Amir Issaa

(Rome, 1978 – )

(By Rachel Grasso, University of Toronto)

Amir Issaa was born in Rome on December 10, 1978, to an Italian mother and an Egyptian immigrant father, and raised in the Roman neighborhood Torpignattara. His father’s incarceration led to a difficult childhood in which he also experienced acts of racism and xenophobia. Wanting to protect her son from discrimination, Amir’s mother called him Massimo as a child, a name which he went by until he was eighteen years old when he discovered that his legal name was Amir. Proud of both his Italian and Egyptian heritage, he then went by the name Amir and is now an important advocate for “second-generation” Italians.[1] In a continuous fight against racism, xenophobia, and inequality in Italy, he finds rap to be “a positive relief valve, and thanks to it [he] is able to tell his personal stories to the rest of the world.”[2] Amir’s determination to help and educate others will characterize his career not only as a successful rapper and producer but also as an accomplished author and activist.

Amir began to participate in hip-hop culture in the early 1990s, first as a breaker and then as a writer in the Roman graffiti crew, The Riot Vandals. In 1996, he helped found Rome Zoo, a united group of the city’s rappers, such as Colle Der Fomento, Cor Veleno, Flaminio Maphia, and Piotta as well as approximately thirty other Roman hip-hop artists. Amir’s debut as an emerging hip-hop artist occurs in 1999 when he is featured in Colle Der Fomento’s song “Preparati” in their successful album, Scienza Doppia H. In 2000, Amir formed the group, Due buoni motivi, with another Roman rapper, Supremo 73, and together they released a 3-track vinyl produced by Unic Records and an EP titled Meglio tardi che mai (2002). Amir then collaborated with the Anglo-Italian beatmaker Mr. Phil to release the LP Naturale, published by the independent label Vibra Records, in 2004. Amir released his first solo album Uomo di prestigio with Emi/Virgin Records in 2006. His career then took off and over the years published numerous full-length albums, such as Vita di prestigio (2007), Paura di nessuno (2008), Amir 2.0 (2009), Pronto al peggio (2010), Red Carpet Music (2011), Grandezza naturale (2012), Ius music (2014), and Livin’ Proof (2019).

Amir’s work has been successful not only in the music industry, but also in the film industry and in the literary field. His music has appeared in various films and television series, such as the films Scialla! (2012, director: Francesco Bruni, song: “Scialla! (stai sereno)”), La luna che vorrei (2012, director: Francesco Barnabei, soundtrack composer and actor),geNEWration (2013, directors: Amin Nour and Pietro Tamaro, song: “Non sono un immigrato”), and Idris (2017, director: Kassim Yassin, song: “Stare bene”) as well as in the second season of the Roman crime series Suburra (2019). In fact, the song “Scialla! (stai sereno)” that he created in collaboration with The Caesars was nominated for important film awards in 2012, such as the David di Donatello and the Nastri d’Argento. Also nominated for an award was his book Vivo per questo (I live for this), an autobiographical novel published in 2017, that received second place in Rome’s Premio biblioteche competition in 2018. In May of 2021, Amir published his second book, Educazione Rap (Rap Education), in which he recounts his experiences of speaking at schools and universities as well as illustrates the power of rap as a linguistic tool to express oneself, combat stereotypes and racism, and discuss political, economic, and social issues. He also released his most recent single, “Questo rap,” to celebrate the release of his most recent book in the same month.

Amir’s music is successful not only for the high quality of the beats and rhymes, but also for the clear and direct style of his lyrics. While some hip-hop artists in Italy’s rap and trap music scenes prioritize commercial success and becoming a mainstream artist (a choice that requires the use of vague lyrics with subtle messages when speaking about politics), Amir instead remains true to the origins of hip-hop as a musical expression and form of protest. He openly and explicitly states his point of view, perspective, and stance on important issues, such as the identity and rights of second-generation Italians. For example, in his song “Non sono un immigrato” (“I’m not an immigrant”), Amir clearly communicates that he is Italian and combats racist stereotypes:

Non mi devo integrare, io qua ci sono nato
io non sono mio padre, non sono un immigrato
non sono un terrorista, non sono un rifugiato
mangio pasta e pizza, io sono un italiano

