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The Nile in the Naviglio: Identity and Belonging at Eurovision 2019

By Sarah Bringhurst Familia

‘[A]n identity is always already an ideal, what we would like to be, not what we are.’
-Simon Frith, Music and Identity

At Eurovision 2019, Italy was represented by Mahmood, an Egyptian-Italian artist who had grown up in the poor suburbs of Milan listening to African-American rap. My research explores how Mahmood’s win at the Italian Sanremo contest and performance and popularity at Eurovision validated cultural elements that have not been traditionally seen as Italian or European. It investigates how the complicated identity of one performer connected him to fans from a variety of different backgrounds, bringing them together in the experience of music as a unifying force, symbolic of their own individual and collective identity. However, far from being an uncomplicated success of artistic triumph over prejudice, my research also shows how Mahmood’s very success illuminates the fault lines of a Europe more divided than ever.

Background

In Music and Identity, Frith posits that social groups ‘only get to know themselves as groups . . . through cultural activity.’ The performance of music, in his view, ‘isn’t a way of expressing ideas; it is a way of living them’. Kalman et al. work from a similar premise when they announce that ‘Eurovision should be taken seriously as an object of historical and political enquiry where European politics and the European past are (literally) performed before a live, global audience’.


Throughout its 63-year history, the Eurovision song contest has served as a venue for the performance of national identities within European countries, as well as a laboratory for the ongoing development of a shared European identity. Language is a much-analysed component of the contest, and the choice of whether to sing (and moderate) in English, French, one or another national language, or even regional languages from within a country often has nationalist or other overtones. Over the years, the borders of the song contest have stretched beyond political ties or physical European boundaries to encompass countries as far-flung as Australia and Israel. While Africa and the Muslim Middle East have been largely absent, there are a few notable exceptions. For example, Stella Nyambura Mwangi, a Norwegian born in Kenya, participated in 2011 with a song in English and Swahili, one of just three times code-switching in a non-European language had been used up to that point in Eurovision. The only time an African country has participated in the contest is when in 1980 Morocco entered with a song entirely in Arabic. Interestingly, the European Broadcasting Union--which administers the contest--confirmed in January that it had been in talks with Morocco about a possible return in 2020. Unfortunately, Eurovision 2020 was later cancelled due to the covid-19 pandemic.


From this perspective, there was some limited precedent, but it was still significant in 2019 for a half-Egyptian participant to sing his chorus in Arabic, mention Ramadan, and then go on to very nearly win the contest. The Italian singer Mahmood catapulted to stardom after winning first the Italian Sanremo contest, and then coming in second in a closely-contested Eurovision. Mahmood is the son of a Sardinian mother and an Egyptian father, who grew up in a poor suburb of Milan. He describes his music as ‘Moroccan pop’, although it is in Italian, and he considers himself Catholic and Italian. His sexuality, of which more will be said later, is also a point of otherness.His songs deal with themes of identity, tensions between Africa and the West, urban poverty, and family relationships. His winning song, ‘Soldi’ (‘Money’) evoked a fraught relationship with his absent father and the Egyptian heritage associated with him, and included a line in Arabic, remembered from his childhood. While Mahmood was hugely popular among Italian (and then European) young people, right-wing Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini weighed in with a tweet after his Sanremo win, expressing his opposition to the Egyptian-Italian singer representing Italy in Eurovision.


This was not the first time cultural battles had raged in Italy over race and migration. For instance, the 1996 Miss Italia contest was eventually won by Denny Mendez, a naturalised immigrant originally from the Dominican Republic. During the contest two prominent members of the jury ‘questioned whether a woman of color could adequately represent an ideal of Italian beauty’. In a more recent example, the television series Nero a Metà portrays the many tensions between Malik, a young police officer who came as a child refugee to Italy from the Ivory Coast and Nero, his late-middle-aged partner, who exhibits racial attitudes reminiscent of Salvini’s. The show is notable for its matter-of-fact depictions of everyday racism in Italy, in an explicit attempt to force viewers to confront their own prejudices and those of Italian society as a whole. Director Marco Pontecorvo, says of the series:


‘Questa fiction ci dimostra che l'integrazione è possibile, perché Malik si è integrato. Il problema è il piccolo pregiudizio, che nel nostro presente è duro a morire. Per sconfiggerlo, dobbiamo partire da noi, dai nostri scherzi stupidi sui neri e sui bianchi, sugli ebrei e i non ebrei, sul sud e sul nord.’


(‘This fiction shows us that integration is possible, because Malik has integrated. The problem is the small prejudice which persists in the present. To defeat this, we must start with ourselves, with our stupid jokes about blacks and whites, Jews and non-Jews, the south and the north [of Italy].’)


