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“You Can’t Always Listen to the Same Music”


Laila swaggered imperiously, her wide camouflage pants riding low beneath a bright red Che Guevara shirt. In equally bold red, the words “Fuckin Criminal” flashed from her white belt. Perhaps in other places in the world this would be the traditional garb of suburban rebels-without-a-cause or pubescent bourgeois dissidents. But eighteen-year-old Laila from the Oost district of Amsterdam put a different spin on the dress. Wrapped tightly about her head – so tightly her eyebrows were barely visible – was a black headscarf.  Laila, who from chin to toe could be a Californian mallrat, is anything but. “I go mostly to Moroccan parties,” she said, “I’d listen to Arabic music over English music any day.” So did she consider herself to be Moroccan? Her covered head shifted impatiently. “Why do you have to attach me to a larger group? I am myself,” she snapped and abruptly the interview was over. She strutted around the corner, her pants swishing away. Che was almost smiling.

Popular music is undeniably a powerful global phenomenon. In recent decades, thanks in large part to the expansion of cable and satellite television, pop music has invaded homes across the world. The internet has in more recent times allowed young people to exchange and download everything from American fixtures like Fifty Cent to the Algerian raï singer Khaled. Pop music seeps from every pore of today’s increasingly globalised media. 

The world-wide reach of pop music cannot simply be attributed to savvy marketing and the unstoppable march of global commercialism. For Laila and millions of other young people around the world, pop music provides a very real medium through which they can formulate their identities and position themselves within (and without) society. In the Netherlands – where generations of second-wave (primarily Moroccans and Turks who came as guest-workers in the 1960s and 70s and decided to stay) post-immigrants find themselves uncomfortably positioned in relation to mainstream Dutch society – pop music plays a significant role in how youth define themselves.  

Half a century earlier, pop music was significantly affecting youth in the industrialised world. Early rock ‘n’ roll coming from the United States and Britain helped spark the “youth movement” as youngsters set themselves against previous generations. Many Dutch teenagers would have flocked to record stores to pick up the records of their shaggy-haired idols, distancing themselves from their parents through the music. Yet the likes of Laila have even more complicated choices to make about who they are. Hers is not simply a question of age. She grapples at once with the thorny issues of ethnicity, nationality, religion and generation.

Stare down the streets of Bos en Lommer, a heavily Moroccan and Turkish district in west Amsterdam, and one sees a landscape not of monotonous four-story brick tenements but of balconies cluttered with satellite dishes. Arabic and Turkish music streams out of ground-floor windows and booms from cars. When asked what they hoped to be in the future, boys in a class of twelve-year-olds almost unanimously said they wanted to be artists like Dr. Dre or Tupaq. Local immigrant artists like Ali B and Casablanca Connect are indeed slowly coming to the fore, rapping about their love for Morocco, their loathing for parliamentarian Ayan Hirshi Ali, and how immigrants are perceived incorrectly, all the while mixing Arabic into their spitfire Dutch.

Immigrant youth growing up in the Netherlands today are surrounded by a complex mix of musical subcultures: traditional folk and religious music from their countries of origin, pop music from North Africa, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Middle East, pop music (mostly r&b and rap) from the United States, and western European brands of pop. (Locally-produced second-wave immigrant music is a relatively recent phenomenon and does not seem to play that large a part in the listening habits of youth.) How do second-wave post-immigrant youth digest this muddle of musical forms? How important, for example, were the exact messages transmitted by pop music to its young listeners? Or is the meaningfulness of pop music not in the specifics of its songs but the more general associations it carries? What kind of space exists in Dutch society for the expression of minority experiences? What divisions between and within minority groups does consumption of pop music reveal? Through dozens of interviews with post-immigrant youth between the ages of 15 and 24, we sought to map the interplay between pop music and the identities of immigrant youngsters in the Netherlands.

“How can I be Dutch?”

