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Meet the New Faces of Queer Kurdish Art Rock

Adir Jan Tekîn is not your typical musician in Berlin. While Turkey has queer performers, including trans diva Bülent Ersoy, a lot of the performers remain closeted. Not him.

Adir Jan Tekîn is not your typical musician in Berlin. The Berlin-born singer and songwriter produces songs in two Kurdish dialects. Tekîn’s band Adirjam is gaining steam for being the uniquely first Kurdish queer art rock band.

Tekîn brings a uniquely Kurdish sound with the Tembûr, along with his bandmates Dave Sills on cello and Conny Kreuter on guitar. They’ve have played around Berlin, including the May Day protest parties and So36, a punk club founded by Martin Kippenberger. Now, they’re gearing up for shows this summer and are recording their first album.

Kurdistan, which is a grey zone between east Turkey, north Iraq, northwest Iran and northeast Syria, has always fought for its rights, but one key thing that keeps the voice of the people alive is how Kurdish music has been used as a political voice. Kurdish music was banned in Turkey from 1982 to 1991, causing musicians like Şivan Perwer, Beytocan, and Nizamettin Ariç to flee while their hits played on pirate radio.

While Turkey has queer performers, including trans diva Bülent Ersoy, a lot of the performers remain closeted, according to Tekîn. Not him. His heart burns for a selfish Greek lover in the song “My Janaki.”  “Rainbow” is another that's inspired by the 2013 murder of R.Ç. in North Kurdistan, a stand against homophobia and transphobia that references repression everywhere. “The flowers of the garden are many colors, we are a piece of the rainbow,” the lyrics go. “Let us march together to defend love.”

Tekin has soulful lyrics, even if you don’t understand the language. Storytelling is a huge key factor of Kurdish music; but to him, it’s as equally about the subject as it is about the music. We grabbed a seat at the queer bar Südblock in Berlin’s bustling Kreuzberg district to talk about faith in love and what drew him to Kurdish music.

VICE: What makes your approach to Kurdish music different?
Adir Jan Tekîn: It is not just traditional, not just rock or pop. We really searched for a genre, although we didn’t want to name it. The instrumentation with classical western instruments, Kurdish instruments and electric guitars means we automatically draw from many different styles. At last we found that it’s a kinda “Cosmop” [Cosmopolitan] Art Rock. I’ve called it Kurdish queer before but it’s not really, maybe in the subject or the topics, but not the music. I prefer to integrate the stuff of Kurdish and queer with the languages and the lyrics. In all the gigs, I talk about the songs. I explain before or after what the subject is about because I know many people don’t understand the languages. I feel the need to tell them it has a message or it’s about love between two guys, or that it’s against homophobia or whatever.

What has the response been like so far?
I’ve been the one that has had prejudices. For example, I thought people might not accept the subjects but it was the opposite. I waited many years to start my project and what I wanted to do. It’s been a great start with great reactions. There were people who criticized it, nobody who came directly but I heard it through organizers that my songs were too erotic. Also, there are homophobic people like everywhere. But it pushes me, also. 

Could you play the Middle East?
I know they will call me. I know it and it will not take a long time. In our music, we are really telling what we want to tell through the songs, especially in songs like "Rainbow" or "Love." I sing songs dealing with homophobia, songs based on love, I catch people by this. I believe in love. I believe in the power of love.

What is traditional Kurdish music like?
There are 40 million Kurdish people. If you take Kurdistan, which isn’t a state but I call it a country, it’s big like France and the biggest part is in Turkey, through Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It has also synthesis with other music genres but a lot of Kurdish music is about love, war, work, and resistance. The main subjects are love and resistance.

It’s also a form of storytelling and religion.
It’s more about storytelling, religion not so much. Stories and history were transported by music and singing, that’s why it’s a very rich music. Vocals are very important in Kurdish music.

Is there any queer Kurdish music out there?
There are many queer Kurdish musicians but they are not out. They’re queer but they’re not out. I don’t know, maybe it’s for marketing? It’s not like people from the Middle East are more homophobic or transphobic than anyone else, it’s bullshit.

What is the goal of the band?
It’s music with a message. It’s about love between queer people and standing up against homophobia and transphobia. In some songs it’s loud, in others it just fits into the lyrics. There is homophobia in the Kurdish community like also in the white German community or in day to day life in Berlin. I don’t aim just to reach Kurdish people, it’s just the language I sing in. I grew up with German, Zaza, and Turkish but my songs are mainly in two Kurdish languages—Zaza and Kurmanjî—though I also integrate other languages like Greek or Spanish. It depends on my feelings when I write or compose. I would never agree with other people being more homophobic than others.

Can you tell me more about the song “Rainbow”?
What’s important in life is love, not just who fucks who, it’s not the gender either. In the song, I talk about the killing of us, the homosexual and transsexual people. At the same time, I describe that it hasn’t always been like this, but white colonialism and imperialism brought it. The countries who had colonies, there were a lot of fixed definitions. This is a man, woman, gay or straight, black or white—you had to define yourself. It was not so common in the countries I’m telling the stories of. It was brought later and accepted. If you look at Persian literature there is poetry written by men for young men, it was in the cultures. Homosexuality and trans identity without definition had a place in daily life, but later it changed. People clung to definitions which means discriminations and forgot love. I’m calling to join forces for equality and to remember love.

Berlin is liberal in that respect, though.
Not really, there are places I would not go as a person of color and a queer. It depends on the quarter you live in.

How controversial is Kurdish music?
It was forbidden for years in Turkey; it was forbidden to talk in Kurdish. There were singers who lived in exile, or who are still living in exile, because they were forbidden. Now it’s allowed in Turkey, but there are political problems, of course. We still don’t have all of our rights there. We are not recognized like people.

What pisses you off?
I came out when I was 15 and I was the co-president of a Kurdish German youth organization for many years, until last year. The young people re-elected me knowing I was gay. At the same time European media are trying to make a stereotype of people with migrant backgrounds are more homophobic than others. That’s a big lie. Really, its bullshit to put a stigma to people of color, it really pisses me off.

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