Immigration in Italy is a toxic issue, largely due to the issue of refugees arriving in the country by sea and sometimes by land, the costs of processing them and the (perceived or real) reluctance of other states to contribute to rescue and resettlement efforts. Italy’s notoriously restrictive nationality law is also a subject of fierce debate as a result of immigration. It is also a country with a recent history of net immigration, as net out-migration continued late into the 20th century, with large-scale arrivals starting only in the late 1980s and early 90s. Until recently, there has been little dialogue on the issue and the perception of immigrants in Italy is often negative. Now, second-generation immigrants raised (and often born) in Italy are starting to gain visibility and add to the discussion about what it means to be Italian.
In terms of “New Italians”, most outside observers will think of Mario Balotelli. Born in Palermo (Sicily) of Ghanaian immigrants, Balotelli became the first “fully” black player to represent Italy in senior football (players of mixed origins like Fabio Liverani of maternal Somali descent had already represented Italy at senior level). His story also reflects that of many other Italians of foreign descent, as despite being born and living only in Italy until his first move abroad to England’s Manchester City F.C. in 2010, he only became an Italian citizen on his 18th birthday.
This is because Italy’s current citizenship law is based on the principle of Ius Sanguinis (citizenship by blood), meaning descent is the main qualifier for citizenship. In fact, and rather uniquely, Italy allows very distant male Italian ancestry as a qualifier for citizenship (female lineage became a qualifier for Ius Sanguinis citizenship only in 1948): one must simply prove an unbroken link to a male Italian citizen anywhere in their ancestry as of unification on March 17th 1861 (i.e. that at no point was Italian citizenship lost, voluntarily or otherwise; if any ancestors between the claimant and Italian ancestor in question neither exercised nor lost their citizenship, that is not a problem). Naturalisation requires a minimum of ten years’ residence and proof of financial stability as well as a clean criminal record (this is reduced to three years for descendants of Italian grandparents and foreigners born in Italy, four for EU nationals, five for refugees or the stateless, seven for child adoptees of Italian citizens, and two after marriage to an Italian citizen). Children can naturalise before turning 18 if one of their parents successfully obtains Italian citizenship (this information is available on the interior ministry section on citizenship, in Italian). With this restrictive citizenship law and as Balotelli’s experience can attest, many second-generation immigrants in Italy have struggled to naturalise, but also to be accepted as Italians in a country where Balotelli is still frequently thought of as “Ghanaian” yet Paolo Nutini, a musician and fourth-generation Scot (as per a 2014 article in the Independent, his great-grandparents emigrated from Tuscany in the early 1900s), is celebrated for certain apparently “Italian” characteristics. No disrespect to him of course, I’d be flattered if he considers himself Italian, rather the contrast in public perception is what I was focusing on here.
New Italians, old problems
As Italy’s immigrant population has grown, this issue has become particularly contentious. According to newspaper La Repubblica, over a million people born and living in Italy are still without citizenship (Romanians are the largest group comprising roughly a third of the total). While most are children, La Repubblica estimates that as many as 400,00 adults are Italian-born without citizenship, often due to submitting an application too long after turning 18 or an inability to fulfill the stable financial situation requirement, which is assessed on an individual basis for adults. Though the text of the 1992 law does not specify the required income, several websites offering advice for naturalisation (sportelloimmigrazione, cittadinanza.biz, Repubblica Metropoli) state a minimum income of 8,200-8,500€ per year in the three years prior to requesting citizenship for an individual without dependent family members, with the sum increasing for each additional dependent. The current law means that for example, many South American footballers who have never set foot in Italy and neither speak nor consider themselves Italian can easily confirm Italian citizenship through great-grandparents or even more distant ancestors. By contrast, children of Ukrainian or Chinese parents born and educated in Italy, speaking only Italian and who consider themselves Italian will often struggle to obtain citizenship before turning 18. On turning 18, (as per Italy’s 1992 citizenship law) they have a year in which to make a request for simplified naturalisation without the financial stability requirement, which however can take years to process. Current proposals for a modified version of Ius Soli (citizenship by birth) on condition of the child in question having completed at least a cycle of education in Italy and the parents being legally settled in the country (i.e. having met permanent residency requirements), have met with fierce resistance from sections of the public due to massive distortions of the law’s purpose being spread by populist parties and media, with the Movimento 5 Stelle also attacking the proposal for electoral gain. These groups claim it would act as a “magnet” for migrants who would benefit from a citizenship giveaway, a preposterous claim given the aforementioned criteria that the applicant AND their family must satisfy (and necessarily so), and the more immediate motivations driving most migrant movements towards Europe.
