A few weeks ago Psy’Aviah returned with a brand new EP, “City In Flames”, the last single taken from the band’s “Soul Searching” album. “City In Flames” handles the very current issue of psychological and physical isolation refugees are going through mixing human trauma and drama, which nowadays might even tend to be even more eclipsed by the global pandemic that keeps disrupting our society.
For this release Yves Schelpe collaborated with American artist Ellia Bisker, who is also the female singer of Sweet Soubrette and Charming Disaster.
We decided to talk with Yves Schelpe, Ellia Bisker and Bernice Van Dijck who works as a social worker in Filet Divers, an organization in Antwerp for people living in poverty. Yves met Bernice through the project “Samen Inburgeren” which matches newcomers with buddies to smoothen the integration.
A trio who clearly have a lot more to say on the subject. We threw them some questions!
SL: Can you briefly tell us what your background is and how you came to get in contact with Yves, Bernice as in meeting Yves – and Ellia as getting involved in this song. What attracted you to it?
YVES: Me and my girlfriend actually signed up for what is called “Samen Inburgeren” in the local Antwerp office, we were then matched to our “buddies” (newcomers who wanted to get someone who they can sort of explore the city with, get to learn the environment and build up a network). I met Bernice, I think, the first workshop we had together with out buddies, and later on at several other events!
BERNICE: I’m a social worker in Filet Divers, an organization in Antwerp for people living in poverty. I’m the projectleader of Samen Inburgeren. We match people who want to know the city (and its citizens) better and the language with people who wants to know what it ‘s like to be ‘new’ in Antwerp/people who want to help others with feeling good in this city. It ‘s my job to get people in touch with each other, to see if buddies are fine together, to organize multiple events a year to meet other buddies etc. Both Yves and his wife had someone who they met regularly within the project.
ELLIA: I’m an American singer/songwriter/musician based in New York City. Yves and I have never met in person, but we’ve been collaborating on and off since 2014, when he remixed a track that I had released with my project Sweet Soubrette, “Live Wire.” A little while later he asked if I would contribute vocals to one of his tracks, which I was excited about, but I also let him know I was interested in collaborating as a lyricist and he was open to that idea. Working with Yves has been great because I feel there is a lot of generosity and very little ego involved. It’s an exciting challenge to find the right words and convey a sense of meaning within another artist’s musical composition. We’ve now collaborated in this way on three Psy’Aviah tracks, with “City in Flames” the most recent. “City in Flames” was a bit different from the other two songs, as Yves had a really specific idea in mind for this one and some lyrics already written, so I had to channel his vision as well as the refugee story that he wanted the song to convey. I think the experience of people who are displaced by war or other circumstances is such an important issue, and it was an honor to try to capture it in this song in a way that would let listeners feel it for themselves.
SL: Integration is considered to be the way to get newcomers to become full citizens. However, we see it’s not a linear story where all goes as planned. What hurdles do you see?
YVES: Correct, I think people need to be aware that “integration” is a word that for me doesn’t really exist, or at least is very hard to define. When are you integrated? Even when living in Antwerp, my own city, I often wonder – am I integrated into the society as other people are? So this is where the problem starts, seeing “integration” from only one perspective (most of the time your own) is limiting the scope, and even essentially defining how a human would function as perfect or as normal in your idealized society. That’s one big hurdle I see, the tunnel vision where people get lost in. I always advice those people to visit the museum we have in Antwerp called “The Red Star Line Museum”, where you see that about 120 years ago mass immigration took place to the US and Canada from European countries – and how that affected things. It puts a lot in perspective, certainly because you see that immigration is something that has always existed, for the same reasons, and that it is a human thing to do. Most utter “integration” and “migration” without thinking about what they really mean with these words and concepts, or have no historical background – and often don’t reflect upon what it means for different people, as well as the “newcomers”. So, I’d say, creating awareness around the fact that “integration” comes in different shades of grey is the biggest hurdle, the biggest challenge when talking about this. Education thus, for everyone, is the biggest hurdle.
BERNICE: I mostly follow Yves’ ideas. You see, once we made an exercise about ‘integration’. What does it mean? What ‘s in it for the one who is integrating? What’s in it for society? Is someone who just like to sit at home and not joining the party’s in the street not integrated? Even we as professionals just got more questions instead of answers. And I think this shows how hard it can be to be new somewhere. You know you have to integrate, but what does it exactly mean? The most important thing I guess is that both society and newcomers are ready to meet eachother and respect eachother. When you can get in touch with and you are willing to learn from eachother, there can be a happy place for everyone.
