The absent narrative: the cultural activists forcing the mainstream to take a good hard look at itself

Uncompromising and unapologetic, a new breed of instigators has taken upon itself the very necessary and urgent task of asking the questions no one seems willing, or able, to ask, forcing a new understanding, often absent from the mainstream, of what the privileged might refer to as “the other.” And, with the characteristic fervour and resourcefulness of a militant who’s simply had enough, these four cultural warriors are each in their own right reshaping the cultural debate, fighting the good fight in their bid to ensure that no one is left out.

Photography by Joke De Wilde (c).

Ikram Annouri

How did Versiety Media start, and what exactly is its founding premise?

Versiety Media is a media project based in Antwerp and founded by Joël Diensi, a friend I’ve now known for a couple of years. The aim of the project is to create a new platform that’s more representative of today’s local, Belgian and even global society, with an emphasis on everyday life and stories. The small yet extraordinary things that make up our daily lives, yet somehow never make it into mainstream media.

What’s the running structure for Versiety like?

Versiety is in its early stages so there’s still a lot of space for development. But for the time being, it’s a volunteer-based organisation of about sixteen journalists. Resources such as materials and office space are provided by StampMedia, a regional press agency for youths and whose support we are very grateful for. But we’re also very proud in knowing it’s a completely independent media platform where we answer only to ourselves. Joining the editorial team is an open process: all types of people are encouraged to join. Neither is a formal education necessary, as long as you are well-read, critical and engaged, and have an opinion to share. A lot of attention is paid in providing a full and concise report on things – there’s no pretence made about our rather subjective positioning, but it’s always backed by extensive research and a careful consideration of all sides of an argument. This includes encouraging critical self-reflection and examinations of our own communities. It’s never the truth, but it’s still a truth – somebody’s truth. We also invite our contributors to write in the language they are most comfortable in, even if it’s a sort of hybrid mix. It’s out dated to think that journalists and media platforms must be completely fluent in a formalised language. Sure, that might make my task as editor trickier, but we’re always willing to try and break down boundaries – and I love a challenge.

It’s never the truth, but it’s still a truth – somebody’s truth.

What are some of the barriers found in media and its representations?

Media is a crucial institution of any healthy society, and mainstream media in particular plays a huge role in telling important stories. They have the resources, networks and financial means to carry out this imperative wide-spread function. But that also implies that there are gaps in terms of the content transmitted and how it’s shared. As mainstream media looked towards profitable, sensationalist media, the sad truth of the matter was that journalists are increasingly pushed into rigid, formalised working processes and formulas. So what we as an independent, grassroot media can do is share the less glamourous, attention-grabbing – yet still note-worthy – stories from day-to-day life, what we like to refer to as the opinions of the voiceless. Problematic representations of diversity within mainstream media still exists though: efforts are made to be more inclusive of minorities, but too often it follows a trend of compartmentalisation, where the “other” is defined primarily by their otherness or they’re referred to as a sort of spokesperson for their community. Despite it’s positive intentions, it’s still a top-down approach with an ulterior agenda. This is reinforced within the media’s institutional body, since minorities make up a shockingly low one percent of Belgium’s journalists, despite there being plenty of educated and talented reporters and writers out there. By no means are we trying to crucify mainstream media and remove it from our social fabric, it’s here to stay and we would never want to change that. We’re simply raising some questions whilst offering an alternative – asking for a seat at the table, as opposed to throwing it out of the room.

Our advocacy is more a “silent revolution” than an in-your-face United Colors of Benetton ad.

At the risk of asking an obvious question, why do you think it’s important to bring diversity into media?

