top of page

This article is the sixteenth instalment of Siyah, which explores the relationship between the African Diaspora and Turkish social and cultural narratives. Journalist Adama Juldeh Munu summarises Derya Özkan’s analysis of the African origins of cool in her essay From the Black Atlantic to Istanbul’s ‘Cool’, and how it relates to Istanbul’s cultural identity and landscape.

Cool is more than just an attitude or simply saying ‘alright’, it exists beyond the individual to spatial dimensions, from culture to counterculture, and the national to the transnational. That is the overarching argument Derya Özkan makes in ‘Cool Istanbul: Urban enclosures and resistances’, a series of essays that reimagine Istanbul’s social and political standing as a ‘cool city’.

Between anthropologists and economists, what prominently constitutes a cool city is subject to debate and is often reinforced by how any one city is perceived beyond the national psyche, in the eyes of the global community, and whether a city’s coolness is primarily determined by its cultural wealth, the value of its political economy, or the degree to which it is aggressively constructed by forces such as globalisation. For instance, David Fontana for The Washington Post describes Los Angeles as a city where cool meets beauty and San Francisco is where cool meets technology.

Özkan focuses on the former and says that urban cultural production makes cities like Istanbul cool because it is marked by non-conformity. To elaborate on the significance of this, in the essay, ‘Black Atlantic to Istanbul’s Cool: Why does coolness matter?’ Özkan takes the reader through the Black roots of cool as a pinnacle of the aesthetics of the African diaspora, in particular the Black Atlantic constituency. The termBlack Atlantic’ was popularised by Paul Gilroy in his 1995 essay of the same name. In it, he argues there isn’t a specifically continental African, Black American, Afro-Caribbean, or Black British culture. Rather, they are synonymous with each other, producing a cultural paradigm that transcends ethnicity and nationality to produce something new and ‘unremarked’. The idea of the ‘Black Atlantic’ has roots in Pan-Africanism, so an anthropological reading of Istanbul as tied to this may seem a strange thing to do here. But in the same way that cool is made out to be a paradoxical phenomenon for the cityscape, it’s seen by Özkan to be both a distinctive and interconnected idea.

‘Coolness’ is not wholly African of course, but Özkan argues ‘cool’ has a fundamentally Black or African aesthetic. In his 1973 article, An aesthetic to be cool, Robert Farris Thompson traces the roots of the word to thirty-five African languages: ‘cool mouth’ (enun tutu, in Yoruba) or ‘cool tongue’ (kanua ka- horo, in Kikuyu). Other examples include the expression ‘to cool his heart’ (koto di hiti f’en), by descendants of 17th and 18th-century slaves in Suriname. The same phrase (and meaning) is said to be found among Ghana’s Akan people. John M. Lipski in A History of Afro-Hispanic Language: Five Centuries, Five Continents indicates that in Puerto Rico, the word ‘chèvre’, meaning ‘cool’ may have derived from a blending of Spanish and African influences.

Cool also had a metaphysical and mystical function for ancient African royalty. One 15th-century chief in the Benin Empire took the title of ‘Ewuare’ meaning ‘it is cool’. Another Yoruba ruler in the same century was crowned with the title ‘Cool and Peaceful As the Native Herb Osun’ (oba ti o tutu bi osun). Thompson also recounts a meeting where he complimented the elders of Tinto-Mbu in the Banyang area of Cameroon on the “fine appearance of their chief”. They replied, “We say people are not judged by physical beauty but by the quality of their heart and soul; the survival of our chief is a matter of his character, not his looks.” Coolness could also convey restorative justice where wrongdoing would be seen as ‘heating up the land’, as is the case in traditional Igbo culture.

While Thompson acknowledges similarities between African and European cool in notions of self-control, he argues the cultural value of cool was something absent from Western ideals. It could be argued that western Black cultures are exempt, rooted in the experiences of resistance among enslaved Africans and their descendants whose expression of cool as a tool of liberation evolved from the traditional to the neo-traditional.

