“We’re not a record label. We’re a government aided youth organization aimed at giving troubled youths an opportunity to share their talents.” Violencia, the unlikely alliance that’s enabling authentic hard-core Flemish rap

Antwerp, known for its majority-minority population, is changing and growing into itself. Borgerhout alone hosts more than 90 nationalities from its 40,000 or so inhabitants. Much like any metropolis in its infancy, Antwerp is starting to revel in its own wealth and poverty, with socioeconomic borders becoming increasingly defined: a mere 15-minute drive takes you from €2.50 sandwiches to Armani suits costing a grand. These symptoms aren’t new to Western Europe, nor to the French and Dutch rap scenes that grew around them. Similarly, the Belgian hip-hop community is starting to take a veritable stance, evolving from timid roots and entering the realms of authentic hard-core hip-hop with a rapidly growing culture of its own brewing in migrant heavy neighbourhoods.

If you walk Antwerp’s streets at night, you’re bound to hear someone on a corner spitting with their friends, huddled up to a phone playing instrumentals they picked up online. If you delve deeper into some homes, you’ll find young men and women creating music in self-fashioned recording studios crammed into their bedrooms. Belgium’s Dutch-speaking rap has made a place for itself, and it shows. Leuven and Antwerp boast a steady stream of local talent, packing small venues and making names for themselves in the Flemish and Dutch rap scenes, taking on recorded freestyle sessions and concerts abroad. To better understand the underlying dynamics of this phenomena, I spoke to Matthijs Spittel, the mastermindand spiritual father figure behind Violencia, an Antwerp-based media platform and youth organisation concerned with helping up-and-coming singers, producers, photographers et al.

In a building under government concession, Matthijs and I meet to discuss the state of hip-hop in Antwerp and how Violencia is trying to help steer talented youths towards a musical career. If the name didn’t give you a hint, Violencia is concerned with an important theme in hip-hop – violence. It all started as a competition whereby the first prize winner would be awarded with an album release alongside a music video; the public could vote through Facebook likes. Violencia had three successful competitions with a total of 150 auditioned artist and 30 selected before going further. Matthijs explains that Violencia decided to move away from the competitive approach to make way for the eventual media platform, bringing the competition to an end. Matthijs noticed that artists who had taken part in the competition, winners or otherwise, stopped making music after they left the competition, bringing an end to the sense of community and fraternity they had built together.

Matthijs drew inspiration for Violencia from his younger days in Rotterdam and his love for hip hop. His background within the Flemish rap circles enables him to communicate with the youths he’s working with in order to maintain the voices he helped develop. After four years of founding and managing the Violencia competitions, Matthijs realised that his expertise would better serve a smaller range of artists over a longer period. In that vein Violencia narrowed its pool down to its current 15 artists so that they can benefit from the full extent of Matthijs’s attention and state funding. With such a smaller group of artists, Matthijs finds it easier to help each artist, and more consistently – this means musical training, studio time, production and a community of artists and personal advice. Thanks to their diligent work, Violencia has released an impressive portfolio of music from local Antwerp talents. Beyond production, Violencia helps their artists make money for themselves in a bid to steer them away from lives of drug-dealing, robbing, violence and criminality. Matthijs makes it clear that Violencia doesn’t always succeed, however: “My aim is to help them focus on the music instead of on the hustle, but some of these guys are making more money on the streets in four or five hours than they do with music. I want to change that.”

Some of the artists that Matthijs works with – rappers like Freddie King, Once1x and Shaka Shams, who’ve been steadily releasing tracks, music videos and EPs – have built a reputation and following throughout the Flemish rap scenes. Freddie King, whose rap subjects reflect the struggles of his life on the streets – be it the drugs, dealing, or the violence he deals with – has garnered a following on YouTube and Instagram with songs like SuperTrapper and Automatische Wapen. Shaka Shams, a former winner of the Violencia competition released his first track and music video as his prize. Finally he released Negative, a song about race relations and Shaka’s own experiences as a black man in Belgium. Once1x, a close friend of Freddie King, came onto the scene when Freddie introduced him to Matthijs after hearing him rap and deciding that he would make a great addition on a track. Eventually, Once1x and Freddie King started touring around Belgium together and working with each other along side other Violencia artists.

One of the problems Violencia faces is venue owners expecting free performances from the artists. Often, one of the artists will receive an invitation to perform. While they offer free foods and drinks, Matthijs remarks that venue managers often neglect to mention any real payment to the performers. Violencia ensures their artists get paid and are well informed on the nature of the music industry. Beyond managing formalities, Matthijs acts as an older brother and personal friend. His – and Violencia’s – responsibilities aren’t bound by office hours or lucrative goals of achieving revenue. Instead, Violencia’s mode of operation borders on the healing. It’s less concerned with the market and more focussed on the youths that take part in their events and initiatives. “We’re not a record label, I really have to tell a lot of people that. Sure, we provide a service and pay for studio time and clips, but we’re not a record label. We’re a government aided youth organisation aimed at giving troubled youths an opportunity to share their talents,” Matthijs asserts.

It’s not only artists that benefit from Violencia. The community growing around the Belgian hip-hop scene, the stories being told are from within the Belgian communities and reflect a life that doesn’t have a voice in the mainstream. The concerts, events, EPs, release parties, studio sessions and artists are all managed by Violencia, but the income belongs to the artists. They help devise an earning model and open pathways to wider exposure through YouTube, Spotify, gigs and events. Even volunteers are paid for their efforts. Matthijs pointed out the exhausting responsibilities that come with managing everything, and yet the emotional and artistic progression of his artists is greatly motivating. That motivation was what kept him going on when his former partner was unable to work due to emotional exhaustion. Matthijs is determined to turn Violencia into the first urban platform in Antwerp to support artists and provide a forum for youths. “We haven’t had any violence in Violencia. Events go smoothly for most part, and I think that’s because a lot of these people are from a similar background. The artists are from the streets and they see that the volunteers are from their streets. They’re working together, and none of them want to ruin it.”

The fruits of Violencia and its artists’ labour is now low-hanging and ripe. They are on the verge of releasing their new platform and the present warm reception of Belgian hip-hop in the Netherlands is a sign of the many good things to come. The strong backbone of singles and albums released by Violencia artists are sure to support their new ambitions. Rappers and producers from Violencia have been steadily making names for themselves in the Flemish rap scene, showing a real potential for growth.