On the night of Italy’s World Cup victory, the streets of Amir Issaa’s multi-ethnic neighbourhood in south-eastern Rome coursed with celebrating immigrants. “Bangladeshis and Arabs painted their faces with the Tricolore,” says Issaa. “Even if they didn’t have the Italian document in their back pocket, right then they felt Italian.” For the 28-year-old rapper who has become the voice of a new type of Italian, it was a moment of rare ethnic unity, and a fragile one. “They were all yelling ‘Forza Italia [Forward Italy],’” says Issaa. “But of course the next day the police stop them and ask for their residence papers, or send them back to their country of origin.”
The son of an Egyptian immigrant and an Italian mother, Issaa has made his country’s changing demographics central to his music. “I represent the second generation, kids born here in Italy to immigrant parents, growing up in a culture that denies them,” says Issaa, who last year launched his first major-label album with Virgin. In Italy’s nascent hip-hop culture, a genre dominated by activist politics and self-reference, Issaa represents a rare thing: an artist with a real grievance. Where Fabri Fibra raps in an Eminem style and Mondo Marcio writes about teenage life, Issaa takes on the problems of immigrants. “I’ve had experiences because of my last name that don’t make me 100-per-cent proud to be Italian,” he says.
The multi-ethnicity of Issaa’s Italy is a recent phenomenon. “We’re a country that’s had scarce experience with outsider countries,” says Giovanni Maria Bellu, editor of “Metropoli”, a weekly insert for immigrants in La Repubblica newspaper. “I’m 49 years old, and I remember as a child it was very rare to see a man of colour.” Unlike the US, with its history of immigration, or France or Britain, with their empires, Italy was a country of emigrants rather than immigrants right up until the 1980s. Its dominant ideologies, Catholicism and Communism, preached racial inclusion, but Italians were rarely tested. “We were like Eskimos saying that heat doesn’t bother them,” says Bellu. “We weren’t racist but we didn’t have the opportunity. There were just no foreigners.”
When Issaa was young, children of immigrants were few. He was one of three in his primary school. To protect him from teasing, his mother gave him an Italian name, Massimo, which he went by until three years ago.
Italy is an intensely hegemonic culture, where drinking a cappuccino after dinner or eating outside set hours is unthinkable. Except for a scattering of ethnic food, Rome has yet to develop a foreign-food culture. Instances of hard racism are rare, but so are cases of complete acceptance. That one might carry a foreign name or have dark skin and still be Italian is a concept that has yet to penetrate the national psyche. In the years since September 11 , Issaa says the police stop him more often and question him longer. His darker-skinned Eritrean friends have it harder. “When the police stop them in the street, they don’t treat them like Italians,” says Issaa. “When they go to look for work, they’re not treated as Italian.”
In Italy, foreigners make up just over 5 per cent of the total population, but nearly 15 per cent of the country’s schoolchildren are not ethnically Italian. “The change has been so fast that the laws haven’t kept up,” says Bellu. Citizenship laws recognise lineage over birth in the country, meaning an Argentine-Italian who speaks Spanish and lives abroad is more likely to be recognised than a child of Moroccan parents, who was born in Italy and who has never left its borders. “We have kids who speak with a Roman accent, who support AS Roma,” says Bellu. “They’re 100-per-cent Roman, but they’re not yet Italian.”
It was Issaa’s outsider status, his ability to speak for and about these kids, that made him attractive to Virgin. “He’s somebody who can speak about a world that we Italians are only beginning to discover,” says Enrico Romero, Virgin Italy’s artist and repertoire manager. “The extra value of Amir is in his roots.” Issaa’s album, Uomo di Prestigio, began as a self-produced project, funded for €3,000 and mixed in a friend’s Toronto studio. After Virgin picked him up, they spent €10,000 to remaster it, and invested more in promotion, including a €3,000 photo shoot. “For me it seems absurd, with just the budget for the photos, I can make a disc,” says Issaa. “For so many years we’ve been used to doing everything by ourselves.”
Italian hip hop dates back to the 1980s, when a singer named Giovanni Jovanotti introduced English rap into his Italian pop songs. But with a few exceptions, the genre remained underground. “Hip hop is becoming like jazz,” says Alberto Dentice, a music writer at Italy’s L’espresso news weekly. “It’s like a musical Esperanto, and each country brings its own flavour.” Italian artists struggled to adapt their language’s multi-syllables to a rhythmic genre. “For pop, melodic music, Italian lends itself very well, maybe better than other languages,” says Issaa. “But rap, no. It’s all cambiamo, facciamo, parliamo.” Issaa and other rappers produced and performed for a limited audience, largely each other. Until Uomo di Prestigio Issaa hawked his albums at concerts, and rarely sold more than 400.
Issaa is one of three hip-hop artists who broke through to the majors last year, bringing beats to a radio dial suffused with light rock and saccharine ballads.
