Out of the streets


Urban or street arts used to have a literal meaning. Graffiti, hip-hop, breakdancing, rap – arts that were created in the streets by those without access to (or interest in) theatres and culture houses. Rather late in the game, Flanders is only just starting to embrace urban culture, and Antwerp is the run-away leader, taking the arts of the street into the Flemish Opera, the Toneelhuis and the Night of the Proms. This has given many young people in the city a serious self-esteem boost, but mainstreaming a cultural phenomenon is not without its risks.

Urban dance and music in Antwerp are being elevated to a fine art. But is street culture in a studio really the same thing?

Three years ago, Sihame El Kaouakibi (pictured) resolved to take street culture off the streets. With an initial grant of €20,000 from Antwerp city council, she organised a series of dirt-cheap summer dance workshops that eventually grew into Let’s Go Urban.

The organisation now has, among other achievements, a professional dance crew that has gone from small, local gigs to full-blown productions at the Flemish Opera and Night of the Proms. Let’s Go Urban offers lessons in more than 30 disciplines to over 1,000 members – a tenfold increase from the first year.

El Kaouakibi also established an urban talent agency and joined hands with Antwerp music centre Trix to offer a year-long training programme with classes in songwriting, recording techniques and the ins and outs of the music industry. El Kaouakibi has, in essence, spread the urban gospel. “She has been an ambassador for the whole scene,” says Leen Verbist, the city’s former youth and child services alderwoman, who helped El Kaouakibi secure her initial grant. “She has brought the urban scene into the mainstream.”

In interviews with reporters, in meetings with local officials, in lectures abroad, El Kaouakibi emphasises time and again that urban culture is more than just MTV-style hip-hop. Instead, she says, it encompasses everything from rope-skipping, graffiti and skating to hip-hop and spoken word. The 26-year-old has since received accolades from Flemish education minister Pascal Smet and even King Albert for the place that Let’s Go Urban holds as a tool of youth empowerment.

Last November, Antwerp coalition negotiations revealed that all three governing parties wanted to pay more attention to urban culture – a first. According to Patrick N’Siala Kiese, former director of the antidiscrimination organisation Kif Kif, Flemish officials had long shown an interest in urban culture but failed to understand what it really meant. “Then someone like Sihame comes along and gives it a very concrete definition,” he says. “She answered that need.”

Selling out urban?
In the slipstream of Let’s Go Urban, Antwerp street culture as a whole has gained visibility and popularity as cultural and youth organisations began recognising the urban scene as an art form. “There’s a certain awareness now in Antwerp’s cultural venues; they know that this hip-hop thing, this urban thing, is something that is part of youth culture,” says Tim Dalle, co-founder and previous director of the Antwerp-based pioneering hip-hop label Eigen Makelij. “They don’t necessarily understand it, but what they do know is that it’s a way to reach out to them.”

This urban renaissance is seeing some Antwerp groups that have toiled away in the shadows for years scratching their heads at the sudden spotlight. Together with a friend, Alexander Dziri has been staging the international breakdance competition Raw Circles since 2010. After the last edition just a few weeks ago, which drew more than 500 dancers from across the world, he fielded the same question from reporters over and over: Why had they never heard of Raw Circles?

The answer is pretty simple: “We haven’t made a lot of contacts with the corporate world or press people,” says Dziri. “We’re more into performing.”

That’s an issue at the heart of urban arts: It’s been brought into the mainstream, but does it belong there? Elisabeth Severino Fernandes, who is credited with single-handedly bringing slam poetry to Antwerp, has mixed feelings. “Right now, we’re hip because we’re urban,” she says, “but I also see it like, ‘OK, right now, we have opportunities’.”

She’s hoping to expand the open mic sessions she has been organising for more than a year at cocktail bar Mama Matrea but stresses that structure isn’t the end-all, be-all; poetic expression in a space free of judgment is. “They want to classify us as part of the urban scene, sure, whatever,” she says. “What’s ‘urban’ anyway? I think it surpasses that. I call it expression.”

From the street to the studio
Questions about authenticity have also arisen as a street culture that is no longer “street” struggles to adapt. The majority of kids dancing in Antwerp today are not and have never have been street dancers, says Dziri.

When the 24-year-old was in his teens, there were no dance studios, no “battles”, no platforms for breakdancers to showcase their skills. Antwerp Central Station was a favourite hangout, but more often than not they would be chased away by police. “That period existed, and it was fun, but that period is over,” he says.

But, according to Dziri, those who claim that if you’re not from the streets, then you can’t breakdance, are misguided. “I’m not going to say: ‘You’re not a dancer because you’re from Brasschaat’,” he says, referring to one of Antwerp’s wealthiest areas. “That’s an ignorant mentality, and we need to get away from that.”

