New Musics and Identity Movements in Italy
New Musics and Identity Movements in Italy

Horizontal Languages and Insurgent Cultural Alignments:
National Popular Culture and Nationalism

Pasquale Verdicchio

“Unification is falsification/Sicily abandoned by the government of the
nation/Falsification of unification/and the government of the nation has
abandoned my region.” The refrain of “Unification=Falsification”, by the
Sicilian Rap group I Nuovi Briganti (The New Brigands), speaks directly to
the issue of Italian nationhood and the relationship of the North and South
within that country. The group’s questioning of history on their CD Fottuto
terrone (Fucked Southerner) goes to the heart of the matter with clear and
unambiguous accusations of falsification of history, neglect and colonization
of the South at the hands of the North.

Three kilometers of sea separate us from Italy
but the distance is even greater for our history
1861 is the year of unification
and I ask: is it reality or fiction?
Garibaldi slave of power
first incites and the massacres
great masses of rebelling Sicilians.
Victor Emanuel has condemned them.
Out with the Bourbons new landlords
new taxes and everything’s the same.
Not enough water, the earth is hard
little to eat and worse than in the war.
Illiteracy in the crowd
all against all, if you give up you’re lost
meanwhile we work up North
roads, railroads, and industrialization

Ref: Unification is falsification
Sicily abandoned by the government of the nation

Falsification of unification
and the government of the nation has abandoned my

Italian unification (1861/71) has been propagated as an instance of
decolonization by which the Kingdom of Sardinia (actually an area under the
rule of Piedmont which included the island of Sardegna), having rid itself of
its Austrian governors, supposedly set out to liberate the South of its Bourbon
rulers. The contradictory history of this period, known as the Risorgimento,
is well documented in the works of writers and intellectuals preceding and
following unification, among them the Marxist intellectual and founder of
the Italian Communist Party (PCI) Antonio Gramsci. In fact this liberation,
as demonstrated by the long and hard fought battles of resistance by what the
new state defined as “brigands,” turned out to be nothing more than an
instance of re-colonization of Southern regions by a newly autonomous and
expanding Piedmontese state eager to take its place among the European

Born in Sardegna, a region that had known only foreign domination
for over 1000 years before its absorption into the nascent Italian nation in
1861, Antonio Gramsci is representative of innumerable others for whom
birth outside of “official” regions meant education into Italianness. This
background provided Gramsci with the lens through which to analyze the
construction of the Italian nation and its various of components. In his essay
“The Southern Question” (1925), Gramsci considers this North/South rapport
under the urgency of Fascism’s rise, which represents another instance of
nationalist discourse attempting to overwhelm and erase the complexity of
the national complex it supposedly represent. Stressing the inadequacy of
the Italian state regarding the representation of the majority of its population,
in general Southerners and the inhabitants of the Islands of Sicily and
Sardegna, and more specifically of the workers and peasants both Northern
and Southern, Gramsci delineates the role of culture as a major factor in
structuring the Italian socio-political reality. His discussion of the “Southern
Question” includes analyses of the development, role and function of
intellectuals, the place and province of culture for particular classes, and the
possibility of providing a corrective to the social and economic unbalances
that had arisen as a result of cultural constructs proposed an
anthropologically divergent description for part of the peninsula’s

No doubt, Antonio Gramsci’s observation that “the South is a great
social disintegration” (Gramsci, 22) is no longer applicable in the same terms
today as it was in 1925. With the Italian nation’s progress toward its place
among the world’s leading industrial nations, the conditions in Southern
Italy changed somewhat. The disintegration that continues to characterize the
South is identifiable today in the poverty or lack of public services, in the
degradation of the educational system, in the continued crises of employment
and housing, in the lack of a political infrastructure able to guarantee proper
representation at all levels of government and, last but not least, the
overwhelmingly oppressive presence of what has come to be known
generically as the “Mafia.”

The 1994 national elections, in which a Rightist alliance came to
government, somewhat reemphasized a North/South division. The newly
formed party Forza Italia, representative of Northern industrialism, the neo-
fascist MSI, reborn as Alleanza Nazionale, and the Lega Lombarda (Lombard
League, a federalist party with a strongly racist platform based in the Northern
regions) defeated a Left that actually gained in the Southern regions, but as a
fragmented series of parties with very localized agendas. These
developments are indicative of a trend that has plagued Italy since 1861, and
that take the country toward a centralized “European” vision and culture.

