Italian Rapper and Activist Amir Issaa Performs at the College of Liberal Arts
By: Nick Santangelo
Normally a quiet place reserved for near-silent study, Paley Library played host to a hip-hop concert on Tuesday afternoon. Or at least, the library’s basement did. But despite the booming bass and impassioned reciting of lyrics, the library remained a place for students to expand their worldviews by learning something previously foreign to them.
That’s because the concert was being put on by Amir Issa, an Italian artist who often raps about his country’s citizenship laws, which he views as outdated. Specifically, the law mandates that any Italian born to immigrant parents can only become a citizen when he or she turns 18. Issaa was born an Italian citizen because his mother is Italian, but since his father was an Egyptian immigrant, he has often made to feel like a foreigner in his own country.
Issa sees combatting this issue as his mission and says it’s been “good fuel” for his career as a rapper. But he does more than just rap about it, as he told College of Liberal Arts Italian students between songs that he’s spoken at Italian Parliament and lobbied for changes to the law. He also travels to the U.S. and performs on college campuses like Temple University, where he engages students on the issue. But can Owls do anything to help change Italian citizenship law?
I think this is a universal message for me
Issaa cautioned against viewing things that way. Instead, he spoke of how his mother always told him to help everyone in need. Though Issaa’s family was relatively poor when he was a kid, his mother still taught him to give what money they could spare to the homeless.
“I think all the people in the world, it’s possible to help others,” said Issaa. “This is not Italy, the United States, Temple University. I think this is a universal message for me. Now I'm in front of the students at Temple, and I hope the people feel me and maybe imitate me.”
One way they can be like Issaa is by being honest. Songs he performed at Temple included Foreigner in My Country and I’m Not an Immigrant. Issaa’s music is true to what he believes and what he’s lived through, the discrimination he’s overcome to get where he is today. Rapping about citizenship isn’t necessarily a formula for commercial success—though Issaa is now signed with a major label. In fact, in his telling, it’s at odds with climbing the charts.
Issaa believes his music would be more profitable if his lyrics spoke more about money, cars and girls, but that’s just not what he wants to do. Thirty-nine and a father, he wants his rap to help people, not build up his ego. He measures his success differently than in dollars and cents.
“I'm in the United States,” says Issaa. “I talk about my life in some universities in front of people who want to know my story. It's a success for me, but it's not a success on the radio.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily against all commercial rap. Issaa’s favorite artist is Nas, whose N.Y. State of Mind inspired Issaa to write This Is Rome, which he performed Tuesday on campus. And when the Italian rapper was first exposed to hip-hop in the ‘80s, it was because of a mixtape featuring Run DMC. It also was through American hip-hop artists like Run DMC that Issaa learned his first bits of English. To write his own rhymes, however, he needed to study the language closer.
“I started to read books and change,” he recalls. “You write rhymes, and you don't know words. You don't know verbs, grammar. It's not possible to construct a good song. For this, I started not in school because my family—my father was in jail, and my mother all day and night was at work. And I started to read books for the hip-hop. That's my story.”
At least, that’s the story about him he wished the media would tell. That, and his struggles growing up without being able to become an Italian citizen and his fight to make that possible for second-generation Italian immigrants today. Some of the media does tell that story. Other journalists, however, have asked him seemingly offensive and certainly trivial questions like whether he prefers to eat falafel or pasta.
I don't want to self-pity—I want to react
But Issaa says he’s hopeful things will change, even if it takes 10-20 years. In Italian schools today, he sees sons and daughters of immigrants everywhere. The younger generation, claims Issaa, is now supportive of them and their cause. Hip-hop, too, has changed a lot since Issaa was first exposed to it. He sees himself as having helped to pioneer this change in Italian hip-hop.
Now he’ll need to take more steps than just rapping, but there’s something small he wants Temple students to do: be curious, ask questions and explore musicians outside of the mainstream.
“I don't want to self-pity—I want to react,” says Issaa. “React but not violently. Not with punches or guns. I react with music, with art, with words. And this, I think, changes the minds of the people.”