Namely because of a type of supra ‘cool’ developed through the meeting of west and central African- and to lesser degrees – European traditions to create Patois, Ebonics (African-American Vernacular English), Creoles, Spirituals, Blues, Calypso, Reggae, Zouk, Capoeira, the Lindy-Hop and the Charleston. The narrative of Africans under European chattel slavery, therefore, alludes to African retention and innovation, as well as the gruesome details of chattel slavery with which most of us are familiar.

Peter Tosh was an important pioneer of the reggae music genre. He was a Jamaican reggae musician. Along with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer, he was one of the core members of the band the Wailers, after which he established himself as a successful solo artist. Reggae’s direct origins are in ska and rocksteady of 1960s Jamaica, traditional Caribbean mento and calypso music, as well as American Jazz and Rhythm and Blues. It is a good example of Gilroy’s idea of a Black Atlantic culture.

Credit: Tim Duncan

In the US specifically, writer and professor of race and music, Joel Dernerstein, says the idea of cool took on a more formidable shape in post-war America, arguing cool was reconstructed as stylistic defiance against racism during World War II. He says that to be cool in the 1940s, one had the “ability to be relaxed in one’s own style in any environment, an act of courage and mental strength for any Black person during the Jim Crow era.”

Similarly, Istanbul’s identity monikers as a city of the orient, empire, secularism and the spiritual, the East – and loosely speaking the West – evokes ‘push-and-pull’ energies, quite unlike any other European or Asiatic city. And yet Özkan identifies ways that the Black Atlantic and Istanbul cool converge.

Firstly, she likens West African mystical ideals of kingship, tradition and continuity to Istanbul’s confidence in its own cultural history – both imperial and secular. For example, African sculpted heads of kings represent a link to the past. Likewise, Istanbul’s cultural accumulation over the centuries revitalises Istanbul to appreciate its regal past and modern present.

Secondly, there is the idea that cool cannot be inherited but achieved. Quite like how African peoples, for whom cool prior to the intrusion of European colonialism meant one thing, and following the Middle Passage, condensed into something else, as Dernerstein alludes to.

Thirdly, the embrace of cultural capital to meet the demands of social life is important to both West African ontology and the contemporary case of Istanbul’s cool. If the past is anything to go by, there is a revival of the embrace of cultural capital in various African cities, brought about by the expansion of metropolises, post-conflict reconstruction, advancement in entrepreneurship and technological endeavours and cultural crossovers within the African diaspora.

Coolness is an ideal and cultural aesthetic that cuts across nationalities, cultures and spaces such as cities. It is not manifested in only one manner because as a concept it embodies whatever is valuable about those spaces that relate to it. In spite of its malleability and ‘cultural currency’ around the globe, the idea of cool has a very distinctive relationship with both continental and African diaspora cultures that is underpinned in language, stature, dance and fashion. It can be found in moments of stability and in moments of personal and collective turmoil. It is a state of being, but it is also a state of becoming.

19 views0 comments

This is the fifteenth instalment in ‘Siyah’, a series which explores African Diaspora and Turkish social and cultural narratives, with journalist Adama Juldeh Munu. A look at celebrated African-American activist James Baldwin’s ten years spent living on and off in Istanbul at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

James Baldwin in the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 1965

Whenever people find out that I live and work in Istanbul, I often get asked two questions: “What made you work in Turkey?‘” and “What is it like as a Black woman here?” (i.e do you face racism in Turkey?). These are questions I assume other Black creatives also face, at a time when increasing numbers of Black westerners are migrating from the countries of their birth to places in the Caribbean, Africa or other European countries, in a phenomenon known as ‘Blaxit’. The term was coined in the wake of Brexit by academic, journalist, and human rights consultant Dr Ulysses Burley III. Commenting for The Salt Collective, he said, “America is on the verge of #Blaxit – a mass exodus of Black people. Where we will go I don’t know, but it’s clear that Black lives don’t matter here…”

The reasons for which people migrate vary, whether it is wanting a better quality of life, work opportunities, relationships, retirement or simply for adventure. Add to this the impact of racism, this may also include police brutality and the normalisation of far-right rhetoric in their respective countries, to name a few. It reminds me of the words of Emily Lordi for the New York Times, who remarks on the negro spiritual song ‘Steal Away’ as a fitting analogy for Black Americans who have ‘stolen’ themselves away from the United States as a response to being ‘stolen from Africa’ during the transatlantic slave trade.

