Streaming has allowed the genre, sometimes sung by people with ties to the mafia, to become a national craze. Is a crackdown necessary, or merely kneejerk censorship?
Last modified on Fri 4 Feb 2022 06.12 EST
Tony Colombo is one of the biggest names in neomelodica, an Italian music style combining elements of traditional Neapolitan song (think O Sole Mio) with modern pop influences. He has released more than 20 albums, held concerts across Italy, Germany, Canada and the US, and has hordes of fans.
It is also alleged that part of his fortune comes from laundering money for the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia , made famous through its depiction in Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorrah and its TV adaptation. On 21 December, the Italian police confiscated goods from Colombo including an apartment, two cars and €80,000 (£66,000). In 2019, Colombo married the widow of a Camorra boss and he has reportedly been seen at parties thrown by the Camorra; prosecutors believe he has received dirty money from his wife’s clan and attempted to pass them as proceeds from his music career. He has always denied any involvement with organised crime.
It isn’t an isolated case. Neomelodica singers are often accused of colluding with the Camorra – sometimes by their actions, sometimes through their music. And, as the authorities circle around Colombo, the Italian parliament is also discussing a law criminalising the glorification of the mob that seems specifically drafted to target some neomelodici.
It somewhat mirrors other disputes across the globe. London drill rappers, for example, are censored by police fearful that their songs could instigate gang violence; Spanish rapper Pablo Hasel was arrested for glorifying terrorism and insulting the monarchy in his lyrics, while musicians led by Jay-Z argued this month for a change in New York law to mean lyrics cannot be used as criminal evidence. “These days, you go on TikTok and it’s all guns and money,” says Gianni Fiorellino, another popular neomelodici – who has no links to organised crime, but is dismayed at the idea his style could be censored. “I don’t see why that should be allowed and lyrics about organised crime should not.”
Neomelodica was born in the 1980s as a reaction to societal change and the crisis of the canzone napoletana, the traditional, hyper-sentimental Neapolitan song (sometimes accompanied by mandolin or guitar) that bloomed in the early 19th century. By the 70s canzone napoletana had fallen out of fashion, and around the same period its hotbed, Naples, underwent a transformation, with the creation of neighbourhoods completely segregated from the city’s polite society.
“In a way, neomelodica was to Naples what hip-hop was to America, it gave a voice to impoverished neighbourhoods,” says Marcello Ravveduto, a history professor at the University of Salerno. Whereas canzone napoletana was representing a picture-perfect, idealised Naples, neomelodici began depicting the harsh reality of its peripheries.
Blending Neapolitan dialect with Italian, neomelodici sing of lost lovers and betrayal, teenage sex and divorce, drugs and broken homes. Some of them also sing of organised crime, a topic the fanbase would be familiar with, touching issues such as latitanza, mob soldiers going into hiding; and pentitismo, arrested mob soldiers collaborating with the police.
“It’s a music rooted in the territory, with great melodies, where lyrics are central – they are like a mirror of Neapolitan sentiment,” says Fiorellino, who has released about 12 albums.
Fiorellino is one of the few neomelodici who has performed in Italy’s most important music festival, Sanremo, but, aside from a few exceptions such as him and Gigi D’Alessio, Italy’s mainstream culture frowns upon neomelodica.
For one, it is associated with urban poverty, while some neomelodica hits openly describe the Camorra, and more rarely the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Tommy Riccio’s Nu’ Latitante is about hiding from justice, away from your family. Then there’s Lisa Castaldi’s Il Mio Amico Camorrista (My Camorra Friend), and Gianni Vezzosi’s ’O Killer or Carcere Minorile (Juvenile Prison). Ravveduto describes such songs as “a way to justify a way of being”. On one hand, those songs are critiques of society, and the way it pushes people toward crime; on the other, they take pride in otherness, and in resorting to violence to get what you want.
Some view these songs as a propaganda tool for the mob, and this criticism has become more vocal. Before streaming, neomelodica used to be broadcast by small local radio stations, sometimes directly controlled by organised crime, but the internet has turned the genre into a near-national phenomenon.
Last April, protests by anti-mafia activists forced Niko Pandetta to cancel a concert in Ostia, near Rome. Pandetta, a Sicilian who stands out for combining neomelodica with trap, is also the nephew of a prominent Cosa Nostra boss, Salvatore “Turi” Cappello. He dedicated his first hit to his uncle.
The lawmaker Stefania Ascari has presented a bill that would make it illegal to glorify the mafia. She says she doesn’t want to target neomelodica as a genre, but only those artists “who are close to organised crime”, and points out that Camorra has exploited neomelodica to send veiled messages. For instance, two years ago, a group of mobsters detained in a high-security prison near Avellino shot a video to the beat of the song Si Sto’ Carcerato (The Inmate, by Tommy Riccio) to send the message that their clan stood strong, even behind bars. “Yes, I am an inmate, it was a life choice,” went the lyrics, as they waved to their families.
“If you’re in a high-security prison and all detainees ask for neomelodica songs, you start wondering why,” says Ascari.
Fiorellino is sceptical of the bill, even though it would not target his purely romantic songs. Ravveduto says the idea makes sense, at least in theory – “when songs glorify mafia powers, they should get them out of the market” – but in practice, he believes, there’s a risk that such a measure could turn into a boomerang. There’s a precedent in Mexico, where some northern states banned narcocorridos, the songs glorifying drug smugglers, and ended up turning them into the hymns for rebel youth. “If you crack down on music, you could end up providing the mob with new propaganda ammunition,” he says. “They could end up with even more leverage on the youth: ‘See, authorities don’t even let you express yourself.’”