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"Foreigner in my own nation": the politics of Italian hip-hop

As a new generation struggles to overcome the cultural legacy of Berlusconismo, rap remains one of the most important forms of Italian protest. 


99 Posse live 2012, image: CAU Napoli

Young Italians are acutely embarrassed by their country’s musical legacy, and from afar it’s easy to see why. The image of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi singing schmoozey guitar ballads to a roster of neofascist thugs is only the most extreme manifestation of a widespread culture of crooners and hairy-chested sleazebags that blight the nation’s media. From the balls-out rock of Vasco Rossi to the sentimental ballads of Eros Ramazzotti, it is difficult to find an example of mainstream music that does anything other than offer a bland affirmation of the status quo. 

Even in the magnanimous world of European counter-culture, Italian music has a reputation for being self-indulgent and melodramatic. The ‘alternative’ scene is uninspiring and derivative, confined largely to copycat indie bands and ‘new rave’ outfits, while in the electronic music the nation has been unable to offer anything other than some lacklustre variations on Brazilian house (slightly less samba, slightly more zampogna). Punk and hardcore have been more successful, with groups like CCCP and Marlene Kuntz holding their own on the international circuit, while folk, particularly ‘classic’ artists like Fabrizio de Andre’, are most appreciated at home. 

Yet there is one popular genre that has thrived more than any other. The Italian rap scene is among the most creative and provocative in Europe, led by a close community of DJs and MCs who – in contrast to the apolitical celebrity figureheads – overwhelmingly dedicate their lyrics towards social and political issues. An overview of this history is impossible, but in this short introduction I want to emphasise the overwhelming public concern of the most well-known artists and the culture that sustains them. In doing so I also hope to offer a modest defence of Italian pop music and, more generally, offer some suggestions on the role hip-hop can play in political life.   

Corruption and the mafia state

The boom in Italian hip-hop culture, and the birth of its unique social imagination, can be traced to its emergence as a popular form of opposition to Berlusconi’s government in the early 90s. While the experiments of the underground scene (Raptus, Radical Stuff, Camelz Finnezza Click) pre-date this moment by almost a decade, it was in the shadow of Il Cavaliere that the genre really took off and became recognisably embedded in larger social struggles. Rap, as something immediate, democratic and cheap to produce, became a vehicle through which the decadence of the new elite could be labeled and challenged by the Italian people.   

The first wave, now sometimes referred to as the ‘golden age’, was centred around a small group of artists who performed in Milan in various low-end venues.  Some, of these, such as Articolo31, went on to red carpet fame and made a major impact on the pop world. At the time the most well-known of these, and perhaps the one who emerged from these years with the most respect, was Frankie Hi NRG, an MC whose lyrics predominantly deal with political and social issues. His anti-government anthem ‘Fight da faida’ [‘fight the profit’] has become folklore for a certain generation of Italians, a symbol of a country ruled by the mafia where nobody plays by the rules. 

The track was first released in 1991 with a backing track heavily indebted to the Beastie Boys and Cyprus Hill. The above ‘hardcore’ version was released three years later, following the assassination of Giovanni Falcone, the anti-mafia judge by Cosa Nostra. The lyrics are stark and pull few punches: the Italian people are described as “cannon fodder” caught in a war “between the mafia and camorra / Sodom and Gomorrah” while Naples and Palermo are transfigured into “two branches of hell”. The rant, though, is not confined to these two symbols of social decay and the main power of the track is its emphasis on institutional infection: “Today Vito Corleone is much closer. He’s sitting in Parliament”. It was the year of Berluconi’s first election victory and the lyrics of this re-release resonated even more than the first time around.   