Many second-wave immigrants are poised awkwardly between two seemingly disparate identities. On one side they face the imposing, sometimes intransigent bulwark of mainstream Dutch society with its increasingly frantic impulse for self-preservation. On the other side stands an often simplified or idealised vision of “homeland” society, frequently upheld by the parents of today’s youth. This opposition can lead to dissent against the mainstream in the Netherlands but unquestioning loyalty to the mainstream in the homeland. Many Turks, for instance, vote in the Netherlands for the Green or Socialist parties, which claim to represent the interests of Dutch minorities, while voting for the aggressively nationalist, right-wing Milliyetci Hareket  Party in Turkey. 

Such a black-and-white divide stems in part from the Dutch mainstream’s insistence on the foreignness of immigrants. Mainstream political and journalistic discourse defines Dutch citizenry either as “autochtone,” or native, and “allochtone,” from the outside which, in practical terms, means “non-white.” The routine use of these categories alienates many young post-immigrant youth. Asked whether he considered himself Dutch, twenty-year-old Hakan from De Baarsjes quarter of west Amsterdam replied emphatically, “How can I be Dutch as long as they tell me I’m not Dutch? When they tell me I’m Dutch, maybe then I’ll be Dutch.” 

Instead of retreating however to a primordial identification with the “homeland,” many youth adopt more intricate senses of themselves. Music can offer them a way out from the binary juxtaposition of supposedly modern Dutch society and supposedly traditional homeland. According to the youth researcher Keith Roe, the various musical subcultures available to youth provide “a context for the selection of cultural elements such as style, values, ideologies and life-style that can be used to develop an achieved identity outside the ascribed identity offered by home, school or work.” By picking from the smorgasbord of pop music, can second-wave post-immigrant youth in the Netherlands actually unfetter themselves from the claims of group identity? More importantly, what space do these youth have within Dutch society to define themselves?

A House Divided

As in the 1950s, a generational gap does exist within the families of many second-wave immigrants. The divide between mostly Moroccan or Turkish parents and their children stands in stark contrast to the relative absence of intergenerational conflict amongst first-wave immigrants – Antilleans and Surinamese. Patrick, a 23-year-old who lives near the centre of Amsterdam and boasts a large cross tattooed on his left bicep beneath the date “1975” (Surinam’s year of independence), said that he grew up listening to the same music that his parents listened to (soul and r&b), and that his taste in music does not clash with his cultural background. “I do not relate myself to a specific group,” he claimed furthermore, “I feel Surinamese, sometimes Dutch, but it is just not that important.” Similarly, Rajinder, a Surinamese Indian from the Bijlmermeer in southeast Amsterdam, claimed that his parents listen to the same Hindi film songs he does. Fifteen-year-old Larissa of Antillean origin watched music videos with her parents. Neither Rajinder or Larissa greatly feel the need to distinguish between being Dutch and being Surinamese or Antillean. 

While Surinamese and Antilleans can, in general, easily ally their musical interests with those of their parents, others do not find it so simple. Almost all the Moroccans and Turks who professed an interest in contemporary, particularly American, hip-hop and r&b could not listen to it around their parents. Maïssa, a 20-year-old from west Amsterdam was in such a position. “I turn on the TV to watch and listen to my music when my parents are not in the house,” she said. Maïssa also found it difficult to think of herself as Dutch, claiming succinctly that she was Moroccan. Compare the cases of Moroccans and Turks to those of Surinamese and Antilleans and it seems that generational differences are indicative not only of tensions within the family but of conflicted identities in relation to Dutch society. Surinamese and Antilleans can worry less about their identity in part because they, unlike Moroccans and Turks, are not the centre of debate in the political sphere and the media. Theirs is a more fluid identity, enmeshed in centuries of Dutch history. 