While Balotelli has found relative anonymity as his career continues mainly abroad and his public profile is more low-key, the discussion around Italian citizenship and identity has now moved from sports to the arts. It is in this latter field that certain New Italians have gained visibility, and are challenging long-established ideas of italianità.
A quick explainer before we proceed: in some Western countries, hip hop, rap and their associated genres tended to start out as a genre represented mainly by minority or immigrant populations, which then found mainstream appeal. In Italy however, the early pioneers were “old” Italians as it started developing in Italy before large-scale immigration began and second-generation musicians started appearing in the late 2000s. Therefore like sport before it, music became a domain in which New Italians eventually found space for their styles and messages, and some acceptance in Italian society.
Perhaps the most cosmopolitan example is Giuseppe Bockarie Consoli, or Laioung (his stage name). Born in Brussels to an Italian father and Sierra Leonean mother, his story in fact mirrors that of many young people today, moving between Belgium, Italy, the UK, France, and as far afield as Canada, despite being only 25 years old, to pursue his musical career. Having released music in Italian, English and French, he enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame in late 2016 despite having only returned to Italy from Canada in September of that year. He has since gone on to front a group called the RRR Mob, whose members are of mixed Italian, Moroccan and Senegalese origins (see Noisey Italia for their article on the group). While this seems like unnecessary detail, the group has used its newfound fame to bring attention to the story of second-generation Italians and their desire for acceptance as full citizens and members of society. Whereas Balotelli was reluctantly thrust into the spotlight as a New Italian, Laioung never hesitated to enter the debate. With songs like “Italiano Nero” (Black Italian) and “La Nuova Italia” ( The New Italy) making his position clear, he has also recorded a freestyle rap in support of the proposed Ius Soli law, as well as confirming the RRR Mob’s intention to act as representatives of the second-generations and put forward reinterpretations of italianità.
A desire to show that multiple identities can coexist rather than compete within the same individual and society, and are increasingly common in a world where travel, life abroad and exposure to different cultures has increased. While some chafe at Laioung’s often brash and showy style, he has succeeded in introducing a more multilingual and eclectic approach to, and starting new discussions within Italian music. He has even been credited with raising the profile of Italian trap/rap abroad, earning a fan following and collaborations in Europe, North America and Africa.
Made in Milan
Another less imposing but nonetheless influential example of a New Italian adding to the discussion on italianità is the Milanese rapper Ghali Amdouni (stage name Ghali), born to Tunisian parents and always residing in Milan. His success has been rather the softening of the image that many Italians have of those of non-Western immigrant backgrounds. Ghali dispels the negative stereotypes held by many Italians of immigrant big-city youths with a calm demeanour, unpretentious confidence, and an endearingly quirky style. In fact, one of his greatest achievements is showing how he is just another Milanese youngster, interested in music, fashion and mundane pop culture, rather than a culturally incompatible menace to Italian society. While he is less assertive than Laioung on his status as a de facto ambassador of the New Italians, he has also weighed in on the issue of identity.
