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From Darkness To The Limelight: A Brief History Of Rap At Sanremo Written by on February 10, 2023 | 2 Comments

The 73rd edition of the Sanremo Music Festival is here, and among the 28 names competing for the trophy (and a ticket to Liverpool) are quite a few rappers. But it wasn’t always like this. Ilaria Pagano takes us on a journey through the history of the genre at the Festival and its pivotal figures and moments.

Every year, the week of the Sanremo Music Festival is awaited with excitement, by young and old alike, be they from the Italian TV audience, the music industry, Eurovision fans all over the world, and more. It’s no exaggeration to say that rap has been one of the key factors for the new wave of popularity of the Festival Della Canzone Italiana.

Given its name, the relationship of the genre with Sanremo has actually been rocky in the past, as critics struggled to associate the romantic, melodic, vocal-centred ‘Italian song’ with rap music. In recent years though, aided by a growing interest in the competition in the younger demographic, rhythm and poetry are experiencing a moment of great success. It’s safe to say that it’s only going to get better.

But how did we get here? Let’s take a look back to the history of rap at Sanremo, how it went from being a niche genre to a driving force of the Festival, and who made it possible for change to happen.

In The Beginning Was Caparezza: 1997 And The First Struggling Years

It’s quite the coincidence that the very first act of this kind at Sanremo was brought by who’s widely considered the GOAT of the Italian conscious rap scene, even though back then he had no clue of who he was going to be. The 1997 edition in fact sees a gleeful 23 years old from Molfetta hitting the stage in the Newcomers section; his stage name is Mikimix and his song is called “E La Notte Se Ne Va” (“and the night goes by”). It’s a mellow, delicate song about dreams, the ones who visit us at night, which places fourth behind very strong names (Paola e Chiara, who are back on the Sanremo stage this year, Alex Baroni and Niccolò Fabi).

However, Michele Salvemini (his real name) will soon decide to re-invent himself, growing out the Mikimix artistic identity into the one we know and love now: Caparezza.

This participation though will be followed by a long period of baby steps for rap music to be accepted into Sanremo.

The second rap song in Sanremo history is, in fact “Mezze Verità” (“half truths”) by the collective Sottotono, who entered in 2001. Sounding a little like NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”, ir sparked accusations of plagiarism and subsequent vicious drama. The song placed 14th out of 16th finalists.

After this episode, rap made sporadic appearances: Piotta placed last in the 2004 final with “Ladro Di Te” (“thief of you”), Frankie Hi-NRG MC placed 14th in the final with “Rivoluzione” (“revolution”) in 2008 and in 2009 the collective Gemelli DiVersi failed to qualify for the final with their “Vivi Per Un Miracolo” (“alive because of a miracle”).

It’s fair to say that through these years, Sanremo was still the domain of melody-driven compositions that wink at an audience who grew up on love songs.

The most notable event related to rap in this first phase, possibly more than any participation, is the presence of Eminem as a guest act in 2001. Raffaella Carrà herself, who hosted that year, wanted him on the Sanremo stage, but few others took the matter in the same high regard as she did.

Rocco Hunt’s Victory In 2014: Change Is On The Way

“Luckily this morning the air feels different”

This is how “Nu Juorno Buono” (“a good day”) by Rocco Hunt (stage name of Rocco Pagliarulo) starts and surely the Sanremo air feels different for rap music in 2014 as well

Frankie Hi-NRG MC is back in the 2014 edition and ranks 8th with “Pedala” (“ride”), but it’s the young Neapolitan’s song that truly makes a difference: he wins the Newcomers section by a landslide (Diodato, on his Sanremo debut, is the runner-up) and climbs the Italian charts with a sunny and heartfelt letter to the place he comes from, embracing its problematics and showing love for its brightest sides. It’s notable that a considerable part of the song is written in dialect.

Popularity for rap in the Big Artists section of the Festival is still on a long way to come, but something has definitely shifted; between 2015 and 2017 rappers Moreno, Raige, Nesli and Clementino will take it to the stage, and the last two will do so twice.

We also see in 2016 the return of Rocco with his energic song “Wake Up”, this time in the Big Artists competition. The results are starting to become more encouraging: Rocco breaks into the top ten, along with Clementino, who also places second during Covers Night thanks to a splendid rendition of Fabrizio De Andrè’s “Don Raffaè”, which gets to the hearts of all generations. The Festival is slowly opening up to the younger ones and their musical taste.

Another remarkable achievement for rap music in this second phase is to be found in the 2018 newcomers section: Mudimbi ranks third with his breezy song “Il Mago” (“The Magician”).

