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Italian rapper Ghali aims to save migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean


In the first half of this year, nearly 2,000 people drowned at sea trying to smuggle themselves from the Middle East and North Africa to Europe. One of the most tragic incidents was a rickety fishing boat packed with more than 700 people en route to Italy. With the Greek coast guard watching, it sank, and hundreds drowned. That story of migration, of searching for a better life, it's a story Ghali knows well.

GHALI: I have friends, friends of friends who died in the Mediterranean Sea. Like, I'm lucky that I was born in Milan, and my mom came with the airplane. But since you are an immigrant, it's normal to know these stories and to bring these stories with you for your entire life.

FADEL: Ghali is a rapper and a major star in Italy. His parents were Tunisian immigrants, and that thirst for a better life he was talking about is at the heart of one of his biggest hits, "Mamma."

GHALI: During a vacation in Tunisia during the summer, I was telling stories about Italy, you know, with my cousin, talking about the clubs and life in Milan. Like, he started to be so obsessed in those days about Italy. One day I woke up, and he wasn't there. Where is Khalil? Where is Khalil? Where is Khalil? And he came back one day after - dirty.

FADEL: His cousin had tried and failed to sneak onto a vessel headed to Italy.

GHALI: So this song, "Mamma," talks about my answer to this, you know?


GHALI: (Rapping in non-English language).

FADEL: His lyrics speak to the sea, calling on it not to be too rough. I beg you, he says, carry him to safety.

GHALI: So a lot of people try to come, but they don't know once you arrive there, you're going to struggle. You're going to live the streets. You're going to do bad choices to get money because it's so expensive. In the song, I say, he's dreaming clothes, he's dreaming another life, he's dreaming. But he doesn't know that probably he's going to experience the street and all the bad things that the streets will give you.


GHALI: (Rapping in non-English language).

FADEL: You recently donated an inflatable boat to Mediterranea Saving Humans - it's an Italian nonprofit that saves people at sea when they make that decision to take that journey in the Mediterranean to try to get to Italy. If you could talk about making that decision to start working with this organization and the boat that you donated.

GHALI: I started to ask myself, how can I help them for real in (speaking Italian).

WILLIAM TROOP, BYLINE: In a concrete, practical way.

FADEL: That's NPR's William Troop. He's helping us interpret since English is Ghali's fourth language. He raps in Italian, mixed with Arabic and French.

GHALI: I asked them what they really need in this moment because the government is not helping them. It's not a subject that in Italy a lot of people talk about. And they do everything by themselves. Like, they use their money, and they use their time.

FADEL: But it's also not only people don't talk, it's a very controversial topic. That ship has never been at sea, right?

GHALI: No, not yet. Yes, because the government decided to (speaking Italian).

TROOP: The government decided to order not to find people at sea.

GHALI: To not save them.

TROOP: Not to save them.

GHALI: At all. Yeah.

FADEL: You called the boat Bayna, after one of your songs. Why did you choose that name?

GHALI: Bayna means it's clear. So when you see that boat, it's clear that you are going to be saved.


GHALI: (Singing in non-English language).

FADEL: Migration is a lightning rod issue in Italy like it is here in the U.S. And the current far-right government ran on an anti-migration platform. One of their new laws stops nonprofits like Mediterranea from saving people at sea, a law immigration advocates in Italy call unjust.

GHALI: The way I'm trying to help Mediterranea is before the politics decision. It's just because I think that people have the right to be saved from the sea, from the water. I have the chance to help in that moment. And then some - I don't know what to do when people are on the land, you know?

FADEL: Ghali says he's using his platform because he knows what's at stake when people make that decision, the decision to leave their home country and start over.

GHALI: There are multiple reasons why someone immigrates, you know? It's not only war. It's not only bombs. When you don't see a future, when you understand in a really young age that you cannot dream and that is not possibility for you, that's still a war, you know? You need to escape. I didn't live that. I didn't experience the immigration, you know? But my mom did, and my father did. My friends did. And I experienced the feeling of being the first generation of immigrants in Italy. I experienced being one of the four foreign kids in a school. This is why I say that's my story.

FADEL: If you're born in Italy but your parents are immigrants, you don't get nationality automatically. It wasn't until Ghali was 18 that he got citizenship.

Do you feel Italian?

GHALI: Yes, of course.

FADEL: Yeah?

GHALI: I'm Italian as [expletive].


GHALI: I'm so Italian. I'm Italian with Tunisian parents.

FADEL: And do you think other Italians see you that way?

GHALI: Yeah, a lot of Italians see me Italian. Yes.

FADEL: Yeah.

GHALI: And - but a lot of them see me not Italian. But with me now, I'm in a privileged position, you know? My worry is when other people with no - the possibilities that I have receive this type of treatment, you know?

FADEL: I mean, did you have a Ghali growing up? Like, did you have somebody that you looked at that was from immigrant parents who was famous and respected in Italy when you were a little boy?

GHALI: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is a new story.


GHALI: (Rapping in non-English language).

FADEL: Well, Ghali, thank you so much for talking to us about your music and your messages.

GHALI: Thank you so much.


GHALI: (Rapping in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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