The controversy over Mendez in Miss Italia 1996 and Mahmood in Sanremo/Eurovision 2019 demonstrate that this ‘small prejudice’, when played out on a national or international stage, turns out to be very large indeed. Nevertheless, cultural conversations like these give people, nations and societies an opportunity to collectively confront and examine prejudices and systemic societal issues that might otherwise remain hidden. Even more hopefully, they also provide a chance for the shared experience of theatre, music and other arts to break down those very prejudices and barriers, uniting audiences in an emotional experience that has the potential to bring them together despite differences.


Theory

Mahmood’s music is particularly adept at this type of barrier breaking, because of his richly complex identity and the wide resonance of his artistic style. I examine his identity through the lens of memory, while examining the various mobilities and immobilities expressed in his music. These memories and mobilities are what connect him to his Eurovision audience through a shared emotional experience that expresses a multi-dimensional, communal European identity transcending traditional boundaries.


‘Memory,’ Smith argues, ‘has an intimate relation to the present through the personal and collective actions of remembering’. As the child of an immigrant father who left when he was very young, Mahmood associates the memory of his father with the part of himself that is seen as alien in Italy. Smith connects memory with identity formation because ‘unlike professional historical narratives, it is personal and thus collective memory has a particular emotive power’. Mahmood’s Eurovision song and others from his oeuvre deal with a particular kind of memory: childhood memory, and its association with culture. The powerful memories of his alienated father represent not only a missing parental figure, but a missing piece of self-identity that nevertheless plays a deeply significant role in the way he exists both in his everyday life and as a public figure within an Italy politically divided along lines of anti-immigrant rhetoric. He is socially ‘read’ by Italian society as half-Egyptian, and thus ‘other’, but also finds personal meaning in his Egyptian heritage and its association with his absent father. His preoccupation with memory suggests that perhaps even for the second generation ‘migration rather than location is the condition of memory’. We could therefore say that the movement of his father--to Italy and then away--is what precipitated Mahmood’s obsession with memory, and his ‘anxieties about pinning it to place’.


The bumpy project of European integration has in some ways been driven by memories enacted in performances of popular culture. Lowenthal argues that in modern Europe ‘the most prominent populist links are in such realms as sports and the popular media’, while simultaneously disparaging such integrative attachments as ‘too trivial and ephemeral to serve as adequate foundations for an organic sense of community’. He instead privileges the more concrete political and economic ties embodied in European institutions. The popular spectacle of Eurovision is certainly a prime example of Lowenthal’s first point. However, I would dispute his second point, arguing along with Anderson that media and culture are exactly the sort of foundations upon which community has fundamentally been built in European nations. This same type of community building through media has been an important part of the larger European Project. As Kalman et al. contend, ‘Eurovision matters in contemporary Europe because culture legitimises political structures’.


Eurovision, with its historical goal of uniting Europe, can be viewed as an attempt at a type of heritage performance; part of the cultural glue holding together a fractious and diverse continent. Kalman et al. describe the song contest as ‘a pan-European phenomenon, whose 186 million viewers in 2017 were equivalent to 36% of the EU’s population’, Significantly, this is a figure which, as they point out, was ‘higher than the 168 million EU citizens who voted in elections to the European Parliament in 2014’. In this case, at least, the performance of collective memory evidently elicits more participation than the performance of civic responsibility. Smith describes how ‘commemorative ceremonies rehearse master narratives that represent collective autobiography, sustained and remembered through ritual performance.’ For over half a century, Eurovision has been fulfilling this role for many Europeans. By evocatively performing his own act of remembering on the stage at Eurovision, Mahmood incorporated his autobiography as a child of immigration into the larger European narrative. He literally performed his version of European identity, which was legitimated by being included in a ritual performance that has a tradition of celebrating European unity in diversity.


Mahmood’s very existence as someone of both Italian and Egyptian heritage highlights the importance of the theme of mobility in a country and continent obsessed with the ‘crisis’ of migration. Sheller and Urry’s influential examination of the ‘New Mobilities Paradigm’, highlights the ‘concomitant patterns of concentration that create zones of connectivity, centrality, and empowerment in some cases, and of disconnection, social exclusion, and inaudibility in other cases. Mahmood is a visible and audible product of mobility between Egypt and Italy, Africa and Europe, and has experienced both social exclusion and empowerment through his socio-cultural experience, represented--at least from his point of view--in the legacy of migration left him by his absent father. His songs explore what Sheller and Urry would describe as a ‘complex interrelation between travel and dwelling, home and not-home,’ reassembling remembered bits of his childhood into an imaginative evocation of a place he feels a connection to even though he never lived there.


