7 Day Project: Youness & Friends in Belgium

Youness Amrani, June 2020. Ph. DVL

As a human being on planet Earth at this precise moment in time, preparing to interview Youness Amrani about a week of skateboard tricks feels incredibly vacuous and wrong. In fact even just the idea of essentially being in the business of entertaining people is kind of painful. I’m sure I’m not the only person to be having an existential crisis right now, but when you devote so much time and energy into something as trivial as skateboarding, in times like these it’s hard not to feel like it’s a little bit wasteful.

Luckily by the time I got off my call with him that feeling of general apathy had pretty much evaporated. I’d even go as far as saying that it got me thinking about why I started this magazine with my friends and why I want to keep doing it… Youness has always been one of most grounded and honest people in skateboarding and the conversation you’re about to read was a much-needed reminder that our little culture and community is not a self-sufficient bubble that exists independently from the rest of the world. It’s just the lens through which we see it and should be one of the tools we use to change it.

Photography by DVL
Interview by Arthur Derrien

Youness Amrani: Hey man, how’s it going? You in London?

Yeah all good I guess… Everything is obviously pretty crazy at the moment but I’m fine. We’ve all been going to all these protests and before that it was lockdown mode so not much skating… How are you? What’s it been like in Belgium?
Yeah and it’s only getting crazier! With all that other stuff happening it’s as if suddenly Corona was gone!
It’s been alright here I guess… People are really scared here because the number of deaths (per capita) attributed to Corona is a lot higher than in other countries but that’s basically because any new death was almost automatically attributed to it and Belgium is such a small country… I don’t think it was any worse than in other places in Europe though.
And then skateparks were closed but other than that you were still allowed to go out and street skate and stuff so it wasn’t too bad. The hardest thing for me was just having to stay in my city, as there’s nothing to do at all there…

Youness Amrani, heelflip

Yeah I was actually going to ask you about that… Out of all the dudes from your generation that came up out of Belgium (Phil Zwijsen, Axel Cruysberghs, Jarne Verbruggen, etc.), you’re the only one that decided to stay in Belgium. How are you feeling about that choice now that you can’t travel at all ha ha?
Ha ha and it’s not even like I live in Antwerp or Brussels either, like I live in Hasselt, this small city where I grew up and there’s basically no spots. I mean there’s like five but that’s all I’ve skated in the last two months.

Bet it felt like being 13 again.
Yeah exactly, which was cool for the first two weeks, but after that I was fucking over it. We’re allowed to go to other cities now so I’ve been doing that a little bit recently, which has been good. No crossing borders or anything like that yet though.

It’ll be interesting to see the long-term effects of these travel limitations on skateboarding… Like so much of what the big brands were doing until now involved constantly flying loads of people halfway around the world.
I was actually supposed to fly out to the States like two weeks before all this shit got crazy, but when I asked Nike for a ticket there was already a travel ban in place.

Laurens Willems, ollie

Which is really good… Nike was definitely one of the brands that were the most on it with that straight away.
Yeah. And then there’s everything that’s been going on in America…

And all the long overdue conversations, protests and outrage these thngs have sparked everywhere else in the world.
Yeah… It feels like history is repeating itself again and again and again. This shit has happened so many times now and every time you feel like it’s going to change but it doesn’t.

It has to though… And it really feels like it’s the first time that the Black Lives Matter movement has had this much traction amongst young people. That’s why we weren’t posting anything on the site or Instagram last week (other than protest info and petitions and stuff). It really felt like our demographic was engaging with all this in a way that they had never done before and we didn’t want to take away from that.
And I get that… But it’s also interesting because like, should everything else just stop and go out of business because of this? Like would that help?

