me from the U.S. several weeks back, letting me know she’d be coming to Turkey for vacation. She suggested we spend a night out, and we choose the club Riddim. Neither of us knew what we were in for.

Istanbul’s nightlife is legendary, or at least it should be. Layers of clubs stack atop each other on the narrow lanes off Istiklal Avenue, blasting out tunes to compete for customers. The cobbled streets are as densely packed as the dance floors. Cigarettes and raki, the nation's potent alcohol, abound, and the crowds of done-up revelers don’t turn in until well past 3am, when I conked out.

It’s intense, Holiday says. She’s an Asian American living in New York working as a freelance journalist. She’s shy upon first meeting. But on the dance floor she lets out, hip-hop style.

Hip-hop is on the rise in Istanbul, and Riddim is known for it. But even though the beats are American, Holiday soon feels a tad uncomfortable: her language and accent set her apart from the others. “Oh, very good, Americans…” smiles a towering Turk in a white suit with three girls behind him in tight black lace. “You know fun.”

Holiday has a blast, but as a group of young men close in on her, she turns to me and says, “He just asked me to kiss him!” This happened with three different men over the night. She suspects the image of being a ‘loose American girl’ requires some extra vigilance.

Taksim Square stays up late; these kebab vendors are up at 2am..

I do my best, and try striking up some conversations on my own. A girl with a bright red scarf tells me I’m too timid, and I give up fast, figuring I might as well use this time for work.

“So, what do you think about this music,” I awkwardly lean over to another table and ask. A live band is singing a hip-hop remix of an American oldies tune I recognize but can’t name. The girl looks back at me quizzically. I follow up tactlessly: ““Do you associate this with America?”

“Um, no,” she says, “We have our own hip-hop artists here.” Indeed the scene is thriving. Check this out. And I sit back, looking out over the Bosphorus asking passers-by more or less the same question to pass the time. The responses are the same, and got me thinking of a talk I had with a group of college students earlier in the week.

In their foundational media and culture class, they told me Facebook, iPods, MTV, Coke, McDonalds, and Nike are everywhere; the are universal now they say – no more “American” than, say, sex is. They’re formats for expression, not messages in themselves, they say, “And we get to choose.”

A provocative statement, for an evocative night out.

Thankfully, it was a short walk back to my place on Taksim, where I recouped. Today, I just did an interview on NPR with Fareed Zakaria, Robert Keohane and Walter Russell Mead on anti-Americanism. My fellow panelists tied some of this night together, emphasizing that there are multiple anti-Americanisms, and no one case is simple. People renounce parts of America, and embrace other parts, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Even if hip hop isn't identified as American, it's still an asset, right?

After that, I started planning my next move. Tomorrow I’m interviewing members of the Armenian community here in Turkey, and on Friday I’m off to Lebanon, which is currently at an important point in its history. The presidential elections are coming up, pitting Syrian-Iranian-backed candidates against Western-backed ones. After a wrap-up of Turkey on Friday, my first post on Monday, on the day of the elections, will be on this.

So please post your thoughts for Lebanon, your opinion on the NPR show, and how you’ve been perceived on your nights out abroad.

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Comments (22)

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Amar C. Bakshi:

This is a message from Vic Van Meter who was temporarily having some trouble posting to the site so I've pasted it below. Mark, it's directed your way!



Anyhow, the whole subject was that as I was checking out the video you sent me and showed it to a friend of mine, Omar. Apparantly, he's got a couple friends that have gone around the Middle East to see heavy metal shows around. He dropped a few names, most notably Arsames, who has a MySpace page at . The fact that a band this awesome, with such a distinct sound, exists in Iran is pretty shattering to my preconceptions of how my kind of music is treated in very traditional cultures like Iran.

So, given that I'd like to alleviate my American ignorance on the subject, what kind of freedoms do bands like these enjoy in Iran? I've heard everything from "It's no different from the U.S., they can do what they want," to "If Iran's government ever wanted to, they could have them all put to death." My instinct is to drop it somewhere in between. Probably most prominent is that, even though they are interviewed often and have a good bit of exposure for such an underground band, they have yet to sign a record label. In fact, a lot of the Iranian heavy metal bands I'm hearing about don't have record labels, even though I'm sure Metal Blade could make a killing off metal like this.