One of the difficulties of research within the New Mobilities Paradigm is that so much of the potential material is ‘familial or private’, and therefore difficult for researchers to access. The ongoing challenge therefore becomes how to ‘get inside such private worlds and to excavate “family secrets” especially about places of loss or desire’. The personal and familial nature of the themes Mahmood explores in his music allow a precious glimpse into one such private world, granting insight into how mobility extends its reach across generations to influence opportunity, belonging and connectivity, but also exclusion and pain. From Mahmood’s perspective, his father’s mobility (he is absent and has other children elsewhere) is in sharp contrast to Mahmood’s own physical and socioeconomic immobility growing up with a single mother in a disadvantaged urban area on the periphery of Milan. However, as a poor immigrant in Italy, his father would have experienced similar socioeconomic immobility, and also lacked the mobility of Mahmood’s fluidity between his Italian and Egyptian identities.


Mahmood uses his memories as a way to connect to his audience. The poignant theme of a boy abandoned by his father, writ large upon the Eurovision stage, connected him to his audience on an emotional level, whether they could identify with the specifics he embedded about his father’s Egyptian background or not. While Europe as a continent may be ambivalent about his very existence and presence on it, the audience, as it clapped along to his Middle Eastern beat, was not. What enabled this connection? A clue can be found in the closing lines of Frith’s chapter: ‘what makes music special--what makes it special for identity--is that it defines a space without boundaries . . . Music is thus the cultural form best able to cross borders--sounds carry across fences and walls and oceans, across classes, races and nations’


While many viewers did see Mahmood perform live on the Eurovision stage, the vast majority participated via television or online platforms such as YouTube. As of now, one year after the contest, the video of his 2019 Eurovision performance has 18 million views, a million more than that of Duncan Laurence, the song contest winner. The official music video for Mahmood’s song has 158 million views (compared to Laurence’s 23 million). Mahmood has obviously struck a chord with his audience. The technology so many fans use to connect to Mahmood, his memories and his music turns out to be a rather interesting piece of the puzzle. We could say that there are three distinct levels of connection to consider in this case: the content (memory), the medium (music) and the technology (YouTube).


Material and Method

I utilise a few different types of sources to generate a picture of how Mahmood views his own identity and what aspects of that identity resonate with his fans and connect them to him. To explore Mahmood’s personal sense of identity, first I look at several published interviews with him in which he discusses his identity and music. My second source is song lyrics from several of the tracks on his 2019 album, Gioventù Bruciata (Burnt Youth).


Eckstein laments how song lyrics have so ‘persistently fallen through the nets of academic fishing’, recommending them as a useful object of study in examining, for instance, topics like national identity. The songs I have chosen all incorporate childhood memories of Mahmood’s father. I use them to examine the way he reimagines his own identity, using bits and pieces of the ways his father evoked the place from which he had come to create an imagined landscape of Egypt and Africa, which he superimposes over his own life in poor, urban Milan. Sheller and Urry describe how ‘[i]n leaving a place migrants often carry parts of it with them which are reassembled in the material form of souvenirs, textures, foods, colours, scents, and sounds--reconfiguring the place of arrival both figuratively and imaginatively’. Mahmood does this reconfiguring through his music, in the process rendering his memories intelligible not only to himself, but also others, generating a space where the audience can participate in this creation of a new identity. His performance of a reimagined European identity, mediated through a resonant personal story of loss, invites the audience to incorporate his narrative into their idea of what it means to be European.


While Mahmood’s interviews and song lyrics can provide insight into his own relationship with the music, the experiences of his audience are more difficult to access. This inaccessibility is complicated by the fact that the majority of those who experienced his performance did so virtually, either on television or the internet. However, the fact that viewers largely interacted with Mahmood’s performance via electronic platforms also presents an opportunity. This virtual ability to be present and participate in the music contest could be considered a form of mobility, and it is certainly an important modality of connectivity. Therefore I turn to what Sheller and Urry call ‘“cyber research”: methods that explore the imaginative and virtual mobilities of people via their websites, multiuser discussion groups or listserves’. Following this paradigm, one promising place to look for fan reactions is in the tens of thousands of comments posted on the YouTube videos of Mahmood’s songs. YouTube is a highly accessible and widely used online global platform. For streaming music, it could be considered the global platform, accounting for nearly half of online music streaming, even including non-video platforms like Spotify or Pandora. There is also precedent for studying Eurovision via YouTube; Taulio, for example, utilises multimodal analysis of YouTube videos to examine gender bias and whether men or women are granted more authority and power in the performances of several recent Nordic Eurovision winners.

