German rapper Ebow is Kurdish 4 Life

The artist’s signature song has become a rallying cry for a generation

Inspired by 1990s rap and Turkish melodies, Kurdish-German rapper Ebow draws on a melange of cultural influences in her music. Photograph courtesy of Ebow/Nikolas-Petros Androbik

In recent months, streets across Germany have been filled with protesters standing in solidarity with the people of Gaza and commemorating the victims of the 2020 far-right shootings in the city of Hanau. At such gatherings, you can expect to hear one song blasted from loudspeakers, the words “Kanak for Life” repeating over a thumping bassline. 

The track, titled K4L, is by the Kurdish-German rapper Ebow. Since the 1980s, German language rappers — most of whom are from immigrant backgrounds — have sought to reclaim the word “kanak”,  a racist slur used to refer to people of Middle Eastern and North African heritage. Ebow, one of the country’s most innovative hip-hop artists, is taking that mission one step further.

“I wanted to create an anthem for all the ausländer [foreigner] kids, just to hype us up and say, ‘Hey, we’re here to stay,  look at what we’ve created and look at who we are,’” she says during a Zoom call from Istanbul, where she is undertaking a four-month artist residency at the Tarabya Cultural Academy, a German-Turkish cultural exchange programme.  

For her, the fact that K4L has become such a feature at protests “feels like the highest compliment you can reach, as an artist who writes about political stuff”. 

German-language hip-hop — also known as “deutschrap” — is one of the country’s biggest homegrown music styles, regularly dominating the charts. Unlike other domestic genres, it was pioneered by and is still largely produced by the children and grandchildren of immigrants, many from Turkey and the Middle East.

Back in the 1980s, artists such as Islamic Force, a six-person collective from Berlin, started using beats and rhymes to discuss the often harsh realities of migrant experience. In the process, they helped to shape German youth culture and made Arabic and Turkish words a staple of street slang. Until recently, though, the genre has been dominated by men. Ebow is one of a new crop of female MCs shaking up the scene.

Starting with her self-titled debut in 2013, she has released four albums to date and is now working on her fifth. Largely inspired by the rhythms of 1990s rap and R&B, Ebow’s diverse and experimental work also incorporates contemporary electro and traditional Turkish music. Her lyrics — including themes of love, grief, queer feminism, anti-capitalism, racism and police brutality — have seen her described as “the German M.I.A.”.

K4L is taken from Ebow’s third album, which bears the same name. Released in 2019, it marked a turning point in her career. “It’s the first song that brought me broader attention,” she says. “And I got so much positive feedback from it. People were like, ‘We feel so seen with this song’.”

Ebow, whose real name is Ebru Düzgün, was born in Munich, in the southern state of Bavaria, in 1990. Her grandparents arrived as “gastarbeiters” — immigrant workers invited to what was then West Germany to fill labour shortage — from Northern Kurdistan in Turkey. 

Growing up, she was introduced to African-American cultures through teenage family members who babysat her. “If you ask any migrant kid in Germany, we all grew up with hip-hop and R&B,” she says. Even TV shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Cosby Show “were talking about stuff like racism and police brutality. I think that was more relatable to us than watching a series about a white family that doesn’t have those problems”.

Ebow also describes her mother as a major inspiration. She is a poet and an active member of the European Alevi Confederation, regularly called on to give speeches about the position of Alevi people, who face widespread discrimination and violence  in Turkey and Europe. For Ebow, writing and performing rap lyrics is a natural progression of her mother’s love of language. 

Growing up in affluent, socially conservative Bavaria has shaped Ebow’s art and politics to this day. Owing to Germany’s federal system, which gives individual states control over certain laws, Bavarian police have far-reaching powers, including extremely liberal rights of stop and search and no restrictions against racial profiling

“They’re really free to do anything,” Ebow says. “After school we were always being searched by the police. Every encounter I had with them was negative. The weirdest thing about growing up there is that you’re always controlled and watched by everyone around you. Like if you’re not white, they’re watching your every move.”

While still a teenager, Ebow sought release in music, writing lyrics that she would then perform in the street and on public transport. In those days, though, recording songs and getting more formal gigs presented serious challenges.

“Nowadays it’s really easy to set up a studio for like 100 bucks, but back then it was really expensive,” she says. “Only the boys had studios at home and they would only let you in if they thought you were cute and wanted to flirt with you.” 

When she was 16, Ebow entered a rap battle, but only one male MC agreed to go up against her. “The rest were like ‘We’re not battling a girl’,” she recalls. One member of the audience who had a home studio was so impressed by Ebow’s performance that he said she could use his space whenever she wanted. She began uploading music to MySpace and eventually released her first LP on the Munich-based indie label Disko B.

Like many other German MCs, Ebow sprinkles Turkish — and sometimes English — words in her lyrics and song titles. “Honestly, I forget that some of them are Turkish, as they are our slang,” she says. She does not speak fluent Kurdish, but called her last album Canê, which means “my soul” and is a common term of endearment. Kurdish people have long faced discrimination in Turkey and use of their language, which was banned until the 1990s, is still restricted today. Putting the word on the album cover was an important political statement for Ebow.  

“It’s really important for me to represent my people, as I belong to a group of people that is being erased,” she says.

Now, it is not uncommon to hear white German teenagers using words such as “mashallah” or “inshallah” in everyday conversation. For Ebow, this is a generally positive sign of a more open and diverse society, but there are negative aspects to the trend. 

“What really pisses me off is that since German rap got bigger, white kids who used to mock us for not speaking ‘proper’ German are now using these words like it’s funny, you know?” she says. “It’s like a mockery of the language.”

Today, Ebow lives in Berlin, a place she finds much more open than Bavaria. “Nobody’s watching you or controlling your moves there, and that really gives me freedom of mind,” she says. However, she does not feel optimistic about the outlook for Muslim artists in Germany, in light of a recent crackdown on pro-Palestine voices. During one date of her most recent tour, she says a venue manager told her the show would be shut down if she said anything about Palestine.

“A lot of my Jewish friends are really scared because they’re like, ‘OK, Germany is using this topic to build up more anti-Muslim racism,’” she said. “And at the same time, a lot of Jewish people in the creative scene are also getting cancelled. That’s something that’s troubling me right now — it’s really scary.” 

Along with the increasingly tough police crackdowns of demonstrations — particularly those in solidarity with the people of Gaza — it is clear that there are still plenty of issues for Ebow to address in her music. “I’ve been to Palestine demos since I was about 16, but I’ve never seen this much brutality,” she says. “It’s like they took off the mask and showed their true faces.”

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