The YouTube video of protest song “East Turkistan,” voiced by a Texan who backed up Whitney Houston, describes a “torture that never ends” for the Turkic Muslim Uyghur people of northwestern China, and asks listeners, “When will the world hear?”
Singer Della Miles worked with composer Turgay Evren, a popular Turkish poet, on the musical denunciation of Beijing’s persecution of the Uyghurs.
Miles told The China Project she was shocked by the suffering directed by Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xí Jìnpíng 习近平, who has put 1 million Uyghurs in detention centers and jails in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area twice the size of her home state of Texas.
“There are graphic images out there of killings and camps, but there are also the hidden tragedies of rape and children who have gone missing,” Miles, 52, said from Dalyan, in southern Turkey, where she has lived with her Turkish husband since 2012. “I cannot imagine not being able to see my family or contact my children.”
In August 2022, China’s actions against the Uyghurs were called “crimes against humanity” by the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A few months later, in December, “East Turkistan,” the song that Miles sings in English, was released across social media with subtitles in Turkish, a language many Uyghurs who have lived in Turkey can understand.
“Why would any leader anywhere make decisions they knew would make their own people suffer?” Miles asked. “I cannot fathom why they would treat their people this way.”
While exiled Uyghurs avoid using the name “Xinjiang,” meaning “New Territory,” which was imposed by the Manchu Qing dynasty in 1884, the phrase “East Turkestan,” the name given to the song, is barred in their homeland. (Note: Miles’s song title is spelled “Turkistan,” but when referring to the traditional place name, we have used the more common spelling of “Turkestan.”)
Michael, Whitney, and Mandela
Della Miles’s career blossomed in 1997 when she played the lead in “Sisterella,” the African-American spoof of Cinderella produced by Michael Jackson, the late global pop icon whose anthem “They Don’t Care About Us,” recorded two years earlier, made him a hero to Uyghurs who identified with its lyrics of disaffection, according to Uyghur linguist and activist Abduweli Ayup.
Miles toured the world for almost two decades, performing jazz, musicals, opera, rock, and soul, and singing backup for six years of touring with Whitney Houston, the late American multi-platinum recording artist who loaned her international fame to support Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.
Miles also has used her voice to draw attention to human rights crises and disaster relief efforts around the world, and “East Turkistan” has heartened Uyghur campaigners trying to rally the world’s support.
Seyit Tümtürk, the chairman of the East Turkestan National Assembly in Turkey, placing a Uyghur skullcap on the head of singer Della Miles in recognition of her support of the Uyghur cause. Photo from Seyit Tümtürk’s Twitter.
“The song is a powerful statement of our suffering and we have many ideas how it can further our campaign,” Seyit Tümtürk, the chairman of the East Turkestan National Assembly in Turkey, told The China Project. “We would like to visit Uyghurs around the world in the diaspora, hold concerts, and even travel with Della to China and show her the camps and the prisons. Our purpose is to get China to stop the genocide. We are grateful to Ms. Miles for championing our movement.”
Inspiration for the three-verse composition came to songwriter Evren after he wrote 30 pieces highlighting injustices in global trouble spots such as Kashmir, Syria, and Palestine.
Evren, 48, whose work also includes music in support of women suffering the burden of war and famine around the world, was drawn to the plight of the Uyghurs by a colleague in his teaching career of 25 years.
“This was the first time I had come face to face with a Uyghur from East Turkestan, and I was determined to look into what was going on there,” Evren said.
Evren’s “East Turkistan” lyrics describe the “tears that women always wear” and “the young men who are killed every year.” His words ask, “What is the sin of children?” “Why is the hatred so big?” and “When will happiness appear?” The song’s concluding lines ask, “Who will wipe away their tears?” and “How will mankind face fear?”
“These people are being tortured. They have no voice,” Evren said. “It is not right that fathers are being separated from their children. They are being silenced and murdered with no right to tell the world what is happening to them. I am a human being and I can be their voice.”
Estimating that the song “East Turkistan” has reached an audience of around 300,000 so far, across all social media channels, Evren is convinced of the power of music to transform people’s thinking and spoke of the “magic of music” to touch hearts.
Nonetheless, Evren is disappointed that the Muslim world has not united against the Uyghur genocide at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Some from the Islamic world are traveling to Xinjiang as guests of the CCP regime and even offering their support,” Evren said. “They must be made aware of what is happening there.”
In June, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas flew to Beijing to meet with Xí Jìnpíng to seek economic aid. Abbas voiced support for Beijing’s repressive policies toward Muslim minorities in the northwestern part of the country, and vowed he would not interfere in China’s internal affairs.
The first draft of the “East Turkistan” YouTube video was rated inappropriate for minors by the social media platform owned by Google because of the graphic nature of some of the backing images. Undeterred, Evren produced a toned-down version to give access to the song to as wide an audience as possible.
Banned by authorities in Beijing, YouTube and Google only can be accessed in China using a virtual private network, which also are deemed illegal.
“Music has a power that mere words can’t convey,” Evren said. “Della lent her heart to this. As people listen and watch the images, the first change will be in their own hearts. They are touched, they tell others, and then they might decide to do something.”
Unity in exile
The song “East Turkistan,” its singer, and its composer have received overwhelming support in Turkey, especially from the Uyghur community in exile, now estimated to number 50,000–150,000.
“Some Turks were shocked. This was the first they had heard of the full horrors of the situation in East Turkestan,” Evren said. “Uyghurs get emotional when they describe the impact the song has had on them and their community worldwide. It gives them some kind of hope that in the future there might be a change. They gain strength knowing that people are thinking of them and standing with them.”
Evren said that his song was being used around the world by Uyghur communities to promote their cause. Upon its release, exiled Uyghur Abdurehim Gheni played the song in Amsterdam’s Dam Square during his by-then-famous, weekly, one-man demonstrations against China’s treatment of his people.
“It is so important to cultivate an awareness of what is going on. Silence is not an option. We must all do what we can, and this is what I can do,” said Evren, adding that he is now working on another song in support of the Uyghurs to be released in December 2023.
Tursunay, a Uyghur student now exiled in Europe, declined to give her full name to The China Project for fear of repercussions against her family in China. She said she often feels forgotten by the world, but that the “East Turkistan” song was a reminder that their suffering has been felt outside their homeland.
“Here are two famous people who are giving their time and their talents to us,” Tursunay said. “I hope it will be heard by many people and they will remember us.”
Aziz Isa Elkun, a Uyghur poet exiled in the U.K., stressed the vital role of culture and music “in combating Beijing’s propaganda against Uyghur people.”
“To have a world-famous artist and a much-loved poet standing with us in our oppression is a great encouragement,” Elkun told The China Project.
Like composer Evren, singer Miles believes that music is a powerful medium capable of getting a message across and changing hearts.
“I’m just a vessel,” she said. “You never know who is listening. I’m hoping that someone, somewhere, listening to this song, will be stirred to help or to pray. The song speaks the truth and it shouldn’t be swept under the carpet. Sometimes the truth isn’t pretty.”