“Italy is used to light music,” says Maurizio Ridolfo, the editor of Groove, a magazine dedicated to hip hop. “Heavy metal, hard rock, punk, even reggae never broke out. Hip hop is doing well, but radio is still struggling to absorb new music.” Some stations refused to play Issaa’s second single, “5 Del Mattino”, a song recounting an early-morning arrest of his father, because of its hostility towards the police. In lyrics tame by any other standards, Issaa trembles in the corner while the police call his father a terrorist, and briefly dreams of knifing them. At the end of the song, he challenges them to: “Come again now that I’m armed with words that crush you like a bulldozer and God-willing I’ll even buy your police station.”
Had he known he would reach such a large audience, Issaa might have been more discrete. “A part of my life is in the public domain, and to be honest sometimes it scares me,” he says. “I don’t want Virgin or journalists to excavate too deep. Something has to stay mine.” Much less brash in person than in his songs, Issaa seems to grapple honestly with the issues he sings about. During a tour of his neighbourhood this winter – the street corners, the pool halls – he was soft-spoken and introspective. Stopping by his apartment building, he left me in the lobby. “My father’s there,” he explained.
Elsayed Issaa appears often in his son’s music, the source of ethnic pride but also of shame. First arrested when Amir was four years old, Elsayed spent most of his son’s life in and out of jail (Amir won’t disclose what he was charged with). “When people would ask me where my father was, I would say, he works overseas,” he says. In 2005, during a concert for inmates of a prison where he had often visited his father, Issaa broke down in tears. “It reopened wounds,” he says. Returning home, “5 Del Mattino” poured out of him in 10 minutes. “I’ve never spent so little time writing a song,” he says. “It was like it was already inside me.”
Issaa has few ties to Rome’s Arabic community. He last visited Egypt when he was four years old, and the war on terror and Islamic radicalism have pushed him away from his father’s roots. “What I like is the food, the music, but not the lifestyle or religion. When I hear Arabic music, it moves me. But it’s a marginal thing, like smelling a perfume that I knew when I was small.” At a visit to a mosque in easttern Rome, dressed in a baseball cap and American-flag sneakers, he was welcomed by the young, but mistrusted by the elders. “For their kids, I’m a negative influence,” he says. “I drink. In some of my songs I talk about smoking marijuana.”
After all, Issaa’s struggle is not for an Arabic identity, but an Italian one. “I’m the spokesperson for the children of immigrants, not for Muslim youth,” says Issaa. His fans are mostly native Italians, but immigrant kids are starting to appear at his shows. According to Enzo Napolitano, a marketer who studies societal issues, Issaa, the first immigrant artist to break through into mainstream Italy, is the spear tip of a generational shift. “He’s interesting as a product and as an indication of what’s to come culturally,” he says.
In his song “Straniero Nella Mia Nazione” (Foreigner in My Own Nation) Issaa raps about seeking warm air in a cold society: “If you don’t understand that you’ve found riches, us precious stones in the midst of all this trash, I’ll write with the hunger of one that doesn’t give up, take your hate and transform it into this pen.”
“Italians need to see this as richness, not something that’s being taken from you, but somebody who is giving you something,” says Issaa. “And immigrants need to love this country. Yes, keep ties to your country, but embrace Italian culture too.”
Issaa’s album has sold about 10,000 copies, a good figure by Italian standards, but not enough to make him rich. “People see too many American movies,” he says. “They think rappers have women, diamonds, money, cars.” Virgin is planning a second album, and Issaa hopes to use it to explore the debate he’s been thrust into. He makes his living from live shows, for which he nets around €500, but still lives with his parents and travels by bus, where many of his songs were written. He has a six-year-old son who lives with his ex-girlfriend. Most mornings Issaa walks him to school, and most afternoons he picks him up. “I lead a normal life,” he says, “a normal Italian life.”
For Italian hip-hop fans, 6 June 2006 was the day when their music finally secured a place at the heart of their country’s mainstream culture.
On that day the Italian rapper Fabri Fibra’s newly released album Tradimento rocketed to the top of the sales chart, dethroning the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
What’s more, Fibra and fellow rapper Mondo Marcio both saw their respective albums finish the year in the country’s Top 40 in terms of sales.
Generating big album sales consistently in Italy is difficult, especially for alternative acts that don’t follow the standard formula of belting out the kind of schmaltzy love songs and power ballads that audiences continue to lap up.
While Fibra’s Tradimento went platinum and Milan rapper Mondo Marcio’s Solo Un Uomo shifted a tidy 50,000 copies, that still pales next to the numbers racked up by major Italian pop singers such as Eros Ramazzotti and Laura Pausini, and rocker Vasco Rossi, who often sell 500,000 copies.
The reason for this is quite simple, explains Enrico Romano, a rep with Virgin Music in Milan. “The appeal of singers like Pausini or Ramazzotti is much bigger than it is for a hip-hop artist. In Italy, they are institutions and have a lot of crossover appeal as both men and women enjoy their type of music. It’s cultural. Being Italian, the melody is still very important to us, and we’ve been raised on the songs from the Sanremo Music Festival.”
Indeed, rappers touting baggy trousers and backwards baseball caps or Eminem-style theatrics probably wouldn’t go down very well during Italy’s annual music bash on the Riviera, visitors to which have yet to show any signs of embracing genres other than those that have produced hits like the singalong anthem “Volare”.