ELLIA: As an American I’m not exactly qualified to answer this question, but I wanted to mention that immigration is of course an important issue here in the U.S. as well. Even though we are a nation of immigrants (my own ancestors were Jews fleeing oppression in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century), there is so much anti-immigrant rhetoric, particularly with respect to people coming from Mexico and Latin America, and so much racism (not to mention mistreatment and abuses at the border) in response to people who are often fleeing desperate situations to come here. As Yves mentioned, people migrating to find better circumstances is not a new phenomenon.
SL: In the past I have been giving extra Dutch courses to newcomers to speed up their integration. Those people were willing to integrate and did their best, but I think there is a blind spot of people which we never reached and which kinda disappeared from our radar. How do you see this?
YVES: It’s a point I wanted to touch upon in the song and music video, we often think giving materialistic & educational support is enough. The mental support often lacks in the trajectories people go through. Where within our own country we still have a big stigma talking about mental health, or giving people the much needed support – that is for me the most lacking part, and to come back upon the previous question; another hurdle. Mental issues, and gaining trust, dealing with these situations is a big step. When someone is depressed, or is struggling, it is hard to pick up & learn new things – for anyone, and especially someone who’s vulnerable and in a new country. Studies do also show that not everyone will ever be able to speak another language perfectly, or climb higher on the scale of knowing that language. Certainly the older you are, and the baggage you carry, but I’m sure Bernice can fill in the blanks more here…
BERNICE: I think as a society we still have a lot to learn. In Filet Divers – the organization where I work – I meet a lot of people who do not have a legit ID-card. Those people are extremely vulnerable. As I see it personally, those people may not even integrate: they may not volunteer nor work, they may not go to Dutch class, they may not have an entry pass for the library and so on. Even though they try their very best, life is rough on them. But even if you have a legit ID-card, life can be pretty hard. We see so many people struggling to find a proper job and a good place to live. We’re seeing every day that if your Dutch isn’t that good, the struggle is way more harder. Let me be clear: I think it’s good that you have a similar language to communicate. It makes living together much easier. But I think the focus on learning the language is too hard right now. Even research shows us that if you’re living in stress, learning new things is super hard. Just because your head is full of ‘surviving’, new things will not get in that easily.
SL: My wife who is from Mexico has been following language courses in mixed classes. She often told me that several male classmates showed no respect at all for the female fellow classmates and actually didn’t bother to listen to what the female teachers were saying or asking, because of their disdain for women. As a woman how do you cope with this?
BERNICE: Now, this is a hard one. This has something to do with preconceptions I think, from both ways. Of course, it’s not up me to say who’s wrong or right. Tough I think it must have been very challenging for both the teacher as for the classmates. In Filet Divers I’m most of the time see the opposite of what’s described here. For example: we see that in Samen Inburgeren a lot of young men are asking for a woman to be in buddy with. I never understood why, always explaining that we are not a place for dating or to find love. Ever since I started to really ask in several questions why they do prefer a man of woman, I start to understand better. Now I know that in many religions the woman is the one for the real conversations. They are the teachers, the ‘talkers’, the ones who will ‘help you out’ with psychological difficulties. Ever since I know that, it’s way more easy to have the proper conversation why man X would be much better company than woman X.
SL: In respect to that, the reaction towards LGBT fellow students was just abysmal. I doubt that pure talking will solve anything? Having said that, language is the power towards a good integration. What are the extras you pay attention to?
YVES: For me talking face to face is always the key point. Talking openly, about how I view the world and what ideas I have. But most importantly I learned to listen (even more), and to see where they’re coming from. I did not have an encounter where any of my buddies had problems with LGBTQI+ communities, so I can’t go deeper into that. But then again, the people migrating here that I worked and talked with, often are more open towards those subjects as one might initially think. I think it depends from person to person, as well as talking and getting a conversation going. I am an atheist, and in that sense we can talk about that for example. If you take the time and both parties are open to listen and form ideas, which to an extent works of course. The main part for me is, visiting places with them and showing them the world. Explaining the context. By explaining similarities we find a lot more common ground, enjoying experiences together forms a deeper bound than talking alone. So you have to combine it.