The Lega Lombarda, in its meteoric rise as the dominant party in the
North, has not been reluctant to adopt 19th century positivist attitudes to
explain the straggling of the South as a symptom of the ethnic/racial
inferiority of the region’s inhabitants. Views of the South characterizing it as
a weight impeding the progress of the North, hand in hand with an historical
revisionism that has cast the North as a region colonized by less civilized
hoards, are well expressed in the public statements made by Umberto Bossi,
leader of the Lega Lombarda:

In these little less than disastrous conditions, we witness day after day the
imbalanced conflict between an Italy that aspires to become European with its
head held high, creating a modern nation, democratic and civil, and the
forces that orbit around the public machinery and are fed by it, the forces
whose objectives are to become part of the African peninsula. (Bossi, 53)

The Italian state, tending toward the establishment of a European
entity, has once again instrumentalized negative representations of the South
to emphasize its difference from it and its affinity to other Northern
European nations. The conditioning of thought regarding the South has been
so powerful that, in a recent book on the nature of the Italian nation, Se
cessiamo di essere una nazione (If We Cease to be a Nation) (Il Mulino, 1993),
Gian Enrico Rusconi identifies the Lega Lombarda’s attitudes toward the
South as stemming from “the intentions of Leaguists who want to punish a
southernist politics conducted up till now by the state as well as the Mafia
stigma that in their eyes marks the South as such”. (29) These views, which
Bossi obviously manipulates to the benefit of his political agenda, propagate
the myth of a state government has long been representative of, and
favorable toward, the South to the detriment of the North. Supposedly, the
national government drained national coffers for the sole benefit of the
South since the creation of a “Fund for the South” in 1950.

Meant as an attempt to balance investment and development in all
regions, the “Fund” became instead a scheme by which many of the resources
earmarked for the South were deviated via contractual agreements to
Northern companies engaged to provide services and fund projects in the
South, many of which never actually saw the light. And, in fact, the “ball and
chain” South that threatens to drag Italy into the Third World was the most
important source of labor for the development and success of Northern
industries. During a period in which Northern and Central Italy were
undergoing tremendous structural changes, the Southern situation was to a
certain extent alleviated with the new availability of jobs in the North.
Emigration became part of the solution, while also contributing to the
undoing of much of the social fiber of Southern towns and cities. The
horrendous amount of emigration from South to North that took place from
the 1950s to the 1970s, no less than 10 million, and its apparent resolution of
the “southern question,” legitimized the state’s inattention toward the South.

Adding to the numbers of internal emigration the millions of
emigrants that left Italy altogether in the period spanning 1876 to 1976, one
can begin to argue that for the South emigration resulted in a depletion of
social, cultural, and economic alternatives. The Post-unification installment
of a “national cultural tradition” through the establishment of a national
educational system and a standardized language, further aggravated the
conditions by which regional and localized cultures might negotiate their
future. Unemployment, the absence of a coherent civil structure, and the
fraying of the social and cultural fabric through emigration are among the
problems that the institution that is the Mafia was fully capable of
manipulating to its advantage. The corrupted flow of developmental funds
to the South met with full Mafia support and participation. Historically, the
presence of the Mafia (Sicily), Camorra (Campania), and ‘ndrangheta
(Calabria) is tied up in complex systems of governance in which these
organizations functioned as negotiators between foreign dominators and
indigenous peoples, between the aristocracy and the masses. Today, these
organizations, in as much as they profit from state mismanagement and
neglect, and are in some areas the only guarantors of employment, can be said
to collaborate with the State in the business of exploitation.

The re-effectuation of a Southern cultural voice, plural yet cohesive,
hindered by an antagonistic and reactive relationship with the Italian nation-
state, must take place away from the fiction of “Italian culture” through the
elaboration of intellectuals deeply committed to a sphere of discourse that
values the local alongside the global. Aspects of this expression that are of
utmost importance, and which inform the following series of considerations,
are the re-establishment of local languages (officially demoted to dialects) as
viable primary forms of communication, and the explicit and direct
affirmation of the South’s colonized condition. It is only through the
presentation of an alternative history that the possibility to establish the
Italian South within a post-colonial frame of reference by which an analysis
akin to Nuovi Briganti’s assessment can take place. These demands have
resulted in the exploration of oppositional alternatives to nationalism and
the reassertion of subaltern cultures in dialogue with other peripheral
cultures outside of their own immediate sphere of contact. Hip Hop’s
accessibility and ability to communicate across cultural and national
boundaries facilitates its adoption as an instrument to aid emerging or re-
emerging cultural discourses.