Youness Amrani, frontside varial heelfip

Fuck knows but it’s what felt right. And yeah we maybe shouldn’t stop doing what we do or we’ll all be fucked, but also it shouldn’t just return back to ‘normal’…
What are your thoughts on how the skateboard community has been reacting to it all? A lot of the vibes I’ve been getting are ‘we’re all one big family so we’ve sort of got nothing to worry about’, which is not something I agree with.
Yeah that’s bullshit. There’s racism in skateboarding. The first time I went on trips with American skaters they would call me ‘the terrorist’. Like on all my first trips that was the go-to nickname… I think Chet Childress started it but everyone kept it going. When we’d get to a spot it would be like, ‘what did the terrorist say to the 15-stair? Boom!’ And to be honest at the time I was going along with it and treating it like it was funny but as I got older I realised that was pretty fucking disrespectful.
And then ten years later I was in a terrorist attack, a real one. You remember the one in Brussels at the airport? Well I was somewhere in there between the two bombs. And it really got me thinking… Like these people were joking, calling me a terrorist but do they realise that actual terrorists would definitely kill me too? Like I’m a victim too.
And all the stuff like that dude Na-Kel (Smith) calling out Kyle Walker and all these people for saying the N word: I think that shit is funny man… You can’t be saying that shit in the van when you’re a white dude from Oklahoma ha ha.

Yeah it’s madness.
‘But I live in Long Beach now and hang out with black people all the time so it’s fine right?’ ha ha. It’s fucked up that it took that long for all that shit to come out. I feel like it would have been better to address it straight away. I know it’s not always easy though… And it’s all coming out because of the frustration they have from all of the shit that has been going on.

Youness Amrani, frontside feeble grind

I guess the longer you leave it the more likely you are to get the old, ‘I’m not the person I used to be when I said those things…’
Yeah… It’s like the Chet Childress thing. Like he’d call me a terrorist all the time! But he was also just always drunk and taking drugs and shit. He didn’t even know what the fuck he was saying, so I’m not really going blame him now for saying that shit ten years ago… But it still sucks.

What about growing up in Belgium, is it something you experienced a lot at home?
Yeah people were racist to me but also it was hard too because I was skating… So the Moroccans didn’t like me because I skated and the Belgians didn’t like me because I was Moroccan. Like where am I… But at the same time at the skatepark it was all good with the other skaters… Just that I never felt like a Moroccan, until I got older of course and started meeting different people.
But even in the skate industry there are people that are racist: maybe not necessarily the ones working in it but some pro skaters or European skaters that are really good.

Yep. And even if the people working in the skate industry aren’t overtly racist it doesn’t mean it’s not affected by systemic racism. Like it’s not because we have loads of black pros in all the videos and magazines that skateboarding has nothing to worry about. Look at who’s interviewing you right now, who takes the decisions at all the big companies…
Yeah that’s so true… Look at anybody who’s at the top.

This shit is bigger than skating; it affects our industry just like it affects everything else in the world. That’s why just like with everything else in the world we need to change it.
I think a lot of shit is going to change after all this that’s for sure… First off, way less people are going to get paid in the skate industry. It’s going to be weird…

What as in with the financial impact of Corona? Yeah definitely. It feels like someone is trying to hit the reset button on the world. And it needs it.
And board sales are like the best they’ve ever been!

Yeelen Moens, hippie jump

Yeah so it’s not like skateboarding is going anywhere…
One of my homies who has a shop was saying that last month was his best month ever. He sold €100K worth of goods in one month. And the actual shop had only been open for three weeks of that month!

Maybe the new ‘normal’ will involve people like your mate getting properly rewarded for doing good things for the scene and more money being invested into people staying at home and working on longer projects instead of endless last minute flights to the other side of the world for pointless product launches…
Yeah I mean I’m pretty sure I’m never going to go back to the States. Like I don’t really want to… I’ve been to New York, I’ve been to SF, I’ve been to LA, to Atlanta… And spots suck. I don’t really care for it. I’d rather travel to other places. I’d rather just go to France or the UK.
And with everything that’s going on… Like I didn’t like it before but now it feels even more shit. There’s a couple of cool people to skate with but the whole mentality around it I don’t like. I’d pretty much just go there to show my face, shake a couple hands and come back anyway.
Yeah and the days of having to be in the States to have a skate career are long gone, you really don’t need to be there anymore.
Yeah and that shit changed so quick. Like one day all of a sudden it was cool to be in Europe because of people like Hjalte (Halberg) and stuff. And with things like Instagram and the Internet it doesn’t matter where you are, people see everything anyway. It’s crazy that ten years ago everyone was still telling me that if I never went to the States I’d never go pro.