Rancore In 2019 And 2020: A Breathrough In Two Acts

Let’s go now to the first night of Sanremo 2019

During Daniele Silvestri’s performance of “Argentovivo” (“quicksilver”) we spot a hooded man sitting at a desk, lying face down. As Silvestri lightly shakes his shoulders to ‘wake him up’, he lifts his head and gives the audience a few more moments to prepare for a rap verse that will change the history of the Festival.

The audience spirals down through meticulously curated lyrics about a boy fighting with a cold world of adults who don’t understand him and keep him caged in technology. Few people know who he is, since he’s not credited on the track and Silvestri announced his presence on stage just a few hours prior, but Tarek Iurcich, a rapper of Croatian and Egyptian descent from Rome who goes by the stage name Rancore, has already revealed himself to be one of the pivotal figures of rap music at Sanremo.

“Argentovivo” will rank sixth and win the Mia Martini Crtitque’s Award, the Lucio Dalla Press Award, and most importantly, the Sergio Bardotti Best Lyrics Award. This is utterly unprecedented in the history of Italian rap.

It’s not the only rap song at Sanremo 2019; we have Shade and Federica Carta with “Senza Farlo Apposta” (“without doing it on purpose”) placing 18th, Ghemon’s “Rose Viola” (“purple roses”) placing 12th, and Boombadash with “Per Un Milione” (“for a million”) placing 11th. But Rancore’s results are beyond any expectations of rap enjoyers following the show, and the best is yet to come.

And it will come because of Rancore once again. He comes back the next year with “Eden”, a cryptic song he wrote after dreaming of an apple tumbling among the pages of history. The song talks about the historical period we’re in, and the importance of choice. “Eden” ranks tenth and wins too the award for best lyrics, and things will never be the same.

In 2020 we also have “Rosso di Rabbia” (“red with rage”) by Anastasio (will rank 13th) and “No Grazie” (“no thanks”) by Junior Cally (will rank 22th).

At this point, rap is essentially established at Sanremo.

2021 saw rap take second place in the Big Artists contest with Fedez and Francesca Michielin’s“Chiamami Per Nome” (“call me by my name”), Willie Peyote wins the critique’s award with “Mai Dire Mai (La Locura)” (“never say never (the madness)”) and places 6th, and the first female rapper at Sanremo, Madame, will debut placing 8th with her “Voce (“voice”), just to name the most successful results.

In 2022 Dargen D’Amico’s “Dove Si Balla” (“where we dance”) places 9th and Rkomi’s “Insuperabile” (“unsurpassable”) ranks 17th and both become true hits of the year.

What’s To Come In The Future

The recent stellar results obtained by rap artists are encouraging more and more MCs to try their fortune at Sanremo. It’s safe to say that, while still a risky choice to go for rap at the Eurovision Song Contest, Italy’s Sanremo welcomes it in all of its facets: we’ve seen Rancore’s conscious rap, rap rock from Anastasio and Rkomi, and autotune-infused acts like Fasma.

Sanremo is like a mirror to Italians and their taste in music. The image Sanremo is reflecting in 2023 is the one of a country that loves rap. Perhaps the year-round Eurovision community is not in as much love, although rap has been present at the Contest in many forms for many years. Perhaps with Kalush’s recent win, things may start to change at the Song Contest as well.

Now the songs have been broadcast for 2023, Sanremo’s love for rap is as strong as ever. we have the great return of the 90s duo Articolo 31, Madame’s comeback, the debut of Lazza and Mr Rain, Rosa Chemical, and the newcomers’ winner Sethu. Sanremo 2023’s rap entries feel like a meeting of the generations; most of their songs are melody-orientated and cover emotional topics like mental health, lifelong friendships, and tormented love stories. Which will win the audience’s hearts, climb up the charts, and keep the golden moment of rap in the competition alive?

Maybe the first rap Sanremo winner is just a few hours away. Maybe it will take a few more years. No matter when that win will come, rap is here to stay.

About The Author: Ilaria Pagano

Ilaria Pagano has been a Eurovision fan since Italy’s return in 2011. Known on Twitter as TheFuschiaDragonfly, she shares with enthusiasm her love for music and the competition on and offline.... and dreams of become an artist herself. She live translates (as best as she can) the Sanremo shows on her Twitter account to try to improve the experience for the international audience.

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2 responses to “From Darkness To The Limelight: A Brief History Of Rap At Sanremo”

  1. Debra says:

    Really appreciated seeing how rap has developed over time in Sanremo. And also, your Twitter contributions during the broadcasts. Thanks!

  2. Thank YOU so much!!

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