Following a special show in London last month, Shane Woolman speaks to the Turkish artist, activist and label boss
Born in the western Turkish town of Muğla in 1948, Selda Bağcan began her career at the age of 23 with a series of interpretations of traditional Turkish folk songs. Gaining the reputation as a firebrand with her outspoken social criticism and strong solidarity with the working class, coupled with her urgent, emotive vocal style, Selda (as she affectionately came to be known) went on to release her first album Selda on the Türküola label in 1976. Essentially a folk singer, Selda experimented with both rock and electronic sounds on her releases and toured extensively throughout western Europe in the 1970s. After the military coup in 1980 the political climate in Turkey changed and, as her lyrics were considered too incendiary, Selda found herself imprisoned on three occasions. This was followed by the confiscation of her passport. In 1987 it was reinstated and she was able to travel to the UK’s second WOMAD festival. Many other international live engagements followed. In 2006 her self-titled debut was reissued by Finders Keepers, bringing her music to a new western audience. Today Selda remains active in the music scene and runs her own label in Istanbul. On 18 February she played a special one-off show in London backed by Israeli band Boom Pam. Shane Woolman caught up with her on this visit. Translation by Siné Büyüka.
You came to London for a one-off headline show. Have you been here before?
I was in London for Meltdown in 2012 that was curated by Antony Hegarty. More recently, in 2016, I came to the UK for the WOMAD festival, which was my second time at WOMAD. I was first invited in 1986 when the Turkish government had confiscated my passport but in 1987, with Peter Gabriel’s support, the festival invited me again and this time the government handed me my passport back. Then I started getting invitations from festivals everywhere. It marked a turning point in my career that helped me climb another step up, although in the 1970s I played a lot of shows in Germany after being invited by the Social Democratic Party.
Was it due to pressure from the festival that the Turkish government gave you your passport back?
Yes, more or less. As I was jailed three times before, I attracted a lot of attention and people wondered who I was. A pop singer going to jail was unheard of at that time. It was because of my lyrics, not because I was a terrorist. But I did share a cell with terrorists.
Were there other singers that were locked up during the same time?
No, only me. They all fled to Germany.
Did you anticipate receiving such negative attention from the authorities? Your lyrics have always been very direct and forthright.
I didn’t anticipate that the government would react so harshly to my lyrics and now I’ve seen it all. But I have not been tamed! I continue the way I know. ‘Immer gerade aus!’ (‘Continue straight ahead!’) as they say in Germany.
One of your best known songs, originally written by Ali Sultan, is “Yaz Gazeteci Yaz” (“Write Journalist Write”), an evocative call for journalists to report on the problems facing the country’s working class majority rather than pandering to the Istanbul-centric elites. What about journalists in Turkey today, where more are currently being jailed there than in any other country?
Nobody wants that to happen in their own country. No matter how many times the government is warned, it just doesn’t listen. And it’s not only us – the whole world is asking our government what’s going on but to no avail.
How did your union with Boom Pam come about?
Boom Pam found me in 2014, they said they wanted to play with me and I said yes. We then played at the Groove Festival in Tel Aviv and I hadn’t realised how famous I had become there. I really didn’t expect the crowd to go wild the second I set foot onstage. Another concert that took me by surprise was a festival in Krakow, Poland. There were 40,000 people there, none of them Turkish. The second I said, “Yaz Gazeteci…”, the crowd roared. People were chanting, ‘Selda! Selda!’ I had to say something, so do you know what I said to them? ‘Thank you amigos!’
What artists influenced you before you started your career in music?
I started singing at 15 and was influenced by a lot of artists. For instance Connie Francis, especially her song “Mama”. I always wanted to be like her and I sang that particular song as well. We have similar singing voices, both high pitched and emotive. Years later I realised Luciano Pavarotti also sang it. Connie Francis was also of Italian descent. Also, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Elvis Presley, for example his song “In The Ghetto”. There’s a song I wrote called “Çöplük” which was inspired by that track, where I sing about homeless kids picking food out of the trash. Some things affect me a lot and it really gets to me that, in this day and age, there are people who have to raid the trash to find food. It is the 21st century! One billion people, maybe even two billion, go to bed hungry every day. In our country, 20 million people live below the poverty line. But I’ve also seen so many homeless people begging in London during my visit. Instead of going to the moon, let’s end this hunger problem in the world! It shouldn’t be too hard. Politicians should stop worrying about filling their pockets and focus on this problem a little.
Are the causes you sang about at the beginning of your career still as relevant today? Are there any particular artists performing today that you see as continuing the struggle for equality and justice?
Like I said before, hunger… here, there are a lot of charities helping these people but sometimes bad people take advantage. Look at the Oxfam scandal at the moment, look all those awful things they have done to immigrants. “Bu insanlar adam olmaz!” (“People will never be good!”). But there have been and are musicians out there who sing about causes important to them like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who have never changed their stance. I think there’s only me left in Turkey. All of the others have changed and gone back on their words as time has passed.
Your career started at a time when women across the world were still struggling for basic aspects of their equality. Have you ever felt that you’ve had to work harder in your career by way of being a woman?
I’ve never felt that being a woman was a disadvantage in music because, in my case, having a distinctive voice meant that I actually benefited from it. I never needed to fight for recognition. Two weeks after I released my first album I was instantly famous and I parachuted right into the middle of the music industry. I believe being a woman in music can be a big advantage, that the whole world loves women in music more than men as they generally come across as more sensitive, sympathetic and alluring. A lot of people approach Turkey with an orientalist viewpoint and think that we all go around wearing a fez on our heads, which is not true. Women got the right to vote in Turkey before they did in Switzerland. Conservative governments will come and go but secularism will never go away in Turkey.
Why did you start your label Majör Müzik Yapım?
When I went to jail for my songs, they also arrested the label manager who I had released my album with. When I got out, I thought that no one should get in trouble because of me and that’s why I launched my own label, so no one else would get hurt. Also, labels can get very intrusive and controlling, they can tell you what you can sing about and what not. I really didn’t like that censorship, I wanted to sing about whatever I wanted to and so I launched the label in 1988 to be able to do that. I love my independence. I also release other artists, like Cem Karaca.
What’s the next thing we can expect from Selda?
We started a series called 40 Songs From 40 Years on double vinyl and double CD. The first instalment was composed of the hits and the second part will be the tracks I’ve chosen and performances I specifically like. We will have a total of 240 tracks released in six instalments. I sang almost 400 songs throughout my career but I don’t like all of them – some of them I sang under pressures from labels. That’s why I want to re-release my favourite tracks. This is one advantage of running your own label – another label really couldn’t do this project.