American music is king in Italy. Cafes, bars, pubs, shops, department stores, and even some respectable restaurants pump out a blend of yesterday’s and today’s American hits: Pearl Jam, Lady Gaga, Cee-Lo Green, Madonna, Michael Jackson. Many Italians don’t speak English, but they can sing it.
Alternative and independent music also has a presence here. It’s kept alive through local bands since touring acts generally need to have a certain level of notoriety to be able to draw crowds. Bruce Springsteen, Radiohead, and Wilco will play sold out shows in Italy this year, but Astronautalis, an American rapper hailing from Jacksonville, FL and now residing in Minneapolis, MN is self-admittedly not enough of a household name to fill large venues in the land of pasta and wine. He usually performs at small Italian bars like the Clandestino in Faenza, which doesn’t even charge a cover. So why does he continue to book shows in Italy?
“We come to Italy for the food and the hospitality” Astronautalis commented privately following the show. “We get huge crowds in Prague and other places in Europe, but not here. We break even on our tour costs in Italy, but they give us great food, great wine, and great places to stay.”
Outside, Faenza was dark and quiet and covered by a fresh layer of snow that piled up to the knees. Inside Clandestino, locals were filtering in and out until the music started at around 10 p.m. Then everyone grabbed a drink and a seat. Bleubird, a fast-paced, emotionally charged rapper from Miami opened for Astronautalis. His songs were organized around distinct narratives – like his father’s roots in the Italian region of Liguria – that set him apart from most rappers, who normally just tout their own abilities (musical or otherwise) or go on and on about their possessions. During his performance, Bleubird’s entire body became a vessel for his music – he waved his hands and arms, beat them in time to the music, and hopped on and off stage to interact with the audience.
Both rappers supported the other during their songs with backup singing and rapping. When Astronautalis took centre stage, Bleubird retired to the backstage mike. Both were wildly creative raconteurs who delivered smart, polished raps with much bravado but without any hint of hubris. In between songs, Astronautalis told the audience that he had ‘DANG’ tattooed on his fingers as a commitment to him being a rapper for the rest of his life – the only other job he could get with that on his hand, he said, is washing dishes.
Astronautalis and Bleubird played their beats from laptops but also did one rap each a capella. For Black Sand Castles, their ode to Florida’s coastline in the wake of the gulf oil spill disaster, the duo shared the stage and during the musical breakdown jumped into the audience in a wild display of dancing. Their exuberance unfortunately did not extend fully to the Italian audience, the majority of whom, it’s safe to say, did not understand most of what they said, sang, or rapped during the course of the night. At least one American was present, though, his nationality revealed when he yelled at his table after the performance that he was “the only one here who could understand most of what they were saying, so suck on that.”
Astronautalis and Bleubird have a passion for music that is undeniable. Dedicated to their craft, they relentlessly tour non-English speaking countries to spread the joy that is a live, energetic, shared hip-hop experience.