Numéro art: Francesco, what is it about Mahmood that made you want to work with him?
Francesco Vezzoli: Pop music has always been my “madeleine de Proust.” I’d even go as far to say my “malédiction de Proust,” because pop music and pop culture in general affect me constantly. Italian pop music, like French, suffered from Anglo-Saxon domination after World War II: Italy only managed to export artists whose music was somehow linked to opera, i.e. Italy’s last great musical era. Obviously there were other forms – Neapolitan music for example – but in a world where everything tends towards simplification, opera remains the ultimate reference when you say “Italy.” I call this the “Bocelli theory” because Andrea Bocelli conquered the world with a style that was largely inspired by the melodramatic tradition of opera.
Does Mahmood contradict or support this theory?
FV: Mahmood is an exciting musical artist precisely because he makes the operatic mode contemporary, embracing urban music, with its Mediterranean and Arab roots, which he sings in the style of opera. Mahmood modulates his voice and can go from a falsetto to bel canto. He reminds me of Maria Callas and her obsession with bel canto, this search for timbre, this mix of vocal virtuosity and the use of ornamentation, nuances and vocalizations over a vast range. But even more than that, the themes he deals with in his music are melodramatic. His hit Rapide is a long monologue expressing the pain of a man who’s lost his love: singing about male despair and deep feelings is a staple of opera. And up till now I hadn’t found many examples of “masculine” melodramatic feeling being expressed in pop music...
“Being sentimental is much more radical than being gay. On Instagram, there's more biceps than tears.” Francesco Vezzoli
Mahmood, you’ve described yourself as 100% Italian. Are you a symbol of contemporary Italy?
Mahmood: People often try to define my music or to pigeon-hole it. I call what I do “Morocco Pop” – it’s neither pop, nor hip-hop, nor trap. Morocco Pop doesn’t actually exist, but the term encapsulates my need to free myself from existing musical classifications and do my own thing. Lots of people have wanted to make me into a political symbol in Italy, because of my origins, etc. But I’m happy just to represent others like me, young people who work hard to make their dreams come true in this country. I was born in Gratosoglio, south of Milan, where I grew up alone with my mother. We didn’t have much money at the end. My mother couldn’t find a job but still supported me. She believed in me and in my music. When I was three years old, she found me in front of the TV singing and dancing. Now I’m successful, I just want to give her back everything she gave me for last 27 years.