It’s a Saturday night in Naples’ Piazza San Domenico, and just as things seem to be winding down, Zed, a teenager from Senegal, steps up to the PA system of one of the student bars. Connecting his smartphone to the monitors, a welter of muffled drums splurts from the speakers as a voice, drenched in auto-tune, echoes in melismatic French through the stifling air. The bleary-eyed crowd gets to its feet, kicking away plastic tables to form a makeshift dancefloor at the foot of a nearby church. Before long the square is filled with moving bodies and a huddle forms around Zed as people shout out their requests. For the next few hours the assembled are guided on a journey through uprooted sounds, taking in Zimbabwean R&B from Ammara Brown, Ghanaian Highlife from Bisa Kdei and Nigerian pop classics from Davido. The final word is left to Zanko, a second-generation Syrian-Italian rapper and beatboxer whose trilingual track ‘Stranieri in ogni nazione’ [foreigners in every nation], serves as an appropriate finale.
That such a scene could take place seems remarkable given what’s going on in Italian politics. Since the formation of a far-right government in March the country has seen a surge in racism that is increasingly, and with some justification, being labelled an ‘emergency’. Things look bad enough at a policy level. Ports remain closed to ships rescuing refugees, a programme of Roma deportations is gathering pace and proposals are currently being debated in parliament that would effectively decriminalize hate speech. The real impact, though, has been more diffuse across the country. This summer alone more than 33 assaults have been reported that show clear racial motives. Meanwhile, in suburbs across the peninsula, fascist organizations like CasaPound and Forza Nuova have started organizing night marches comprised of armed vigilante bands who present themselves as protectors of the peace.
In Italy, as elsewhere, music has long played an important role in combatting this kind of bigotry. The folk tradition in particular has always been a site of pan-Mediterranean exchange, with artists, instruments and modal motifs passing freely across the sea. Today, the work of groups like Il Parto delle Nuvole Pesanti, who are heavily inspired by the nomadic harmonies of the Romani tradition, or Milagro Acustico, who take their lyrics from old Sicilian-Arab poetry, has obtained a new urgent, power. The same is true of jazz and blues. For Italians these genres recall the experience of trans-Atlantic emigration, and the bonds forged with African American communities. More recently they’ve come to represent solidarity with migrant experiences of all kinds. Listening to Napoli Centrale, a recently reformed ’70s funk group from Naples, led by avant-garde saxophonist James Senese, or Al Doum & The Faryds, for example, who fuse free jazz with Syrian classical music among other influences, Italy’s nationalist mask is refreshingly supplanted by a contemporary breed of cosmopolitanism.
Historically, though, the most explicit and popular political challenges to racism and xenophobia have been left to hip-hop, and to groups like Sangue Misto or Colle der Fomento. Amir Issaa, an artist active in the Roman underground since the beginning, emphasizes that this has always been a question of necessity more than fashion or ideology. ‘The music can be about politics but not like politics in government’ he tells me, ‘I’ve always used my lyrics to talk about personal issues and often this happens to mean discrimination.’ In 2006 Issaa tackled these questions head-on in his album Uomo di Prestigio, which contains a number of songs that address his Italian-Egyptian heritage, the abuse he has faced as a result, and his proud embrace of a meticcio (mixed) identity. ‘Even back then I was attacked by the Lega for it’ he recalls, ‘but I had to just carry on. Hip hop is like a mirror to society and you’ve got to be honest.’
As Italian tastes synchronize more and more with global pop, and rap is adapted into a more mainstream form, this long-fought opposition is now being reproduced on a larger scale. This was confirmed earlier this year when ‘Cara Italia’ [Dear Italy], a track by the Tunisian-Italian ‘trapper’ Ghali became the most watched music video of all time on the nation’s YouTube (stealing the honour from Ed Sheeran), attracting more than 95 million views. Rather than explicitly attacking racist Italians, as the underground often does, it takes the more commercially viable form of a love letter to a troubled country. ‘When they tell me ‘go home’’, he sings in the most confrontational lines, ‘I respond ‘I’m already here.’ This was a shrewd marketing move no doubt, but the power of this blasting in bars and supermarkets, far beyond the usual scale of a rap track, has undeniable power. Whatever criticisms might be levelled at him, Ghali has become a powerful icon for thousands of people – proof that you can get somewhere without having white skin.
For now the political implications of this remain unclear, though it is certainly true that as Italy moves to the right, the musical ecology is mutating to counteract this. Despite serious obstacles, artists from around the world are continuing to establish themselves and occasionally thrive in Italy thanks to digital systems of distribution such as Spotify that enable them to connect directly with audiences and bypass institutional racism. Maruego, a Milan based rapper originally from Morocco, recently arrived to mainstream success on the back of a series of indie music videos. Now he’s pioneering a new and highly innovative kind of trap, inflected with influences from the Maghreb that’s being devoured by teenagers across the peninsula. Tommy Kuti, a self-defined Afro-Italiano, originally from Nigeria, has begun to attract attention from big stars in the industry like Fabri Fibra on account of his self-produced mixtapes. He is being touted as a name to watch in the months to come, the figurehead, for some, of a new protest movement.
One of the most celebrated of these new voices is Laïoung, born in Brussels in 1992 to Italian and Sierra Leonean parents and raised all across Europe. ‘Fascism in Italy ended in 1945’ he tells me, ‘what we’re seeing now is just a regurgitated form, where the elite create a war among the poor, galvanizing racism to protect their criminal economic system. People get angry about some guys selling necklaces on the street but never talk about the bankers anymore.’ In tracks like ‘La nuova Italia’, which riffs about precarity and unemployment, and ‘Petrolio’, an environmentalist call to arms, Laïoung’s music often tries to address this imbalance. When I ask him what these can do in the face of such vast problems, though, his answer is more sober. ‘Sure, music can make a big social change in challenging propaganda’ he says, ‘but it’s not a substitute for education, for schooling individual consciousness.’
Even here, however, things seem to be moving, and music is already playing a part. When he’s not writing, performing or producing, Amir Issaa is involved in running workshops at local schools where he helps kids work on rap lyrics to combat discrimination. ‘I’m not just talking about teenagers’ he explains, ‘when you go to elementary schools you see so many people with non-Italian backgrounds all together as friends. It’s beautiful. It wasn’t like that at all when I was growing up.’ As he talks about this outreach work, and the role of music in social education, the air seems to clear. Until now our conversation has been weighed down by the darkness of recent political changes but before we part he seems possessed by a defiant optimism. ‘This isn’t something you can change with rules like the new government plans,’ he says, and my mind turns to Zed, the wannabe DJ. ‘These people are already here. It’s not some far off future, it’s the present. A change is already happening and it can’t be stopped.’
Main image: Ghali, Cara Italia, 2018, video still. Courtesy: Ghali
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to VICE, Internazionale, and Il Manifesto among others, and author of The Invention of Sicily, which is forthcoming from Verso.