Street art tends to flourish in Istanbul. In hip areas all along the city’s Golden Horn waterway, eye-popping cartoon murals and brilliant spray-painted letters greet you at every turn, adorning the sides of buildings, walls, and storefront gates, seemingly without discretion. It’s a form of expression that is ostensibly sanctioned by local officials in Turkey’s largest city, where an annual street-art festival has taken place for years.
Which is why I found it odd on a recent visit to Istanbul when one particular piece of art was promptly scrubbed by city workers. It was a dazzling display of the words “Free Ezhel,” which appeared emblazoned on a wall in Istanbul’s Karakoy neighborhood and stretched about 13 feet. Within a few days of its appearance in late May, the message was gone.
If you search the hashtag #FreeEzhel on social media, it’s not hard to guess why the city—or maybe someone higher up—wanted it removed: Ezhel is the stage name of Sercan İpekcioğlu, a popular Turkish rapper known for a genre-blending style that includes hip hop, reggae, and trap. Last month, he was arrested on the ludicrous charge of “promoting drug use” in his song lyrics and on social media. The 28-year-old now faces up to 10 years in prison.
According to Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News, a criminal indictment cites one of Ezhel’s most popular songs, in which he mentions being under the influence of marijuana. However, defenders point out that the rapper, far from promoting drug use, is merely reflecting a complex and gritty reality that permeates the slums of his hometown, the Turkish capital of Ankara.
A rising star in the broader rap world, Ezhel is scheduled to perform in Istanbul with American rapper Wiz Khalifa next month. His arrest has caused a flurry of outrage among his fans, who had the #FreeEzhel hashtag trending locally on Twitter on the day the news broke. The case has also attracted the attention of human-rights groups like Amnesty International, which is calling for his immediate and unconditional release. Daniel Balson, Amnesty International’s director of advocacy for Europe and Central Asia, says Ezhel’s arrest is part of a wider crackdown on free expression by the Turkish government, which has made a grotesque practice out of prosecuting high-profile artists and journalists as a scare tactic to silence dissent.
“The message is clear,” Balson told Fast Company in an email. “If a high-profile musician like Ezhel, whose videos receive tens of millions of views on YouTube, can be arrested for his speech, then so can ordinary citizens.”
So far the criticism seems to be falling on deaf ears. Balson said Amnesty International has not received a response from Turkish officials, and, as of Wednesday, Ezhel was still being held in pretrial detention. A representative for the country’s Minister of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.
Turkey is already a prolific jailer of journalists—Balson says fully a third of all journalists imprisoned anywhere in the world are held in Turkish prisons. But going after a pop-culture figure as beloved among young people as Ezhel is bringing fresh attention to the country’s regressive approach to free speech at a critical time. With presidential and parliamentary elections less than 10 days away—and with Turkey still in a state of emergency after a failed military coup in 2016—the country’s encumbant government, led by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may not be as impervious to backlash as it thinks.
“Turkish citizens have shown incredible courage in protesting their government’s abuses,” Balson says. “If Turkish authorities think that his arrest will silence criticism of their policies, they are deeply deluded.”