What’s the deal with hip hop festivals in Belgium?

Pictures by Daniil Lavrovski, Jon Verhoeft, Nicolas Legein, Tim Schrijnemakers

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Us Belgians have always been good in music festivals. We have them in all shapes and sizes, for all kinds of crowds and for all kinds of music. Traditionally, the landscape is dominated by a handful of big players like Rock Werchter, Pukkelpop or Dour Festival – but slowly, new challengers are popping up, testing the waters with different strategies in order to make a name for themselves. One of the common threads between a lot of new members of the festival order is ‘hip hop’. Events like Fire Is Gold, Faded, Hip Hub Hooray and the newly announced Vestiville clearly go all in on urban culture. With the current, dominant status of the genre in the charts, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Actually, you could wonder why it did not happen any sooner.

It’s probably still too early to say, but as much as we want these new festivals to flourish, it seems like they are caught in a frustrating situation. Festivals like Fire Is Gold, Betong and Hip Hub Hooray succeed at attracting a limited set of dedicated fans, but they have not yet broken through in any substantial way. This becomes apparent when you take a peek at what’s happening across our national borders. Woo Hah and Appelsap in The Netherlands, Wireless in the UK, Paris Hip Hop Festival in France or Openair Frauenfeld in Germany are each established stalwarts amongst the other large festivals in their respective countries. Why hasn’t that happened over here?

You can argue that Liège’s Les Ardentes is an exception to the rule. However, this multiday July festival only decided to exclusively book hip hop about 3 years ago, after it had already given the genre increasing priority on the lineup in the previous editions. “We don’t run after fads”, explains Fabrice Lamproye, co-promoter at Les Ardentes. “There’s a real sense of community amongst young people who have enthusiastically taken ownership of the festival. This wasn’t the case when we booked different genres on the same event”. Channelling your attention, time and resources to a single genre makes it possible to differentiate from other, bigger festivals in Belgium. At the same time, you can speak to a profile of music fans that may otherwise have not been interested in going to events with a very broad selection of headliners.

Those middle-sized national and international artists, the kind that you target as a small festival, are often beyond reach now that big summer festivals have started to put these on their bills too.

Specialization may sound obvious (it’s a common business strategy after all), but it’s not that straightforward. It starts with the very definition of hip hop. “The genre has become so popular throughout the mainstream circuit, it’s hard to pinpoint where the boundaries of hip hop end and where those of EDM or pop begin. “Is hip hop still a valid description of everything what’s been going”, asks Jef Willem, co-promoter at Fire Is Gold. This is an important question to ask, because if we take few steps back and look at the line-ups of major festivals in Belgium, we see that most are headlining some of the most popular artists on the planet – and many of them happen to be rappers. Take Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott on Pukkelpop or Post Malone and Rae Sremmurd at Rock Werchter for example. “These festivals need to keep finding ways to innovate and speak to a wider audience”, explains Willem. “In Belgium we already had a large festival scene before hip hop became big, so it makes sense for those guys to adjust their line-ups”, adds Jules Thys, co-founder of Hip Hub Hooray Festival in Tongeren. Although that’s good news for music fans who like a bit of everything, it can be a big hurdle for new, specialized initiatives. When big artists are booked, big clients often pay top dollar for an exclusivity fee, meaning that no other event can book that artist during a given period of time before and after the show. If that show happens to be in the middle of the summer, it essentially blocks other festivals from getting a desired headliner. Unfortunately, it doesn’t leave a lot of A list names for smaller events, who would have a hard time negotiating those large booking fees anyways. “Those middle-sized national and international artists, the kind that you target as a small festival, are often beyond reach now that big summer festivals have started to put these on their bills too”, says Toon De Grez from Betong in Aalst.

But there’s still a big gap between our superstars like Roméo Elvis or Damso and the rest of the pack. We could use more artists that can fill up the void in between.

Ok, so if the hip hop scene is ‘stronger than ever’, why don’t these hip hop festivals focus on local names with a dedicated fanbase? They do. “It has become a matter of booking the right artist at exactly the right time to compose a quality lineup with the resources at your disposal”, says De Grez. But is this focus on the local scene enough to survive? “Belgium has boarded the hip hop bandwagon quite late as opposed to other genres like techno and house for example”, says Thys. It took our local scene a little longer to catch up with what has been happening around us, even though some artists have broken through internationally. “But there’s still a big gap between our superstars like Roméo Elvis or Damso and the rest of the pack. We could use more artists that can fill up the void in between”.

This strong, locally-anchored scene of hip hop artists and fans is essential to build the foundations of a large hip hop festival like Woo Hah or Paris Hip Hop Festival. Most neighbouring countries had one long before we did. “It’s hard to compare”, says Willem. “Because France and The Netherlands are world-class hip hop players”. With more homegrown artists and a much larger target audience, it shouldn’t be a surprise they have developed a stringer niche market for urban festivals.

With big festivals chipping in and new ones struggling solidify their identity, is there any space left to grow? Maybe there is. It’s certainly all smiles what Les Ardentes are concerned. “We don’t need to envy festivals like Woo Hah”, says Lamproye. “We are moving to a site with a larger capacity this year and we are booking an even bigger and more balanced lineup of English and French language hip hop”. Certainly, it was a welcome surprise to see that the Dutch promoters of Vestiville will try their luck in Belgium for the first time with a no nonsense lineup that includes Migos, Cardi B and Future. Even more so, they aim to sell 125.000 tickets – an ambitious goal, given that the Lommel festival will take place on the same weekend as Rock Werchter.

Although we welcome the initiative, maybe one large foreign investment is not what the Belgian hip hop scene needs, especially if it doesn’t include homegrown talent (which, so far, is absent from Vestiville the lineup). “Combining both local names with potential and international names with a large following will create opportunities for the former”, says Thys. “As long as we continue to look at hip hop from a wide perspective, the future is bright”, adds Willem. “Hip hop arose from diversity and speaks to a diverse audience. It’s this variety that’s often still lacking in Belgium. When fans, artists and promoters will fully embrace this diversity, which includes all genres under the ‘urban’ umbrella, everyone will profit. We just need to be patient”.

Other than patience, increased cooperation is something that could benefit everyone. “It has been the key to success in the past”, explains Thys. “So I would love to see more cooperation and communication between events in order to avoid exclusivity deals and boost local talent. It’s a surmountable issue. If we’re using a culture for relevance, we have to invest in it too. As long as the everybody on the different levels of event organization keeps this in mind, it looks like it’s going to be a successful and inspiring year for hip hop festivals in this country”.