According to Burgess and Green, YouTube is ‘a potential enabler and amplifier of cosmopolitan cultural citizenship – a space in which individuals can represent their identities and perspectives, engage with the self-representations of others, and encounter cultural difference’. However, it is important to also remember that there is evidence that such platforms increase the effect of so-called ‘filter bubbles’, in which users are exposed to mostly content with which they already agree. I have captured the comments from two YouTube videos: Mahmood’s official music video for ‘Soldi’ and his live performance of the song in the Eurovision 2019 Final. In examining these comments, I do not expect to find a cross-section of Europeans, or European youth, but rather a group who are already interested in Eurovision and/or Mahmood. My research seeks to uncover what resonance his music finds with them, and in what ways they connect it to geographical regions and identities.



Word Cloud of Comments on the YouTube Music Video of ‘Soldi’


Identity and Its Complications

My research suggests that as a European ‘with a migratory background’, Mahmood has a complicated identity, both in how he perceives himself and how he is perceived by others. Through analysis of his song lyrics and music videos, comments on those YouTube videos, and statements from Mahmood in interviews, I conclude that he inhabits at least four different geographical identities: Italian, Egyptian, African and European. However, each of these different identities is complex in and of itself, as well as contested. Taking an intersectional perspective when analysing and studying Mahmood’s performances is thus necessary to remain sensitive to the plurality of his identities and their respective interactions. According to Hill Collins, intersectionality acknowledges that ‘people's lives and the organization of power in a given society are better understood as being shaped not by a single axis of social division, be it race or gender or class, but by many axes that work together and influence each other’. In Mahmood’s case, these multilayered and multi-faceted personal identities serve as an entry point into societal debates about nationality, belonging, migration, race, and so forth.


For Mahmood, who writes most of his own songs, music is above all a way to express his identity. When asked by Rolling Stone if his songs are always autobiographical, he responded affirmatively that ‘Le mie canzoni me le sento dentro, ci metto tanto di mio.’ (‘I feel like I am inside my songs; I put so much of myself in them). In fact, he views music as the only way he has to express his identity publicly, adding that he is aware that ‘la gente mi avrà conosciuto solo ed esclusivamente attraverso le mie canzoni.’ (‘people will have gotten to know me only and exclusively through my songs.’)


The following sections explore both the identity(ies) that Mahmood sees himself as putting into his songs, and also those that his audience gets out of his music. He utilises these identities to connect to his listeners and make powerful statements about memory, belonging, and the relationship of the past to the present. As he told Vanity Fair, ‘Credo si debba sempre lasciare un messaggio, autentico e vero. Anche se stai cantando di cosa hai mangiato a colazione’ (‘I believe you should always leave a message, authentic and true. Even if you’re singing about what you ate for breakfast’).


Mahmood as Italian

On the surface, Mahmood’s most obvious identity is that of his passport: Italian. He was born in Italy, has spent his life there, and sings almost exclusively in Italian. In fact, his songs take Italy for granted as a sort of starting point. When he looks for ‘il Nilo nel Naviglio’ (‘the Nile in the Naviglio’) it is because the Naviglio, Milan’s grand canal, is right in front of him. But his Italy is also a very particular Italy. He emphasises in an interview with Vice, ‘io sono un ragazzo italiano’ (‘I am an Italian boy’), but immediately follows it up with the curious statement ‘Io sono Milano’. (‘I am Milan.’) With this odd pronouncement he is not so much merely announcing that he is Milanese as claiming a sort of archetypical status emblematic of the city of Milan itself. He appears to be making a similar claim in visual form in the photo that introduces this section, taken from his Instagram. The image positions him (holding and being held by himself) in front of the Duomo of Milan, the central symbol of the city. The pose, familiar in Catholic iconography and subject of innumerable Italian medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures, is that of the virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus after his death. The singer’s choice to portray himself in both roles could provide fodder for much further analysis; suffice it to say here that Mahmood is not one to shrink from transgressing boundaries, whether they be religious, social, national, sexual or otherwise.


Mahmood’s Milan is not the Milan of Prada and Armani. His Eurovision song, ‘Soldi’ begins by describing the Milan where he grew up: ‘In periferia fa molto caldo’ (It’s very hot on the outskirts of the city). The term he uses, periferia, is literally the periphery, or outer edges of the city; not in the sense of a well-heeled suburb, but rather the ‘bleak urban fringe’ that Foot contends ‘has always occupied an important place in the image and the daily life of the city.’ Foot characterises this periphery of Milan in the typical terms used for the American ‘inner city’ of yesteryear, and other poor urban spaces, as a place of excessive crime, unemployment and limited socioeconomic mobility. However, he also associates with the periphery positive values of ‘community, face-to-face daily relationships, solidarity, resistance and (in a particularly Milanese context) hard work, honesty, simplicity and thrift’. Perhaps most significantly, he designates it as a zone of ‘Otherness that can be touched and smelt’, encompassing such concepts as an ‘anti-city’, an ‘ex-community’ and a ‘non-place’. Thus, even Mahmood’s construction of his Italianness constitutes an Italian ‘other’.