My passion has always been media, because I’ve realised that it somehow connects everybody. It’s the connecting tissue that binds us all together. I always knew I wanted to create a project with some level of societal impact, so when this project came along it was a blessing. Versiety admittedly has an underlying tone of increasing representations and the communication channels of diversity in our societies; and also to perform this differently from mainstream media’s approach. Hence our name Versiety, which is a play on the words “diversity” and “society”. But our advocacy is more of a side-effect than an actual objective; more a “silent revolution” than an in-your-face United Colors of Benetton ad. We understand diversity to be a complete picture of our entire society, as opposed to highlighting one group at the expense of another. Who’s the neighbour you say hello to everyday, or the shop owner you buy your groceries from? By presenting an honest and authentic portrayal of everyday society and its multitude of individuals, with its highs and its lows, then by logical default we’re inclusive of everyone. And in turn, we’re trying to create a new space of critical engagement and constructive dialogue, by providing the necessary tools and resources to our communities. If that means there’s clash, then so be it! Out of revolutions come discussion, which in turn brings progress.

What are your hopes and dreams for Versiety’s future?

We want to continue growing into a voice of consciousness and space for community-building, for everyone, across a variety of realms. Versiety does focus heavily on Antwerp since it’s our home base, and most of our writers are from here. But our aim is to also eventually cover Belgium, and who knows, maybe we’ll go international one day? We also want to especially focus on teenage youths, as we feel that it’s imperative to form and educate the next generation: encouraging them to see and grab their opportunities; whilst teaching them to be more critical yet open-minded of not just their surroundings but also themselves. The little things in life.

A passionate media-warrior, Belgo-Moroccan Ikram works in the PR industry by day and, by night, runs the brand new, all-inclusive and independent media platform Versiety Media as editor-in-chief, alongside founder Joël Diensi.

Melika Ngombe Kolongo

How did you three meet, and why did you set up NON Worldwide?

I first met Chino Amobi almost three years ago, when we were both playing at one of South London’s celebrated Endless nights. Then, through Chino, I got to meet Angelo [Angel-Ho]. We all instantly hit it off – musically, personally, intellectually. Chino and Angelo had already started thinking about setting up some sort of initiative, and once I joined the discussions, NON was eventually born. We would spend hours discussing musical ideas, sharing our worldviews and philosophical standpoints, revealing our desires and fears. And I think that’s actually where most of NON’s groundwork was laid out: on a very personal level, discussing not only how we envision ourselves evolving within our artistic practices, but also just being excruciatingly honest with each other.

As black diasporic artists that don’t fit the status quo, it’s hard not to feel displaced and unwelcome in this realm.

Why did you three feel the need to set up NON Worldwide?

NON was initially borne out of our frustrations as artists within the existing structures of representation and visibility in the music industry and beyond. As black diasporic artists that don’t fit the status quo, it’s hard not to feel displaced and unwelcome in this realm, so our reaction was to stop trying to fit our work within this mould but rather to break out of it and create our own space. Simply put, NON is a virtual media space of collaboration and engagement between black artists from around the world. The geographical triangle between us three founders – Chino is in Virginia, Angel-Ho is in Cape Town and I’m in London – is a testimony to NON’s real-life distances matched with virtual proximity. It’s a product of the Digital Age, since this would never have been possible without the Internet – we’re able to put our creativity out into the virtual world without any industry middlemen getting in the way. We dropped our first NON mix in May 2015 were honestly overwhelmed by how receptive people were to not just the end product, but in our platform more generally. It was amazing to realise that this is not an internal experience restricted to just us three, but rather one shared by a vast array of people who seemed to be waiting for this: a space of belonging, a community. And that’s what we strive to provide, a support network in a pretty unfriendly, destructive system. A displaced virtual state for the invisible – regardless of your identity, background, tastes or affiliations.

What are some of NON’s values and structures?

Though NON might at first appear predominantly music-oriented, it’s by no means a platform restricted to musicians. All the arts are strongly linked and overlap. We refuse to compartmentalise the arts and put music in a restrictive box, as we see that as being part of the problem found in the mainstream. It’s important to break out of these preconceived moulds and to be a fluid, constantly evolving project. Music on one hand can be a subtler channel of information, or on the other a direct and hard-hitting platform, especially when combined with the skills and working processes that I acquired in photography. For example, conducting preparatory research is absolutely key: what information am I working from, and what information do I want to transmit? Music tends to be multi-layered with different elements and its histories. My African audience will recognise the coupé decalé and ndombolo influences in my music, while the more European ones will detect the trance and hardcore ones. So in that sense I feel that it’s able to reach more people than say the visual arts. Sound as an identity is more flexible and liberating, or rather less bound to stereotypes and common-sense representations. Music has this ability to transport an audience to imagined worlds through a manipulation of time and space – and NON Worldwide is all about trying to utilise this transcendency to spread our message.

