Culture, Research

Siyah: Esmeray: Songs of an Afro-Turk

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. It comes ahead of the singer’s 20th year 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:

  1. Unutama Beni

Esmeray was known for iconic love songs such as Unutama 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. 

  1. 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. 

  1. 13.5

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. 

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