Alessandro Mahmoud is 100% Italian – al cento per cento. He was born in Italy, speaks Italian, works in the Italian music industry and just won one the biggest Italian language cultural competition there is.
But that can never be enough for the people who think that blood and genes describe and define the whole of your identity and destiny, because those people think that there are certain heritages that are somehow better than others.
When Politics Enters The Song Contest
Italy, like a dozen or so other European countries, is currently undergoing a populist spasm. Populism is where politicians rule by invoking an image of a glorious lost past or exciting future that they could bring into existence if you give them the power to do something about ‘Those People’. Populism is about providing easy solutions to the difficult problems of society by blaming the others. The current instance of Italian populism is based on promoting a vision of Italianness that limits identity to white Christian heterosexuals who conform to traditional gender roles and don’t ask too many questions. It is not a particularly attractive vision.
Italian populist politics intersected with the Eurovision Song Contest when Mahmood’s victory at Sanremo 2019 was commented on by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far right Deputy Prime Minister. His tweet on hearing that Soldi had come out of Sanremo’s fiendishly complicated scoring algorithm with the highest number of points was to say:
— Matteo Salvini (@matteosalvinimi) February 10, 2019
Innocuous enough, right? No, because the key word in that tweet is Italian. Salvini was casting veiled doubt that Mahmood is Italian enough to represent his country in Tel Aviv. He followed this tweet up with accusations that because he didn’t come first in the final televote, Mahmood had won as part of a diversity exercise by ‘journalists and the radical chic’. There’s the populism coming through again – let the will of the people be supreme, but don’t think too hard about who is telling the people what to think.
For the generalist Eurofans outside Italy, Mahmood voicing doubts about participating in Eurovision after initially confirming seemed baffling. Why would he suddenly change his mind? Does he think it would hurt his career? Did he not realise how much time it would take? What’s going on?
Or perhaps, the fact that that Mahmood had to come out and tell the newspapers that he considered himself to be 100 percent Italian made him think twice about his safety and wellbeing during the Song Contest and the promotional period. Having to counter the insinuations of the Deputy Prime Minister that he was too brown, too Muslim, too African to represent Italy must surely have made him feel extremely vulnerable. We’ve had stage invasions two years running now. Why would you want to make yourself a target? Why put yourself through it?
Thankfully, Mahmood decided that he’ll be taking Soldi, handclaps, Arabic lyrics and Jackie Chan references and all, to Tel Aviv. If it makes the far-right sad, that’s a bonus.
While the Song Contest community’s first reaction might be to mourn that ‘it’s sad that people have to bring politics into Eurovision’, this is pretty much the wrong thing to do whilst populism is on the rise. Populism, and the scary forces of fascism and authoritarianism that follow after it, requires not just the enthusiastic support of vocal racists, but the silent assent of people who would rather have a quiet life and enjoy their entertainment. By writing this, I’ve probably already annoyed you. Why does she have to bring politics into it? Isn’t it all about the music?
Well, if you’re a regular ESC Insight reader you’ll know that Eurovision is probably roughly fifty percent the music. The rest of it is about storytelling – and the stories that you can tell about nationality, identity and the way a country sees itself are hugely attractive to governments who want to tell the world about the way they see themselves. By learning how to read these messages, we can increase our general media literacy so that when the populist spasm hits our country, we can start to see through and break down the stories that they want to tell us.
When you’re watching the Eurovision Song Contest this year, or indeed any year, try and work out what people really mean when they say ‘diversity’ and ‘identity’. Look at what nations are trying to tell you about themselves in their performances and presentations. Listen to what people say about themselves.
Listen to Mahmood when he tells you he’s Italian.