‘Stealing away’ or ‘Blaxit’ are not new ideas for Black people seeking relief from racism. For instance, James Baldwin lived intermittently in Istanbul during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, having made a life for himself in Paris as a writer. Baldwin was one of the most accomplished writers of the 20th century, his repertoire traversing essays, novels, plays and poems. To do this, he broke literary ground in exploring racial and social issues - particularly his essays on the Black experience in the US amidst protests and sit-ins. His friend Zeynap Oral said that he remarked that “he couldn’t breathe” in the US, and could no longer work there. This was particularly triggered by the death of a friend who jumped off the George Washington Bridge.

In a feature for the New Yorker, in 1958, Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote that Baldwin meeting Turkish actor Engin Cezzar in New York was an important avenue for Baldwin to eventually migrate to Turkey. Initially, Cezzar was cast for a lead role based on Baldwin’s work Giovanni’s Room. While the play never made it to Broadway as Baldwin hoped, his liaisons with Cezzar would prove useful when he decided to visit the latter’s Taksim home in Istanbul, while working on a magazine assignment in Israel and Africa, in October 1961.

According to Magdalena Zaborowska, author of James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade: Erotics of Exile, Cezzar and his wife Gulriz Sururi gave Baldwin a spare room in their apartment where he was able to work on his manuscript Another Country. The house no longer exists here like many of the places associated with Baldwin. Baldwin’s Another Country would be completed two months after his arrival.

Baldwin eventually moved out of Taksim into a “red wooden yalı, a waterside mansion, once owned by Ahmed Vefik Paşa, an Ottoman-era intellectual and statesman. He also spent some time at another multi-storied home on the Bosphorus strait located near the 15th-century stone fortress Rumeli Hisarı, from which Mehmet the Conqueror launched his attack on the Byzantines,” Suzy Hansen writes in Public Books magazine. “In those homes, Baldwin threw all-night parties and gave talks; he entertained Marlon Brando, Alex Haley, Beauford Delaney.”

Formerly Vefik Pasha's library perched atop a steep hill, is one of the places Baldwin lived

Baldwin's time in the city has left traces in his work, including his interactions with local culture and people, some of which were among some of his most important pieces because it reveals the comfort with which he could easily tie in race and sexuality. These include the essay collection No Name in the Street. Another example of this is the creator of the actor-protaganoist Leo Proudhammer in his novel ‘Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone and the conception of his last play ‘The Welcome Table.‘ He would also end up staging a play, Fortune and Men’s Eyes at the Istanbul Theatre which sadly no longer exists. As Hilal Isler recounts in James Baldwin Might Have Been Most Home in Istanbul: “Baldwin spoke of the positive ‘energy’ he felt in Turkey, and it’s been suggested this was a factor in his staying: because it was ‘easier to be gay in Istanbul than in America, easier to be black.’ Here, men could hold hands, and kiss one another in public, and maybe it meant they were gay, or maybe not. Here, people could be physically white-passing, but they weren’t considered white culturally or politically, at least not by the West. In this sense, Istanbul gave Baldwin the opportunity and space to re-examine the ways in which he had been thinking about race and sex. While he may have been fondly referred to as ‘Arab Jimmy, his experiences in Turkey were sometimes fraught with the discrimination he escaped from in the US. While visiting a Turkish village, Baldwin was beaten by two men who used racial and anti-gay slurs against him, according to his biographer and friend, David Leeming.

