It was the clap heard around the world. Mahmood, Italy’s 2019 entry for the Eurovision Song Contest, was performing his breakthrough single “Soldi” to a live stadium audience in Israel, and to the 182 million people watching on TV. It was like nothing Eurovision fans had heard before: a trap-influenced track inspired by the then-27-year-old’s absent father. The infectious double-clap on the chorus was a fun part of the live performance. Translate the lyrics, though, and you’d hear Mahmood’s withering scorn: “He’s drinking champagne during Ramadan/ On TV they’re playing Jackie Chan/ He’s smoking shisha and asks me how I’m doing.”
Dedicated Eurovision fans will know the show is no longer just a sparkly cavalcade of besequinned, ludicrously cheesy pop. Even so, Mahmood’s performance felt like a tipping point. He wasn’t there to demonstrate his country’s musical traditions, as 2011’s runner-up Raphael Gualazzi did with the unbearably saccharine “Madness of Love”. Two years before Maneskin triumphed with their outrageous rock song “Zitti e buoni”, Mahmood was there offering a glimpse of Italy’s future. Critics quickly saw his potential to emulate the international success of Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican artist challenging traditional tropes of gender and masculinity. He’s a crossover star in every sense of the term, balancing critical acclaim with billions of streams, plus team-ups with megastars including Cardi B, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias. Mahmood says he isn’t interested in streaming numbers, but “Soldi” alone has close to 200 million on Spotify, and he has his heart set on future collaborations with Mura Masa and Run the Jewels.
His second album, the daring, genre-defying Ghettolimpo, takes his fascination with Greek mythology and draws in the characters and places of his own life. “I didn’t have a lot of inspiration [during lockdown],” he tells me over Zoom, from his apartment in Milan. Instead, he uses several recurring themes found in those stories – the transgressions of humans, punishment and transformation – and applies them to his own experiences. On the devastating and intensely personal “Rapide”, he pours over a fraught relationship, recalling snatches of conversation: “Maybe I won't be there/ Friday in Loreto/ If you call I won't be there/ Do you love me? Tell me no/ Cheating makes you happy?/ Please, don't say no.”
The album cover shows Mahmood gazing into a pool, from which a darker, disturbing version of himself emerges. In the title track, he confronts his “ugly” side with the wonderfully poetic: “My Narcissus/ Only his ugliest smile remains/ I swear I'll change it.” “In the year after Eurovision, sometimes I’d look at myself in the mirror and I was scared, because inside I felt differently – I was tired, scared, anxious,” he says.
Not everyone wanted him to represent Italy at Eurovision. Born to an Egyptian father and an Italian mother from Sardinia, Mahmood’s shock win at Italy’s Sanremo festival – the competition that decides that year’s Eurovision entry – sparked a backlash among the country’s far-right, anti-immigrant politicians. The song includes a verse in Arabic – “Waladi habibi ta’aleena” (“my son, my love, come here”), dredged up from Mahmood’s early memories of the father who would later abandon him and his mother in the Milan district of Gratosoglio (just a short distance from where he lives now). Matteo Salvini, who implemented several anti-immigration policies during his tenure as deputy prime minister, tried to rile his followers up against Mahmood, claiming he preferred Italian pop singer Ultimo as Italy's champion.
Mahmood got the last laugh. He placed second at Eurovision and “Soldi” – going against the traditional Italian ballad and instead tapping into contemporary pop and hip-hop sounds – became the contest's most-streamed song ever on Spotify. It topped the charts in four countries and made the Top 10 in several more. Along with Italy’s 2021 Eurovision champions, the rock band Maneskin, Mahmood is helping to shake off tired perceptions of the country’s booming music scene and attracting ardour from around the world. His YouTube comments are a veritable United Nations of Greek, French, English, American, Israeli and Spanish fans.
Ghettolimpo incorporates hip hop, R&B, electronic and pop, but also the style of classic Italian and Sardinian ballads. He sings in Italian, Arabic, Sardinian, Spanish and, on “Karma” featuring French artist Woodkid, in English. The Arabic was inspired in part by the call to prayer he heard five times each day in Cairo, on the two times he visited his father there. “I was so fascinated by it,” he says. “So I used it to create a similar melody, because it was an important part of my life.” He sings in Arabic quarter notes, too, which in Italy is “a crazy thing to do, but I don’t give a…” He trails off with a bashful grin.
Ghettolimpo is a concept album, with each song created like a “level” in a game. Mahmood came up with the word by fusing the “lowest place” – the ghetto – and the highest, Mount Olympus. In this world, the people are a mix of both god and mortal; gender, as the electrifying video for “Klan” demonstrates, is non-existent. Mahmood and director Attilio Cusani wanted to show a community interacting with one another with no judgement: “We wanted to give freedom to people.” There’s been speculation surrounding Mahmood’s sexuality but he dislikes labels, telling Vanity Fair Italy he would rather there were no distinctions. “People are just people,” he says now. “It’s not important where you come from, where you are… it’s important where you’re going.” This ethos, one that celebrates fluidity and possibility, is one he embraces in everything.
“In ‘Klan’, the principle theme is family, to stay united,” he explains. “It seems like I talk in a bad way about gangs, because if you do something wrong, you…” He draws his finger across his throat. In fact, it's about having each other's back, without judgement. “It was a new experience to go to Madrid with all these beautiful dancers, I felt like the black sheep,“ he adds, laughing. ”But I learnt a lot. Sometimes the group can give you strength, the possibility to be better.” He grew up in his own kind of gang; his mother has 12 sisters and brothers, so he has beautiful memories of a childhood surrounded by cousins the same age as him. But this album dwells less on the past, as “Soldi” did, and focuses instead on where he is now, in the present. “I hope that it helps people understand me more,” he says. “I poured my soul into this.”
‘Ghettolimpo’ is out now