When it comes to Italian music, my taste is pretty much defined: I never listen to anybody under 70. That’s probably why my friends never ask me to choose the music at parties…
And then, there’s Mahmood.
Alessandro Mahmoud (the stage name is a portmanteau playing on the pronunciation of his surname and the expression: “My mood”) was born in the outskirts of Milan in 1992, which makes the two of us almost peers.
Borrowing from different genres such as R&B and trap, which have gained considerable traction in Italy in the past decade, he has managed to create an original style described as “Moroccan pop”. He told the press several times that one of his earliest musical influences is the Arabic music he would listen to with his father as a kid.
His timbre is immediately recognisable, his voice is unique.
Unquestionably cool, he wears elaborate outfits without looking affected. His oversized, colourful short-sleeve shirts have become iconic.
Like most people, I had never heard of Mahmood before 2018, when I first saw him performing on TV. A year later, he was catapulted to fame when he won Sanremo Music Festival – the most prestigious Italian music contest – with the single Soldi (Money).
Highly autobiographical, the song recalls the anger and disillusionment experienced by the singer as a kid, after his father left his family. “You leave the city without anybody knowing, yesterday you were here, where are you now, dad?” he sings.
On a formal level, Soldi was truly revolutionary, starting with the fact it doesn’t have a proper chorus. The repetition of the word “soldi” and the captivating sound of clapping hands do the trick, hooking the audience. Presenting it at Sanremo, the temple of Italian melodic – when not melodramatic – music, must have required an act of courage.
The song is subversive even with regard to its content, because it turns the role that money usually plays in trap music – seen as the ultimate goal in life and the only way to social redemption – into a symbol of abandonment.
Mahmood’s impressive vocal range, the excellent production behind him, and the enthralling music inspired by Arabic tunes did the rest. Soldi was a smashing hit.
Later that year, it represented Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest, winning second place. It was the best-selling single in Italy for weeks, the most listened to Italian single ever on Spotify, and the highest entry ever of an Italian song in the Top 50 Global hits.
Many Italians loved the song instantly. Even Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, retweeted some lines of it.
But, as it often happens in Italy when novelty comes too quickly and too unexpectedly,
Mahmood’s victory at Sanremo plummeted into a mess in the media incited by populist politicians.
In a tweet, the then Interior Minister indirectly questioned the “Italianness” of the singer – whose father is Egyptian – followed by the then Minister of Labour who accused the panel of judges that had favoured Mahmood of being “radical chic”.
The extensive debate around Mahmood’s victory shed light on the public perception of diversity in our Country, unveiling several themes at the center of the contemporary debate, from migratory flows and rights to citizenship, to sexual identity and living conditions in the peripheries.
On his part, the singer replied with what must have been a gargantuan dose of self-control, impenetrable determination and hard work. Shortly after Sanremo and Eurovision he released his first album, Gioventù Bruciata (Wasted Youth), a moving tale on the complicated nature of relationships, which gave life to Mahmood’s roots and memories.
The album is a great proof of the singer’s talent as a songwriter. He is able to compose articulated stories in few words, shying away from the sentimentalism in which the good majority of Italian singers continue to bask in.
He then released one successful single after another, often collaborating with friends from the trap and rap scene.
My favourite song, Rapide (Rapids), recalls images from a tumultuous relationship. It’s Mahmood at his most vulnerable and melancholic, miles away from the stereotypical male figure Italian society is still struggling to leave behind.
In the meantime, his videos have gotten more and more sophisticated, marked by strong symbolic imagery. For the single Inuyasha he impersonates a demon, wearing a total-red outfit inspired by the eponymous titular anime character designed for him by Riccardo Tisci.
Well-choreographed and remarkably sensual, KLAN was largely shot at Fiumara d’arte, an open-air museum near Castel di Tusa, Sicily, with a towering pyramid in weathering steel – a sculpture by the artist Mauro Staccioli and a nod to Egypt, of course.
This past June, Ghettolimpo, Mahmood’s second album, was released with much anticipation. In it, the artist continues to explore his identity, forced to deal with his rise in fame over the past two years.
The album abounds in references to Ancient Greek mythology and its heroes, Narcissus and Icarus above all, taking Mount Olympus as a metaphor for the almost divine nature of success as it’s perceived by our society.
One song after the other, Mahmood evokes deserts and cities, sadness and anger, to then reach one of his highest moments with T’Amo (I Love You), dedicated to his mother, re-arranging a traditional love poem from Sardinia.
I know my limits in contemporary music. I can’t listen to any trap song for more than 20 seconds, for instance. But with Mahmood everything is different. He manages to keep his incredibly complex mix of references together, from classical music to rap, from pop to Arabic-inspired vocals. And, more importantly, it works. The music style of Ghettolimpo, the second track of the album, changes at least three times in less than four minutes, starting with a soothing intro that reminds of the Islamic call to prayer. Yet one doesn’t perceive these shifts as jarring, the same way one is able to recognize the different inclinations of a friend as part of their character.
“Gli anni ‘90 ci hanno fatto male / Cambiano i sogni con l’età ma
Non si cambia la realtà” (The 90s hurt us / With age, dreams change but reality doesn’t) ends one of Mahmood’s songs from his first album.
I might sound presumptuous, but I think I get Mahmood.
We’re part of the same generation of Italian kids that grew up with the notion of “crisis” ingrained in us (political, economic, environmental – have your pick), watching anime on TV and playing Pokémon on the Game Boy.
Our parents were the first to divorce en masse. We reached adulthood pretty late in comparison to them, and we’re still trying to understand it all.
Perhaps, we do have the power to change our own reality.
From the suburbs of Milan to the Mount Olympus of fame: Mahmood knows a thing or two about that.