What do you identify as the barriers or issues inhibiting artists of colour within the music, or even general art scene?

Our current systems of representation and understanding of identity as well as the relationship between one’s identity and their place in the world. This can be applied not just to the art scene, but also to everyday society. We refuse to simply be reduced to our identities or backgrounds, to be put in simplistic boxes of categorisation. As Édouard Glissant said, we’ll take care of our own identity, we’ll speak for ourselves.

Sound as an identity is more flexible and liberating, or rather less bound to stereotypes and common-sense representations.

NON Worldwide clearly has strong socio-political elements in its values and statements – is this a key facet of NON’s identity?

I would argue that it is. I definitely take such concepts and issues into serious consideration when making my own music; from extensive research, to production, to the statement I’m trying to transmit. I feel that we all approach sound as a form of slow journalism, where we express and document our place in the world and react to what’s happening around us. Like a sonic diary made up of the various self-expressions of different communities and people. The political message is obviously important, but it’s more about the actual end product than what’s being said, and the energy involved in actively participating. As an artist, it’s important to ask yourself, “What’s my motivation, my intention? How do I want my audience to leave the space?” So if your motivation is to express certain things, and your intention is to change certain things, I feel like that’s pretty political already.

Melika aka Nkisi is a Belgo-Congolese producer that was raised in Leuven. After starting out in visual arts, she swiftly shifted to the world of music where she recently released the much-acclaimed, heavy and unapologetic Kill EP. She’s also one third of record label NON Worldwide.

Marthe Djilo Kamga

Massimadi Festival was initially founded in Montreal in 2009, by local non-profit organisation Arc-en-Ciel d’Afrique. How did the film festival get exported to Brussels?

Massimadi Montreal is a black LGBTQ film festival created for the Quebecois audience, and notably its local Afro-Caribbean community. An amalgam of two Haitian creole words masisi and madivinèz – expletives directed against the gay and lesbian communities – our Montreal colleagues sought to create a new pride and empowerment for their black queer communities by re-appropriating these terms. When Les Identités du Baobab came across this project, we found it utterly pertinent to our cause, and decided to adopt Massimadi here in Brussels. We share a similar starting point of showcasing films to the predominantly African and black diasporic audiences – though of course it is open to all – and even collaborate on certain films with Montreal, but our objectives and approaches vary quite drastically. In turn, our core team is made up of only a handful of dedicated volunteers and we’re always grateful for anyone willing to lend a helping hand come crunch time. Massimadi truly is the fruits of collective labour, and wouldn’t be possible without everyone’s hard work.

Massimadi truly is the fruits of collective labour, and wouldn’t be possible without everyone’s hard work.

What are some of the Brussels edition of Massimadi’s goals and key messages?

Our objective is to explore the question of black queerness from an entirely artistic and sociocultural approach. Over the course of three days, we showcase obscure yet exquisite LGBTQ films and documentaries which are complemented by exhibitions, live concerts, performances and debates. Our focus is on cinema – and voices – from Africa and to the numerous black diasporas around the world, with a specific point of view which we strongly support. Too often black communities – and more so when it’s LGBTQ – are portrayed in a discriminating, victimising light in cinema. For instance, though we try to keep a balance between African and diasporic cinema in our program, it’s simply difficult to find appropriate African films that are not reduced to this pejorative, victimising tone and made by queer folk themselves. But this struggle is definitely worth the hustle. Yes, homophobia and discrimination are still prevalent on a global scale and yes, criminalisation is still a reality in many countries – notably African. But that doesn’t imply that LGBTQ communities are made up of weak, powerless beings in unfair, hopeless systems. These people continue to exist, fight and develop strategies to live out their lives and identities as they see fit. And this is precisely what we’re trying to introduce into mainstream media, through a dozen of our carefully selected films encompassing all sexual identities. Films which explore the vast, beautiful spectrum that is the sexuality of seldom represented groups.