This otherness is accentuated by his second Italian identity, inherited from his mother, who comes from another highly peripheral area of Italy: the island of Sardinia, one of its poorest and most underdeveloped regions. In a sense, his mother is an immigrant too. When asked if he speaks Arabic, he answered in the negative, but added, unprompted, ‘In compenso, grazie a mia mamma parlo benissimo il sardo!’ (‘To compensate, thanks to my mother I speak excellent Sardinian!’). In a sense, then, the mobility of both of his parents and the almost magical connecting urban spaces of Milan are the factors that result in Mahmood’s existence, and inform his identity. This mobility and connectivity that meet in the periphery may also be what enable him to define that existence as a sort of quintessence of the city of Milan. And he is not the only one who thinks so. Rolling Stone describes him in reverberating superlatives as ‘la sintesi perfetta del non plus ultra della metropoli’ (‘the perfect synthesis of the ultimate example of the metropolis’).


It is a classic celebration of urban cosmopolitanism. However, this glorification of the broad-minded city incorporated a certain tension with nationalist thought, and the idea of ‘Italianness’. In a sense, this expansive, embracing vision of Milan was at odds with a certain parochialism that was then finding ample expression in the government of Italy. One battle in this ongoing war played out over the contested Italian identity of Mahmood and his songs. A few weeks after his win at Sanremo and Salvini’s now infamous tweet, the New York Times caught up with Mahmood in a local club, where he was meeting with Milan’s mayor, Giuseppe Sala, to discuss outreach to the city’s youth. The Times quotes Sala as saying backstage, ‘In the face of the Salvini’s words, I shrugged, and I thought let me use this opportunity to show a positive example’.


The national government’s response was not limited to tweets; during this same time a lawmaker in the Northern League party headed by Salvini proposed legislation requiring that a threshold number of songs on the radio in Italy be ‘Italian’. Similar debates raged in the comments on Mahmood’s music videos. Some commentators denied that Mahmood was really Italian, as in this comment: ‘Italian singer? Looks like from Egypt!!! Poor Italy!!!!Where is the Really Italian singer?’ One referred to the Sanremo voting system, which incorporates both a popular and jury vote, claiming that Mahmood’s background was ‘why elite voted for him and he won while people voted for ultimo’. Another commentator commented on this debate itself, opining that ‘tutti i commenti sulle origini del cantante mi fanno ridere. Ragazzi il mondo è cambiato, l’Italia é sempre stato un miscuglio di popoli, leggete bene la nostra storia’ (all the comments about the origin of the singer make me laugh. Guys, the world has changed. Italy has always been a mix of people; take a proper look at our history’).


Given this controversy, it is no wonder that when he is inevitably asked about his identity, Mahmood feels the need to repeatedly emphasise and quantify with responses like, ‘I’m super Italian, 100 percent’. When it comes to national identity, in the case of a Sardinian-Egyptian Italian singer from the periphery of Milan, the obvious, perhaps, is less obvious than it might appear to the outside eye.


Mahmood as Egyptian


Mahmood’s second most obvious geographical identity is the one he inherited from his largely absent Egyptian father. In contrast to his Italian identity, imbibed without effort throughout his childhood and youth by virtue of being born to an Italian mother and growing up in Italy, his Egyptian identity is largely symbolic and constructed, both by himself and in the way he is marked as half-Egyptian within Italian society. When queried by Vanity Fair as to whether there was anything Egyptian in his cultural upbringing, Mahmood responded by saying that as a child he wasn’t attracted to his Egyptian heritage, just like he didn’t enjoy eating vegetables; but ‘Oggi coltivo i ricordi. lo vivo nella quotidianità: il mio parrucchiere si chiama Mustafa, con gli amici mangio il kebab’ (‘Now I cultivate the memories. I live it every day: my hairdresser’s name Mustafa, I eat kebab with my friends’). True to Mahmood’s ideal of infusing the autobiographical into his music, this hairdresser appears repeatedly by name in “Mai figlio unico” (“Never an Only Child”) a song filled with the ceaseless invocation of bittersweet memories of his father.


The memories he cultivates and the Egyptian identity he constructs around them are a transparent attempt to fill the hole his father has left in his life. The title track to his 2019 album, Gioventù Bruciata (Burnt Youth), recalls a trip to Egypt when he was eight. He remembers the Sphinx, listening to Arabic songs in the car, and his father running through the desert. He laments forgetting too soon ‘como fare un tuffo nel mar rosso’ (‘how to take a dip in the Red Sea’). Forgetting, of course, is simply the other side of the coin of memory. Mahmood is obsessed with both. He is afraid of forgetting the Egyptian parts of his childhood, even though the very performance of saying that he has forgotten is an act of remembering. In another song, as mentioned above, he remembers looking for ‘the Nile in the Naviglio’ with his father when he was young; now, he laments, ‘Dove vado se non ci sei tu più vicino/Se non c’e più il Nilo’ (‘Where will I go if you are no longer nearby/If there is no more Nile’). The line evokes a sense that his memories are the only anchor to his Egyptian identity, and that if he loses them he will lose that identity, and with it whatever he has left of his father. As he told Vanity Fair, ‘La mia vita è stata sempre così, alla ricerca di una mancanza’ (‘My life has always been like this, in search of something missing’).