Oriental Capitalism

Moroccans and Turks first came to the Netherlands in 1960s, initially (and in many cases still) living in self-contained communities isolated from the bulk of Dutch society. “Tradition” became sacrosanct within many of these communities, providing immigrants with a firm sense of who they were. But while Turkey, Morocco and Dutch society changed over the decades, “tradition” within immigrant communities remained largely the same. “The morals of immigrants are those of the 60s and 70s,” said Murad Bicici, a second-generation Turk, “the traditions and values are frozen in time.”

The trajectory of much popular media, especially that emanating from the United States, is squarely against tradition. Thus for first generation immigrants who cling strongly to a sense of self rooted in “tradition,” separate from Dutch society, pop music can seem threatening. “Modern media has little time or respect for tradition,” Roe claims. “The whole idea of traditions comes to seem quite strange. Why should we want to do the same as previous generations? What’s so great about the past?” Just as it is often intrinsically anti-traditional, so too is much American pop music inescapably capitalist. Videos and songs enshrine consumerism, equating success with the accumulation of extravagant wealth with little regard for social or communal responsibility. Through media, capitalism, according to Roe, encourages “the overthrow of traditions which kept people within limiting compartments.”

Yet despite listening to a great deal of American r&b and hip-hop, Moroccan and Turkish youth are not eager to cast aside the supposedly “limiting compartments” of their senses of Moroccanness or Turkishness. Though they rarely listen to ultra-traditional music (on their own time) from the Maghreb or Turkey, youth consistently expressed a preference for contemporary pop coming from these regions over the bling-bling-filled MTV fare. According to Hester Carvalho, a music journalist at Rotterdam-based daily NRC, “Second generation [Moroccan and Turkish] immigrants have a different taste then what is programmed in the Dutch mainstream. They associate more with music from their homelands.”  

Many youth agreed that the messages within contemporary Middle Eastern pop appealed to them. “I understand Arabic music better. It speaks to me, to my concerns,” said Naima, a 19-year-old from west Amsterdam. At the same time, the likes of Naima were quick to dismiss the importance of the messages within American music. When asked if American pop music conflicted with their cultural background, immigrant listeners consistently claimed that American hip-hop, for example, was appealing not for its content but for its rhythm, its sound. “It doesn’t matter what the artists say,” Youssef, an 18-year-old from De Baarsjes, said, “the music just sounds nice.” 

Considering that Arab and Turkish pop increasingly deals with similar subject matter as music on MTV (albeit in a less explicit way), such distinctions are revealing. On one hand, the second generation of second-wave immigrants stands apart from its parents, dabbling with global pop music. On the other, many youth hold on to a tenuous brand of Moroccan or Turkish identity, one removed from their parents’ ossified “traditions” but nevertheless similar in its turn towards the homeland. A void exists for many immigrant youth, as they see few adequate representations of their own lives within in the Dutch media. “Ali B [the most famous Dutch Moroccan rapper] is for kids,” Naima complained, “Nobody represents me musically in the Netherlands.” 

“You can’t always listen to the same music.”

Yet just as Laila insisted on her individuality, so too do many post-immigrant youth resist being easily categorised. Fatima, a 17-year-old girl from De Baarsjes, reminded us that “you can’t always listen to the same music all the time.” Every inch of her except her face and her hands was covered in the amalgam of skirts, shirts, trousers and scarves worn by many Muslim women in Amsterdam. “When I feel religious or traditional, I listen to traditional religious music. When I’m in love, I listen to music about love.” 

Fatima listens to a new and increasingly popular radio station, FunX. Melvin Toenin, the music director of FunX, a publicly-funded radio station that targets primarily young post-immigrants in the four large cities (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Den Haag, and Utrecht) confirms the reality of this problem. “We did research on the radio consumption in the four large cities. There was a large group who hardly listened to radio but was downloading and exchanging music through the internet. This group was not attracted to mainstream radio. We started to make radio for this group, by playing a mix of music styles this group of young people where interested in.”  