The application of the terms of postcolonialism to the Italian situation
requires that this fairly new field of inquiry expand its sense of a fixed
adversarial relationships that overlook the inherent complexity of nations
such as Italy. While I don’t intend to challenge postcolonialism per se, I
imagine it as a concept that can be expanded to include variations on the
colonial/postcolonial dichotomy such as e/im-migration and colonial
conditions within apparently uncomplicated national situations. I would
therefore propose the reformulation of postcolonialism as a category engaging
the concepts of hegemony and historical bloc, where all come to be
interdependent aspects of similarly drawn cultural tendencies.

In addressing the Italian situation in terms of North/South it becomes
important, therefore, that the above named terms be seen in function of a
shifting yet continuous paradigm of interferences. Through the
problemitization of terms and categories it is possible to arrive at a descriptive
set of parameters by which hegemony and colonialism, and historic bloc and
postcolonialism become articulated pairs of an expansive deconstructive
methodology vis-a-vis nationalism and its symptoms, rather than fixed
points of reference for describing diachronic and synchronic relationships. If
hegemony is taken to be the crossover function of thought and action, then
the formation of an active historical bloc is participant in the process of
hegemony that goes to define post-colonialism as the acquisition of a
conscience of disruption.

In “The Southern Question,” the formation of an historical bloc is
proposed by Gramsci in the form of an alliance between Northern workers
and Southern peasants. Had this taken place, aside from creating a bloc to
give representative voice to a large excluded portion of the population, it
might also have effectively deflated Fascism’s rise in the late teens of this
century. Today, to bring up the topic of a cultural identity that is constituted
through alliances and coalitions between groups that share similar yet not
identical concerns, but which are mutually supportive and beneficial, is to
emphasize that no alliance was constituted in Italy. The effect of this should
be to revive a dialogue on the concept of “national popular culture.” In fact,
North/South divisions, within the trajectory of a nationalist program,
though not those of seventy years ago, persist. The elaboration of a functional
“national” political program involves an analysis of what constitutes
“national culture,” a culture that in order to be effectively democratic must be
reflective of localized concerns and preoccupations.

The mechanisms by which the Southern Italian condition, deprived of
the terms of postcoloniality by the presumptions of nationalism, has today
found in “Occupied Autonomous Social Centers” a new venue by which to
negotiate this deferred sense of expansive hegemony are deeply situated in
the activity that defines its information of historical blocs. These Centers
(from now on CSOA), established without the sanction of any of the
traditional social or political institutions such as the state, party politics, and
the Mafia, provide support in areas where these beauracracies have either
failed or have attempted to stifle organization. Given the history of Italian
nationhood, the CSOAs, though present throughout the country, are of
particular importance in the South. The emergence of horizontal notions of
cultural communication that the CSOAs represent undermine traditional
expectations of isolationism and provide an expansion in the network of
resistance cultures that goes beyond the separationist/nationalist paradigms.

The terms established by the contemporary phenomenon by which
Southern Italian culture has, at least in part, come to be identified with Hip
Hop, and of which the Nuovi Briganti are but one example, are to be carefully
considered and assessed. New cultural products, such as what the
hybridization of Hip Hop and local cultures engender, are important because
they define points of reference external to their own immediate experience.
As such, they become indicative of the failure of separationist projects or,
better, the failure of anti-nationalist movements that are nationalist in their
own aspirations. What emerges is a notion of resistance culture that aligns
itself horizontally with groups or cultures reflective of similar positions,
rather than vertically to define themselves in relation to the restrictive camp
that is “nationalism.”

CSOA: Decentering Culture Toward the Centers

The struggle toward the decentralization of cultural norms in Italy has
a long history which unfortunately remains mostly untold. Much of this
history suffers from a characterization that has served to strengthen ideals of
national culture that regards cultures that serve themselves of the languages
designated as dialects, or that have emerged from particular areas, as lesser
derivants or folkloric manifestations of an officially sanctioned culture.
Today, some of the most effective agents of decentralization have become the

The negotiative position of CSOAs in a post-industrial environment,
and the strategy that they employ in creating a distance between themselves
and any traditionally active political party or ideology, is reminiscent of the
earlier Italian Autonomia movement and its extensive network of
autonomist labour groups. Given Italy’s young status as a nation, this sort of
political strategy makes perfect sense. The social, linguistic, political and
economic specificity of each region, though greatly altered since the end of the
Second World War, is still varied enough that an institutionally based
classification of Italian polities is intrinsically absurd. This condition, almost
unknown in most other post-industrial nations, is one of the factors that
facilitated the rise of the “autonomist movement” as a strategy for activism.

