Amid cheers and a strong back beat, two young men in flat brims and one in a woolen beanie jump onto a makeshift stage at the back of a dimly lit bar and start to freestyle. The hip-hop trio, who call themselves Booku n’dal, are giving their first performance at the Gambian Assembly, an event held last November prior to the elections that ultimately ousted dictator Yahya Jammeh from that small west African nation bordered by Senegal. But they are performing in Palermo, Italy, the Sicilian capital, which has become a primary point of arrival for west Africans in Europe over the past few years. “ I am representing my culture in a new place,” says Sarjo Manneh, one of the three on the stage, “It’s strange to others and we have to explain,” but, he continues, “they will understand we have a different culture from them. We will learn from them and they will learn from us.”
As Italy reels from the populist and rightward swing in this month’s election, during which many political parties campaigned on explicitly anti-immigrant sentiment, young west African artists, DJs and producers like the members of Booku n’dal, offer a countercurrent. In just a few years, they have made Palermo an epicenter of African culture in Europe, and are working to appeal to both African and Italian audiences. Incorporating elements of west African music, dancehall, hip-hop and r&b, they bring a mixture of languages, traditions and beats to their new country.
Manneh, of the Gambia, and his fellow musicians Ismaila Koyate and Yankhoba Sakho from Senegal, who go by the names King Size, MPJ City, and Bay Fall respectively, became friends through their shared languages and love of music. They met at the Asante Center, a former hotel turned migrant reception center on the outskirts of the city that houses up to 250 unaccompanied minor asylum seekers and decided to become a group after countless freestyle sessions between themselves for fun. Manneh says that Booku n’dal can be defined in a thousand different ways but it all comes down to “love, peace, unity, equality, no to racism, no to tribalism.” Booku n’dal, they emphasize, is about “being a human being before another human being–equality.”
Between them they speak nine languages, including regional west African languages like Jolla, Wolof, Sarajulay and Mandinka. Koyate says they will put down instrumentals first and try to understand what languages the song is calling for. Manneh says, “We try to speak different languages with different meanings. If he says something in French, it doesn’t mean I will say the same thing in English. I will say something different, and the song will go on. You will have different languages to understand the song.”
The group wrote their song “Exhibition” primarily in Wolof, but they often draw on Italian, French and English to reach a European audience. Koyate says, “If I sing in my language, you won’t understand it. Maybe you will like the music, but you won’t understand what I’m saying.” So they continue to strike a balance between using African languages and being understood by a broader audience. In their song “Lavorare,” which means ‘working’ in Italian, they rap in Italian and Mandinka. They say, “dobbiamo lavorare, non siamo criminali,” which translates to “we need to work, we aren’t criminals,” a message that has been important for them to share in the face of some of the anti-immigrant sentiment they have experienced. The struggle to find work is something shared by both migrants and Sicilians. “We are migrants,” says Manneh, “We come to a new place and in order to survive you have to work. This is a big problem in Italy right now, for everyone.”
Like the many migrants fleeing political problems, corruption, high unemployment and discrimination, Booku n’ dal left their home countries seeking greater opportunity. Known as the “back way,” the overland journey from West Africa to Italy is dangerous and difficult, involving human smugglers, ‘connection houses,’ the vast Sahara desert, detention and torture in Libya, and a perilous sea crossing. Still, this hasn’t deterred a wave of other talented African musicians who too have sought out a musical career in Palermo.
Gambian DJ and producer Numu Touray, used to also live at the Asante Center before he quickly got involved with the in-house radio station there, broadcasting a weekly web radio program called Asante Radio out of a former hotel room turned studio. Touray, with his broad smile and high-top haircut has been doing radio since he was 14-years old, on a station called Unique FM out of the Gambian capital, Banjul. There, he hosted a show called African Day, spinning musicians like Nigerian afro-dancehall artist Timaya and Gambian singer Singateh.
Touray says he knew he wanted to continue his career in music when he arrived to Italy almost two years ago. “In Italy it’s not easy. Migrants that are into music have less help. I try to do what I can do to make sure they are a bit recognized,” he says. In an effort to promote African music and musicians, alongside his Nigerian partner who goes by the name of FBI Comedian, they organize DJ sets and live shows at clubs in Palermo and around Sicily. FBI Comedian says that while African music is very popular, he wants people to know that “we have our own creativity in Palermo,” and that they are working to “change African entertainment” in the city.
Joy, a 30-year-old Nigerian singer who came to the city eight years ago, is also pioneering a new lane for African entertainment in the city by bringing Afro-gospel music to a broader audience. Singing since she was seven years old with her mother, sisters and brother with the church choir in her village, and later apprenticing with high life band Olalekan Adebola, she continues to sing traditional religious songs in her languages of Igbo, Yoruba and Edo, but adds her mark by inserting her own words into the compositions.
After years of performing with other ensembles where she says male musicians consistently underestimated her and profited off of her talents, Joy decided to form her own group early this year. “People just look at me and think, she is a small girl, she can’t do anything,” she says. Now, Joy attracts a loyal following as a member of the group Joy and the Happiness Collective during her weekly shows at local Italian venue Café Internazionale. While she says it is a privilege to perform for an Italian audience, she also continues to sing with west African church congregations in Palermo and to perform at African gatherings like marriages, birthdays and child dedications. “I see myself as a big gospel singer that will sing on the big stage,” she says. But to get there she needs to stay focused, “When you listen to what other people say, you fall,” she says, “The patient dog eats the fattest bone.”
Booku n’dal are also focused on the long game when it comes to a career in music, starting with building up their fanbase in Palermo, “It’s good for the city to host us, but we want the city to love us, notice our presence,” says Manneh. “They should know who Booku n’dal is,” adds Sakho. The group wrote an ode to their adoptive city in which they called Palermo the “town of the town less, home of the homeless, and land of the landless,” which they performed for the city’s New Year celebration in the public piazza.
Even so, their lives are not without challenges. Sakho says, “Some people might hear the song and think that everything in Palermo is great, that even foreigners make songs about it. But we know how we are living here—before saying stop the “clandestino” the illegal immigrant, they should be saying stop the criminality. Then things will really be good here.” Sakho believes that many Italians are reactionary against immigrants without understanding the difficulties and violence that many have experienced. When Touray looks for venues for his music events for example, he says he is often asked, “who are the people coming?” He says that for some it’s that “they don’t really appreciate black people” and that for others, it’s about generating a profit, which he understands. What’s more, many west Africans in Palermo are Muslims and don’t drink which can hurt a bar’s profits. Touray says he tries to convince owners to host them anyway by offering a cut of the cover charge. Sometimes the owners agree and other times the message he receives is that, “we don’t need you type of people.” This sentiment is only more apparent when trying to book time at local recording studios, which are all Italian-owned and can be quite pricey for acts like Touray and Booku n’dal trying to make their mark.
“We have the talent. I’m very sure. The support we need to make this thing work for real, that’s what holding us back… but we still believe we can do it,” says Manneh. The group hopes to record a full album as soon as they can get the money together to pay for the recording studio. Nevertheless, Manneh says that they are in a unique position as migrants to represent their culture and to offer messages the world hasn’t heard before. “Most artists are singing music that they haven’t experienced, but we are singing from experience. It’s different… we ourselves represent messages, as migrants,” he adds, “we have a lot of messages to give.”
Leanne Tory-Murphy is a writer and student at Munk School of Global Affairs at University of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey CA.