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Turkish-German Fusion Finds Expression in Rap

Children of immigrants turn to hip-hop to chart the challenges that Germany's largest minority faces as it struggles with identity.

August 07, 2004|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BERLIN — He's an edgy poet and a onetime crook.

He riffs in German. He rhymes in Turkish. Moving like liquid, he has the joints of a ghost. He's a cross-cultural rapper in a Europe restless about identity. His hip-hop is a staccato barrage rumbling between two worlds, and the inherent contradictions, Ali Cinak will tell you, can be confusing when you're a Muslim with a taste for sausage.

Cinak is one of a growing number of rappers distilling searing lyrics from the Turkish diaspora. Fleeing the poverty of their native land, their parents arrived in Germany as "guest workers" in the 1960s and '70s. They raised families and built parallel lives in a nation suspicious of outsiders. And today, their children remix Berlin and the Black Sea, spicing scratchy European percussion with the trill of Turkish stringed instruments.

"I live in one place, Germany," says Cinak, 30, whose hip-hop nom de guerre is Azra. "But my life is a bit schizophrenic. Every now and then I eat currywurst. That's pork. I couldn't do that in Turkey. But when I visit Turkey, it's a love affair, it's like a bird who knows in a certain season where to fly. I look like everybody else."

Germany's 2 million Turks are the country's largest minority. Theirs is not a tale of integration. Thousands of first- and second-generation Turks don't speak German. When they die, their coffins are often shipped to ancestral graveyards scattered across the Turkish interior.

Third-generation Turkish Germans, such as Cinak's younger hip-hop collaborator, Eko Fresh, feel a stronger attachment to Cologne than to Ankara but face limited opportunities -- 30% of Turkish Germans drop out of school, and 40% are jobless.

"I think my father was eaten up by living these two lives," says Fuat Ergin, a rapper and the son of a seamstress and a tailor who migrated from Turkey's Black Sea coast.

"He never integrated in Germany. He felt misplaced. I didn't want this to eat me up too. I'm trying to be more of a universalist."

The vernacular of Ergin and other Turkish rappers -- whose numbers in Berlin alone have risen from 10 to more than 40 over the last decade -- is insinuating itself into Germany's street lexicon. Twined languages and cobbled images from disparate cultures are seeking to enliven and expand a tiny rap market, where the most successful hip-hop CD sold only 150,000 copies.

"The Turkish language is overloaded with pictures," says Marcus Staiger, president of Royal Bunker Records, which released Cinak's latest album. "The German tongue is more about details. The Turks are bringing color to the German language so that now German slang is losing prepositions. But language and culture can also be a problem. We're having trouble reaching the Turkish audience in Germany. Their satellite dishes are pointed toward Turkey."

The other day Cinak shuffled a bewildering mosaic of identities across his coffee table: a German passport, a pink card that grants him Turkish residency status, a white paper freeing him from the Turkish draft and two national ID cards. In some photos he has a mustache, in others a goatee. Over the years, he has become a chimera, a man of grafted allegiances.

"Germany is my country," he insists.

Cinak's parents emigrated from the Turkish city of Erzincan in 1970. His father found work as an electrician, and Cinak was born not far from the Berlin Wall in the Cold War days of 1974. The family moved to Kreuzberg, an immigrant ghetto where artists and grifters mingled with U.S. troops playing basketball with Turkish boys. Cinak was accepted at a school in a better, mostly German neighborhood but left after receiving poor grades in German language.

"The system told me I wasn't good enough for that German school," says Cinak, groggy from a night out and sitting beneath his two parrots in a cream-colored walk-up across the street from the Be-Bop Bar. "They told me to go back to Kreuzberg. This was wrong. My German was perfect.

"The kids in Kreuzberg weren't into school. They were into crimes. I ended up with losers. I started forging checks when I was 14. My friends were violent gangsters. But I never hurt anyone. I was a brain gangster."

Cinak fell in love and discovered that religious and tribal suspicions from the old country had been transplanted to the new. His girlfriend, Hilal, was Sunni Muslim. Cinak was a member of another sect, the Alawites. "She changed my life. I quit crime. I worked as a laborer. But her father was a man of ancient ideas," Cinak says. "I tried to convince him. I said, 'You are living in Germany 30 years -- let go of the old ways.' He didn't. I couldn't marry her."

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