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A popular Flemish rapper and former social housing tenant: "The Rabot will always be the neighbourhood where I feel most at home"

Read the story of Fatih de Vos, a sociologist, rapper, and a youth councellor

Ghent, Belgium, 17 May 2022 | Social
Photo by Els Matthysen, original source: "Fundamenten" April-June 2022
Photo by Els Matthysen, original source: "Fundamenten" April-June 2022

Besides being a successful rapper, Fatih De Vos is also a sociologist and youth worker. He grew up in one of Ghent’s social housing in Belgium, the Rabot towers. "The Rabot towers were an important source of inspiration for my hip-hop music. It will always be the neighborhood where I feel most at home. From a purely ecological point of view and due to a lack of space, we have no choice but to build more high-rise buildings. And then the compact of high-rise buildings is a solution," Fatih says. Read the feature of our communication colleague and member from VVH, Els Matthysen.

Fatih De Vos became famous as the frontman of the Ghent hip-hop collective «Rauw en Onbesproken». Besides rapper, he is also a sociologist, youth worker and citizen of Ghent with an immigrant background. Fatih grew up in one of Ghent’s social housing Rabot towers. These Ghent "landmarks" have meanwhile been replaced by new and lower social housing apartment buildings. As a child of a Flemish mother and a Turkish father, Fatih sees himself as a walking bridge between cultures and communities. The Rabot area was his "safe space", where he felt at home. An inexhaustible source of inspiration for his rap music. His childhood was not always easy, but growing up in the Rabot has taught him a lot and formed the person he is today: open, driven and - despite his success - always with both feet on the ground.

You can meet Fatih at Housing Europe's annual conference "What if... we imagined Next Generation housing with the youth?" which will be held on June, 16th during the International Social Housing Festival in Helsinki. Register here.

There is a dense fog when Fatih De Vos and I are standing on the new Rabot site in Ghent. Where there used to be three high-rise towers of WoninGent, where Fatih grew up, the social housing company has already put five lower apartment buildings in their place. Where the third Rabot tower stood, three more, also lower apartment buildings, will be added. These have yet to be built. I don't know what the flats look like on the inside, but I can see that the area looks much cleaner than when I lived here (laughs). Even though the blocks have been demolished, I still feel a strong connection with this neighbourhood. I was very happy here and I'm very grateful that I grew up here.

From Eeklo to Ghent
Fatih De Vos was born in 1985 in Ghent. He describes his father as a traditional conservative Turk and his mother as a traditional Flemish. He is proud of both his Flemish family name and his Turkish first name. Because his father was married to a Turkish woman with whom he shared his life in Ghent, Fatih grew up alone under his mother's wings. He has sporadic contact with his father. My first three years of life I lived with my mother in Eeklo in a dilapidated little house that she rented on the private market. Later, my mother found work as a home help for the elderly in Ghent, so we looked for a house in Ghent. Fortunately, my mother's boss helped her apply for social housing. In the meantime, we rented - also privately - a dilapidated row house in the Brugse Poort in Ghent. I was five when we moved to social housing in the Rabot. And I lived here in the Rabot neighbourhood with my mother until I was 18. 13 great years.

Many positive memories
I'm glad I didn't grow up in one of those dull, small-bourgeois, ribbon development areas. I would not have felt at home there. I was an only child, but at the Rabot I had no lack of playmates. My friends were young people with Turkish, Moroccan and Flemish roots. My friends were Nebil, Kiki, Nick and Cevdet. We played football, built camps with things we found on wasteland further along, where the new courthouse is now. For me, diversity was a given, in contrast to young people who grow up in the social cocoon of more exclusive neighbourhoods. They only come into contact with diversity when they are older. Once in a while, there were fights between groups of young people, "rumbling" as we say in Ghent. But all in all, I have many more positive than negative memories.

A different view on the Rabot
I've seen documentary movies about the Rabot where it seemed there was only misery, nothing positive. When you see such a film without knowing the neighbourhood, people think 'that must be hell there', and that is such a shame. The makers imposed their own vision in that film without really listening to the residents. I lived here for 15 years and what I saw in that film was not the Rabot that I experienced. I don't deny that there were problems, people with psychological problems, family problems, problems with drugs and alcohol, but there was also a lot of fun and 'leute'. And there was a lot of laughter. Reports in such neighbourhoods are all too often looking for sensation, they want to see the clichés confirmed, they feed the stigma because that is what sells (sigh). I hope my story in the Flemish social housing magazine Fundamenten will contribute to a healthy counterbalance. Because I am grateful to have grown up here.

