Istanbul, Turkey — In early August, Fatih Karaca, better known as Mabel Matiz, took the stage in Istanbul. When the opening chords of one of his most famous songs, “Alaimisema,” an ancient Turkish word meaning “rainbow,” began to swell, he addressed the sold-out crowd.
“Humans are creatures that are very prone to excluding the other, to alienating the other, to becoming hostile, to excluding what they don’t know,” Matiz said. “But underneath it all, I think we all know we’re the same deep down.”
Matiz knows this very well. Despite his queer identity, Matiz is loved by fans across the political and religious spectrum. He says his music creates a space where people in Turkey can explore controversial topics — a space that is becoming increasingly rare in a politically and culturally polarized country.
“I’ve worked hard to make music that can share a common point with everyone,” Matiz told Al-Monitor.
He was born in 1985 in a small town in southern Turkey. As a lonely child, he says that music was his ‘saviour’, a way to explore the wider world and a form of expression. When he was young, he stuttered, but when he sang, it disappeared.
When he moved to Istanbul in the early 2000s to study dentistry, the city was teeming with youthful energy. Many hoped that the election of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in 2002 would lead to a more liberal climate, as the party then took a more open stance on rights for minority groups, including LGBTQ people.
In 2008, he started a page on MySpace, then a popular social media site, under the pseudonym Mabel Matiz. Mabel was a name of a character in a book by Buket Uzuner, “Kumral Ada Mavi Tuna.” Matiz is derived from the ancient Greek word for “drunk.”
Within two years, Matiz was one of the most popular names on MySpace in Turkey. Listeners and producers were captivated by his fusion of pop, rock and Turkish folk. His lyrics interweave folklore and poetry with urban stories.
“My songs can talk about anything. They can talk about a story in a village or the back streets of Berlin, they can talk about a love affair or a more spiritual, divine form of love,” he said.
In 2011, the underground success of his first album, “Mabel Matiz”, enabled him to turn to music full-time. Now Matiz has four albums, more than 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify and his YouTube videos are viewed more than 5 million times.
But meanwhile, Turkey has seen a dramatic rise in homophobia as the AKP tries to bolster its conservative base.
Last week in Istanbul, the largest anti-LGBT demonstration ever took place, with placards calling queer people “perverted.”
“Over the past two years, the government has pushed the anti-LGBT [stance]Kenan Sharpe, an academic who studies Turkish pop culture, told Al-Monitor. “It has become a specific policy of theirs, this culture war that they are trying to start.”
After the Gezi Park protests of 2013, the government has hardened its rhetoric against LGBTQ people, many of whom joined the protests.
In 2021, Erdogan said there was “no such thing as LGBT people in Turkey. Pride marches have been banned since 2015.
“The LGBTI+ community is under a lot of pressure,” says Matiz. “What happens every year at Pride makes me sad.”
Despite the increasingly hostile climate, on July 1 — just days after police forcefully cracked down on this year’s Pride events — Matiz released his controversial recent hit “Karakol” or “Copshop,” which has hit more than 17 years so far. million views.
The video shows a young man leaning on Matiz’s knee as Matiz sings that his heart has been “laid in the police station” and his love has been laid in a grave. He compares his beloved to forbidden fruit.
The song and video were met with an outpouring of praise and outrage. The head of Turkish broadcasting watchdog RTUK has reportedly called television stations and demanded that they not broadcast the clip.
Despite this, Matiz was happy that the song got people talking.
According to Ozan Korkmaz, Matiz’s manager, censorship did not take away the impact of the song, as it inspired rare and important conversations.
“I think it’s very, very important to make people think about it, talk a little bit, feel something different, even in themselves, throwing them something new from time to time,” Korkmaz told Al -Monitor.
While working on a fifth album expected to be released in early 2023, Matiz says he will be writing more songs that explore similar themes.
“I’m not afraid,” he said. “There is no room for such fear in my life or my head.”