(I don’t need to integrate, I was born here
I’m not my father, I’m not an immigrant
I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a refugee
I eat pasta and pizza, I’m an Italian)

His direct style is present in his song “Caro Presidente (prod. QD)” (“Dear President”), accompanied by a petition on Change.org, in which he addresses the President of Italy and asks him to change the ius sanguinis citizenship law for the benefit of the entire country:

Più di mezzo milione di persone
che vivono nascoste stranieri in questa nazione
ci sta Daniel, ci sta Amir, c’è Simone
vogliamo i nostri diritti, non chiediamo un favore
ci nasci, ci cresci, la ami, la vivi
e a diciotto costretti a fuggire come clandestini
l’Italia è più bella insieme a tutti i miei amici africani, orientali, cinesi, e filippini
il futuro è adesso, questa è la realtà
andate a guardare nelle scuole o nelle università
e se l’Italia è in Europa come Londra e Parigi
stesso sangue scorre dal Po fino al Tamigi
ius soli, ius sanguinis, non fa differenza
parlo di esseri umani che usano l’intelligenza
caro presidente, una mano sulla coscienza
se la sfida è il futuro abbiamo perso in partenza.

Caro presidente, l’Italia con noi migliora
cittadinanza adesso come nel resto d’Europa
caro presidente, caro presidente, caro presidente, caro presidente.

Caro presidente, l’Italia con noi è più bella
siamo tutti coinvolti, ogni uomo su questa terra
caro presidente, caro presidente, caro presidente, caro presidente

(More than half a million people
that live hidden as foreigners in this country
there’s Daniel, there’s Amir, there’s Simone
we want our rights, we’re not asking for a favor
you’re born here, you grow up here, you love it here, you live here
and at eighteen years old you’re forced to avoid detection like an illegal immigrant
Italy is more beautiful with all of my African, Asian, Chinese, and Filipino friends
the future is now, this is reality
go look in the schools and universities
if Italy is in Europe like London and Paris
the same blood runs from the Po to the Thames
ius soli, ius sanguinis, it doesn’t make a difference
I’m talking about human beings that use their intelligence
dear President, check your conscience
if the challenge is the future we have lost from the outset.

Dear President, Italy improves with us in it
citizenship now like in the rest of Europe
dear President, dear President, dear President, dear President.

Dear President, Italy is more beautiful with us in it
we’re all involved, every man in this land
dear President, dear President, dear President, dear President)

Amir’s music is also characterized by linguistic diversity, which is demonstrated by the use of Italian in combination with the Roman dialect (along with his Roman accent) and various foreign languages. For example, in his song “Straniero nella mia nazione,” he raps in Italian, the Roman dialect, Arabic, and Spanish: “Lo porto dalla strada/ E tutto il mondo è la mia casa/ Ezaiac hola chico que pasa/…/Non fidarti di nessuno, te mejo che me senti” (“I bring it from the street and the whole world is my home/ How are you hey man what’s up/…/Don’t trust anybody, you better listen to me”). He also utilizes English in numerous other songs, and his song “All for you” even contains entire verses in English.

One of Amir’s many strengths as a rapper and activist is his ability to put significant and international issues, such as racism, xenophobia, and inequality, into an Italian context. Following the murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, Amir spoke at Black Lives Matter protests in Rome, participated in the Vice News documentary “Black Lives Matter: A Global Reckoning: Italy,” and did a featuring in Davide Shorty’s song “Non respiro” (“I can’t breathe”) along with David Blank. In his verse of the song, Amir puts the Black Lives Matter movement into an Italian context by remembering the lives of Soumaila Salko[3] and Abdul Salam Guibre (referred to in the song as Abba)[4].

Mamma non respiro se ho un ginocchio sulla faccia
vivo al centro del mirino da quando sto nella pancia
la mia gente è stanca, vittima della sua rabbia
ostaggi della fame, angeli in cielo come Abba.

