Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

Encouraging signs in Italy

Italy remains a laboratory of the far-right, with racism as its main fuel. But Afroitalians are beginning to organise themselves.

Angelo Boccato
8 December 2020, 2.09pm
Black Lives Matter protest, Rome, 2020.
Wikicommons/ Alessandro Notaro. Some rights reserved.

The wave of protests under the Black Lives Matter banner that followed the murder of George Floyd on May 25 this year has gone beyond the Atlantic and reached the European continent, where solidarity with African-American communities intertwined with the institutional and open racism faced by Black communities in European countries, which stretches back and connects to the history of colonialism in the Old Continent.

Italy was no exception on this front, with thousands of people joining protests in June all over the peninsula from Turin to Bologna and from Florence to Naples and Rome and it was in the capital that thousands of people gathered in Piazza del Popolo.

However, while the activism of local realities like Black Lives Matter Roma is still present on the ground, the attention span of Italy’s media and society ended up disappearing quite abruptly. This move was not random or casual at all, but strictly connected to the specific challenges that Italians of African descent face in the Belpaese.

Black voices and the n-word in the Italian rap scene

Tommy Kuti, 2020. | Photographer Andrea Bardi. All rights reserved.

"If you think about the Black Lives Matter demonstration that took place in Milan that I joined, alongside Ghali (Italian rap singer) and Mahmood (winner of the Italian singing contest San Remo Festival in 2019) many media headlines focused on the fact that the rapper Fedez and fashion blogger and influencer Chiara Ferragni were present at the demo".

"What does this tell you? For the national media in this country, the weight of these influencers is not the same that we have as Afroitalians. During the Black Lives Matter protest every single day and evening there were only and exclusively white people discussing this on TV programmes" – Italian rapper of Nigerian descent Tommy Kuti tells me.

"I believe that the focus on Black Lives Matter in Italy has lasted those three weeks when there was international attention but ended up disappearing. This has been also lived with a great amount of hypocrisy, in my view. In my discussions with Italian music labels, I raised the fact that although Black Lives Matter tweets and posts were shared on social media by them, currently I am still the only Black Italian rapper who has a contract with a major label" Kuti adds.

As Kuti observes, this does not only apply to the rap scene but to many other sectors as well and, when it comes to that particular scene it has absolutely nothing to do with lack of talent.

The lack of diversity in the main rap scene has similar consequences when it comes to other sectors, like the use of the n-word by white Italian rappers in their lyrics, something that Kuti has strongly spoken out against.

"Italy is, in fact, the only country where white rappers use the n-word without any qualms. This is shocking not only because it is seen as normal, but it is also shocking that the media and specialised magazines do not criticise it. Unfortunately, this is maybe because Afroitalians do not have a megaphone big enough to ensure that their voice is heard. While in the US white rappers have to tread carefully when it comes to using words that are less condemnable than the n-word, in Italy there is always this feeling that the world has moved on and that country is still stuck in the 1960s."

Tommy Kuti, 2020. | Photographer Andrea Bardi. All rights reserved.

While other Black Europeans, like Black Britons, have found a more prominent role in various scenes and sectors, roles and spaces that they struggled to engage in, Black Italians are still largely seen as 'others' and different, when not directly invisible.

This is due to a variety of factors, one of the most prominent being the discriminatory citizenship laws of the country, which base the right to citizenship on ius soli (blood right) therefore making the path to citizenship extremely challenging for the children of migrants, despite being born or raised from an early age in the country. We are currently talking here about over a million people.

A second factor is represented by the false rhetoric around Italian colonial history on the African continent, a history which did not start with Mussolini's fascist regime but was launched by the liberal post-unification governments of Italian Prime Ministers Antonio Depretis, Francesco Crispi and Giovanni Giolitti.

While George Floyd's murder ignited these protests, recent Italian history counts several names of victims of racist brutality, from the South African refugee Jerry Essan Masslo, murdered in 1989 to Abdul 'Abba' William Guibre who was beaten to death in 2008. But, for example, when Soumaila Sacko, the Malian trade unionist was shot dead in 2018 in San Calogero, southern Italy by a 45-year-old man, his lawyers successfully appealed to the Appeal Court of Catanzaro for the perpetrator to see out his sentence under house arrest, rather than in prison.

There is a final, crucial factor. Despite Matteo Salvini's political self-sabotage, Italy remains a laboratory of the far-right, with racism as its main fuel.

Black Lives Matter and the media

Adil Mauro is an Italian journalist of Somali descent and curator of the podcast "La Stanza di Adil" (Adil's Room) which every week hosts various guests in discussion on a variety of topics. In a recent episode of the podcast, the guest Amir Issaa, Italian rapper of Egyptian descent and Mauro discussed the importance of the diversity of voices in different media and sectors.

"Two important issues are connected when it comes to providing space for other voices that have to do with the choice between being an activist and being a journalist. Following George Floyd's murder, there has been an interest in many newsrooms for Afroitalian voices. There was an interest in getting more legitimacy into the discussion of racism and racial inequality and a sort of awakening after a decades-long slumber in the media", Mauro explains.

"This kind of demand has also pushed many people into mixing their roles, with activists who have turned into media voices and the other way around. There is a need to study and be prepared in order not to become a kind of single-use 'product' that lasts for the time of the indignation linked to a racist murder, be it George Floyd's or that of William Monteiro Duarte (a 19-year-old Italian of Capo Verdian descent beaten to death near Rome on September 6 this year). There is the need to fight against what I, alongside other people, define as the exploitation of the generic Black person".

There is a need to study and be prepared in order not to become a kind of single-use 'product' that lasts for the time of the indignation linked to a racist murder.

"By generic Black person, we refer to the random involvement of Black voices in discussing topics that do not affect them directly. There is certain seduction in finding a space in the media environment but also a need to be validated by the media sphere where we struggle and fight to be heard. This is even more difficult than it is already for precarious workers in the media. Our identity is on the cusp when we feel obliged to express an opinion and share our views on topics that we might not know in detail – we simply happen to be the poster boys or girls of the moment", Mauro further explains.

While mainstream media might have forgotten about Black Lives Matter in Italy and the challenges for Afro-descendants in the country, the movements continue on the ground. Recently, for instance, Black Lives Matter Roma convinced the authorities to name a metro station under construction in honour of Black partisan Giorgio Marincola. And in October, they launched their own manifesto.

The struggle for Black Italians continues, but there are several voices to look up to, from writers like Igiaba Scego, academics such as Angelica Pesarini and journalists like Bellamy, founder of Afroitaliansouls, to podcasters like Ariam Tekle and Emmanuelle Maréchal who have launched their podcast, Black Coffee. These are encouraging signs.

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