Brussels already has several film festivals, and even LGBTQ-centred ones. What was missing from the capital’s film scene that Massimadi now provides?

It’s true, Massimadi is the newbie on the Brussels film festival circuit. Our intention is not to step on anyone’s toes, as we respect all the other festivals. For instance, Pink Screens is a truly indispensable partner who we often collaborate with. Having said that, there is an unfortunate dark underbelly to mainstream LGBTQ representations that needs to be called out. This goes far beyond the individuals making up the general queer community, and instead is an issue with the institutionalised system and media as a whole. The mainstream queer scene is always going to reflect a facet of everyday society; so if representations of black communities are already pretty reductive then there’s not much hope for representations of queer black folk. Even though it might not always be intentional, there’s also a lot of exclusive politics involved, like the rarely said but oft-implied understanding that in order to be a “good queer”, you come out of the closet to come in the community. This completely disregards a common reality shared by many black queers where coming out is not feasible, due to the importance of kinship and the possibility of discrimination. In one way or another, there isn’t much space for a free self-expression of black LGBTQ identities within pre-existing mainstream platforms. So what we want to bring to the table is an alternative narrative developed precisely by those concerned and for those concerned. But more than that, our main intention was to create an inclusive space of open-mindedness and empowerment – completely welcome to people of all sexualities, ethnicities, size and creed, but first and foremost a space for expression for black queer folk. A place of immense diversity, which is to be respected at all times.

There is an unfortunate dark underbelly to mainstream LGBTQ representations that needs to be called out.

In your view, what does the future look like for Massimadi?

Despite Massimadi still being in its early years, and our crowds not yet being as large as we know they could be, it’s been amazing to feel not only the love and support from those who do attend, but to witness precisely the development of an alternative community space – our little Massimadi universe – we had initially hoped to create. To hear that people wait impatiently for a year for the three days where they can watch, talk, dance, eat and think freely is so rewarding. There’s still so much potential for growth though: more funding, more volunteers and more fans. Unfortunately there’s still a minority of black attendees, most likely due to the stigma surrounding homosexuality in black communities. So one of our main challenges now is to ensure these individuals break out from their isolated corners, and join our safe universe of creative expression. Rather than a ghetto within a ghetto, we like to think of it as an inclusive ghetto. This can only do the world some good – not only for the black LGBTQ scene, or the general queer scene, but for everyday society as a whole.

More auto-therapeutic angry artist than activist, Marthe Djilo Kamga never stops questioning the construction, representation and visibility of identities as well as the re-appropriation of public space through her numerous sociocultural and creative art projects. Part of local non-profit group Les Identités du Baobab with similar motives, they launched the Brussels offshoot of Massimadi Festival in 2013, which just saw its fifth edition in May of this year.

Gökhan Girginol

You’re a man of many talents – from music and slam poetry to the visual arts – yet you’ve attracted the most attention for your acting skills. Do you have a preference in terms of mediums?

It’s difficult to say, but maybe theatre is in my blood. According to my mother I was born very theatrically: blue, alien-like, rather painfully. I’ve always enjoyed triggering people, in creating and exchanging energies, which then becomes theatre. It can be a gruelling job, boxing yourself up in a dark room for hours on end, repeating the same lines. On the other hand, it is just as rewarding and insightful an experience. Theatre is all about discovering yourself, other dimensions, worlds, people, energies, colours. It’s about constant learning, communicating a message, and being completely present in the moment. My appreciation with cinema came a bit later – with Problemski Hotel, my first proper feature role– when I realised that I could channel some of my thoughts and sentiments on everyday realities through my character, where I could really work on character-building, creating a persona that the audience really believed in. The world of cinema is larger and more transcendental than theatre – it’s reach is much more global – so I feel that acting here should be about transmitting my understanding on the “meaning” of acting, and communicating my truths to as many people as possible. I’m careful not to lose myself in my art, by trying to stay as grounded as possible, being aware of what I know and still need to learn. It’s all about being aware of timing, focus and discipline.