The PCI (Italian Communist Party), which sanctioned the view of
workerist intellectuals, for whom society was made-up of workers and
“unproductive workers” (women, the unemployed, students, etc.), failed to
properly articulate the distance between the two poles in the dichotomy.
Even Autonomia, born in Northern factories in the 1950s, as a movement
devised mainly by Southern emigrant workers in defiance of their non-
representation by union bosses, did not develop as an alliance of the sort
Gramsci had envisioned. A cultural gulf subsisted between Northern and
Southern workers which prevented their full collaboration; in addition to
which, the interests of immigrant workers also became somewhat divorced
from the interests of Southerners who remained home. The lesson of
Autonomia, however, was that it proposed a way for collective action, a
lesson which is being extended today by the CSOAs.

In fact, both the rise of the “autonomist movement” and the
emergence of CSOAs can be interpreted as critiques of the PCI’s blind
valorization of the workerist model along with compromises taken toward
participation in the parliamentary system. The establishment and existence
of the centers proposes the need to review certain Gramscian concepts such as
“national popular” and “educative alliances,” which, through the PCI’s
modified ideology, came to represent little more than compromise.
Autonomia and the CSOAs, apparently twenty or so years distant from each
other, but in reality forming almost a continuum from the early 70s to today,
take the above named Gramscian propositions to their most fully realized
level by refusing to “separate economics from politics, and politics from
existence [and culture].” (Branzaglia, 9) The stated inter-relationships must be
given weight to rescue the notion of “national popular” from divisive
interpretations that would represent it simply as either a cultural or a political

The history of the most famous of all social centers, the Leoncavallo in
Milano, subjected to continued scrutiny and threats of expulsion by the forces
of public order, illustrates quite well the struggle for survival of un-official
activity. The Southern CSOAs range from the Fata Morgana of Messina,
Sicily, to Contro l’emarginazione of Brindisi, Puglia, to Officina 99 in Naples,
Asilio Politico in Salerno, and Lavori in Corso in Acerra. In the South, due to
the lagging economic situation, the high rate of unemployment, and the
opposition of organized crime to any activity that works to empower the
citizenry, the difficulties for CSOAs are multiplied.

The CSOAs social activism brings them into direct confrontation with
local criminality. The Esperia Center, of Catania, for one, became victim of
this conflict when it was firebombed four times and forced to relocate.
(Branzaglia, 47) Well aware of the criminal mechanisms at work in the
locations where they function, the activists involved with Guernica (which
replaced the Esperia) testify that:

the reproduction and valuation of bourgeois systems is emphasized by the
restructuration tendencies at work within the historic center of the city. The
Mafia activates their system of control over the proletarian masses on behalf
of the bourgeoisie. As such, their illegal activities assume the role of
controlling and organizing the population. This in particular differentiates
Southern urban renewal from the North. (49)

Nevertheless, the CSOAs survive and thrive, they relocate and re-emerge,
they organize and overcome. Their coerced urban nomadism provides
alternative spaces where to “live negated things” (Branzaglia, 11). As
alternatives to traditional institutionalized and apparently stable versions of
opposition (voting, political representation, boycotts, etc.) the CSOAs become
autonomous social and political spaces and sites of resistance.

The philosophy of the CSOAs falls somewhat within a Gramscian optic
in that they represent an eventful manifestation of collaborative agency for
disenfranchised groups and individuals. This in a society that, while taking
less and less interest in their plight, more often than not poses them as the
cause of societal ills and decay. The population of the CSOAs is made up
mostly of “youth involved in the underground economy or black markets,
the unemployed, ex-addicts, students awaiting an opportunity to enter the
labor market, extra-communitarians, rural youths in search of places where to
spend their empty evenings.” (12/13)

The CSOAs primary program is the occupation of unused or
condemned schools, apartment buildings, government buildings, university
cafeterias, factories, industrial plants. They all become the target of CSOA
activists who seek to improve the conditions caused by lack of housing and
services through the unauthorized take-over of unused or abandoned
facilities. Such activity, by establishing a fracture with institutions, comes in
fact to represent the precarious existence that many of the participant
members of CSOAs live day to day and offers the possibility of regaining a
certain amount of control over one’s own existence (19). The internal
activities that define the CSOAs’ existence include informational services, the
struggle against heroin (drug abuse), political antagonism, and self-
administration of housing, daycare, language classes for immigrants, etc. Self-
administration assumes an ideological tone that qualifies the total experience
of CSOAs, as based on the value of the “horizontality of decision making”
(27), and emphasizes their distance from the influences of organizational and
party hierarchy. The concept of allowing differences “to deepen at the base
without trying to synthesize them from above, to stress the collaborative
power of similar positions without imposing a ‘general line,’ to allow parts to
co-exist side by side, in their singularity” (8) is part and parcel of the CSOAs
philosophy and history.