It is not surprising, then, that FunX’s slogan is “welkom bij jezelf” – welcome to yourself. “We acknowledge that you [minority groups] have been different,” Toenin said, “and will be different.” FunX thus is revolutionary in its marshalling of the airwaves. It plays music that appeals to all of the Netherlands immigrant groups, a range of tastes unprecedented and largely unacknowledged by mainstream Dutch radio. The station also prides itself on its intimate relationship with listeners. “At FunX, the listeners are the most important, not the DJs,” claims Toenin. FunX does not heed the beck and call of music labels, instead choosing to take tips and requests from its audience. This tactic has gained the radio station a growing following amongst post-immigrants in the Netherlands. The station also provides a platform for social discussion dubbed “FunX talk,” interspersing thirty-second sound-bytes through the music. “We discuss themes that are important to our listeners,” explained Toenin, “sometimes broadcasting ‘rough’ but real opinions of young post-immigrants.” 

FunX has no avowed social or political agenda, but it does provide post-immigrant youth with direct access to public media. Ayhan Kaya, a scholar of Turkish hip-hop youth culture in Europe, has described this function as the creation of “third space.” “To tackle exclusion and discrimination in their country of settlement,” Kaya claims, “young post-immigrants express themselves in a ‘third’ space,” a space separate from Dutch mainstream society, posing “a threat to the monolithic structure of the nation-state.” This space is also removed from the distant, idealised homeland. By playing disparate varieties of music ranging from Turkish pop to raï to American rap, FunX pushes to the foreground both the “particularist” and “universalist” elements of the ‘third’ space. “The particularist element consists of an attachment to homeland, religion and ethnicity and provides young post-immigrants with a network of solidarity and a sense of confinement,” Kaya said. “The universalistic elements, on the other include various aspects of global pop culture as graffiti and ‘cool style’; they equip the young post-immigrants with the means to symbolically transcend the boundaries of the nation-state and to integrate themselves into a global youth culture.”

Ayeesha, an 18-year-old from De Baarsjes, emphasised FunX’s ‘third’-space-attributes. A friend of hers opened a business, and FunX stepped in to help promote the fledgling operation, providing a very tangible “network of solidarity.” Ayeesha wears her hair in a loose bun and a shirt with the words “Italians Do It Better” emblazoned on the front. She liked listening to FunX because “it’s about us, and it’s about Amsterdam.” Through its music, FunX supports young post-immigrants’ claim to a space symbolically separate from mainstream Dutch society. 

Though FunX does allow young post-immigrants the room to find and create representations of their own experiences in public media, it still has a limited impact on bridging the larger rifts within the Netherlands. Carvalho agrees that FunX is a trend-setter in its approach to its audience and in its promotion of formerly unknown local artists. But she points out that FunX cannot spread multiculturalism or sweepingly transform Dutch society. After all, the station’s audience consists almost entirely of post-immigrant youth. “[FunX] will not change Dutch society, it will not make people more open,” she said. “You have to be already listening to learn about diversity.” Most Dutch, it seems, are not listening.

As Kaya notes, “The dominant ideology of multiculturalism aims to imprison minority cultures in their distinct boundaries, even closing up the channels of dialogue between cultures.” By broadcasting music for minorities in the Netherlands, FunX may risk making the lines around so-called “allochtonen” even tighter. Nevertheless, FunX does more good than harm. Carvalho concedes, “It is far better to have FunX than not to have it.” FunX, and the ´third´ space it represents, shapes one´s identity in a positive, diverse way. Instead of just identifying, for example, with Turkey through listening to Turkish pop, FunX allows for a whole range of interactions between different minority groups through music. These associations are unique to Dutch society, and thus tie young post-immigrants more closely to their immediate surroundings rather than lofty, pseudo-mythical visions of the homeland. 

The conditions for such a third space require a positive perspective on multiculturalism instead of inflexible assimilationist attitudes. By facilitating the expression of minority voices through music, multiculturally hip Laila will be more able to be and remain herself.


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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2005


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