The sound of their harmonics, the way they mix in their rythms, and the kind of shocking growl you get best out of Cannibal Corpse is refreshing and new, but I can't get a CD for whatever reason. Is this a government thing? Are they just being ignored because they're in Iran? What's the state of musical freedom in Iran?

And how much, feasibly, would it cost to get a plane over and score some tickets to the Asmodes show?


Bospherous? Don't you mean Bosphorus?


Bospherous? Don't you mean Bosphorus?



Thank you for the response. In terms of gay communities around the world, aside from Western Europe and a few other islands of tolerance (Thailand, South Africa constitutionally but not always in reality), gay communities tend to be nonexistent or very quiet. I'd say most of them are jealous of our freedoms (not to sound too much like Bush), because the penalties and persecution they face are beyond comprehension.

Sometimes the laws are just on the books and not enforced, but too often they are---brutally. I've recently read about numerous arrests for gay activity leading to hangings, lashings, and hard labor in Egypt, Ghana, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Yemen. But even moderate-seeming countries with strong cultural traditions (say, much of Latin America and the Caribbean) have strong taboos against open homosexuality. And even in countries (well, city-states) considered quite modern, such as Hong Kong and especially Singapore, a deep stigma remains against homosexual activity. (Surprisingly, China has recently become a tad more lenient.)

That said, and as mentioned in your article on the Pakistani drag queen, there are scores of countries with strong traditions of machismo where sex between men is perfectly OK as long as it isn't "gay"---meaning, as long as one or both participants identify as straight. Brazil, India, Mexico, and Turkey come to mind, but the list is much longer. I read a study that said 90 percent of Turkish men have had sex with another man (though I find that hard to believe). The common denominator tends to be a strongly religious culture that frowns on sex before marriage and often separates men and women socially.

In India and Turkey, for example, it used to be extremely rare for unmarried men and women to mix, in public or private, and often still is. So, men (especially teens) are left only with the company of one another, and make do. I'm not saying they're gay---they're just horny men. So that's not really gay communities. Even here in the US most men (more than 90 percent in some studies) who engage in anonymous public sex (erotic bookstores, highway rest stops, airport bathrooms) do not identify as gay. Again, men often have high sex drives, and will seek easy, quick release. It's certainly not something I've ever pursued or been interested in, because being out means that I don't have to be furtive or desperate. (Not to mention, I've been in a relationship for 15 years.)

New York has recently accepted gay men seeking asylum from countries like Jordan and Peru, so it seems like the US is an attractive destination for those who can't be out to their families or societies. Some of these men have suffered horrific abuse, and they have little hope of their countries adopting gay-friendly policies (much less same-sex marriage) any time soon. Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela recently passed some promising legislation along those lines, but most are baby steps.

I wish the US were a better example to other countries, but Western Europe is leading the way. (Recall that same-sex marriage is banned in the majority of US states, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is going to be vetoed, gays can't serve openly in the military, and large urban areas are generally the only places where gays can live without too much fear of violence...and the list goes on.) Indeed, the Netherlands just decided to tie some of its foreign aid to countries (mainly African) that enforce hostile abuse of sexual minorities. By contrast, in America we tie some of our foreign aid to whether organizations provide contraception or condone abortion. But given that I've gone on way too long already, I won't launch into a political tirade!

Enjoy your travels, and let me know if there's any other opinions or information you'd like.



Amar C. Bakshi:

Vic, Metal is huge here! I was debating posting on that instead, but alas I picked the wrong club:

Check out this comment from Mark, a professor at the University of Irvine:

ahlan/salam amar, hiphop is great in istanbul, but in fact the metal is much better! check out the story cnn did on my last trip to istanbul, where i performed with an iranian metal band at the barisa rock for peace festival in august. 150,000 kids at the festival. what a show... if you really want something crazy, meet me at dubai desert rock in 2008, march 7-8, i was there this year for my book heavy metal islam, and iron maiden headlined. one of coolest shows i've ever been to. 20,000 headbanging middle eastern kids, first real metal show outside of istanbul in the ME...