While these Centers have established a national, as well as an
international network, their activity fulfills its role at a local level.
Functioning as gathering places, as spaces of autonomous cultural and
political strategy, these islands within the urban scape also have a
transformative effect on the spaces that surround them. As is made clear by
both a member of Officina 99 and a resident in the area of the Center, the
choice of neighborhood is not haphazard:

This is a neighborhood that lacks everything, the State is truly absent,
and the only forms of escape are the artificial paradises of heroin. (Branzaglia,


I believe that the occupation has been a positive thing, because Gianturco
lacks everything and they have organized celebrations, concerts and other
initiatives. (57)

True to the dictum “act locally, think globally,” the CSOAs communicative
spaces expand beyond the neighborhood to an international arena in which
the particularity of each element is presented and upheld as an important
node within a more expansive network. ZEROnetwork, a communication
network associated with CSOAs, represents one aspect of this globality
through which information, strategy and news are exchanged:

We are attempting to connect, as a Neapolitan reality, with the European
network of communications of the Social Centers [...] it is above-all a way in
which to interact with the reality of the neighborhood in which [the Center] is
occupied. (56)

Part and parcel of the activity of the CSOAs is the emergence from within
their walls of cultural expressions that define the local struggle and identify it
globally with similar manifestations.

One of the most visible (audible) modes of opposition to emerge from
the CSOAs, one which continues to define the terms by which to
communicate its location and situation, is music. Associated to musical
expression, and an aspect of utmost importance, is the fact that the notion of
autonomy extends into the parameters of cultural self-production, in which
the Centers function as alternatives to large publishers, recording studios,
promoters, and the like.

Southern Hip Hop and “National Popular” Culture

The influence of Hip Hop culture is readily discernible in the music
and art emerging from within the CSOAs. Graffiti and Rap are an integral
part of the Centers’ identity. While graffiti is by no means a new presence in
the Italian urban environment (political and sports graffiti have a long
tradition) the influence of U.S. (New York) graphic elements is undeniable.
The urban landscape is defined by graffiti and logos, and the CSOAs
themselves are decorated, inside and out, with the work of local artists.
Two aspects of graffiti appear to be markedly different in their
application and function in the U.S. First of all, while in recent years
individual tagging and personalized graffiti have become more common, in
general the Italian city is divided in zones and tagged according to political
and ideological identification, and not necessarily neighborhood gang
affiliation. For example, the move from a Leftist neighborhood to a Rightist
neighborhood is marked with the colors, symbols and slogans associated with
such ideologies (the hammer and sickle, or the swastika, or countless
variations). Secondly, rather than decorating/tagging train-cars and other
public transport vehicles, as was/is the custom in North American cities, the
walls along the transit route are marked so as to offer all passengers film-like
social and political commentary (the access route to the Bologna station is
particularly interesting).

Musically, there are groups associated with various Centers: Officina 99
gave rise to 99 Posse (Alma Megretta is also associated with this center); in
Messina, Sicily, even though no center existed at the outset, I Nuovi Briganti
eventually came to be associated with the Fata Morgana; on the east side of
the peninsula, in the rural Salento area where no Center exists, Sud Sound
System formed and, true to their name, represent a roving band of musicians
who hold their communal concerts in town squares or out in the fields of the

Undoubtedly, Rap has become a universally imitated phenomenon
that often has nothing to do with the social and political aspects that it
represents for a portion of the African American population. Little more
than a novelty, Rap invaded Italy in the late 80s through the figure of
Jovannotti, and soon many more imitators followed this successful
introduction, picked up by commercial recording studios and packaged for
general consumption. While the compositions did touch on social issues
now and then, the pieces limited themselves mostly to clever phrasing and
word play to offer up the same sort of subject matter that informs most other
pop music. Much of the rap in this early period was done either in English or

Just as the identity and activity of the CSOAs is rooted in the specificity
of local experience, the cultural expression that emerges from these social
organizations is also rooted in local experience. With this premise, the
association of Rap groups with CSOAs becomes an important cultural
development because these bands, reflecting the regional specificity of the
Centers, have replaced English and Italian with the particular languages of
their regions in most if not all of their lyrics. Neapolitan, Sicilian, Pugliese,
etc. are therefore not only the languages of the audience but also of the
cultural product they receive. Most importantly, the subject matter of the
compositions concerns social and cultural dilemmas directly connected to the
experiences of the audience.

Rap music in Southern Italy works much in the same manner as it
does for Black youth in the U.S., it “expresses the desire of young [...] people to
reclaim their history [...] and contest the powers of despair and economic
depression [...]” (Dyson, 15). Therefo

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