Can you describe what you do?
At Urban Woorden, our focus is to create a space where young people can empower themselves. This entails co-ordinating poetry, slam and rap workshops in schools, community centres, and prisons throughout Flanders. It also means providing space(s) for youngsters to perform their urban performance arts, on both amateur and professional stages, all across Flanders but especially in Leuven. Our team is mainly comprised of young passionate enthusiasts, associated with the local hip-hop, slam, and poetry community.
How do you perceive Leuven?
Leuven is a city with a rich history, as well as a promising future. This can be witnessed by its different initiatives and policies around the environment – but more importantly, with its activities centred around the young. Whether through our team at Urban Woorden, or other organisations like Straatrijk, Vleugel F and Fabota; there are many of us working to create new spaces for young people. Furthermore, collectives like UpHigh and ONKRUID make sure that innovation is happening musically and culturally. Overall, there seems to have been a real resurgence of creative energy amongst the young in Leuven this last decade that’s on par with other cities its size. Having said that, what Leuven – like many other cities – needs to realise is that (more) cultivation surrounding individuals with immigrant backgrounds – the “new Flemish” as they are oft-called – is absolutely vital. A constructive future can’t be realised without positive and progressive policies and actions which include them, too.
What would you say is Leuven’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?
Leuven has a thriving cultural scene. 30CC does an excellent job of providing over-arching programs around jazz and theatre. There are also smaller, independent cultural organisations like Het Depot, Artforum, ONKRUID who have really created a wide array of possibilities for those living in the city. The edginess of Leuven – if one can call it that – is created precisely by such organisations, and a very active graffiti subculture. Organisations like ours seek to reach a public that larger institutions like 30CC don’t target often.
How has Leuven contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?
Leuven’s an interesting place to be in: due to its size, it gives the impression that so much is still possible. I can’t imagine an organisation like Urban Woorden finding its grounding in a city like Brussels or Ghent, for instance – the energy is just too different. Leuven’s small scale means that all of its different cultural players are aware of each other. More importantly, policy-makers are reachable, with individuals like the Vleugel F’s Jochen Smets providing the necessary support and guidance for an organization like Urban Woorden to blossom. I know for example that this is generally harder in cities like Antwerp – though that might be changing now.
More efforts need to be made to ensure a decolonisation of its cultural spaces, and that the people deciding cultural policies actually reflect the wide inter-culturality of the city.
On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?
We’d love to see Leuven take more cultural risks. Sure, Leuven is hands down a pioneer when it comes to ground-breaking ecological policies, or its commitment in cutting down carbon combustion. But it could still do better in supporting people of immigrant backgrounds, or who have migrated to the city recently. More efforts need to be made to ensure a decolonisation of its cultural spaces, and that the people deciding cultural policies actually reflect the wide inter-culturality of the city. Which, for the time being, isn’t exactly the case: cultural policy- and decision-makers are still pretty homogeneous. We need less men or “traditional” Flemish, and instead place more women, more people with disabilities, and more people of different faiths to decide what “culture” should be in Leuven.
If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what would it be?
The best time to visit Leuven would have to be July, because that’s when there’s so much culture on offer. I would of course take them to BURn festival, which is put together by Urban Woorden, Straatrijk and the Vleugel F. The week after, a stop at M-idzomer to see what kind of poetry and musical program M-Museum and Het Depot have put together – most likely with aid from 30CC. A walk along the wall close to SOJO to see some graffiti. Also, a visit to De Bruul park, most certainly, to just chill and people-watch. The best place to get a drink or a bite in town is with the good folks behind Loving Hut on Pieter De Somerplein: you can expect divine smoothies and delightful burgers and nuggets here.
A local legend, neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?
Back around 2008, Vleugel F would host hip-hop nights organised by Straatrijk and others. Those nights were legendary, and a lot of the folks who are making things happen in Leuven today used to hang out there. One constant though, is the stank of the hops from the local brewery Stella Artois. This quite literally encapsulates the spirit of Leuven – pretty smelly, but still, it smells like home.