Getting Past the Accents: The Universally Impactful Language of Foreign Rap

by Melanie Bertoldi (Journalism), published March 10th 2012

“Elite critics … write that rap must be produced in local places, not in corporate studios for the national market, to be authentic; that ‘‘the ghetto’’ is a site from which rap full of personal meaning emerges; and that foreign rap is aesthetically innovative and politically important when compared to domestic production,” write two UC San Diego sociology professors in their 2010 article* titled “Cosmopolitan preferences: The constitutive role of place in American elite taste for hip-hop music 1991–2005.”

Instead of surveying these elites, the study analyzed the writings of music journalists who frequently reviewed hip-hop music.

While I obviously don’t identify as an “elite critic” of anything (seriously, do those exist?), I tend to agree with the aforementioned statement. Is it a coincidence that Italian rap, which takes its origins from the same nation as the word “ghetto” (In Italian, it just means a foundry), often reflects more of a genuine effort at using artists’ attention to expose listeners to some socio-political food for thought, regardless of whether or not these artists come from any sort of poverty? I think not.

“International scenes are privileged as politically and aesthetically more important than American scenes,” the study explains in its abstract. I wouldn’t use the term “privileged” there; rather, they are rightfully considered to be what the critics say they are. This is because when you take a look at what’s going on in the American rap scene, you’d be hard-pressed to find the range of emotions and political sentiments expressed by foreign rappers.

With that in mind, I hope to give readers a small taste of foreign rap artists I’m familiar with – in particular, two Italian ones – to stimulate an increased consciousness of the potential takeaways of talented hip-hoppers outside America.

Admittedly, because rap is rooted in the African American community, most foreign rappers take cues from Americans in their style of dress and commercial behavior. By the latter, I mean how they act in their music videos, for example. This is not to say that there aren’t things to be learned by artists and fans from foreign rap artists.

Two of the more prominent qualities held by foreign-language rappers that I give credence to here are their use of the spotlight as a political forum and their embrace and full expression of emotion. The microcosms I will look to are two of my favorite Italian rap artists, Lorenzo Jovanotti (an older, more sexual Jason Mraz whose entertainment moniker is simply Jovanotti), and Fabri Fibra (a seemingly American rap copycat who actually has a lot of his own ideas to spew).

First up is Jovanotti, whose style varies from unapologetically silly. “Tanto Tanto Tanto,” a song whose title means “A lot, a lot, a lot,” but whose video is unique in a way that might garner the rapper a “cheesy” label by Americans, but is more refreshing than the videos I’m used to seeing in our great nation of rappers toting guns and half-naked women. Still, he can also be achingly romantic, albeit cheesy. Here is the first type:

“Tanto Tanto Tanto” by Jovanotti

Before I continue, I must encourage you to read a translation of any of these songs’ lyrics (and those of other foreign artists you may be so inclined to check out) if you’re listening.  But, I argue that the emotional nature of these songs, and not always their lyrics, is their most powerful asset.

This second quality that I mentioned is exemplified in Jovanotti’s track “Serenata Rap” (Serenity Rap), which is composed in a love letter format where, again, the artist takes no back steps in telling his would-be lover exactly what he thinks of her being and physique. The most notable thing here is Jovanotti’s tone; that is, how he stays in character as a man desperate for his dream-girl’s attention. Phony American rappers — with the bravado they interpret as a turn-on to female listeners but just as often is off-putting to them – should take note.

“Serenata Rap” by Jovanotti 

Next up is Fabri Fibra (real name Fabrizio Tarducci), a much-buzzed-about Italian rapper that was nominated for MTV Europe’s Best Italian Act award last year. With his newfound fame, he has become increasingly outspoken against the Italian government and the state of the world in general. Most often, he uses satire to criticize the corruption and shakiness of the Italian government, like in “VIP in TRIP,” a track of his 2011 number one rap album (in Italy) Controcultura.

In this song, Fabri notes the changing times in his country and the dismal outlook for people his age, blaming at least part of it on the stupidity of politicians, especially those part of The Northern League (basically, a political party that is popular in northern Italy and claims southern Italians are a whole different, lesser race. [Get the picture?]).

“VIP in TRIP” by Fabri Fabri

Without bombarding you with more non-English rap songs, I hope you’ve gotten the point. Who are your favorite foreign rappers? Please respond in the comment section below!


*Cheyne, A., Binder, A., Cosmopolitan preferences: The constitutive

role of place in American elite taste for hip-hop music 1991–2005. Poetics (2010), doi:10.1016/j.poetic.2010.01.001

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