Vic van Meter:

My God....the best we can give these poor people is hip hop!

No wonder you're all so angry, you need something to let your aggression out. Too bad it's so hard to get to a Slayer show in the area. Is there any good Turkish metal?

Might have to swing by for a show. Metalheads get along everywhere!

Amar C. Bakshi:

Metin, I've certainly seen a number of transexuals off Taksim, and am always up to report on gender minorities:


I spent three weeks in Southwest Turkey on the coast - Mugla, Datca peninsula, Bodrum, Marmaris. I had a similar experience as Robert - most people knew I was American but there were a few who took a couple of guesses - being an African American woman with a 'fro to boot definitely made me stand out in the crowd. I was traveling with my boyfriend who's from Turkey and living there again - so in some villages, I was the only foreigner and potentially the only black person they had seen beyond TV. Most eyes were curious, some surprised. Kids were generally open and interested....Around my boyfriend's old friends, many (who are artists or generally open-minded) were very welcoming. People spoke to me - but there was some tension in some circles where I felt very much the outsider (surprisingly around Turks who were part of the alternative hippie community). Others, into hip-hop, the club scene, etc were often more open to my thoughts and experiences. Older people, esp. the men, just stared - except for chatty vendors in Bodrum. I got the same "macy gray" reference that many folks abroad like to place on me due to limited images of black women with natural hair but much fewer of those comments among Turks than when I was in Spain.

While most were wary of American imperialism, many people liked American music, were interested in me and my perceptions of Turkey and allowed me to be myself - this was somewhat similar to my experience in Spain though a Cambodian American friend and I noted that our receptions as Americans were a bit different than the reception of our blonde-haired blue eyed girlfriend. In Turkey, though, I encountered way more of the "very surprised to see you here" looks than in Spain. This also differed between being in smaller towns and being in Marmaris or Bodrum where they're used to tourists and where I did run into other blacks - though only one from the States.

I'm interested to see what the experience is like next week when my mom and I both travel to Istanbul and Southwest Turkey for 10 days (since I'm planning to move there next year, mom is checking the place out with me so to speak).

Metin Talks Turkey:

Let's not leave out the transvestites and transexuals. Turkey is an equal opportunity employer of all things sexual, even if it pretends that sexuality is a taboo reserved for those who practice safe sex with their spouses only, and only during religious holidays.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Robert, thanks for the comment! I loved it, and it was certainly insightful. I'm actually really curious at looking at the gay communities around the world, and their view of the U.S., the movement for rights and same-sex marriages, and the impact the U.S. example has abroad. Thoughts?


I went to Istanbul last June, stayed in Taksim, and went out every night. I had similar experiences, with some people being exceptionally friendly and others thinking I was a jerk for being American. I mainly went to gay bars, but another odd thing was how quickly people on the street pegged me as gay---I live in San Francisco, and that rarely happens even here because I'm not stereotypically gay. (Indeed, when I go out with my straight brother, people assume he's the gay one.)

One thing that really struck me was how well Turks are at discerning other people's nationalities. One waiter said to me, "You look like a mix of British and German, raised in America." Spot on. I had considered using that old lie about being Canadian to avoid anti-Americanism, but it seemed like a waste of time.

On the whole, I felt that most Turks were (understandably) wary of America, but also realized that citizens aren't always to blame for their leaders' actions. (In an extensive trip to India a few years prior, I had a much more pleasant reception.) And if it's any consolation to your friend Holiday, I often got viewed as a "loose American gay." I'm not.


