Afro-Italian artists stake their claim with music

A new generation of artists is using their songs to not only voice the lived experience of Italians of African descent but also spread the word to the rest of Italy.

When footballer Mario Balotelli scored two goals against Germany and brought Italy to the 2012 European Cup final, the moment seemed to contain the hope that the experience of Italians of African descent would become less hostile. But as the years went by, Balotelli’s career and potential social impact waned and Italian football – and society – remains stuck, mired in issues of racism and discrimination, in a time that demands tangible change.

In the past few years, the ball has therefore been passed to the music world. By delving into their identity, second-generation musicians have become a source of expression for thousands of Italians without citizenship. These children of immigrants were born and raised or have lived most of their lives in Italy, but they don’t have the right to apply for Italian citizenship or are entangled in bureaucratic stalling, continuing to live as foreigners in their country.

Undoubtedly the most famous Italian singer of African descent is Ghali Amdouni, known by the mononym Ghali, a leading trap rapper who was born in Milan to Tunisian parents. His song Cara Italia, a hymn to ius soli (birthright citizenship) law that was published in 2017, has been hugely successful and opened the doors to all his peers of African origin. Two years later, Alessandro Mahmoud, a singer-songwriter of Egyptian descent, triumphed at the renowned Sanremo Music Festival, Italy’s most prestigious song contest. 

Although Ghali addressed issues of identity and discrimination on his first two albums and keeps doing so through his social media channels, the artist who first provided a working definition of the experience of Italians of African descent is a Nigerian-born rapper raised in the northern province of Brescia.

Articulating issues of identity

In the song Afroitaliano (Afro-Italian), Tommy Kuti, the stage name of Tolulope Olabode Kuti, comes to the conclusion that he is “too Italian to be only African, and too African to be only Italian”. His lyrics express the experience of Afro-Italians and their fight for recognition and belonging. “I live it as a battle that needs to be carried on, because I believe that in Italy there is an identity problem,” says Kuti. “Unfortunately, Italians are not used to this double-identity discourse, and the press always talks about extreme stories related to us. There are no normal stories, there is no adequate representation in the newspapers.” 

Afroitaliano is a track from his album Italiano Vero (True Italian), which was released in 2018. In a broader view, it offers a space of expression to a community that is systematically being ignored by Italian politics and the mainstream press. “When we launched the hashtag #Afroitaliano to promote the song on Instagram, there weren’t so many guys who defined themselves as such. Now, many people use it and I see it in the newspapers. I’m pleased that we began to put ignored realities under the lens, but there is still a long way to go.”

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Songs on the album like Forza Italia, the title of which ironically recalls the centre-right party founded by Silvio Berlusconi in 2013, articulate the feelings of Afro-Italians. Playing on the second line in the Italian anthem, “Italy has awakened”, Kuti sings, “Italy woke up, Italy got lost / He gave me everything, but then he doesn’t accept me.” The album, which clearly contains a political message, essentially tells stories of marginalisation and highlights the backwardness and contradictions of Italian society, including racist utterances like “let’s send them home”.

Kuti uses multiple platforms to spread this message, from television shows and public debates to discussions with politicians. In 2019, he published a book called Ci rido sopra (I laugh at it), delivering more points of reflection. “I receive messages from Italian women who have mixed-race children that tell me that through my works they have a tool to better understand the identity of their children,” he says.

Confidence in identity

Children are a main concern for F.U.L.A., the stage name of Oumar Sall, a Senegalese-born rapper raised in the southern Calabria region. “It hurts me to know that some kids will have to grow up with problems of self-identification,” he says, adding that his approach might not be possible for others. “Many people hold it all back and suffer particularly from it.” 

F.U.L.A. considers the lack of recognition of his Italianness more as a matter of politics and law than a social issue. “I now understand Italian people. They tend to be closed, but if you make them understand that there are no differences between you and them, and you integrate first, they eventually open up. Consequently, not being recognised is only a political and legal matter, because Italians accept me for who I am as soon as I chat with them.” 

As these words reflect, F.U.L.A. prefers to stay away from politics and says change comes from “touching people’s hearts, not their minds. That’s how we [musicians] can be the beginning of the awakening of people’s consciousness. I want to raise my consciousness, because only if we raise it individually can we raise it collectively. History repeats itself. If we teach our children to think poorly, to hate and be devoid of dreams and ambitions, it will eventually turn against us and our grandchildren.” 

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At the age of 13, F.U.L.A. lost a brother at sea when the makeshift migrant boat in which his sibling was trying to reach Mallorca capsized. Healing from this tragic event, he says, became one of the reasons he aims to be “a light for those who can’t find the switch”. His goal is to connect with people who have experienced struggles and pain similar to his, and get them to become closer so that they can find solace.

F.U.L.A., whose name is a homage to his native Fulani ethnic group in Senegal and also stands for Free United Lands of Africa, wants to bring his two homelands closer to each other. “I really want to bring a bit of Italy to Africa and a bit of Africa to Italy,” he says. He was inspired by world-famous Senegalese musician Youssou N’Dour, who later became the country’s minister of culture and tourism. N’Dour’s music convinced F.U.L.A. to return to Senegal to experience his roots and start a cultural exchange between the two countries. 

This emerges clearly in his two latest songs, Maldafrica and Sabar, in which he tries to give Italians a different image of Senegal and the African continent, aware that a deeper knowledge can prevent the proliferation of stereotypes and prejudices that can later lead to discrimination. A verse in Maldafrica goes, “Oh dear Africa, they make you sad, sick, a coffin / They know about diamonds, they know about the Sahara / Nobody knows about Lumumba and Sankara.”

Against separate cultures

Kuti and F.U.L.A. have different styles and approaches, but both of them, along with Slim Gong, Yank and Roy Raheem, form part of the crew Equipe 54, a music collective whose purpose is to make Afro-Italian artists heard and introduce Afrobeat in Italy in the hopes of lending a more international dimension to the Italian music scene.

“There is nothing like that in the Italian music industry, and it’s absurd that within the rap and hip-hop scene there wasn’t anyone who could represent the African origins of this music and the Afro-descendants in Italy,” says Ababacar Seck, an Italian rapper of Senegalese origin who was born in Genoa and performs under the stage name Suerte.

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Though not part of Equipe 54, Suerte is among the second-generation migrant musicians who work every day to drive change in Italian society. “The problem is that a person feels Italian but can’t be, because others decide that he can’t. I remember when I used to pick up the phone and make a call when getting on a bus just to show other people that I could speak Italian well. It was a stupid self-defence mechanism, as if to say, don’t worry, I’m Italian.” Over the years, Suerte has voiced this discrimination, and the slurs he has faced, in his music.

He knows he is still in the early stages of his career. “Suerte, which is my alter ego, seeks change in his country, and so far he isn’t born yet. Once he’s ready, I’ll put on my costume and go save the city,” he says, adding that his aim is to reach an audience that is as diverse as possible. 

He acknowledges the importance of having oneself reflected and represented in music, but also believes that change is only effective if it embraces all the different layers of society. “My audience is very diverse, and I’m happy with this. Addressing only Afro-descendants would mean I self-ghettoise. I want to address everyone, because I want to prove that I’m Italian. To be Italian, I have to deal with everyone, otherwise we create a separate culture.”

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