Aggressive, punky beats and passionate lyrics are Karima 2G's forte - but what can she tell us about the state of Italy today?
Italy is a country that I love. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time there both on holiday and as an exchange student with a family in Bologna, and later as a year abroad student at the University of Bologna. I’ve studied the language and the culture, and it is a place that I, along with many other non-Italians, have a profound, romanticised love. For people like me, Italy is the land of Federico Fellini, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Dante Alighieri. It is the land of pizza, pasta, and gelato. A land of Tuscan sun and Sicilian nights. A land that contains more astounding art in one museum than others have in a whole city. Even its dark side is a well-known and romanticised one. Italian political corruption, maybe best personified in the west by billionaire media tycoon, sex pest, and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is well known, and the mafia is even more famous. Through their portrayals in both Italian and American media, in television shows such as Gomorrah, The Sopranos, and Suburra, they have come to be seen as glamourised figures of entertainment in the UK and the USA. But of course, this is not the whole picture. It never is. As with any nation, there’s the dark underbelly, the side of a country that really only reveals itself to those who live there, and this is what Karima 2G concerns herself with.
“Her style on the song (and indeed throughout the album) is brash, angry, forthright... Karima 2G is making a point about the current state of Italy. All the problems she spoke about in the album haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve multiplied and become the political mainstream.”
Karima 2G is an Italian of Liberian descent, and in her music, she speaks of the sexism and racism that is prevalent in Italian society. This is in addition to the difficulty in, and disdain for, integrating into Italian society, something I have witnessed first-hand. Or at least, I thought I did. During my six-month placement in Bologna, I happened to end up living in a part of the city that had quite a lot of immigrants, and as one does, I began to notice them. It seemed that the adults had more difficulty in integrating, while the younger generation seemed more accepting. My internal narrative rooted in the deep shame I felt (and continue to feel) about my own nation, the UK. At the time I went to Italy, not a few months before had we voted to leave the European Union, and there was an ensuing rise in hate crime against ethnic minorities and immigrants. It seemed to me that compassion had left British politics, and, call me a bleeding-heart liberal if you will, instinctively I have always believed the Charlie Chaplin line from The Great Dictator: “more than cleverness we need kindness.” At that time, Italy appeared to provide that kindness. As a nation, they bore a large brunt of the ongoing migrant crisis. An American expat I met in Bologna who had lived in Italy for over fifty years said to me about the migrant crisis that despite the problems caused by an incapability to properly absorb migrants, the Italians cared. I believed him.
“Mi dispiace la Brexit” was the recurring refrain amongst the Italians who asked me about my nation’s disastrous political state. “I’m sorry about Brexit”. And I felt the same way. I still do. I probably always will. But that’s for a different article. That, however, was the atmosphere into which I was looking into this world, which was mixed in with the fact that, though I am Jewish, I am also white and do not experience racism for the colour of my skin, my romanticism and love for Italy, and the general stupidity and lack of experience that comes with being a 20-year-old. Yes, there were a few bad apples, but Italy seemed to me to be a place that cared more about the frightening migrant crisis that is still unfolding across the Mediterranean. It is also worth mentioning that my perspective could have been influenced by the fact that Bologna (and its region Emilia Romagna more generally) is overall a left-wing and wealthy area with lots of students, and as such people’s views would be vastly different in poorer areas. Fast forward four years, and I couldn’t have been more wrong in my generalisations. In 2018, Italy voted in its first populist government, a coalition between the anti-establishment (and anti-vaccine – how’s that holding up?) Movimento Cinque Stelle and the neo-fascist, racist, anti-immigration La Lega, headed up by Italian politics’ very own Snake from The Simpsons, Matteo Salvini. During his time in government, he closed the ports to the ships carrying rescued migrants, for which he is now facing legal action. He wanted to introduce a compulsory racial census to keep tabs on Romani people, whom he said could ‘unfortunately’ not be deported, though he was forced not to by the Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte. Although he is no longer the Interior Minister due to a political miscalculation on his behalf, his party still leads by a huge margin in the polls, and anti-immigrant sentiment is high. Just this year, Salvini knocked on the door of a Tunisian immigrant family asking if they dealt drugs. It’s scary stuff. That said, all these sentiments didn’t suddenly appear in 2018, even though to me it had appeared to have come out of nowhere. No, these issues had always been underlying, and only now had they come to the forefront of politics. Italy is not unique in this. It has happened all over the world, and is also something that I had come to realise about my own country.
It is with this background that I came to listen to Karima 2G’s debut album, 2G. The fact that it was released in 2014 just proves that these issues were already prevalent in Italian society, and probably had been for much before that too. Orangutan might be the most pointed statement of this. It starts off with a recording of a news report talking about Cecile Kyenge, a Congolese-born Italian who became Italy’s first black minister in 2013, and how a Lega deputy named Roberto Calderoli called her an orangutan. This shocking racist incident caused outrage, but ultimately nothing happened, and Calderoli is still a senator and his party, La Lega are more popular than they have ever been. She raps lyrics such as “government shut down” and “I love animals, bears and wolves/Mr Calderoli come sit in my zoo”, and you can hear the passion in those lyrics. Her style on the song (and indeed throughout the album) is brash, angry, forthright, and I completely get why. Karima 2G is making a point about the current state of Italy. All the problems she spoke about in the album haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve multiplied and become the political mainstream.
Bunga Bunga is on one level about Berlusconi and his infamous parties – he is namechecked in the lyrics as giving a “bunga bunga education”, but it is also about her lack of interest in integrating into Italian society if it means giving up her African roots. Given that, according to her Facebook page, this album was inspired by her visit back to Monroeville in Liberia, this is unsurprising. Jambo Bwana which speaks of the stereotypical role of women in Italian society, and contains such lyrics as “getting physical with young ladies/cook the pasta, it’s ready”, which reflects on the fact that not only is misogyny deeply rooted in Italian society, women are expected to conform to rigid gender roles. The penultimate track, Africanism is more hopeful, reflecting on a possibility of a united Pan-Africanism, free of “Marxism-Leninism [and] capitalism”, aiming to create the ideology of the title that represents Africa. For such a short album, only 24 minutes long, there’s plenty to think about.
On a musical level, the album is aggressive and that matches the lyrical style. It isn’t a relaxing album by any means. The instrumentation is jagged and sharp, often sparsely arranged; it shakes you around, and that can be disorienting. I have to admit that on the first listen I did not like the album much at all, though from the start I recognised the value of the lyrics. Now having listened to it several more times for the purpose of this review I’ve got used to the style, which I can now appreciate more. It is also her first album, and as such, I can forgive her the lack of polish in the music, especially when it has given me so much to think about. It is things like this that make me reflect upon Italy, and what I think of as ‘Italy’. Italy most certainly is the land of pasta and pizza, and of the Italian neorealism, and of the great detective novels of Leonardo Sciascia, but that is not all it is. I must also remember Italy is also a living, breathing country, a changing country, not a museum piece for tourists like me. Like every country, it has the good, and the bad, and national identity can morph. People like Karima 2G are a part of that, forging a new ‘Italianism’.