Mamma non respiro, è ghiaccio freddo questo asfalto
li stringo mentre prego pensando a Soumaila Sacko
la coscienza chiama, stai sicuro che rispondo
porto sulle spalle il peso dell’odio del mondo

per i miei fratelli pronto a scendere giù in guerra
meglio morire lottando che vivere steso a terra
pagine sbiadite, questo libro va riscritto
e quando verranno a prendermi sai che non starò zitto

per mia mamma e soprattutto per mio figlio
per mio padre El Sayed che è scappato dall’Egitto
siamo tutti uguali, come Allah, come Cristo
odio il razzismo, Amir Issaa, sangue misto

(Mom I can’t breathe if I have a knee on my face
I’ve lived as a target since I was in the womb
my people are tired, victims of their anger
hostages of famine, angels in heaven like Abba.

Mom I can’t breathe, it’s ice cold on this asphalt
I hold on tight while I beg thinking about Soumaila Sacko 
my conscience is calling, rest assured I’ll answer
I carry the weight of the world’s hate on my shoulders

I’m ready to go to war for my brothers
it’s better to die fighting than to live lying down on the ground
faded pages, this book needs to be rewritten
and when they come to get me I won’t be quiet

for my mom and above all for my son
for my father El Sayed who fled from Egypt
we’re all equal, like Allah, like Christ
I hate racism, Amir Issaa, mixed blood)

As a representative of the generation of “nuovi italiani” (new Italians), Amir’s music is necessary to give a voice to a community that does not yet have all of the political, economic, and social representation that it needs. Amir’s fans anxiously await his next album, but in the meantime they can watch him work as he is very active on social media (particularly on Instagram) and frequently a guest on national television programs like RAI.

Sources:

“Black Lives Matter: A Global Reckoning: Italy.” YouTube, uploaded by Vice News, 8 Feb. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h60y7Z-GipQ&t=2s.

Filios, Laura. “Soumaila Sacko: le tracce indelebili di un attivista, migrante e bracciante.” Osservatorio diritti, 10 Dec. 2020, https://www.osservatoriodiritti.it/2020/12/10/soumaila-sacko-storia-omicidio-salvini/.

Gianni, Andrea. “Ucciso nel 2008 a sprangate, la sorella: ‘Dieci anni di dolore per Abba, basta razzismo’: Appello della sorella di Abba. E uno degli assassini è in semilibertà.” Il Giorno Milano, 23 Aug. 2018, https://www.ilgiorno.it/milano/cronaca/abba-razzismo-1.4102225.

Grasso, Rachel Ann. “Cara Italia: l’espressione dell’identità multiculturale nella musica rap e trap italiana” (Georgetown University, Department of Italian, Spring 2020). https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/1059490

Issaa, Amir. “Amir Issaa—Caro presidente—(prod. QD).” YouTube, uploaded by Amir Issaa, 18 Dec. 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTaB0RIjx4s.


NOTES

[1] A second-generation Italian is an individual with one or both immigrant parent(s) who was born and/or raised in Italy. Due to the country’s ius sanguinis law that grants Italian citizenship based on blood (unlike the ius soli law present in countries like the United States and Canada that grants citizenship if the individual is born in the country), the individual will not have the legal right to claim Italian citizenship if both of their parents are immigrants. When the individual turns 18 years old, they do have the opportunity to apply for Italian citizenship. However, the process only provides a 1-year period for the applicant to submit all of the required legal documentation, which often is too little time when interacting with the country’s inefficient and complicated bureaucratic system. If they miss the 1-year window, they must apply for citizenship like an immigrant who was not born and has never lived in Italy – a process that can take many years – and continuously renew their residence permits. The lack of Italian citizenship negatively impacts their lives in a significant way as it affects their ability to study, work, and travel as well as undermines their identity as Italians.

[2] https://www.amirissaa.com/biography/

[3] Soumaila Sacko was a 29-year-old black migrant from Mali who actively spoke out against theabuses of migrant workers in Calabria and advocated for human rights. He was murdered in 2018 in San Calogero (Calabria) by Antonio Pontoriero, a 45-year-old farmer who lived and worked in the area.

[4] Abdul Salam Guibre was a black Italian 19-year-old who was born in Burkina Faso, had lived in Italy almost his entire life, and had Italian citizenship. He was murdered in 2008 in Milan by a 51-year-old shopkeeper, Fausto Cristofoli, and his 31-year-old son, Daniele Cristofoli, who beat him to death with metal poles after accusing him of stealing a packet of biscuits.

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