When would you say that change happened? 
To me it really changed about five years ago.

Youness Amrani, backside noseblunt

Which is interesting because that’s exactly when we started the mag… I’m convinced part of the reason Free worked out is because we got so lucky with the timing. It allowed us to be a part of that change.
Damn it’s been five years? That’s crazy… I remember when the first one came out.

With everything we’ve already spoken about in mind, what was it like to have an intense week of trying to get skate photos in the midst of all this? 
It was just tiring seeing and hearing about all this shit constantly before and after skating… Like before I’d even started skating on some days I’d feel tired just because of checking the news in the morning. It was quite good for skating though in the sense that people were super mellow about it… Like people didn’t seem to care at all. Almost like they couldn’t bring themselves to complain about something like skating with all this other shit going on…
And it’s not like I’m going to stop skating because of it. Skating is the only thing that allows me to get away from all the bullshit for a bit. I hadn’t really skated anything other than flatground and a manual pad for 2-3 months and I definitely hadn’t grinded any rails, but going to that 12-stair and being really scared… At that point I could forget about everything. And that’s what I really need right now. I think everybody needs something like skating… That’s probably why the whole world is going crazy right now. Like every time you look at your phone all you see is videos of cops beating people up… It feels like too much.

Kevin Vu, frontside bluntslide

I think to process things and think about how to do your bit it helps to be able to step away from it at times.
Yeah… And even always hearing everyone say that each of us can make things change… It just makes me feel like I can’t change much…

Well I think you can and you are. Having these conversations about race and racism in an interview that loads of kids will read is a part of that. When kids see their heroes call that shit out it raises awareness and changes mentalities.
I guess but what I mean is that I don’t like talking about it on social media so much as people just have too many stupid fucking opinions… I hate having people I don’t know telling me what I should or shouldn’t do… Shut the fuck up and do your part, do what feels right to you; don’t just tell other people what to do. If I want advice I’ll talk to my friends and my family, older people who aren’t on Instagram and Facebook all day, people that have actually been through shit in their lives.

And it’s not because you aren’t bragging about having donated money or reading a million books that you aren’t doing those things or others that feel right to you…
How was it shooting with Davy (Van Laere) during that week? I don’t think he’d been out very much before that…
I mean yeah it was also weird because Davy is super scared of getting it. And also because my mum was working in a care home on the floor with all the people that had Corona… Like she had to work with the whole suit thing on and shit. When I’d go to visit her I had to stay super far away… It’s been weird. Even now when I see her I don’t even give her a hug anymore because it’s just become normal not to… That’s why I only have a small group of friends I always hang out with and that’s it; I’m not trying to be with a hundred different people.
But yeah Davy is 48 now you know? He’s scared that if he gets it it’ll really fuck him up. And Geoffrey (Van Hove) who came to film a few times, he actually had it at the beginning of March. And on two of the days Geoffrey had to go in Davy’s car! It would just be Davy in the front with a mask, Geoffrey in the back with a mask ha ha. Some tricks they were both in there fisheye together: ‘just do it a couple of times for me then you can land it properly for Geoff’ ha ha. He was stressing… I sort of ended up deciding to just do all the tricks just for the photo and then I’ll just go back to film them again later…

Youness Amrani, 360 flip

Your brother filmed some stuff as well though right?
So my brother Marwan actually got a camera a while back but never really used it without Geoffrey around because we didn’t know how to do the settings and stuff, but on the last day, the frontside feeble day, we finally figured it out and that was our first ever proper clip filmed together. Just for that it was one of the best days ever!

Aaaw… Maybe that’s a nice note to end this on.
Oh wait so that was it?

Ha ha yeah. You’ve read the mag before; you know I’m not just going to ask you how long the last handrail you backlipped was or something.
Ha ha I mean it was a good conversation!

Yeah it was great! Is there anything you’d like to add?
Just that both of my brothers have always had my back and I’d like to thank them for everything they’ve done for me. And my mum of course because she raised my brothers and always believed in us.

Youness and his brother Marwan Amrani.