In a clip presenting his first album, he dedicates it to his city, Milan, its various neighbourhoods, and to his country, Italy. However, he also dedicates it to his Tunisian roots, to Africa, and to “all minorities”. Like Laioung, he has achieved remarkable success in Italy (and increasingly beyond it) and has generally been embraced as an Italian like any other despite his origins, and the fact his songs frequently use Arabic and French (something unthinkable for an Italian artist just a couple of years ago). He also addresses the reluctance of some people to accept him and those like him as Italians and worthy of recognition in their fields, closing one song with: “Chi è il migliore? Dillo tu mi batterai, il giorno che vedrai Salvini ai miei live” (“Who’s the best? Say it, you’ll beat me the day you see Salvini at one of my live shows”). As you can guess, Matteo Salvini (leader of the Lega Nord party) probably isn’t inclined to attend a Ghali concert any time soon anyway.
Why does it matter?
At this point it’s time to argue why all this is important. I will argue that it emphasises how identities are less and less fixed and mutually exclusive. They can change, multiple identities can exist within the same person, and new hybrid identities can take shape. While the two examples I used are of two young musicians who have, in my view, successfully blended their Italian identity and culture with their immigrant backgrounds rather than suppressing one in favour of the other, this discussion also extends to European identity. After all, the discussion now is whether people of non-European backgounds born in or coming to Europe can ever be fully European, but also whether European identity means the suppression of national and ethnic identity within Europe itself. A large part of Eurosceptics’ support comes from the idea that those of non-European origins will never be “truly” European, and that European identity is a concerted effort to crush national and ethnic identities (which of course are immutable and final according to them). Despite being born in Italy and only ever holding Italian citizenship, I have lived outside Italy most of my life (which to many would mean disqualifying me as a “real Italian”) and as a result I long wondered how to reconcile the question of my identity. I’ll confess, if anyone can think of identity as a simple in-or-out question I’m jealous in way, it’s easier! In any case a European identity made sense because it seems a logical result of not being tied to one place and living out varied experiences in Europe, and consequently identifying with various elements contained within these.
Rather than as a way to crush other identities, it brings disparate elements of traditional identities together to make something new. As a result, I can relate to a degree to the New Italians figuring out their identity, though obviously our experiences differ wildly and my luck has been undoubtedly greater than most of theirs. In any case, treating identity like a fixed in-or-our question seems increasingly counter-productive in a world where we are less likely to never leave home, more likely to go abroad, more likely to meet people from elsewhere, and families often transcend cultures, ethnicities and nationalities.
Take a bow
Ultimately, these two young men have achieved rather impressive things. Until recently, Italian rap was derided both within and outside Italy as a clumsy and amateurish imitation of the music pioneered in the United States. Now, thanks to technology and social media, but also in no small part to these two’s contributions and ability to reach new audiences (they were arguably the first two to draw genuine foreign followings), Italian rap as a whole enjoys a level of respect and visibility abroad as well as production quality and confidence at home that just a couple of years ago seemed like wishful thinking. And in their own way, Ghali and Laioung have also shown that an Afro-Italian identity is possible, but also lent support to the idea of hybrid identities in general, using the experience to create dialogue and build bridges between the communities they straddle. In a time where fear of the “other” is once again viable currency, I like to think of this as an encouraging sign that we can still find ways to learn about each other, talk to each other, and overcome our mutual prejudices. There will be delinquents, criminals and those who refuse to reasonably integrate in every society, and necessary sanctions should apply. However, these few often ruin the standing of the many wishing to balance their complex identities and contribute to their communities and adoptive countries. As multilingual, well-travelled, well-integrated, and charismatic individuals who worked hard to achieve their success, it’s ridiculous to argue that Ghali and Laioung have made Italy and Europe worse places. Their experience can serve to encourage others’ integration and soothe the mistrust between immigrant communities and the societies they exist in. They are powerful role models not only to those of similar backgrounds to them, but also a message of hope for Italy and for Europe as a whole.
And on that note, Ghali Amdouni and Giuseppe Bockarie Consoli, you’ve done Italy proud, bravi ragazzi. I salute you.