Intersectionality in Brussel's Hip Hop Scene

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Brussels is known as the heart of Europe for its geographical location, hosting the EU institutions and unique cultural diversity, but few are aware that Brussels is also home to a fast-growing movement in the hip hop industry, becoming an increasingly enticing hub for artists of all interpretations. Although the rise in this genre of music in Belgium is relatively new, the influence coming in and out of the city of Brussels is notable, as well as analyzing what is at stake when focusing on intersectionality and political recognition. There is plenty to discuss when dealing with matters, such as the cultural divide of the French-speaking and Dutch speaking artists, the struggle of gaining recognition in such a heterogeneous environment, and much more.

To first take meaning of the genre and the historical and cultural context of its origin, is key to later understanding how we can navigate its intersectionality and also its struggles in the politics of recognition. The hip hop genre of music came about in the sixties stemming first as an underground scene but with the growth and spread of the subculture in Europe, it gained quite a prevalent following in larger countries, such as France. According to the European Music Office’s report on Music in Europe, the first major hip hop influencer in Belgium was a French speaking artist named Benny B, who is from Molenbeek in Brussels, and had multiple chart topping songs in Belgium and even France. Benny B was a major contributor to the spark of inspiration which lead to many other successful groups in Belgium, such as Starflam. A Wallonian based group lead by now Conganese activist called Baloji who vocalized his goals about incorporating his cultural background into his music and said that he wanted to “thank his adoptive country for the eclecticism of his style” in an interview in 2011 with The Guardian(Morgan, 2011). In Flanders, the northern Dutch speaking region, rappers such as ‘t Hof van Commerce, ABN, and Krapoel in Axe were popular, each with their own distinct regional dialects.

Today, in Brussels the hip hop scene is livelier than ever with multiple artist reaching commercial success such as Damso, Romeo Elvis, Zwangere Guy, Stikstof and others, both French and Dutch speaking and from many different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. In an article by Erkut Gultekin titled What You Need to Know About The Brussels Hip Hop Scene, he explains that “...randomly switching between codes[French/Dutch] in a conversation is a typical thing for the bilingual people of Brussels and apparently it even found its way into rap and hip hop” which demonstrates how hip hop music is a perfect display of this cultural adaptation(Gultekin, 2016). By looking critically at the hip hop scene here in Brussels, it is evident that the cultural aspects of the city and of the individual artist, is deeply intertwined and deeply interconnected.

“Intersectionality” originally coined by the black feminist scholar Crenshaw, the word, was used to describe “analytic framework (detailed outline or sketch of a social phenomenon) that help identify how interlocking systems of power impact those who are most marginalised in society “ (Cooper, 2015). While the hypothesis at first, started as an exploration of oppression of women of color in society, today it takes into account different kinds of social stratifications (race, class, sexual orientation) and is potentially applied to all social categories. The concept has been used in critical theories to describe ways of interconnecting oppressive institutions and how they can not be examined separately. In short, an intersectional lens might help us keep in view various aspects in society that contribute to a difference in social experiences.
What brings Brussels close to intersectionality is the bilingualism of the city and its extremely diverse community. This is where intersectionality comes into play. Struggling artists mostly, usually looking for wider access to public and an environment where they can grow professionally, start from Brussels. Brussels because of its dual language identity not only attracts artists from neighboring countries of France and Netherlands but as far Algeria and Morocco. The city acts as crossroads of coexistence, cultural development, and equal opportunities.

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Today rap has overtaken rock, as most popular genre among music fans, but it seems it still has a long way to go given the various kind of responses it still receives in different parts of the world, particularly from national government agencies in most cases. For this, the confrontational style of hip hop and strong lyrical content is partly to blame. Countries like Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Angola, and Spain have had their problems with rap music and many cases have appeared where musicians have been arrested on charges ranging from “glorification of terror” to ‘hate speech”. In 2017, Spain arrested 12 rappers for their lyrics (Hedgecoe, 2019). If you think arresting musicians for their lyrical content is bad, wait!

