Italian Minister Pans Hit Song by an Immigrant’s Son


MILAN — Alessandro Mahmoud recently won a prestigious Italian song contest with his Italian-language rap tune “Money,” tinged with a Middle Eastern flavor. The lyrics recall how his Egyptian father “drank champagne during Ramadan” or beckoned him home from the playground with calls of “waladi habibi ta’aleena” — Arabic for “My son, my love, come here.”

But it turns out that Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, was not a fan of the song.

#Mahmood…………… meh………… The most beautiful Italian song?!?” Mr. Salvini wrote on Twitter following the result last month. Soon after, a member of his anti-immigrant League party proposed a law to limit foreign songs on the radio.

Since then, Mr. Mahmoud, whose stage name is Mahmood, has been thrust into the center of a national debate about what it means to be Italian at a time when critics say the country’s most powerful politician seems intent on stoking racism and xenophobia — not only against new migrants but also legal immigrants who have lived in Italy for years.

To that, Mr. Mahmoud, a 26-year-old of Sardinian and Egyptian ancestry, has an easy answer.

“I’m super Italian, 100 percent,” said Mr. Mahmoud, who, in further proof of his nationality, still lives at home with his mother.

Enter the venerable Italian pop song, timeless to its fans and stuck in time to its detractors. But music experts say it is ever-changing and has always been influenced by foreign styles.

“Now we have to understand what is Italian music,’’ Mr. Mahmoud, dressed in a red corduroy jacket, floral shirt and wide-legged pants, said as he sat in a cafe on a recent day. ‘‘It can’t always be the same. Life moves on. Italian music needs new points of view.”

He seemed unbothered by the criticism swirling around his victory and showed a text message that Mr. Salvini, an ever-astute politician, had written to him after the controversy exploded.

“Ciao, Matteo Salvini here, notwithstanding the musical tastes — I prefer the other guy — enjoy the success. Here’s my number,” it read. Mr. Mahmoud wrote back that he was “sure there wasn’t anything personal.”

But in retrospect, he said of Mr. Salvini’s tweet, “obviously there was something underneath it.”

The minister “provoked ignorant comments,” Mr. Mahmoud said, such as people questioning how an Egyptian could win the Sanremo Italian Song contest, a cherished national institution.

Mr. Mahmoud was born and raised in a neighborhood outside Milan to a Sardinian mother who met his Egyptian father in one of the coffee bars where she worked. As a young boy, he said he listened to Arabic music with his father until his father left when he was five.

“And you can tell those melodies stayed in my head,” he said.

He attended elementary school in Milan with Russians, Chinese and kids of many other nationalities. He had his Catholic communion and confirmation, took piano lessons, and listened to Italian singer-songwriters Lucio Dalla and Paolo Conte. He was steeped in the soft piano intros and top-of-the-lungs crescendos of the contemporary Italian melodic tradition.

As he grew older, he became more influenced by Italian rap and American R&B stars like Frank Ocean, who challenged stereotypes when he came out as gay. Mr. Mahmoud said he has an aversion to being categorized, when it came to his nationality or sexuality.

“I don’t feel part of that Italy that judges,” he said.

He walked down the block to rehearse his winning song in a nearby studio with some fellow Italian rappers, who were less forgiving of Mr. Salvini’s tweet.

“It’s so explicitly racist,” said Fabio Rizzo, a 39-year-old Sicilian rapper known as Marracash who has played on his being mistaken for a Moroccan by riding camels in a music video. “It’s incredible, no? Not even the hypocrisy to hide it.”

The Milanese rapper Cosimo Fini, 38, whose stage name is Gué Pequeno, added of Mr. Salvini, “Unfortunately, for me he is expressing the thought of many Italians. Xenophobia, racism.”

Mr. Salvini argues that his political enemies discredit themselves by tagging him as a racist or Fascist for everything he says or does, including his preference for one singer over another.

But after he voiced his frustration with the result of the song contest, in which a special jury overturned the vote of the home audience, a lawmaker in his League party, Alessandro Morelli, proposed legislation requiring that at least a third of songs on the radio had to be Italian. Mr. Morelli is the former president of Radio Padania, the in-house League station where Mr. Salvini cut his teeth as a DJ.

“If we exclude American music, Italian music is the one that has conquered five continents,” Mr. Morelli said nostalgically.

The League proposal had the support of some of the mainstays of an Italian music scene that often seems cryogenically stuck in another century.

“In Italy, we have about 80 percent foreign music and maybe 20 percent of Italian music,” said Albano Carrisi, better known as Al Bano, whose love life, including his onetime marriage to the daughter of Tyrone Power, has been a staple of Italian variety shows for a half-century. (Statistics showed nearly half the songs on the radio were Italian.)

Mr. Carrisi attributed the longevity of Italian singers like himself on Italian television to the advanced age of the television audience. He put Mr. Mahmoud squarely in his category of Italian singers, but the rapper’s hit song was another matter.

“It’s sung in Italian,” Mr. Carrisi said. “But Italian music is another thing. That’s not it.”

Mr. Carrisi, who recently sang his 1967 hit with Mr. Salvini at the Interior Ministry, where the singer was promoting his wine company, said that Italian easy listening music was more melodic.

The exemplar, he said, was the refrain of ‘‘Volare,’’ the winning song at Sanremo in 1958 — and was uncorrupted by the influence of American rap.

Mr. Carrisi, who was blacklisted this month by Ukraine apparently in part for serenading Vladimir Putin in Moscow at a 100th anniversary celebration of the KGB, traced the roots of Italian easy listening back to Gregorian chants and Verdi.

But some Italian music experts disagreed.

Jacopo Tomatis, author of the new book, “The Cultural History of the Italian Song,” said there was a clear continuity between the songs popularized during Fascism and the postwar hits that Italians built their musical identity around.

He pointed out a 1951 bulletin of the Italian state broadcaster that explained how Sanremo began as an effort to protect the Italian song against “the influence of African-American and Latin-American music.”

The centrality of “Italianness” to the country’s music was ironic, he said, because “popular Italian music has always been an elaboration of foreign styles.”

That foreignness is more explicitly celebrated by Italians such as Mr. Mahmoud and Ghali Amdouni, a rising Italian star of Tunisian ancestry, who is also from outside Milan. In his hit “Dear Italy,” he raps, “When they tell me to go home, I answer I’m already here.”

Mr. Amdouni launched his new album at the local prison a few minutes from Mr. Mahmoud’s recording studio. For now though, the moment belonged to Mr. Mahmoud, who will represent Italy in next month’s Eurovision song contest.

That same night, a circle of 7-year-old girls sang Mr. Mahmoud’s hit song as they waited in line at a local club. Mr. Mahmoud was there to chat with Milan’s mayor about reaching out to the city’s youth.

“In the face of the Salvini’s words, I shrugged, and I thought let me use this opportunity to show a positive example,” the mayor, Giuseppe Sala, said backstage.

On stage, the mayor showed a packed room Mr. Mahmoud’s elementary school class picture. Three children of Egyptian parents from the singer’s neighborhood shouted with joy when Mr. Mahmoud sang a couple bars of his song.

“He’s such a good singer,” one of them, Habiba Ibrahim, 13, said. “And he’s so cool.”


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