Poignantly, when asked before Sanremo what his father might say in response to the song ‘Soldi’, his only response was anxiety that he might criticise his Arabic pronunciation. The phrase in question, ‘Waladi waladi habibi ta3ala hina’ ( والدي والدي حبيبي تعالى هنا) means ‘my son, my love, come here’. It serves as a sort of second refrain and emotional centre for the song, and is the central evocation of his childhood memory of his father drinking champagne during Ramadan, watching Jackie Chan, smoking narghila, and taking what seems to have been a rare moment to ask his son ‘come va’ (‘how’s it going’). To forestall his father’s hypothetical disappointment, Mahmood has worked very hard and even consulted Mustafa, the previously mentioned hairdresser--and seemingly a touchstone of his Egyptian identity--on the correct pronunciation.


This incorporation of childhood memories around his Egyptian heritage extends well beyond the lyrics. When asked to describe himself as an artist, Mahmood says, ‘Sono un cantautore… moroccan pop. Che genere faccio? Pop, rap, indie? Quello che mi distingue sono le sonorità mediorientali che affiorano qua e là. A 5 anni ascoltavo le cassette di musica araba di mio padre e Lucio Battisti’ (‘I am a songwriter… Moroccan pop. Which genre do I do? Pop, rap, indie? What sets me apart are the Middle Eastern sounds that emerge here and there. At five years old, I listened to the Arabic music tapes of my father and Lucio Battisti [a famous Italian singer from the 1960s and 1970s]’). The Esquire Italia photo shoot that Mahmood announced on his Instagram with the image at the beginning of this section incorporated various subtle nods to his Egyptian heritage, but he chose the one with the most prominent Arabic script.


Mahmood’s conception of being Egyptian is wrapped up in a wider idea of an Arab and Middle Eastern identity. Another song is titled ‘Asia Occidente’ (‘Asia and the West’) invoking a favourite duality of which Mahmood says he never tires. The catchy refrain repeats several times the phrase ‘come se Io fossi l'Asia e tu l'Occidente’ (‘as if I were Asia and you were the West’). To complete the theme, Mahmood describes the song as ‘arricchito il tutto con dei campioni vocali arabi pazzeschi’ (‘enriched all over with crazy Arab vocals’).


He denies ever having been subjected to racism when growing up in Italy, asserting that ‘la mia generazione non fa fatica ad aprire la mente’ (for my generation it isn’t difficult to be open-minded); he admits that in high school ‘Non ero il massimo della coolness. Ma non dipendeva dal cognome arabo.’ (I wasn’t the coolest. But it had nothing to do with my Arab name). However, of the notorious Salvini tweet he agrees that ‘[t]he minister “provoked ignorant comments,” . . . such as people questioning how an Egyptian could win the Sanremo Italian Song contest, a cherished national institution’.


As noted above, these sorts of sentiments were certainly expressed in the comments to Mahmood’s videos. However, not all commentators considered his Egyptian roots a negative. Some--particularly those with Arab names reminiscent of Mahmood’s--seemed to find in him a refreshing inclusivity that resonated deeply with them. In particular, the few Arabic words in ‘Soldi’ were certainly not lost on this segment of Mahmood’s audience. One delighted commentator wrote, ‘He sang in Arabic at the end ❤️❤️❤️❤️ he said my son my dear come here’. Another gushed, ‘Aww it's so cool to mix Egyptian language with l'taliano!! I love you, Ramsees's grandson 🇪🇬🇪🇬🇮🇹🇮🇹’. Another, who had encountered the song not through Eurovision but on the radio in her country commented, ‘Aee u Arabian i just like ur voice too much and this song i hear it from a radio and love it so i search for it😍😘’. These listeners connected to Mahmood through his half-remembered and carefully cultivated childhood linguistic link to his father and the Egyptian and Arab culture he represented.