One of the examples of rap going directly at an autocratic regime recently happened in Thailand, where a military junta has been in power since 2014. The video condemning the nation’s leadership is made by a group of artist “ Rap against dictatorship”, allegedly exposed the corruptions of the military government. It went viral over the internet so fast Thai government eventually stopped trying to censor it. According to the members of “rap against dictatorship” their work in this video was heavily influenced by that of the American artist Childish Gambino’s This Is America. Which in itself was a powerful music video, touched topics of gun violence in the country and left a storm of conversation in social media. At a time when some governments are trying to suppress the growing music culture others are trying to co-opt it and arrest musicians, the thriving hip-hop community in Brussels, with presence of multiple figures in culture stemming from various backgrounds and countries, give proof of its well working mechanism, city’s welcoming nature and it’s diversity.

“Onze hoofdstad verdient beter” (our capital city deserves better). Is the first sample at the end of Brussels hip-hop collective Stikstof song Overlast. One example of many references the group makes to the bad image Brussels has been dealing with for the past years. Ever since the recent terrorist attacks, Brussels has been under a critical eye and received a wide amount of scrutiny. “A hell-hole”, is the words President Trump used to describe Brussels and when I ask my fellow neighbours (who have never actually visited the city) they will tell me Brussels is dangerous, filthy and strange.The capital’s hip-hop is trying its very best to shine up this image, without denying its roughness. In the same album Stikstof talks about Brussels streetlife in Gele Blokken. Drugs, aggression, failing political policy and criminality are not being left out.

The summer after the Brussels terrorist attacks, the hip hop community came together and in 2016, Couleur Café (an annual festival located in Brussels) created Niveau 4, a live show uniting the best of Belgium’s hip hop scene and artists such as Coely, Roméo Elvis, Caballero, Stikstof, Zwangere Guy, L'Or Du Commun, and Isha to name a few. Its name refers to the terrorist threat level that was placed on the city of Brussels at that time. “Level 4 is the last level of threat before war starts so everyone on stage with niveau 4 is also the on the highest level”, says Jasper “Jazz” de Ridder, member of Stikstof in a comment in a Vice documentary “Noisey Brussel”.When asked if they were planning on rapping about the terrorist attacks themselves, one of the members answered “Brussels is what it is to us. Brussels is not terrorist attacks. Those two don’t have to be linked.”. The purpose of the group as explained by Samy Wallens the creative director, was “to prove that the image of a divided Belgium only exists in the minds of only a few narrow-minded people. The reality is that music and culture reflect what happens in society. People, the youth, rappers… are Belgian and proud of it. Niveau 4 wants to represent a positive image of Belgium as a whole' and since the first lineup there has been a show every year held in Brussels and creative event is now also providing a new platform for up and coming artist (Gadeyne, 2017).

Besides Stikstof, rappers like Roméo Elvis, Damso and many more Bruxelloises try to bring justice to their capital city. On March sixth the French newspaper Le Soir even dedicated one page to them: “Ils mettent Bruxelles sur la carte du rap” (they put Brussels on the map of rap music). The article states “rap is ‘born’ in Brussels just as fast as the hip-hop culture percolated from the Atlantic side”. Because of its bilingual character Brussels hip-hop is welcomed in both France as the Netherlands, which raises its voice. Not only do the Brusseleirs raise awareness for the image of Brussels, it also nuances its diversity. They often rap in multiple languages, French and Dutch specifically, which comes down to the fact that they are actually not that bothered with the city’s bilingual character. In the song Utopia Stikstof refers to Brussels saying “An abundance of choices. A cultural power.”. If we have to believe the people living in Brussels everyday, the capital city is not all that bad. They embrace diversity and see Brussels as a rough diamond, and are not even that bothered about what media has to say.

Brussels is currently home to a fast growing movement in the hip hop industry and although the rise in this genre of music in Belgium is relatively new, the influence coming in and out of the city of Brussels is notable making it a magnet for artists of all interpretations and persuasions. By analyzing what is at stake when focusing on intersectionality and political recognition we can start to critically understand the societal environment that we exist in. Hip-hop helps define the way we view ourselves and the society here in Brussels and has been a tool for youngsters to justify the positive aspects of their city to the public world. Hip-hop also sketches a picture of Brussels in the most diverse way. Speaking multiple languages in their songs, talking about daily life in the city. Rappers like Roméo Elvis, Damso and Zwangere Guy who are greatly gaining influence in the music industry, help raise the city’s voice, so that it can defend itself against the critics.

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