It’s too easy to blame your misgivings on your identity or background. Sure these shape your opportunities, but they don’t determine them either.

What are your thoughts and impressions on the Belgian cinema scene?

I don’t know if I’m fully part of the scene, but my impression is that Belgium – and specifically Flanders – is currently establishing itself in the global film industry, with its own style and aesthetic. Flemish actors are increasingly being sought out by Hollywood for instance. There’s also more opportunities for actors of colour to find work now. So the once rather static and inaccessible Belgian scene is thankfully shifting into something more representative of its society, with attention being paid on portraying all characters authentically and with credibility. Unfortunately, there’s still an industry for shoddy stereotyping and clichés. Personally, this can range from being reduced to a simplistic “face” of the immigrant youth from the ghetto, to not being selected because my blue eyes and blonde hair don’t fit the Turkish stereotype. Belgian cinema still has a long way to go in that regard, especially in comparison to Holland or Germany. Then again, the key is not letting institutional structures or barriers stop you. It’s too easy to blame your misgivings on your identity or background – sure these shape your opportunities, but they don’t determine them either.

You’re very active in community work, especially with youths – such as your workshops in Limburg, or your project Robin Hassan Hood. Why do you feel it’s so important to give back, and more importantly to bring art into their lives?

Genk has a beautifully rich yet untold story: a strong working class, mining legacy, all made up of various origins living together. There have been some changes since the industries closed down, yet the town’s still unique in itself. Perhaps I’m somewhat romanticising Genk, but I feel that there’s peace and unity between its heterogeneous population. One clear development is that youths in Genk are increasingly demanding recognition of their place in this world. This is largely thanks to our current digital age opening up access to information, like social media, which I didn’t have growing up. What I did have was a local youth centre, with an authoritative role model, who we all respected and turned to for guidance. This sense of brotherhood is something that I always carry with me. So when I was faced with youths seeking guidance, a role model, I embraced it. But it’s a learning process, finding a balance between giving and self-care. For example, Robin Hassan Hood was a personal project where I gathered and directed a thirty-strong performance troupe made up primarily of inexperienced yet enthusiastic youths from Genk, and some professionals. It was such a rewarding experience which I don’t regret at all, but at the same time a pretty draining one. There’s a huge responsibility involved in teaching or guiding. I had to drop off the radar afterwards and work on myself for a while. But, at the end of the day, we give because we want to give, not because we want to receive – and we can also only give if we’re completely in balance and aware of our limits.

Theatre and the arts belong to everyone – a point that doesn’t get made enough.

What is it then exactly that you’re trying to give back to the community?

I want to embolden people in their hopes, and open their eyes to new possibilities. Theatre and the arts belong to everyone – a point that doesn’t get made enough. My intention is not to be the voice of the working class for instance, but rather to be the “voice of the voice” – instead of pretending to be a representative for my community, to provide them with the resources and tools of empowerment. I want to encourage fearlessness, in the sense of embracing your weaknesses and inner shikari, and not standing still due to fear. We’re all rebels, in one way or another, rebelling against ourselves and our pre-assigned labels and limitations. If you’re able to look into yourself as well as out of yourself and achieve self-awareness, everything then becomes slightly easier to deal with.

Gökhan is a Belgo-Turkish actor with a strong inclination for the arts. Born and raised in Genk, he pursued formal training at the Ritcs in Brussels going on to climb his way up the Belgian movie scene with highly acclaimed films such as Hotel Problemski. He is currently involved in two TV series, a national tour of the play Nachtelijk Symposium as well as a string of community-based projects.