Gentrification and social mix
Yes, there was poverty, in that all residents were more or less equal. 'Tout le monde dans le même sac'.' With a handful of exceptions, the Rabot was a pure working-class neighbourhood, although over time it has become more gentrified, more of a mix of working-class and middle-class people. Because rents in the more affluent neighbourhoods are becoming unaffordable, more middle-class people are moving here, living in the former working-class houses, and this sometimes causes tensions. After all, a mix of people does not automatically guarantee a positive neighbourhood. Sometimes 'middle-class islands' arise and the original residents no longer feel at home in their neighbourhood. Connecting people and getting them to actively undertake things is not something that happens by itself. Social cohesion will need a few generations to grow.

My safe space
Rabot was my safe space, I felt safe there, I knew every corner. People kept an eye on each other in a positive way. You felt safe and secure there. I lived in Filips van Cleeflaan number 80 in block two, the middle block, on the fourth floor. Each block had its caretaker. Especially in the beginning when we lived here, it was a tight-knit, a close community. That changed at the end of the 1990s. There was a greater turnover. People came and went. But that is precisely the intention of social housing, that people continue to grow, although a neighbourhood does need a certain stability of tenants'.

Is it a good idea to limit social housing in time?
Whether that will solve much I do not know, because people who live in social housing are people who have no choice. They are often people who need that affordable housing to survive. People who rent social housing already have so many thresholds in their lives, their situation is already precarious. They need stability. The prospect of not being able to continue renting puts extra pressure on them. If people with a low income were to find something on the private market - apart from the current rent prices which are catastrophically high - then those houses are often in very poor condition and badly insulated, making the energy costs unaffordable. Whether social housing really forms a barrier against poverty? Sometimes yes, but if people also have to pay off heavy debts, then it becomes more like a lifebelt against poverty'.

And what about liveability in high-rise?
From a purely ecological point of view, and due to a lack of space, we have no choice but to build more high-rise buildings. And then the compactness of high-rise buildings is a solution. There are cities in the world, think of Asian metropolises or today's New York, where high-rise works just fine. It is good that a residential block also has public facilities such as a service centre, a shop and a pub. But don't create an isolated community like the Parisian banlieues, for example'.

School outside the district
Fatih completed his secondary education in the ASO, surrounded by children with affluent parents. In his class, he was one of the only ones of "simple descent". My mother consciously chose a school outside the district. She encouraged me to study well so that I would have more opportunities later. I owe it to her that I got my master's degree in sociology. I studied extra hard, it was my way of thanking her. In my sociology studies, I looked for answers about myself, about society and about my position in it.'

Social living as a source of solidarity, willpower and inspiration?
The Rabot was an important source of inspiration for the hip-hop music of Fatih De Vos. I sing about 'the ghetto', although the Rabot didn't really meet the literal definition of a neighbourhood where you can't get out of your neighbourhood. Fortunately. The word ghetto is considered something negative by the wider society. People from hip-hop often come from such a neighbourhood, just like me, and we consider it a "nickname", we are proud of our "quartier". "It's mine, not yours". And so am I. Rabot is "my quartier". If you come here, my rules apply. So sometimes I literally brought classmates home to show them my neighbourhood. Growing up there also made me very social and shaped my empathy. By dealing with so many different people from a very young age, I am able to empathise with very different situations. And that is why I am socially committed. I can't help it.

Hip-hopper - youth worker and so much more
Besides his performances as a hip-hopper, Fatih works part-time as a youth worker at Graffiti vzw. He organises and supervises courses and workshops with young people. Through creative techniques like graffiti, rapping and photography, we stimulate their critical citizenship and make them think about themselves and the world. I love working with young people, from young newcomers to vulnerable young people in problem neighbourhoods or in difficult family situations. In addition to his job as a youth worker, he is also self-employed as a secondary occupation. He gives workshops on rap music, moderates debates, does writing assignments and he is also involved in various cultural projects in Ghent, including Vooruit. All in all, it's more than a full-time job'. (laughs).

Want to discover a workshop with Fatih? Watch the heart-warming clip made by the wonderful and talented children of the Malem social housing estate in Ghent here. 

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