ITALY – It’s been a little over 18 months since the win at the Sanremo Music Festival that catapulted Mahmood into the public eye in Italy. Sanremo is something like the Brit Awards meets Eurovision, something that commands more than 10 million viewers a night – it’s as bright a stage as the country has. With a towering – and by some measures, stunning – win, came a flood of hype, fandom and possibility.
Infamously, it was also a win that caught the attention – and ire – of Italy’s then – deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, one of the faces of the global turn towards populism and right-wing politics in the past half-decade. Mahmood, born Alessandro Mahmoud, the son of a Sardinian mother and an Egyptian father, became a useful target for the neo-nationalist. Here was the product of two kinds of communities on the fringe of Italian life, on its most prestigious stage.
“There’s always someone who will understand the right story… And there will always be people who speak against you. Against your race, your politics. They’ll always exist.”
By 2018, he was writing songs for other Italian artists. He writes a certified platinum hit and entered into a new publishing contract: a deal to write songs for other musicians.
“Last year, Sara, who I work with, told me I should do Sanremo again. I told her no – because if I don’t win, my career is over.” It’s understandable – by that point, he was finding a place for himself in the industry. A place a lot of people would be satisfied with. Publishing deals, for many songwriters, can be the source of rich, decades-long careers. But pivoting back to being a solo artist and placing last in the competition could be embarrassing at best, ruinous at worst. “But she convinced me. And that was ‘Soldi’.”
In a comment under the music video for his single “Barrio”, a user pointed out that an Italian song, with a Spanish title, shot in Morocco, with a cast of Arabs, sung by an Italian with an Egyptian father felt like something close to Mediterranean pride, something beautiful in a time of division. You find yourself agreeing, which doesn’t often happen with YouTube comments.
“Yeah, but I don’t like to put my music in a category. I like to speak about my music in a free way. If someday I would like to rap, I don’t want anyone to say my music is rap. I like to keep a free mood. It’s right when you say my music is Mediterranean. It’s right when you say my music is Arabic. But it’s not right when you say it’s only Mediterranean. I like to mix all my moods.”