But could he really escape the ‘Americanism’ of his identity and especially as a Black man? Baldwin was the subject of the film shot by late Turkish director Sedat Pakay, James Baldwin: From Another Place (1973), which was made towards the end of Baldwin’s stay in the city. It begins with a focus on Baldwin’s hands playing with Turkish prayer beads, tespih, linking him to a cultural practice that while foreign to him, speaks to a serenity that, as a Black American, had also become familiar given his time there.

In another shot, Baldwin then gets up from his bed sheets, walks to the window, looks out, and we can see over his shoulder a glimpse of the outside—an Istanbulite street view. Another scene shifts to him being in assorted public spaces as a visible Black man. We also hear his voice-over his thoughts on his voluntary exile from the US, how he felt that his freedom was paradoxically tied to American identity, that as a Black person was at this time still being hard-fought.

“I suppose that many people do blame me for being out of the States as often as I am. But one can’t afford to worry about that ... And […] perhaps only someone who is outside of the States realises that it’s impossible to get out. The American power follows one everywhere. […] One sees it better from a distance ... from another place, from another country.”

Caption: Credit: Baldwin family

Baldwin would live off and on in Istanbul for ten years, and once told his friend, the Turkish writer Yasar Kemal, “I feel free in Istanbul,” who replied, ‘That’s because you’re American.”

14 views0 comments

Esmeray Diriker, otherwise known as ‘Esmeray’ and the ‘Black angel’ in Turkey, was a preeminent feminine voice of Turkey’s music scene in the ’70s and 80s. This is the fourteenth instalment in the series ‘Siyah’, which explores the relationship between African Diaspora and Turkish social and cultural narratives, with journalist Adama Juldeh Munu.

Note: This was originally published in March 2022, ahead of the singer’s 20th death anniversary.

Esmeray is a name few would associate with the ‘Black Diva’, but in Turkey, hers exemplifies the sound of the country. Esmeray Diriker (1949-2002) was born in Emirgan, Istanbul in 1949, and was a Black woman of Moroccan heritage. Her grandparents migrated to the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century.

She is best known for hit songs that spoke to Turkey’s military narrative, but much less is known of her experience as a child of Black migrants which she conveyed through song and her iconoclastic status within Afro-Turkish history.

She first began her career in the entertainment industry during the 1960s, after she dropped out of her last year at Emirgan Secondary School, to join the Istanbul community theatre. She went on to perform at larger theatres such as the Domen and Sezer Sezin theatres. She then went on to pursue her music career in 1972, releasing a series of EPs and albums. According to her son Kaan Diriker, in an interview with CNN Turk, music was indispensable for his mother, who filled their family home with a variety of music including European and Turkish classical music, jazz, and the blues. Esmeray returned to theatre acting in 1995 with Oscar. She performed in the series Alıştık Artık in the first half of the 1990s and Reyting Hamdi during the second half of the 1990s. Her final performance was in Küçük Besleme as “Şule” in 2001. She died from brain cancer in March 2002.

Below are three of her top songs:

Unatuma beni

Esmeray was known for iconic love songs such as Unatuma Beni which means ‘Can’t Forget Me’. She sings from the perspective of a young girl who is infatuated and hopes for everlasting love. You can read the lyrics here.

Gel tezkere gel

Her hit song ‘Gel tezkere gel’ or ‘Come on’ is about a soldier wishing his discharge date to come quickly to be with his lover. It still reverberates across Turkey as its timeless lyrics touch upon the longing of every Turkish woman waiting for her lover to return from military service. You can read the lyrics here.


In 13.5 (Arab girl) Esmeray speaks about the hardships of being a Black Turkish girl and focuses on prejudice faced by Black peoples in Turkey. Polish cultural anthropologist says, “It was written by Sanar Yurdatapan in 1976… Marching drums break the atmosphere and the low, deep and proud voice of Esmeray takes us into a 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.” You can read the lyrics here.

10 views0 comments
bottom of page