Music by VICE

The Dark and Eccentric World of Neapolitan Pop

With a story that veers from the Mafia to Silvio Berlusconi, this is how a genre born from Italy's poorest suburbs became the most controversial sound in the country.

by Jamie Mackay
Nov 17 2016, 3:52pm

​This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.​

It's a torrid summer night in Naples's Spanish quarter; a labyrinth of residential streets in the heart of the old city. Despite a wall of hot rain the pavements are overflowing with people, packed like sardines between makeshift barbecues and overflowing bins. Nancy, a local singer whose heavily photoshopped face is plastered on every wall of the adjacent piazza, is approaching the end of a two-hour set.

A mambo inspired backing track blurts through the speakers lead by a synthesised flamenco guitar. "Oh I'd die without you," she sings in a thick dialect, soaked in reverb, "you're my first thought in the morning, along with milk and coffee". Her voice shakes with operatic vibrato. "Brava!" shouts a large tattooed man next to me and the crowd screams in agreement – children, pensioners, pets all squeezed together on the steps of a derelict church. As the song ends fireworks shoot into the air, leaving behind a cloud of melodramatic smoke. "Forza Napoli!" shouts Nancy as she wades into her audience, embracing their quasi-religious rapture.

This is the world of neomelodico, a subgenre of Italian pop music exclusive to the country's southern regions. It is a tightly knit scene made up of local stars, most of which are unknown beyond Naples and Palermo, the twin capitals of the genre. At first it sounds like the generic pop you can hear blazing at full volume from bars and kebab shops across the Balkans and Mediterranean, kitsch and repetitive but undeniably catchy. Culturally, though, it's closer to something like grime; thriving in the poorest suburbs, delivered in a regional dialect, and propagated through its own dedicated infrastructure of venues, TV stations and pirate radio.

The term itself was coined in the early 90s by Italian music journalist Federico Vacalebre as a way of distinguishing the working class pop of the 'ghettos' from traditional operatic folk. While classic mainstream Italian pop sang about picture postcard versions of the city – of pizza, pasta, and mandolins – the neomelodici sang about painful love, poverty, divorce and unwanted pregnancies. One rising star Ivan Alaimo put it to me, "This style of music is the voice of the southern people; it expresses the true everyday Neapolitan culture, including joy and freedom right up to social problems such as imprisonment, unemployment and crime in general." This realism is best exemplified by the videos that accompany the songs, filmed in living rooms, kitchens, and terraces of the city's tightly packed tower blocks.

The world of the neomelodici is accessible but layered. Much like in UK grime, the lowest level consists of DIY recordings, made on camcorders and mobile phones, posted online or submitted to the local TV networks. Telephone numbers flash up on the screen for those who might wish to book them. Successful neomelodici generally work at extravagant functions, birthdays, weddings and small festivals. It's not unusual to see photos of singers on restaurant menus: one, two or three to accompany a meal. The vast majority of successful singers are male, though female artists like Nancy have also managed to break through. At the top of the tree are the patriarchal Drake-like megastars like Tony Colombo and Gianni Celeste. However, Valentina OK, a talented transsexual singer, managed to shatter the conservatism surrounding the genre and Italian music in general, with widespread success before her death from liver cancer in 2014.

You'd be hard pressed to find a neomelodico album on the high street in Milan or Turin. In fact, outside of Southern Italy it is often ridiculed. A local Venetian told me of the music, "This is why the rest of the world won't take Italy seriously. They think we're all sleaze-bags." I've got some sympathy - it's hard not to cringe at the spectacle of the plump child-star Piccolo Lucio's love letter to Nutella - but there is also a sense of embarrassment and thinly veiled classism against the lower class topics of the neomelodici.

In the South though, it's a huge business. Just how big is difficult to establish given that the majority of sales take place on the black market, though estimates have suggested the industry is worth at least €200 million a year. Since 2008, the scene has expanded significantly, even earning it the nickname "the market immune to the crisis." In a city like Naples where the unemployment rate is 22%, this genre is seen as a real-life miracle, a golden ticket – and it's easy to see the appeal, when all you need to succeed is a decent voice. Just as Diego Maradona inspired this city's youth in the 80s with the fantasy that football could be an escape from the hell of factory work, so the neomelodici seem to offer an easy route out of the realities of today's precarious poverty.

But it's when you dig under the surface of who exactly has gained from the success of this strange and unique genre, that you find a trail leading all the way from the country's superpowers into the murkiest depths of controversy.