While Frankie was hitting the mainstream with his earnest finger pointing the underground scene was exploding with a more nihilistic anger, and crews like Colle der Fomento and Sacre Scuole (the early Club Dogo) began to write rhymes about obscene wealth in more satirical terms. Perhaps the most talented of these groups was the little-known Porzione Massiccia Crew, lead by the virtuosic MC Inoki, who would go on to work as a successful solo artist. Their early track ‘Business su Business’ [Business on Business] is a dark portrait of 90s Italy, corrupt, profoundly unequal and yet happily anaesthetized by consumerism:

While Fight da faida aims straight for the jugular with its moralistic energy, this track has a slower and more lurid feel, offering a carnivalesque parody of what was actually going on behind the glass doors of the Borsa Italiana. The chorus is profoundly physical, joking about the “monetary fitness” of Milan’s “muscular” banking class. The swagger is reflected in the MCs’ own investment within the “grand lottery”: “give me freedom, aka cash”. It is a working class worldview that is constantly presented as a reflection of higher powers: “money, that’s the key to this planetary movement”. Through this wider frame the track places the (apparently) universal desire to make money in direct conflict with the limits placed on this by class and racial structures.

Social centres and urban activism

One of the most interesting political characteristics of Italian hip-hop, however, is its considerable overlap with political street movements and urban activism. This is most visible in the group of artists who were born from a loose movement of social centres and squats across the country. This scene emerged in the late 1980s following the fragmentation and arrest of the autonomisti in 1978 and it was this legacy - the sense of being robbed of a future - which provided such a fertile breeding ground for new forms of avant-garde. These groups are more explicitly ideological that those working outside of the centri sociali and their music tends to be characterised by explicit references to anarcho-communist philosophy (well to the left of the realities being offered by political parties). 

Of the early artists, perhaps the most important was Sangue Misto, a Neapolitan-Sardinian outfit who pushed African and black American influences to the front of the tracks. In some Italian record stores, their one and only album is even categorized as ‘world music’. Like many crews their lyrics are focused issues about race and discrimination, though unlike the Porzione Massiccia Crew, their work begins from biography and ends with a serious intervention in the space of European high culture.

This track ‘Lo straniero’ [the stranger] is a deliberate nod to the life and legacy of Albert Camus - an Algerian writing in France. The citation, though, does not serve to sanitise the track (as a mere retreat into the world of letters) but frames an angry, biographical reflection on being humiliated in literature class: “When I went to school as a kid / the others would call me ‘marocchino’ / person of the mud! Shut up and go back to where you came from! / This is the first thing I learnt in absolute”. The MC, reflecting on the scene as the basis of his “real education”, repeats the simple but brutal chorus: “no no no! I’m a foreigner in my own nation”. 

Similar musical influences are present in the music of the 99posse, though here the specific issues of racism and xenophobia are integrated into a partisan aesthetic  - of black and red stars  - which is explicitly propagandistic in its call for systemic political change. The Posse remain one of Italy’s most successful hip-hop groups and they are recognized as pioneers of ‘fusion-rap’, bringing Neapolitan folk music into collision with reggae and British rave. The group came to fame in the 1990s in tandem with the alter-globalisation movement, and tracks such as Curre curre guaglió remain some of the most important artifacts of this era:

A more enduring example of this energy – or at least a group that has proved to be more dynamic in representing contemporary youth struggles - can be found in the work of Assalti Frontali. The group was born in 1991 after the collapse of the Onda Rossa Posse who were among the most important of the social centre punk groups in the late 1980s.  Over two decades they have released tracks to coincide with a changing activist landscape, from anti-Berlusconi protests to environmental struggles. The year after the 2011 riots, which saw entire suburbs of the city burn and damages of around €2m, they released ‘Roma Meticcia’ [mixed-blood Rome] an anthem to the city’s frustrations with the ruling elite. 

This bagpipe-led battle hymn is an unambiguous call to arms and casts a dark shadow on the Occupy period as imagined by many in the liberal media (white, middle-class tent cities and harmless bongo circles). Many Anglophone journalists have puzzled as to why Italy had no Syntagma Square or Puerta del Sol in 2011 and this track is itself an answer: the activist imagination is too militant here, and the thick network of smaller social centres has established a different and more consistently antagonistic relationship with the state than any other European country.  While the political efficacy of these spaces is a topic of considerable debate, this song revels in the extremes of its utopian imagination: “If the wind howls against us, I shout at the wind/ we’re knocking on parliament, with a rage inside that’s on display and now… Rome is ours”. 

