The first song from Esmeray I ever heard was Garip Anam (My Poor Mother) a single from 1975. Beautiful and chic, she had a hairstyle reminiscent of The Supremes and she gazes hynoptically from the cover.
An extremely deep and sorrowful voice, accompanied by a piano, double bass and percussion – Esmeray sounded like someone from another planet. I bought the record and left the tiny shop in Istanbul and its lonely seller with a question: just who is this girl?
Inspired by the Turkish psychedelic rock of Barıs Manço, Cem Karaca and Erkin Koray, I came to Istanbul last September to research the forgotten Turkish female musicians of the 1960s and 1970s. But one stood out: Esmeray, and the search for her music in the dusty record shops of Kadıköy and Eminönü became an obsession.
She had an amazing voice, almost like a jazz vocalist, but it soon transpired that nobody ever perceived Esmeray as this type of singer. Remembered as a mere pop star who sang about soldiers on TV, her story is much more complex and intriguing.
Esmeray started her career as an actress in 1960. But in a conversation with her son – Kaan Diriker – I learnt that music was also a crucial part of her life. Her house was always full of music: classical, jazz and blues and, of course, Turkish classical music.
Esmeray Diriker was born in Emirgan, on the European side of Bosphorus in 1949. Her ancestors came from Morocco and therefore she was an Afro-Turk, as black Turkish citizens are called. The Afro-Turks were part of a huge Ottoman migration movement as well as long-lasting slave trade.
But for many years after the Ottoman Empire collapse, Turkish leaders sought to carve a distinct national identity at the expense of its minorities: Greeks, Armenians, Kurds, Circassians and Afro-Turks were all subject to violence and prejudice. According to Mustafa Olpak – an Afro-Turkish writer and activist, only about 2,000 descendants of Africans live in contemporary Turkey now, very few in Istanbul. It was a similar situation when Esmeray started her singing career in 1972.
Today, Esmeray is remembered mainly for her 1977 hit, Gel tezkere Gel (Discharge Letter to Come), which examined the homesickness felt by Turkish soldiers during the mandatory 18-month military service. The whole of Turkey loved Esmeray just for this song. But how was she perceived as a black Turkish artist in a country where there was little place for the multiculturalism and diversity of the Ottoman era?
Some feelings of frustration and prejudice can be heard in her song – 13.5. It was written by Sanar Yurdatapan in 1976 and tells the story of Arab girl looking from a window. Marching drums break the atmosphere and the low, deep and proud voice of Esmeray takes us into different level of understanding about what it means to be a black Turkish girl. Arabic flutes in the refrain leave us with no doubt where this Turkish girl is from.
Look, that Arabic girl it is me/With curly hair/And red lips/Beady eyes/Pearl white teeth/And a black faith.
Kids are scared, they run away/With a pinch and 13,5/But your skin can be black/As long as your heart is not
It is essentially a subtle protest song that never attracted the attention of the audience it deserved.
Another episode again highlights the prejudice she faced. In 1974, she won her first and last Toplu Igne Composition Contest – a contest organised by TRT Television Channel (Turkish National Television). The song Unutama Beni (Do Not Forget Me) was written by her husband and artistic partner, Semi Diriker, and was chosen by the audience as the best song, ahead of tunes from the future stars of Turkish pop Erol Evgin and Nilüfer.
The deep sound of the song was based on Arabic maqam (a type of melody in Arabic music). But soon after its victory, it was censored by the channel. Arabic influences and musical patterns, which were part of Turkish identity for so many centuries, were now perceived as symbols of a foreign culture. With their eye fixed to the West, TRT’s members considered Esmeray’s music inappropriate to represent modern Turkish music.
Almost everybody in Turkey knows Esmeray, or to be more precise, everybody knows this one song written for soldiers. But few people ever paid attention to her message about being different in Turkish society.
Esmeray, who died in 2002, was a Turkish artist – she wanted to be accepted as that. But throughout her life she was trying to tell her people something very important about being different in her own country. She deserves respect and appreciation, not only as an outstanding vocalist, but also as a messenger of social equality and mutual respect.
Kornelia Binicewicz is a Polish cultural anthropologist, DJ and record collector who works between Krakow and Istanbul. She is the founder of the Ladies on Records: 60s and 70s Female Music at ladiesonrecords.strikingly.com.