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Twisting Cultural Codes – Trap in Italy

Trap has conquered Italy's Charts with its own idiosyncratic take. Artists descended from immigrants, such as Ghali, Laïoung or Mudimbi, raise political issues in an European society that is seeing ever-growing support of right wing ideas.

Sfera Ebbasta (Photo © by Marco Del Torchio/Flickr, 2016)

A bunch of baked guys in a yellow raincoat on a yellow school-bus: it’s night and the neon lights are glowing on their sullen looks. It could be any other school-themed video from the USA, except that it’s second-generation Italian rapper, Ghali [1], leading the scene of this sleek and eerie song by Martina Pastori for «Ninna Nanna» («Lullaby»). Ghali Amdouni was born in Milan in 1993, and is the son of a Tunisian family. After a first foray into music with a cheesy teenage rap group, he embarked on a solo career. He became one of the most popular names of Italian trap music: a US-imported music style that is somehow becoming the artistic outlet of a new generation of Italian MC’s and producers, a significant portion of whom are of immigrant descent.

Conquering the Charts

Italy has seen an increase in the number of immigrants coming to live within its borders since the second half of the 1980’s. Fast forward to the present day, the offspring of that wave is re-shaping the demographics of the peninsula. It’s no surprise that this is starting to surface in the arts. What is surprising, though, is how the new generation of Italian trap has quickly re-appropriated the music and made it the most bottom-up, teenage-oriented repertoire to make it into Italian mainstream media and music charts in the last couple of years. Ghali has 12 songs on the Top Download & Streaming Chart in Italy, all of them released independently through his own STO Records.

This is pretty impressive for a son of North African immigrants in a nation that is seeing an escalation in hate crimes and stronger support for xenophobic right-wing party Lega Nord («North League») under the leadership of Matteo Salvini. Although Italian trap rarely addresses any political issues, Ghali indeed made a lighthearted reference to Lega Nord’s leader in his song «Dende»: «Chi è il migliore? Dillo! Tu mi batterai / Il giorno che vedrai Salvini ai miei live» («Who’s the best? Tell me! You’ll beat me / the day Salvini will show up at my gigs»).

Twisting Cultural Codes

The aforementioned verse by Ghali is an example of the specific cultural re-appropriation enacted by some Italian trap MC’s. While many of their lyrics are obsessed with the global stuff hip hop and trap are usually about (money, clothing, drugs and women, anyone?), one shouldn’t overlook how specific local issues get addressed in songs like «Petrolio» by Italian-Sierra Leonian rapper and producer Laïoung: «Petrolio petrolio petrolio petrolio / ci vogliono uccidere con il petrolio / Noi non ci arrendiamo perché siamo svegli / Quanti animali che stanno morendo» («Oil oil oil oil / they are killing us with this oil / We won’t surrender because we are alert / How many animals are dying»).

Written ahead of the referendum held on the 17th of April, 2016, on offshore drilling for oil and gas in Italy, «Petrolio» would probably remind of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s unfinished book of the same name. There, «Italy’s amoral interlacing of state, business and party politics» is exposed through the story of an engineer employed by ENI, the Italian multinational oil and gas company famously chaired by Enrico Mattei from 1953 to 1962.

On the other hand, identity is crucial for some second-generation Italian trappers. In his song «#afroitaliano», Nigerian-born Tommy Kuti pieces together the two sides of his personal background: «Ho la pelle scura, l’accento bresciano / Un cognome straniero e comunque italiano» (I have a black skin and an accent from Brescia [industrial city in the Lombardy region] / A foreign family name but Italian nonetheless). The video for the song features second-generation Italian citizens only and ends with Article 3 of the Italian Constitution: «All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race, language, religion, political opinion, personal and social conditions.»

Identity is also addressed through the use of foreign words: Ghali rhymes in Tunisian, French and Italian in his YouTube hit «Wily Wily»: «Ndiro lhala sans pitié / Fratello ma 3la blalich / En ma vie ho visto bezaf / Quindi adesso rehma lah» (We’re going crazy with no regrets / Fam, I don’t care if people criticise / I have been through a lot / So now I don’t feel pity). In a similar fashion, Verona-based squad Baida Army, headed by tattoo-lover Jamil, revels in the use of foreign slang: terms like «kho» (Arabic for brother, also championed by Italo-Moroccan rapstar Maruego) and «zebby» (manhood) recur in many lyrics by Dakar-born Mboss and Italo-Moroccan Amill Leonardo [2].

DIY Attitude

In order to deliver their own portrait of what immigrants look like and get round the barriers often erected by Italian mainstream media, many second-generation Italian trappers (this also applies to artists of Italian descent like Milanese rapstar Sfera Ebbasta) have decided to own and curate their music business. Since Wu Tang Clan, rap music has always been «crew-centred»: being part of one offers a sense of belonging and a platform to increase exposure. Social media have empowered this DIY attitude, and Italian collectives like Brescia based Mancamelanina Records [3] (comprising Tommy Kuti, Diss 2 Peace, Slim Gong, Blackson and Roy Raheem) have been quick to capitalise these new tools of promotion.

One prime example is Mudimbi’s viral campaign for his recent album Michel: the son of a Congolese father and an Italian mother, Michel Mudimbi «invaded» (a verb used countless times by Lega Nord politicians to talk about the «immigration crisis») many Italian cities with a picture of himself as a toddler. For anyone in Italy who has been numbed by the appalling images of overcrowded boats trying to reach our coasts, a simple photo like that, chosen by Mudimbi for the promotion of his irony-laden album, is more powerful than a thousand words.