The southern ‘problem’ 

While the Italian hip-hop scene has seemingly been dominated by venues and labels in the Northern cities, the poor southern regions of Puglia, Calabria, Campagna and Sicily have long been present in both the background of the stars and the subject matter of the lyrics. Sud Sound System were among the first voices in Italian rap, and tracks such as ‘Fuecu/ T’a sciuta bona’ and Turcinieddhri’ were important in publically challenging the forced migration that characterized the experience of the post-war generation.

The scale of the problem facing Italy’s southern regions remains disproportionately grave today: Naples and Palermo are among the most impoverished metropolitan spaces in Europe and the unemployment rate in these two cities is almost double that of the entirety of the north. The Sicilian duo Stokka and Madbunny, in particular, have been pioneers in the musical response to this, drawing heavily on the popular fear of rioting and political terrorism as a means of ramming home the implications of this poverty for young people:   

They rap as one, riffing on the government’s anti-corruption programme mani pulite [clean hands]: “The ‘respectability’ of this government makes me sick, it has darker hands than mine! Black… like hell”. The chorus recalls the rage of Assalti Frontali, taking it further, to the point of actively inciting violence:  All the kids in the street, rock on! The linea, the armed struggle – rock on / raise the flag”. Over the past decade the group have galvanised considerable moral panic among Palermo’s conservative society.  Anticipating this reaction, and confronting it head-on, Stokka saves a combative line for his critics: “you don’t get what this track is about […] and it won’t stop your blackmail”. 

In the mainstream, the South has been recently ‘reinvented’ in the popular imagination, and one of the biggest successes of recent years, and perhaps the most enigmatic rapper in Italy today is the Puglian lyricist Caparezza. His music is pompous and experimental, fuelled by a devious Eminem-like humour and exaggerated Balkan beats. In the video to track ‘Vieni a ballare in Puglia’ [come and dance in Puglia] the rapper dresses up as a tourguide and directs a group of foreign tourists around a nightmare version of the region where dancing girls are hidden behind Venetian masks and chefs tied-up in puppet strings: 

Here his ironic bombast is deployed against the stereotype of his home region as a paradise of sand and sun: “It’s true that here we make good parties, but the people are depressed and fleeing […] come and dance in our tomato fields where the mafia enslave their workers and Romanians in crammed-up and peeled in jars”.  At the end of the video the tourists, led by their devious guide, come across the population of a village dead in the square. As the final chorus begins the Puglian people return to life as zombies and charge at the onlookers: “come and dance in Puglia, Puglia, Puglia, it tremble like a leaf, leaf leaf. Keep your head high when passing the cranes - sometimes they come loose and can fall down”.   

Conclusion

Young Italians are leaving the country in record numbers, to Berlin, to London and South America. For those who remain, though, hip-hop remains one of the most important cultural forms through which to express anger at a corrupt elite and articulate dreams for different ways of living.

Last month was the Sanremo music festival, one of the most important moments in Italy’s musical calendar. It was met with the usual boos and the commentariat took no time at all to raise the national lament.  “Why do Italians understand so little about music?” ran the hyperbolic VICE headline. Yet while the critics despaired rappers and groups across the country - Murubutu, K Maiuscola, Inversi -were continuing to work beneath the radar of the industry and without the support of journalists.

At this underground level Italian hip-hop remains as potent today as it was in the ‘golden age’, led by passionate devotees who continue to shape the sounds of this tradition by appeal to dialect and local anecdote. At the heart of this is language itself, in this case, sharp, angry and at times, poetic. In her book Close to the Edge Sujatha Fernandes describes rap as the “arsenal, repertoire and landscape of urban youth” and it is indeed among this demographic – barely represented in the corridors of power – that the form remains important. While the possibility of this mobilizing globally (as many utopian thinkers suggested in the 90s) now seems a pipedream, its importance in Italy should not be underestimated. For some, rap is part of a movement for social justice, for others it is the only way out of hell.

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