Mahmood as African

The second line of “Mai Figlio Unico” contains a double entendre. Mahmood sings, ‘Sono di Milano Sud ma sembra l'Africa’ (‘I am from South Milan but it seems like Africa’). It is not immediately clear whether he means that South Milan resembles Africa, or that he himself seems like he is from Africa, or both. He told Vice, ‘Quando dico che Milano Sud sembra l’Africa, è perché voglio descrivere una realtà che vivo’ (‘When I say that South Milan looks like Africa, it is because I want to describe a reality that I live’). For Mahmood, ‘Africa’ may be a sort of metaphorical shorthand for describing the Milanese periphery in terms of the traditional Western conception of poverty-stricken, problem-laden Africa. However, he also uses Africa as a proxy for himself, a way to delineate his otherness, much in the same manner that he uses Asia and the Middle East in ‘Asia Occidentale’.


Part of his identification with Africa is a racialised one based on his personal appearance. In the same interview he went on to say, ‘Posso richiamare ogni tanto l’Africa, anche se mi guardi in faccia vedi benissimo che non ho la fisionomia italiana classica. Sicuramente richiamo tanto anche quel mondo.’ (‘I can recall Africa from time to time, even if you look me in the face you can see very well that I don't have the classic Italian physiognomy. Definitely I also recall that world a lot’). Again, there is a bit of a dual meaning here; he himself remembers Africa, and his physical appearance also recalls it to other people. In a sense, then, his childhood memories and their associated cultural significance are seated not only in outside objects like Arabic cassette tapes, kebab, or the Sphinx, but also in his own face, which he and others associate with Africa.


For Mahmood, this ‘black’ identity also stems from his musical influences. In ‘Anni 90 Feat. Fabri Fibra’ he describes his youth in the Milanese periphery with this line, ‘Siamo venuti da fuori città sognando l'America’ (‘We came from outside of the city, dreaming about America’), adding that ‘Negli anni novanta ascoltavo gangsta rap’ (‘in the 90s we listened to gangsta rap’); the song even features a collaboration with an Italian rapper, Fabri Fibra. He told Vice, ‘mi rappresenta molto il rap, io ho sempre ascoltato rap americano’ (‘rap represents me a lot, I have always listened to American rap’). Many of the evocations of Africa in his music and thought partake of what Gilroy would call ‘a heavily mythologized Africanity that is itself stamped by its origins not in Africa but in a variety of pan-African ideology produced most recently by Afro-America’. Mahmood’s Africa seems not to be divided at the Sahara; it is a place of otherness that encompasses an idea of Africa that runs from Egypt and Tunisia (as in the photo that introduces this section, taken on a trip to Tunisia weeks after his Sanremo win) to diaspora Africa in the United States or Italy.


While he describes his own music as pop, and ‘Moroccan pop’ at that, because of its Middle Eastern influences, the artists he loves the most are African-American R&B, rap and hip-hop artists: Frank Ocean, Jazmine Sullivan, Travis Scott, and Beyoncé, although he does add in the Spanish artist Rosalìa. Rap may ‘represent’ him, but it is not the musical form he uses to express himself, nor are any of the other iconically African-American musical genres. A clue to one reason may be in his suggestion that ‘forse il problema è che storicamente non siamo molto in grado di approcciarci alla black music.
 In Italia ti dicono sempre che se fai il soul non va, se fai qualcosa di black non va.’ (‘perhaps the problem is that historically we are not very able to approach black music. In Italy they always tell you that if you do soul it doesn’t work, if you do something black it doesn’t work’).


Mahmood as European

Interestingly, while the dualism of East and West is an important and recurring theme in his music, nowhere in his songs or interviews does Mahmood explicitly identify himself as European. The concept of Europeanness, therefore, seems not to be a part of his everyday conception of personal identity in a way analogous to his usage of Italian, Egyptian, and African identities. Nevertheless, a few months after his near-win at Eurovision he did kick off his European tour (‘Europa Good Vibes’) by performing at the European Parliament’s 2019 Friends of Music event in Strasbourg. As part of the event, he got together for a chat and official handshake with David Sassoli, President of the European Parliament. His own portrayal on Instagram, shown at the beginning of this section, shows him in a conservative dark suit and highly polished shoes on a red carpet beneath a giant European Union flag. This formal photo is accompanied by a bathroom selfie featuring a ‘rock on’ hand gesture, and the caption, ‘READY TO MOOD UP THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT 🔥🔥🐒’. The implication is clear: Mahmood is European. But in his own way.


Mahmood’s appearance and popularity at Eurovision, in fact, caused much less controversy than his performance at the Italian Sanremo contest. One commentator on his music video asked, ‘Italian music is more appreciated in Europe than at home?’, provoking agreement both from those who approved of Mahmood and his musical contributions (‘Yes, unfortunately the majority of people have a closed mind and don't accept change. Unfortunately we are still an old country, I'm sorry.’) and those who decidedly did not (‘because we are mans of honor and love our traditions and culture, instead of e.g. Germany, England... that lost their identity’).


