One rainy Monday evening in October, a cheering crowd welcomed Ghali Amdouni back to Milan, his hometown. Born to Tunisian immigrants, Ghali, as he is known, was raised by his mother in a poor neighborhood where for a time they slept on carpets and cooked with camping stoves. Tonight, she stood beside him onstage and blew kisses to the nearly 13,000 people who had come to hear him perform trap music, the originally grim variety of hip-hop that developed in 1990s Atlanta.
Ghali has in a very short time risen from obscurity to ubiquity. In 2017, his debut album surpassed Ed Sheeran’s 2017 album in Spotify streams in Italy. Today, the 25-year-old is everywhere: on the radio, in ads (for Adidas and Vodafone), in video games. In one sense, this is not surprising. Trap is the most influential genre of the century, its defining elements—heavy bass lines, synth, minor keys—now echoed in pop around the globe. Ghali, however, is not a typical trap artist. Eschewing his fellow Italian trap musicians’ harsh language and macho posturing (rapping about guns, for example, in a country without much of a gun culture), he cultivates a polished sound and an unthreatening persona. His unofficial slogan is “T.V.B.”—short for “I love you” in Italian. He performs in bright-colored suits. He punctuates his Instagram posts with rainbow emoji. And, in a particularly Italian move, he sings about his mother. “I always have my mom on my mind,” Ghali told me. (When I interviewed him by phone in December, he paused at one point to take her call.)
All of which helps explain how the child of Muslim, Arabic-speaking immigrants has achieved such fame in Europe’s most anti-immigrant country. Ghali is careful to avoid talking about religion or politics publicly—yet if you listen to his lyrics, you’ll hear plenty that’s subversive. “The newspaper … talks about the foreigner as if he were an alien,” he announces in his most popular song, “Cara Italia” (“Dear Italy”), a love letter that envisions an open-arms nationalism. “When they tell me, ‘Go back home!’ … I reply, ‘I am already here.’ ” Other lyrics are equally pointed: “You think that Islam equals ISIS,” he raps in “Wily Wily,” a song whose chorus Italian fans delight in joining, even though it’s in Arabic.
Some wonder how much Ghali’s fans, many of whom are children and teens, understand of his lyrics, but most observers I spoke with feel sure that his message is seeping through. A prominent Italian journalist has gone so far as to declare one of his songs (“Mamma”) “perhaps the most important text written in Italy so far on the migrant drama.” Ghali is so popular that even far-right voters are being dragged to his concerts by their children.
Zandria Robinson, a sociologist at Rhodes College who studies pop culture, has examined both Ghali’s music and the broader evolution of trap with interest. “Whether you’re talking about selling drugs in Atlanta or fighting fascism in western Europe,” Robinson told me, “you are talking about pushing against something that seems all-encompassing.” Adding to Ghali’s appeal, she says, is “a pop, an ebullience, an effervescence that helps to cut through the noise of this political moment” and encourages “a bit of a clapback” against racism and xenophobia.
“Good fascists,” she added archly, “would appropriate Ghali and figure out how to head this off at the pass.”
This article appears in the April 2019 print edition with the headline “Music for the Migrant Crisis.”