BERNICE: I totally agree with Yves! What I see, is ‘pure talking’ will never help. You also have to be able to listen properly. And that’s where it hurts a lot of the time. I’m not sure how to say it without hurting someone… You see, I am 100% supporting the LGBT movement. I truly believe that love is love. But the communication has to be ‘open’ all the time. We do not only have to talk to convince someone, but also to understand others, although they seem to think ‘wrong’. That‘s something I see a lot in the project Samen Inburgeren. Most of the people who are starting, they start from ‘the opposites’. They see someone who is new here, who doesn’t speak their language that good, who believes in (another) God(s),… After one year we do an evaluation. For me, it’s a magical moment. Almost everyone will tell me that they are not that different. In the end, they just want their kids to be happy or have a nice meal at the end of the day. Everyone likes to find a meaning in life or to love and be loved. But you see, it takes people one year to understand this. One year of talking and listening.
SL: You do book succes stories with the buddies but how do you feel about the failed stories?
BERNICE: I create the buddies, support them, bring the buddies together etc. The buddies who last a year or longer, are always the ones who are open to each other. If something doesn’t seem nice or strange, they dare to talk about it. It takes guts to do that. Sometimes it’s difficult to know if you may or may not ask about things. I know that a lot of starting buddies wonder why someone flees his or her country, if this person was a boat refugee, how long they had to walk, if they see their family,… I get a lot of questions when those kind of questions can get asked. My answer is always the same: as long as you are respectful, you can ask each other anything.
SL: Ellia, Is there any kind of buddy system like this you are aware of in the US? Where the focus on mental health + getting a “network of friends or people you can rely on” is setup for refugees, or newcomers?
ELLIA: I’m not aware of an individual buddy system like this in the US, although there are many organizations (from government agencies to nonprofit organizations to church groups) doing valuable work to help immigrants get settled, access legal and educational resources, and find a community.
BERNICE: In Belgium (and I guess in whole Europe) we have tons of buddy projects, in all kind of ways with all kinds of people. If you scroll through Google, it shows an amazing range of projects. If people reading this are interested, I would just suggest to open Google and start looking if there’s a project in your neighborhood!
SL: What is the key for succes for a good integration you think?
YVES: I think that it boils down to letting go of the word “integration”, I will likely be repeating myself, but if you think hard and deep about it, then where do you draw the line. When is someone integrated? Is it something measurable? (No). Does it change over time and generations? (Yes). So it is in constant flux, the big key to the kingdom of succes for me is that people talk and see the world from both sides. In essence, that’s the only way we will ever reach a type I civilization (or a global civilization) on the Kardashev scale, as Carl Sagan touched upon – which is both technological innovation but very much a psychological revolution as well for human race. And the implications of that, or the boundaries for reaching that I tried to describe in another song called “Our Common Future ft. Kyoko Baertsoen”, which many think is about global warming – but essentially it deals about the things or dangers that are holding us back to reach that planetary civilization (or Type I civilization). It is very cultural based, so hence why I always emphasize on education on every part of the world, and critical thinking. Without tearing apart cultural habits, or forms of theatre or music – those are two different things.
SL: Ellia and Yves, how do you feel music can make a difference in this?
ELLIA: Music — listening to it as well as making it — is an international language that rewards curiosity, collaboration, being open to new ideas as well as respecting traditions. Connecting through music is something that can happen whether or not you share a verbal language, it transcends age and ideology and national origin. I think opportunities to appreciate and participate in music are an incredibly powerful way to connect people, when those who might not have other obvious ways to connect.
BERNICE: As I see it, music connects. Some people like lyrics, others like sounds or beats, some people like dancing, others like listening or singing.. I barely know people who just do not like it at all. Just like Ellia said, it’s a language that everyone can speak in some kind of way.
YVES: For me it’s another form of talking about subjects and raising awareness. For some topics I write blogposts, for some topics I write songs and for others I do both. Music can, often without words, make us come closer together. With our buddies for example we had a lot of fun exploring flemish music, and even I discovered classic works I didn’t know or had forgotten. We go to concerts together, and just try to have fun. If then they have questions about things – we answer as we feel the world works, with as much context and differences we see. It also a means to broaden their network, bringing them out to concerts, or musea, sporting events – that’s where you meet new people.
