We need hope for the future
Musician, theatre-maker, performer and now talk show host, Jaouad Alloul is one of the panel members for D.A.T.E. (Discover Antwerp Through Experience), hosted at Trix. To celebrate and showcase Antwerp’s creativity and innovation, This is Antwerp organises their annual week-long boot camp in the city, in order to convince young internationals to put Antwerp on their 'must visit' list. This year, D.A.T.E. goes digital with inspiring talks, live performances and short documentaries about the music industry in Antwerp. We sat down with Jaouad to discuss being interviewed, the art of conversation and what’s important to focus on right now.
Interview by Simon Baetens
Photos shot by Thor Salden
Can you tell us a little bit more about your involvement in D.A.T.E.?
Sure! In total, there will be three episodes in which they talk with people from the Antwerp music scene. The topic of the talk I was part of, was diversity in the music scene. Alongside myself, Elisabeth Severino Fernandes from Mama’s Open Mic, Eline Cote and Dennis Groot were also part of the panel. I was there to shed some light on the importance of the queer community here in the city.
This Is Antwerp focuses very strongly on the local. Do you consider yourself to be a ‘real Antwerpian’?
Definitely. I was born here in Antwerp and I’ve pretty much stayed here my whole life. I lived and worked in Paris for a year when I was 18, but other than that I am an Antwerpian in heart and soul. I feel like a lot is possible here: Antwerp allows a lot of room for experiment. What I don’t always like as much though is that the city is very trend-oriented. New, exciting things get picked up relatively easily but are also quickly dropped again to make room for the next new kid on the block. That being said, I love that Antwerp is in constant movement, there is never a dull moment.
When you say Antwerp is trend-driven, does that mean that you feel it is difficult for you to create some longevity with your work?
Well, I am not mainstream, I never have been. I am not your average straight boy from across the street. That means it took quite some time and effort to build an artistic parcours for myself, more than it might take some of my peers. It was clear from quite early on in my life that I was always too abstract, too different, too out there to just fit in within the existing norm. But I quickly understood that there’s a power in being able to look at mainstream culture from a distance and in having to create my own frames to be able to do my thing. That doesn’t mean I look at the mainstream negatively. It means that from the start, I had no other choice but to reflect on what it was that made me who I am as an artist, and I continue to do so. Lately, I am starting to become more and more mainstream in some ways, but I try to keep my rough edges in doing so.
I am not your average straight boy from across the street
Have there been attempts at making something happen in Antwerp in which you were unsuccessful? Have you met the limits of the possibilities and freedom the city seemingly allows for yet?
No, actually. I do notice that in a city like Antwerp, where there is so much happening, the turnout for certain events is often lower than I would expect. That’s because Antwerp is a big city, but not a metropole like Berlin, Amsterdam or Brussels. In cities like those you can have twenty events per evening and there will be plenty of people at each of them.
So there is an excess of activities here in Antwerp?
For sure. I’m not saying every single event should be completely sold out to be considered successful, but of course, many artists depend directly on ticket revenue. It’s a matter of culture as well: in some of the bigger cities I mentioned, public life is more vibrant. Here in Antwerp, most people tend to be quite traditional in how they structure their week. Weekdays are for work, weekends for entertainment. It would be nice to break these habits from time to time.
For D.A.T.E. you are one of the panel members. Recently, you also started making your own series called Het Nieuwe Normaal (The New Normal), in which you invite guests to discuss certain topics with you. How did this idea come about?
During the first lockdown, I had a conversation with Tom Lanoye and Joffrey Anane about Black Lives Matter, women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights. I noticed how nice it was to take the time to actually sit down and talk to people about these subjects. I have quite some experience in hosting and presenting and things sort of clicked so I wanted to develop that conversation into a series. I then collected some people around me to help me go from concept to reality. Undefined Creative Agency designed the whole look and feel of the project and was of great help with the recordings, and we had Arenberg on board as a partner. I have a production company called Sjamaan together with my partner so of course, we produced the series ourselves. Last but not least, writer and content creator Jozefien Daelemans joined the team as well.