Every now and then, some of the dancers with whom Dziri grew up will suggest heading out to the railway station to practise. When that happens, he laughs. He doesn’t get it. Why trade a heated studio with mats, vinyl flooring and mirrors for a cold, dirty, concrete hall where passers-by shoot weird looks at you? “For me, that time is over; I don’t have to be that kind of guy anymore,” he says. In his experience, when you brand something as “street”, people stop listening.

The starting gate: EYC 2011

Antwerp’s designation as European Youth Capital in 2011 played a crucial role in propelling urban arts into the mainstream. Inspired by Let’s Go Urban’s success, various cultural organisations programmed urban culture that year, hoping to woo young people with platforms for them to discover, develop and showcase their talents in a way that would have been unimaginable just a couple of years earlier.

Toneelhuis, one of Antwerp’s foremost theatres, hosted both rap and hip-hop dance performances. “They had never programmed any urban art, so that was like a statement,” says Femke Vanpoucke. A programmer at the city’s Arenbergschouwburg, she helped put together the 2011 edition of the Mestizo Arts Festival, which focused squarely on urban culture. “Because Antwerp was the European Youth Capital, we decided it was important to appeal to all the young people of the city, not just the arty-farty young people,” she says.

The hundreds of youth capital events and the crowds they drew amazed local administrators and cultural organisers, says Kiese. “Some people’s eyes were opened: ‘Oh, this is something that really exists here.’”

That is why to say that Antwerp’s urban scene only really developed in the last two years is bending the truth. “These are people who have been fighting for recognition for 10 years,” he says, referring to efforts behind initiatives such as Let’s Go Urban and Eigen Makelij. “These are people who then got that recognition because the administration had the funds to give it to them.”

Bandwagon vs authenticity

After 2011, it seemed like everyone – from the tiniest cultural centre to mammoth companies – latched on to all things ‘urban’. In the subsequent flurry of youth-oriented events and initiatives it became hard to distinguish between those that offered added value and those that amounted to brand-building one-offs. In just the last 12 months, the following festivals have all taken place in Antwerp: Out of the Box (“international urban dance congress”), the Urban Art Festival (“the most complete urban art festival in Belgium”), Street Kicks (“the biggest extreme sports and urban culture festival in the Benelux”) and Produckt (“a platform for different forms of urban culture”).

Even Palm Brewery jumped on the bandwagon with an “urban crafts” campaign. “A whole lot of money is being thrown at the urban community,” says Dalle. “That’s not a bad thing, but it’s a bad thing when they throw it at people who don’t have any leverage in the community. Because then you don’t create a supportive, long-term environment.”

Despite El Kaouakibi’s awareness-raising and the advances Antwerp’s urban scene has made, stereotypes about hip-hop and its offshoots still abound. That became starkly evident two months ago when, in a controversial op-ed in De Standaard, newly elected Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever wrote off contemporary rap for what he saw as its celebration of promiscuity, materialism and crime.

In the cultural world, too, urban arts are still struggling to move beyond a fad and into respectability. “There’s still a lot of work to do,” says Vanpoucke. “Not every organisation is open-minded enough at this moment to see what the art of the urban arts scene is about.”

According to the Arenberg programmer, some of those misgivings are understandable. “There is a lot of bad urban art.” Explaining that conventional actors and musicians can have their pick between a variety of respectable schools to train in their craft, she points out that “there is no university for hip-hop or urban arts”.

But that might soon change. For the last two years, El Kaouakibi has been working on a proposal for an urban arts centre. She hopes to get a green light from the city council this year. “It will be an innovative, socio-cultural centre that will revolve around urban culture,” she says. “A place for everyone who wants to do something with urban culture in its broadest definition.”


Finding the urban in Antwerp

• Let’s Go Urban  Lessons and workshops in urban dance, sports and music. The number one go-to spot for all things street in Antwerp  www.letsgourban.be

• Eigen Makelij  Flanders’ pioneering hip-hop label, including promotions and management  www.eigenmakelij.be

• Raw Circles  Annual international breakdance competition, drawing top talent from across the world  www.rawcircles.be

• Mama’s Open Mic  Slam poetry at Mama Matrea cocktail bar on occasional Tuesdays  www.mamamatrea.com

• Mestizo Arts Festival  Annual festival in October with an emphasis on diversity in art forms and artists   www.mestizoartsfestival.be

photo: Sihame El Kaouakibi, founder of Let’s Go Urban
©Jonas Lampens / IMAGEDESK

Out of the streets

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