The anti-Americanism in Turkey has nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq, but the benefits of this act for the PKK. Turkey is dealing with the PKK terror since 1985. With the invasion of Iraq, PKK had the chance to regain power and strength, beacuse of the instability of the region. Now they have bases in northern Iraq where they can stay safely after they attack Turks within Turkey. U.S. is the only power to prevent these attacks. Most of the Turks believe that, United States is not acting in favor of Turkey against PKK terrorists.


ahlan/salam amar, hiphop is great in istanbul, but in fact the metal is much better! check out the story cnn did on my last trip to istanbul, where i performed with an iranian metal band at the barisa rock for peace festival in august. 150,000 kids at the festival. what a show... if you really want something crazy, meet me at dubai desert rock in 2008, march 7-8, i was there this year for my book heavy metal islam, and iron maiden headlined. one of coolest shows i've ever been to. 20,000 headbanging middle eastern kids, first real metal show outside of istanbul in the ME...

Metin from Talk Turkey:

Come on Amar! Use the right title for the song, 'Candy Shop.' I've met the man, and he's definitely worth more than 'fittie' cent. Anywayz, I see that you're (finally) having fun and letting loose. It's about time! :)

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi all. Comments went down across the site about 12 hours ago it seems to me, but now it looks like all is back and running. Sorry about that! Looking forward to seeing this discussion progress and a post on Agos, the Armenian newspaper, should be coming up in about 4 hours.

Sasha Kishinchand:

Anyone interested in your quest must read Pico Iyer's "Video Night in Katmandu." I myself have explored this comparison of cultures via the nights out abroad, in about 30 different countries over the last 15 years. This included taking Run DMC out in Paris just when the rap movement was getting underway there (early 1990s) and I noted that despite French snobbism re Americans, they embraced the music; blue jeans; Coca Cola and McDonalds -so, yes, there is a selectivity. They did not always embrace me. Is that hypocrisy? I have not yet decided.
However I prefer to regard the pieces of our culture that they make their own as a bridge; that these 'trappings' of ours create a forum for mutual understanding through shared appreciation. Yes, there's the 'loose American girl' issue to be wary of when out on the town, but for the most part, the venues that revel in American music are frequented by the more affluent, and those people tend to be more worldly, cosmopolitan, and thus more open to various cultures. I've been felt up in a night club in New Dehlie, yes, but for the most part, in a club, we're all one group out for the same reason -to just have fun.
One final point -if we choose to regard it as somewhat confusing in terms of whether or not we are liked; and our two main indicators are other nationalities' response to our foreign policy, and their embrace of certain aspects of our culture; then let's look at this in reverse: does appreciating caviar while we have contentions with Iraq make US conflicted? Should we stop practicing Tae Kwon Do when we are being taunted by North Korea and their nuclear aspirations? Does liking good vodka when we have problems with Russia's policies; or eating Chinese food make us hypocritical? Was the 'Freedom Fries' phenomenon a GOOD thing, or did it block dialogue?
I think this is probably why you are pursuing this yourself.
Just some food for thought...

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi Mohamed,
I know Bukhara from New Delhi fame. It's one of the best kebab places in the country, if not the world. But as to the one in Cape Town (I adore that city) I can't wait to visit it!

Mohamed MALLECK, Swift Current, Canada:


Tell me when you get to the Bukhara Restaurant in Cape Town and taste a real Muslim meal the exact opposite of KFC, Pizza, or the Indian dosai or chapatti.


This essay reminded me of the time in Cairo in a KFC when I asked a chicken-eating woman if she liked this American food. She was shocked. "This isn't American," she said. "My mother makes this at home!"

Amar C. Bakshi:

Check out this image from Lahore, Pakistan. I took it when I was there in August 2007.

"KFC, Owned and Operated by Americans."

"Do you associate KFC with America," I asked my driver. He said no, and then asked me what the K stood for.

Bored at Work:

I like the shift -- Good to know that our intrepid reporter lets down --somewhat -- sometimes!

I was struck by the point about the "localization" of items that would ordinarily be associated with America..

It seems to me that American exports -- tangible and intangible -- such as hiphop, quality consumer goods, facebook among others -- might have been passive ambassadors for goodwill as recognizable positive contributions to the world. Should we be worried if the students are right and there is a growing tendency for "american" cultural exports to be locally claimed and stripped of their "american-ness" around the world? Perhaps...

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