We wanted to have conversations about what is going on today and what we will do with that information in the future. We have heard this phrase ‘The New Normal’ so often by now, that we wanted to discuss what is important for us to bring to that new normal.
What are some of those things you want to prioritize in these challenging times?
Women’s rights, all the way. Racism and anti-racism are high up on the list as well. More specifically: daring to have difficult conversations. We have tried to avoid that for way too long. Why not put someone who is racist in the same room as a black person or a Muslim and get to the core of why there is so much hatred from one towards the other? In doing this, you notice that most people don’t stay hateful for very long. When you enter into conversation with someone and get to know them, you automatically go beyond the internalized bias you might have for them. We should not underestimate how many people don’t know an LGBTQ+ person personally, for example, or have no black friends, no contact with Muslims etc. People base their views on people who are different, on what they see on tv and on the streets. It is so important for people to actually meet face to face and get to know one another.
Why not put someone who is racist in the same room as a black person or a Muslim and get to the core of why there is so much hatred from one towards the other?
Do you have a preference for being the interviewer or the interviewee?
I love presenting and when I interview someone, I really go into conversation with them. I am never neutral, I give my opinion on the matters we are discussing. I love doing that because I learn so many new things from it. That being said, I do also enjoy being in a position where I can defend and explain a certain point of view in reaction to the questions someone else asks me. For the coming months, I really want to focus on the topics that are important to me.
The topics of the 10 episodes are: Disabilities, religion and more specifically Islam, women’s rights and representation of women in film, ecology, Black Lives Matter and decolonization, mental health and children. I have something to say about every single one of those topics, and as a team, we all feel these are important things to discuss right now. It’s also a great opportunity to let experts shed some light on these issues. I have seen the same people talk about the new normal over and over in the past months and I think there are more interesting people to give a platform to.
Who do you hope to reach with the series?
Everyone - laughs - everyone who needs an example of a conversation that they can join or could be having themselves. We have a lot of talking left to do with each other, we are not there yet. Let’s stop trying to avoid clashing, especially when the intention is to learn from one another.
After having all these conversations, do you have any insights on why it is we tend to avoid having these discussions altogether?
I think it is the fear of being rejected. Opening yourself up to have a conversation with someone is a vulnerable thing to do. That means you need a certain level of confidence to talk with someone and most people who have that confidence lack sensitivity, which leads to conversations, executed in the wrong way. So the key is to just dive in and try. Everything can be discussed when you start from an honest place where you admit your ignorance and willingness to learn. I often notice someone asks me a question but has already decided for me what my answer should be. That is an unsafe environment you are creating for people to speak their mind.
How to actually listen to someone, how to be attentive, how to deal with opinions that are different from your own; conversation is a skill
So the conversation is a skill you can improve?
Absolutely! I think it should be something you learn in school. I worked at more than 150 schools for three years and I noticed the pupils were pleased to learn conversation as a skill. How to actually listen to someone, how to be attentive, how to deal with opinions that are different from your own. These are all things that are still too often overlooked in education, while the first thing you have to do after you graduate is going to job interviews where you are tested on your conversational skills as much as on your other merits. So many people are terrified of that because they have never been taught how to do it.
How have you been spending the past months? Any tips on what to watch, read, listen to?
Someone Has To Die on Netflix. I won’t say too much about it, but you have to watch it. It's a three-part series of a family living under the Franco regime. I recently started reading The Power of Hope by Bleri Lleshi, because I noticed that hope can be a real strategy for survival. We need hope for the future. We have faced worse times than these, and it will be temporary. I also think there are positive aspects of having more time to ourselves, to regain some space for humanity in a society which is more and more designed for machines rather than for people.
The D.A.T.E. talks will be broadcasted on 17, 18, and 19 November at 21:00 on thisisantwerp.be.
The episode featuring Jaouad;
Gentrification and biases in music: it’s a white white world, isn’t it? airs on 18 November.
Check the episodes of Het Nieuwe Normaal here.