According to Italy’s Leaders, Rap Music Is Un-Italian

When a rapper named Alessandro Mahmoud won the country’s most prestigious music contest, xenophobic leaders quickly took advantage of his victory to open a new front in the culture war.

Alessandro Mahmoud, who goes by Mahmood, on stage during the first night of the 69th Sanremo Music Festival in Sanremo, Italy, on Feb. 5. (Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images)
Alessandro Mahmoud, who goes by Mahmood, on stage during the first night of the 69th Sanremo Music Festival in Sanremo, Italy, on Feb. 5. (Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images)

The Festival di Sanremo is Italy’s most important musical event of the year. A four-day song contest not unlike The Voice in the United States, it’s a major national TV event, comparable only to a World Cup final. In a country of 60 million, about 10 million viewers tuned in to the show, broadcast in early February on Rai 1, the biggest channel on the government-owned TV network.

The 2019 Festival di Sanremo also became a political scandal, spurring a heated debate on immigration and Italy’s so-called liberal elites. The winner, Alessandro Mahmoud, was a 26-year-old singer from Milan. He is the son of an Italian woman and an Egyptian immigrant, who inspired his winning number, “Soldi” (money)—a song about irresponsible fathers. As a rapper going by the stage name Mahmood, his victory broke many taboos—not least that rap was previously considered a genre unlikely to win Sanremo and unworthy of the festival’s standards. His win also sparked angry reactions from senior members of the Five Star Movement-League government and a plethora of conservative pundits.

Despite the fact that he was born in Italy to an Italian mother and has been a citizen from birth, the right-wing government depicted Mahmood’s victory as a liberal, elitist conspiracy to promote immigrants at a time when the general public is embracing anti-immigration policies.

The proponents of the far-right backlash first attacked the voting process, arguing that Mahmood’s victory was the result of two “elite” juries overruling the popular vote. According to the festival’s rules, the Sanremo winner is decided by a combination of viewers’ telephone votes  (which are worth 50 percent of the overall score); the “press room jury,” composed of music critics and journalists (accounting for 30 percent); and a panel of celebrities (accounting for 20 percent). In the popular vote, Mahmood came third, with 21 percent of the vote, finishing behind two more traditionally Italian contestants: Ultimo, a melodic pop singer, came first, followed by the operatic pop trio Il Volo, who had already won Sanremo in 2015. But the rapper won both the critics’ and the celebrities’ votes by such a large margin (64 percent) that it was enough to overshadow the popular vote. In the end, Ultimo came second, and Il Volo took third place.

The results struck a nerve. In a country where there is widespread anti-elite resentment, voters are increasingly embracing the notion that so-called elites, often associated with liberal views, are living in ivory towers, detached from the people. The two ruling parties, the Five Star Movement and the League, are both using this rhetoric, claiming to be the representatives of “common people,” in opposition to the supposedly elitist center-left.

Five Star leader and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook that the results were a demonstration of the “abyss between the people and the elites” and accused the critics of being “radical chic” (an expression, wrongly appropriated from Tom Wolfe’s famous essay, that Italians regularly use to refer to liberal elites, as a rough equivalent of “champagne socialist”). Di Maio also suggested that, beginning next year, the festival rely only on the popular vote.

Di Maio’s fellow deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was more direct: “Mahmood? Meh. I would have voted for Ultimo,” he wrote on Facebook. In an interview with La Stampa, he accused the “radical chic” critics’ and celebrities’ juries of deliberately voting for Mahmood because they wanted to make him a symbol of immigrants’ integration.

Prominent conservative media personalities were more direct. Maria Giovanna Maglie, a well-known pundit and self-described “sovereign socialist,” posted, and subsequently deleted, a tweet accusing the jury of manipulating the results to launch a pro-immigration message. In a phone interview with Foreign Policy, Maglie said she believed that the juries, comprising progressives overrepresented in the media, chose Mahmood because “they saw [him as] an Egyptian singer and thought he was the right person to sponsor their idea of an Italy open to immigration at all costs.” The right-wing newspaper Libero ran the sarcastic headline “Sanremo passa da Modugno a Maometto” (Sanremo goes from Modugno to Mohammed)—in reference to the Italian singer Domenico Modugno, who composed the 1950s classic song “Volare,” and the Muslim prophet.

Alessandro Morelli, a member of Parliament for the League and former head of the party’s radio station, said in an interview with the Adnkronos news agency that Mahmood’s victory demonstrated that “lobbies and political interests trump music.” He also pointed out he preferred Italian music, as if rap doesn’t count as Italian.

In fact, rap is a popular and commercially successful genre in Italy. Indeed, one of the most successful albums of 2018 was Rockstar by the rapper Sfera Ebbasta, while other Italian-language rappers, such as Ghali and Dark Polo Gang, regularly make it into the top 10 on domestic music charts. Italian artists tend to sell more, but North American imports such as Drake are popular, too. But while rap—and more particularly the subgenre of trap—has a huge following among the younger generations, until this year it hadn’t gained credibility in institutional venues such as Sanremo.

All this is happening in a climate where anti-immigrant sentiment has become mainstream and the League is deliberately pushing a nationalist agenda. Morelli himself is advocating a bill that, if approved, would force the country’s radio stations to play at least one in three “Italian” songs.

The Sanremo Festival, since it began in 1951, has always been a mirror of Italy’s contemporary society, said Marinella Venegoni, a writer for La Stampa who has followed the festival since 1982. So it’s no surprise that the debate around the 2019 edition was “all about sovereignty.” Venegoni argued that “what bothered people the most was the fact that he didn’t look Italian” and had a foreign-sounding name. “But since no one wants to openly admit they’re racist, they weaponized the popular jury thing.”

Mahmood, of course, is not a foreigner. And, to be fair, foreign nationals and immigrants have won Sanremo in the past. Indeed, last year, Ermal Meta, an Albanian immigrant living in Italy, won as part of a team with an Italian man named Fabrizio Moro. A distant relative of Enver Hoxha, the late Albanian dictator, won the festival twice in the 1980s and 1990s. The twin victories of Anna Hoxha, who had an Italian mother and went by the stage name Anna Oxa, did not spark any protests.

In 2019, however, things are different. Salvini’s League is surging in the polls. The immigration issue—especially immigration from Africa and Arab countries—has become a divisive topic. In this contest, the fact that Mahmood had an obviously Arabic and Muslim-sounding name was controversial. (For the record, he was raised as a nonpracticing Catholic, as most Italians are, and occasionally attended church as a child.) And it didn’t help that, in an increasingly right-leaning country, the Sanremo organization is widely perceived as progressive: The current festival director, Claudio Baglioni, a music star himself, has criticized anti-immigration policies.

Until recently, Sanremo had remained an oasis of old-fashioned, family-oriented music, where tastes leaned toward melodic all-Italian songs—artists like Laura Pausini or Andrea Bocelli are the perfect products of Sanremo.

“The issue wasn’t a rapper participating to Sanremo, which would hardly be news. The issue was a rapper winning Sanremo,” said Giulia Cavaliere, a music critic and author of Romantic Italia, a book about Italian music. She described Mahmood’s victory as a “disruption of Sanremo’s canon.”

A rapper with a Arabic name winning Italy’s most prestigious festival has shaken the certainties of many Italians who were used to seeing in Sanremo a reassuring representation of good old canzone italiana, with a familiar chorus and melody and an orchestra in the background. And once again, as they have with so many issues, Salvini and Di Maio were quick to weaponize these uncertainties to promote division rather than unity.

Giorgio Ghiglione is a freelance writer in Milan. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Internazionale.

  Twitter: @giorgioghiglion

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