In 1994, just as the neomelodici were gaining in popularity, Silvio Berluscino won his first election. For 'Il Cavaliere', however, this was a pyrrhic victory. Not only was he forced to resign after just nine months due to the collapse of his coalition with the neo-fascist Lega Nord, his principle holding company, Fininvest, was under serious investigation for alleged links with the mafia. Berlusconi was well out of pocket, and for all his hubris, the country remained lukewarm towards his candidacy.

Neomelodico proved a particularly important piece of political clay for the aspiring statesman. At this time the music was a sensation in the urban peripheries but was lacking the interconnectedness and economic power of a scene. A struggling Berlusconi saw an opportunity to capitalise on this sense of alienation. While the centre-left in the North snubbed the genre, he assimilated aspects of the neomelodic aesthetic into his own political performance, repeatedly declaring an exaggerated love of the South, cracking jokes in dialect and even singing a few Neapolitan tracks of his own.

His public persona, as Italy's leading financial paper put it, was that of a "neomelodic politician". He gave money to local music stations, winning him favour among influential Neapolitan presenters and DJ's and before long cringe-worthy political spots began to appear between tracks. Berlusconi's face was made to blend in 'naturally' with the crowd of local celebrities as if he were one of them. Much like Donald Trump did with his "Make America Great Again" appeal to the Midwest in 2016, so Berlusconi transformed himself into a champion of localism against the centralising agenda of the centre-left state. And in 2001, against all odds, he returned to power having won the South from his opponents.

As the money racked up in the Neapolitan music industry, so too did the involvement of the Camorra (aka the Mafia). Throughout the 90s numerous clans started businesses as PR agents, managers and record labels. More recently they have even set up pirate TV channels including 24-hour stations that publicise their artists. In a city where the state services are laughably inefficient, the justification for this shadow infrastructure has never been far away. Why shouldn't young talented people turn to the Camorra for help when there are no other organisations to support them?

Some neomelodici have explicitly glamorised the mafia. Lisa Castaldi's "Mio Amico Camorrista" is a particularly candid example: "My friend the mobster," she sings, "risks his life and his freedom / But for the people of the streets, there is no other law". Nello Liberti's track "O capo clan" is a similarly proud apologia for mob rule: "The boss is a serious man, it's not true that he is evil / If he has committed wrongs it was for necessity and according to God's will". In 2015, Umberto Accurso – one such boss who is currently serving a ten year prison sentence – supposedly wrote a song for his son titled 'to freedom', detailing the imagined pain of being separated from his loved ones. It was performed on local TV by Anthony, one of Naples's most celebrated neomelodici.

In the past decade dozens of singers, managers, producers, lyricists and publicists have been arrested for alleged ties to the Camorra. While some end up in prison the vast majority are released without charge. Others who don't comply with the mafia have been assaulted or even killed for performing without asking permission from the relevant bosses. It is hardly surprising, then, given the violent reputation of these cartels, that many independent artists from the early days are turning their backs on the genre.

I spoke on the phone with Vito, a "fallen neomelodico" who left Naples in the late 2000s in order to escape "the culture of speculation", and all too intimate links to organised crime – "la malavita" as he put it. "I don't like that world anymore," he told me, "that side of things is really getting in the way of the music. Now I live in Germany where I perform traditional Italian songs, not in dialect, and people really like it. But I do miss my city and hope to return one day, to see it changed."

Other Neapolitan musicians have attempted to deny the validity of the label altogether. Gigi d'Alessio, one of the city's most famous stars, put it recently in an interview "The neomelodici do not exist. They're just Italian singers with the good fortune to have been born in Naples." It is a statement designed to counteract the image of the South as a cesspit of crime and cultural degradation but, more cynically, is an attempt to distance his personal brand from a label that is so often used pejoratively. Without doubt this neglects the real experience of the southern Italian suburbs and the distinctive society that this music encapsulates. Neapolitans, it seems, are not only victims of prejudice from the North, they're often prejudiced by their own.

Like any art form that is so closely related to identity, there is much at stake for the self confidence and political agency of communities. It's wrong to see the neomelodici as passive victims, some make good money and their audience seem more than satisfied. What the story of these artists does demonstrate is how fine the line between 'authentic culture' and social control can become. With so many powerful forces seeking to capitalise on this regional pride, it is difficult to see where artistic expression ends and exploitation begins. This is an ambiguity that ultimately tends to serve those in power, and while Berlusconi and the mafia are two particularly grotesque examples, their avarice is just one face of an uncomfortable truth that extends far beyond the insular bubble of Italian pop.

You can follow Jamie Mackay on Twitter​.