SL: I have always thought, and am actually convinced that music can serve as a perfect medium to let people accept new ideas and cultures. For instance I have been checking out Sufism and its music because I discovered the music from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for instance. In Istanbul I visited a sufism school, watched their dances, and so on. Not that I got converted, but I tend to try and check out several different things. The same goes for world music thanks to Dead Can Dance, Yasmin Levy, Recoil or even Peter Murphy who has been incorporating lots of eastern elements in his solo material. And now the question :). What are your worldly influences Yves & Ellia?
ELLIA: I’ve been exposed to a lot of Balkan brass and choral music through the brass music scene (I sing with a 20-piece brass-punk band called Funkrust Brass Band), and have grown to love the complex time signatures, untempered vocals and strange (to me) harmonies. And I’ve recently been getting more into African music, especially West Africa — I know that’s a huge category but there’s a great show on Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR, that has introduced me to some incredible sounds and artists from all over the African continent — Amadou Balaké, Le Grand Kallé, TPOK Jazz, Fatoumata Diawara.
YVES: As Psy’Aviah fans are aware, we don’t shy away from any form of music… from classical and traditional music of different cultures, to deep and even forgotten or small communities. I can find gems everywhere. I try to listen and take whatever influence I can get. On “Soul Searching” it was apparent of course, but there are those ethnic or other-worldly influences which stood symbol of the journey a person makes on his quest of searching: soul searching, living your life, learning every day. Even learning why you don’t like something. For me the band(s) Moby and Faithless embody this the most, if you look at their catalogue – you’ll find very different influences over and over again. They don’t shy away from it, which I like, even though it’s not always a “hit” success with the fans.
SL: What hurdles do you encounter in order to have a succes story with a newcomer?
YVES: Let me say that a succes story doesn’t necessarily exist. Making a connection face to face from human to human and getting a basic understanding, even without as little as words, can be a connection and a success story for me. I can only talk about what I have experienced so far, and for me, thus the biggest hurdle can be language. But, that is only normal, so you get quite adapted to that yourself – talking slower is key, until they pick up, being patient… The biggest hurdle I had personally is not being “a teacher”, but rather being someone “to hang out with”, and that’s thus a thing that’s so important. You’re there to have fun with, to be trusted, draw your own lines, talk openly about it, and I must say that Bernice and her team do everything they can to guide that process in workshops with the buddies. Which is a great learning experience for both.
BERNICE: As I said before, we mainly have to learn that communication is not only talking. We have to try to be open, without losing your own beliefs (tough sometimes willing to adapt..). Success for me is that people are willing to meet each other. If they don’t know how to do it themselves, they can always join projects such as “Samen Inburgeren” ?.
SL: Where will the future lead us to according to you?
YVES: I’m not a futurist, but I touched upon it when talking about the hurdles for reaching a planetary civilization. The threats that face that, which can be found in the doomsday clock, are evidently there. Fundamentally I am a rather pessimistic person when I write my songs, or when you hear them I think. But these songs are there for a reason, to let people think critically about their own thoughts. It’s why I am a big fan of the work of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, who see a big rise and supporting those people leaving behind cruel rituals, cruel faiths. Next to that you have in Belgium voices like Maarten Boudry and Johan Braeckman, pleading for the same essence of critical thinking, moral philosophy etc.. Furthermore I must think of people like James Randi and Derren Brown, who can take you into a more edutainment world of your own critical thinking – some of their most profound stories and specials are worth watching as they teach on religion, (blind) faith, quackery, homeopathy or a perfectly working gambling systems that never fails (look up “The System” by Derren Brown). Combine that with the efforts of a lot of Humanists, for example prof. dr. Dirk De Wachter, who I worked with on the album, for a more humane approach and a not so self-centered universe we tend to fall in… I see the world as something we can improve, but we need to keep talking about it – and not on twitter or facebook, but face to face… to find solutions together.
BERNICE: This is a difficult question for me! When my thoughts are dark, I think that we are not learning from history. I see war, anger, complaining, … But on bright days (luckily, they are the majority) I do see that people create beautiful spots to live. People do come together and collaborate. They are willing to share what they have and like to see others smile. Learning (from history) is a never ending story and I believe we have challenging times coming. But we can do it, as long as we do it together.
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