Concert of Azis at Balkan Fest in 2019

The Bulgarian pop singer Vasil Troyanoy, better known by the name Azis, was dropped from the bill at a music festival in north-west Turkey after a right-wing newspaper criticised his sexual orientation.

The ultra-conservative daily Yeni Akit described Azis as a “gay pervert” after he was added to the line-up for a mid-September three-day Balkan music festival in Bursa province. 

“What is the AKP-run Kestel municipality trying to do?” asked a headline in Yeni Akit, in reference to the fact that the festival was organised by a local authority run by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Poster of the festival in Kestel

Azis, who is of Roma background, is a favourite among Bursa’s Bulgarian immigrant community. He has played more than 15 concerts in the province, including at others organised by local authorities. The Yeni Akit story, however, prompted his first ever cancellation.

In response to Inside Turkey’s questions about why Azis was dropped,  Berktuğ Öncü, a spokesperson for the Kestel municipality, said only that an explanation had been posted on the authority’s official Instagram account. 

According to this statement, Azis was only invited due to a “scheduling conflict” for the festival’s first choice, Bulgarian singer Tuncer, which was subsequently resolved. 

“We are determined to make the best of this event without making it a political tool, despite efforts to generate negative comments about an artist that was scheduled last minute,” the municipality stated. 

This was contradicted, however, by Kestel mayor Önder Tanır, in an interview with Yeni Akit on September 14. 

“We didn’t know Azis was on that level,” he said, apparently referring to the singer’s sexuality. “He was introduced to us as the Tarkan [a macho Turkish pop star] of the Balkans. After realising we made a mistake, we cancelled this artist’s set.” 

Announcement made by Kestel Municipality on Instagram

An official from the Balkan Migrants Culture and Solidarity Association (BAL-GÖÇ), who wished to remain anonymous, told Inside Turkey that this festival has been held for years without any previous interference from the municipality over the line-up. 

“We don’t know what caused the cancellation of Azis’ concert. There are as many people from around Turkey in this area as there are migrants. They may have acted in response to their protest,” said the official.

Esra Ayran Çakır, a 26 year-old Bursa resident who works for an online shopping platform, said that Azis had played in the province many times before. 

Esra Ayran Çakır (Credit: Uğur Ökdemir)

“Azis is loved as much by other parts of society as he is by immigrants,” he said. “It’s terrible to target people because of their lifestyles instead of their music. They practically punish anyone who lives a different life to what they want.”

He added, “Azis’s Bursa concerts are always very joyous. There was a massive crowd when he performed at the Balkan Fair held Nilüfer Municipality [run by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP)]. A newspaper targets such a loved artist and the municipality cancels his concert. We shouldn’t target people for their lives or beliefs, but instead look at their art.” 

Defne Güzel, chair of the Bursa-based LGBTQI+ Free Colours Association told Inside Turkey that Azis’s cancellation was only one of many similar incidents. 

“Bursa locals show great interest in Azis’s concerts,” she said. “The statements made by the municipality and the mayor show that there’s a contradiction here. Nobody can be discriminated against for their gender identity, their sexual orientation or sexual characteristics. The cancellation of Azis’s concert is a performance ban and a violation of the right to work. This is a human rights violation.” 

Defne Güzel (Credit: Personal Archive)

Güzel said that discrimination, violence and hate crimes have surged during the pandemic and placed increased pressure on the LGBTQI+ community, even preventing their access to basic services.

“This is not the first time LGBTQI+ people face this oppression,” he continued. “We face this discrimination in all areas of our lives, we are familiar with this attitude and we continue to fight for our basic rights.” 

Dogan Gürpınar, a historian based at Istanbul Technical University, told Inside Turkey that the government’s rhetoric had become increasingly conservative in recent years, amid the country’s mounting economic and social problems. 

“They’re trying to shift to cultural topics to create space for themselves in a time when all other political options are shrinking,” he said. “The rhetoric could be considered a symptom of this.”