A series of recent email exchanges concerning the now inextricably conjoined topics of Italian identity and hip hop linked such disparate places as Marseille (France), Turin (Italy), Kenosha (Wisconsin), Oakland (California), Syracuse (New York), and good old Brooklyn.
CAVEAT: If you dislike rap music, remember: “Trahit sua quemque voluptas.” If you think all rap is homophobic, misogynistic, and violent, educate yourself.If anything related to mediated mafiosi gives you agita than this ain’t the post for you.
The great French rapper Akhenaton aka Phililppe Fragione emailed me out of the blue after visiting my site italianrap.com. He wrote “I want to thank you for putting me on your site and, above all, for crediting our contribution (we Italians) to hip-hop culture.” In 1998 I created my site to document hip hop in Italy for Anglophones. Soon after launching italianrap.com, youth from around the world who identified as Italians and were down with the Hip Hop Nation emailed me. The profusion of rappers, DJs, B-boys, and graffiti writers compelled me to create a separate page I called “Hip Hop from the Italian Diaspora.”
Two years later, experimental musician and transnational culture worker Lorenzo Brusci invited me to co-curate a three-day cultural extravagance in Tuscany around the theme of “Hip Hop from the Italian Diaspora.” Together with the Calandra Institute, we brought artists from Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, and the United States together for a sort of Italian hip hop Woodstock in the towns of Montevarchi and Terranuova Bracciolini (province of Arezzo).
(Piazza Varchi, Montevarchi, 2000)
I had invited Akhenaton but unfortunately he was scheduled to be in the studio recording at the time of the event. I was particularly intrigued by Akhenaton’s work that specifically addressed his transnational upbringing between Naples, New York, and Marseille. The title song of his 1995 solo CD “Métèque et Mat” (Mestizo and Check Mate) boldly proclaims:
La pro-latinité est mon role,
pas étonnant venant d’un napolitain d’origine espagnole.
Les surnoms dont j’écope reflétaient bien l’époque.
Je suis un de ceux qu’ Hitler nommait nègre de l’Europe.
which is not surprising being a descendant of a Neapolitan of Spanish origins.
The surnames that I have reflect well the epoch.
I’m one of those that Hitler named “Europe’s Negroes.”
His song “L’Americano” is a condensed history of southern Italian migration and its mediated depiction that cleverly uses the chorus of Neapolitan singer Renato Carosone’s 1956 hit “Tu vuo’ fa’ l’americano.”
Social network sites like myspace.com and facebook.com are enhancing rap’s Italian diasporic consciousness. The “Italian Hip Hop Movement” on myspace has forged links between countless artists and fans across the globe. Those involved with the site brought together sixteen MCs from Chicago, Detroit, Montréal, New York City, Paris, and Rome (Italy) to produce the song “The Movement (Who the Fuck Are You?)” by emailing digital files of their vocal tracks. The “Italian Hip Hop Movement” now has West Coast, Midwest, Southern, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and European “chapters” constituting what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has termed "diasporic public spheres."
The Italian hip hop transnationalism takes many forms. JoJo Pellegrino of Staten Island, New York raps about a fictitious “return” in his boastful remake of Rosemary Clooney’s 1955 hit “Mambo Italiano”:
You know the ice don’t melt,
the tight flow felt.
Live from Staten Italy,
Exit 3 on the Belt.
took a bird to the Boot and grabbed the mic in Naples.
They was losin’ their mind, drinking vino,
dancin’ on the tables, singing,
Hey Mambo, Mambo Italiano. . . .
In 2000, New York rapper Manifest aka Marco Gugliemo did travel to Italy to perform and record with Italy’s famed rappers Esa and Turi. His “contaminated” recording “S.O.S.” with Turi is a macronic mash up that exemplifies language’s hybridic vibrancy, mixing Italian, English, and Jamaican:
Three years later, Cost’ Ovest from Oakland also went to Italy to record with DLH Posse from the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and the Sicilian duo Miniera Sicula in yet another diasporic contribution to this transnational popular culture.
Just this month Nick Case aka Nick Galluzzo aka DeCoy from Syracuse, New York visited Turin, one of the places where hip hop took root in Italy.
Film director Piero Passatore, 27, documented DeCoy’s visit and is currently producing a documentary video entitled Pizza, Pasta, Mafia, & Hip Hop.
In a recent email he told me that he “grew up going back and forth from New York to Italy. I lived in NY for ten years.” (Similar to the late “Italian” rapper Joe Cassano who grew up in New York, as well.) Passatore explained his documentary in this way:
The concept is that DeCoy journeys to Torino as an ambassador/spokesperson for Italian-American Hip Hop and he’s on a journey to research the past, present, and future of the local rap in Torino, with interviews, clips from music videos, shows, etc., of the best rappers, DJs, B-boys, etc. from different angles.
In conjunction with the documentary is the production of DeCoy’s fourth album, “The Italian Album,” where all 15-17 tracks will be co-produced with different Italian talent, a different producer and rapper on every song, like 15-17 singles, about half with the hottest names in Italian hip hop and the other half with well scouted promising talent.
An important if not vital aspect of rap and hip hop is communication, and no one would argue that it’s not, by far, the most expressive and communicative form of music. With the documentary and DeCoy’s “Italian Album” we are aiding the long repressed dialogue between Italian and Italian-American cultures.
Considering American rap as the main influence for Italian rap music, the documentary will reveal parallelisms between the reception of rap and hip hop culture in Italy and its role in the Italian-American rap community, whose collective mental image of Italy is predominantly shaped by Mafia movies and stories told during pasta dinners handed down from grandparents and great grandparents about an Italy that no longer exists.
In this way, the Italian film will scrutinize the profusion of mafia references in Italian-American rap, a subject I hope to post about here in the near future.
Italian-American hip hop alerts us to the simple fact that the dynamics of race are changing for young Italian-Americans, especially those creatively involved in the African-American dominated rap scene. Italian-American MCs, DJs, and producers are closely collaborating with black artists and business people to get their music out to the public. The situation is not the distant admiration for sport and music figures represented by John Turturro’s character Pino in Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing.
Turf battles between Italian Americans and blacks (and Latinos) in places like New York City no longer appear in the news. In 2005, when an Italian-American teenager was arrested for a racist assault in Howard Beach, Queens the narrative of white-on-black violence that emerged was a far more complicated one than heard in the aftermath of the 1986 death of a black man in the neighborhood that inspired Lee’s film. The 19-year-old’s lawyer maintained that his client was another “wigger” who used the word “nigga” as part of a hip hop flavored salutation and not the racist epithet “nigger.” (Nonetheless, Nicholas Minucci was found guilty of a hate crime and sentenced to fifteen years.)
(Howard Beach, 2006. Photo: Robert Stolarick, The New York Times)
Music of any kind is no panacea for America’s racist legacy. Yet Italian Americans’ involvement as whites in hip hop offers fruitful opportunities to reposition themselves as proponents of an anti-racist politic – as the music does for their counterparts in Italy – and to do so as part of the larger Italian diaspora.