The Multilingual Mic
Art and culture are two of the many charms of the Belgian and European capital of Brussels. With almost every nationality represented, the city has become synonymous to the idea of multiculturalism. Walking around, you will find that every corner has its own customs. One street will guide you to a Moroccan teahouse, passing a Polish supermarket and leaving you puzzled why it smells like barbeque and charcoal smoke—a Brazilian cook-out around the corner. Brussels hosts a little nest for every type of bird.
For the birds wanting to share their creativity, there are many opportunities to perform at open mic events. A cultural phenomenon present in most cities, an open mic is an event that gives an open stage to talented creative minds and it also tries to facilitate a safe space for those who are just getting started. They can be organized anywhere, be it the famous Halles Saint-Géry, an ancient indoor market built in 1881 that is currently used as recreative space filled with bars, or even a library like Muntpunt.
Brussels has its own cultural joker. Belgium has three national languages: French, Dutch and German. Add to this the English that is most prevalent within the European institutions, and Arabic that is the mother tongue of 21.1% of Brussels’ inhabitants. Many Brusseleirs—how Brussels’ natives like to call themselves—adopted Arabic as one of their many sources for slang. The Congolese language Lingala, Spanish and Portuguese also have a substantial influence on the city’s linguistic landscape. During an open mic session, you can expect to discover artists who will blow you away with Flemish punchlines, Spanish canciones or Arabic poetry.
One of these open mics is called “Slameke.” The name itself is already a sublime example of acculturation: the word “slam” is taken from “slam poetry,” an English term for a form of performance poetry that combines the elements of performance, writing, competition and audience participation. Adding -eke to a word is typically Flemish. The suffix can be used to compose a diminutive, which makes something sound smaller and, thus, cute. A collective of Bruxellois “slammers” decided to create Slameke, because they believed that there is a lack of open mics compared to the amount of talent that the country possesses.
Their events abound in singers, rappers, beatboxers, poets, comedians and even musicians with different background and origins. Everybody is more than welcome to perform. The only thing one has to do to participate is register at the event itself to reserve a slot of stage time. Of course, performers get a drink on the house for their efforts. The only motivation needed! A session counts approximately 20 acts and one special guest, who can be an artist of any kind who will too perform.
Even more surprising are the events by “Open Mic du 50 Nerfs.” The collective’s objective is to organize performances in the city’s most unexpected locations. A street corner, a train station or a park will do, because there are no limitations for creativity, according to the collective. The name “50 nerfs,” or cinqante nerfs in French, literally means 50 nerves. It is a wordplay on “Cinquantenaire,” the name of one of the city’s famous parks (every geographical location in Brussels has a French and Dutch name: in Dutch, the park is called “Jubelpark,” which has a different meaning altogether). What better place than a street to unite humans from different ethnicities—a prime example of public space, since everyone makes use of it.
Take the artists of Soul’Art, a band comprised by singer Martha Canga Antonio—who is also a well-known Belgian actress—the rappers M13, Jazzy Bench and Sparrow, and singer Zed. Some of them have participated in open mic events before they became famous. The sessions gave them more visibility and confidence. Martha used to practice slam poetry in open mics and considers those performances as the start of her career. The five members live in different cities in Belgium and all have African roots. Together they produce hip-hop and soul music, incorporating both Flemish and French, with a touch of English and Portuguese. They are an inspiration for many, and an example of how the linguistic richness of the country unites and doesn’t divide.
The multilingualism and originality of their music made it possible for the collective to draw in a contrasting audience, speaking to people in Flanders, the northern Flemish-speaking part of the country, and in the southern, French-speaking region of Wallonia.
Lying in between the two regions, Brussels has the potential to harness the best of both worlds. The city could become a great example of how to live together, share stories and write an even greater one.