Participation in Eurovision, of course, also entails a certain sense of Europeanness. However, another aspect of Mahmood’s identity is also highly relevant to his participation in the traditional song contest: his sexuality. Since 1945, Europe has been engaged in what Evans and Cook in their anthology on queer cities and cultures describe as an aspirational ‘narrative of progression in terms of sexual citizenship linked to European liberalization’ since 1945. Perhaps nowhere has this narrative been portrayed more clearly or dramatically than on the Eurovision stage. Baker contends that Eurovision has served as a venue for the expression of ‘particular narratives of geopolitical (especially national) identity, with queer-coded signifiers among its building blocks.


One of the means of defining LGBTQ inclusivity as a European value that she describes has been to link it to the ‘projection of homophobia on to racialised, excluded others, especially Muslims.’ This dynamic plays out on an institutional level in the European Union’s policies linking aid money for African states with human rights, including for LGBTQ people in an effort to export perceived European values of tolerance. The union sees itself as holding ‘normative power, which is intrinsically connected to the structural dimension of foreign policy that the Union has developed based on adherence to human rights’.


However, similarly dichotomous discourse can be discerned in domestic European narratives linking Muslim communities with homophobia as a means to highlight their otherness and un-European character. Near the end of the Evans and Cook anthology, El-Tayeb argues that ‘the Europeanization of the continent's nation-states is in no small part manifest in a shared Islamophobia,’ strikingly evident in the ‘role of gender and sexuality in discourses around the continent's Muslim communities’. Her solution to this ‘homophile Islamophobia’ lies in ‘a progressive queer critique that applies intersectionality in order to analyse the effects of race and class on this seeming clash between progressive, tolerant, dynamic European society and traditional, intolerant, static Muslim community’. Mahmood identifies as Catholic, not Muslim; however, his Egyptian identity and afinity for narratives of Africa resulted in him being painted with the brush of otherness by Salvini’s right-wing government. From this perspective, the inclusion of strong elements of this racialised other in ‘Soldi’ embodied a sort of transgressional paradox: a gay man singing on the Eurovision stage in Italian and Arabic about his memories of Ramadan.


Eluding Boundaries

Characteristically, Mahmood resists fitting neatly into a simple or stereotyped version of his sexual identity. The New York Times quotes him stating, ‘“I don’t feel part of that Italy that judges”, explaining that he ‘has an aversion to being categorized, when it came to his nationality or sexuality.’ Vice similarly describes him in the introduction to their interview as ‘un artista che non vuole essere inquadrato’ (‘an artist who does not wish to be framed’). Rolling Stone makes it clear that Mahmood’s admiration for his ‘idol’ Frank Ocean is more than musical, quoting his description of the singer as ‘molto libero e in cui tutti possono identificarsi, gay o etero, perché l’essenziale è la persona e l’energia che trasmette e non l’orientamento sessuale’ (‘very unconstrained, and someone with whom everyone can identify, gay or straight, because the essential thing is the personality and energy that he transmits, and not his sexual orientation’).


Mahmood’s resistance to being categorised has a philosophical foundation. He tells Vanity Fair,


‘Dichiarare “sono gay” non porta da nessuna parte, se non a far parlare di sé. Andare in tv . . . per raccontare la propria omosessualità mi sembra imbarazzante: così si torna indietro di 50 anni . . . se continuiamo con questi distinguo, l’omosessualità non sarà mai percepita come una cosa normale, quale è’.

(‘To say “I’m gay” doesn’t lead anywhere except making people talk about it. To go on TV . . . to explain one’s homosexuality seems embarrasing to me: it puts us back 50 years . . . if we continue with this distinction, homosexuality will never be perceived as a normal thing, which it is’.)


One could imagine him saying something similar about Italy sending an Egyptian-Italian kid who grew up in the periphery of Milan listening to African-American rap to Eurovision. Yet the Eurovision venue seems peculiarly appropriate, with its long history of fits-and-starts success at forging common causes, breaking down national and regional borders while celebrating cultural uniqueness, and making space for a multiplicity of ethnic, linguistic, sexual and other identities. It is, in the end, no surprise that viewers of this cheesy, ridiculous, wonderful song contest were delighted to watch Mahmood express a European heritage and identity that reached out to messily embrace the complexity of migration, multiculturalism, and yes, Africa. The singer’s identity, like his music, is complex and fluid, encompassing with equal ease his childhood visits to Egypt with his father, his upbringing in the poor periphery of Milan, his love of ‘gangsta rap’ and ‘crazy Arab vocals’, and his participation in a contest celebrating European unity in diversity. Mahmood falls into many categories, and yet ultimately defies categorisation. His popularity at Sanremo and then Eurovision point the way towards a Europe that--although still myopic over many forms of inclusion--in some ways, and some fleeting cultural moments, almost catches a glimpse of living up to its utopian ideals.

 

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