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Nigerian migrants at the heart of afrobeat revolution in Sicily, Italy

September 11th, 2020
topic:Migration
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Italy, Nigeria
tags:Mediterranean route, migrant, musical protest

Braving the long and treacherou voyage across Sahara Desert in sweltering heat, and the unforgiving waters of the Mediterranean Sea, migrants from Africa have traditionally surreptitiously found their way into Italy to either settle, or make their way to the rest of Europe. The journey has claimed thousands of lives, the majority of them young people in search of better days and fortunes abroad.

But recent crackdowns occasioned by surging migrant numbers and an alleged rise in crime have seen these refugees arrested, repatriated or held in government-run ‘campos’ as they plead for asylum. Those who manage to escape the authorities’ dragnets have been reported as participating in illegal businesses: from the Mafia, to drug cartels to the trafficking of women. This cluster of immigrants and the web of illegal and violent activities it advances have made international headlines, further damaging Italian citizens’ trust of migrants.

But in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, nicknamed the “Kingdom of the Sun”, migrants have found a safe haven. Mayor, Leoluca Orlando, has adopted an open door policy, defying the government’s directives on the status of migrants. Residents are warm to the refugees, embracing them as their own in a town that is a melting pot of cultures, a signature of the 2,700-year-old city. Situated at the edge of Europe and closer to Africa, it is little wonder then that it has become a magnet for African migrants.

In the midst of a culture clash and divided opinion on the space and place of foreigners in the country, a section of young migrants now living in Palermo are sparking a music revolution. Their genre, Afrobeats — a contemporary West African music and rhythm — is fast gaining attention.

Musicians like RayJeezy, Brenex Baba and Thug Money from Nigeria who travelled to Palermo in a boat over three years ago, have walked a long journey in positioning their music to both locals and immigrants. For Ray Jeezy his first stint at performing in Palermo was when he received an invitation from a friend to perform at a club. It was the beginning of a musical path which he is using to position himself among revellers who have been slowly warming to the genre he performs. While the process to win over fans has been slow, with the majority taking time to learn and adapt to the new beats, social media has been pivotal in exposing his music and that of his peers to a mass audience.

They sing about life in Palermo and the daily experiences and struggles they face. “This life is not easy…. To be a man is not easy. I thank God for my life,” Brenex Baba sings in one of his songs dubbed “Thank God”, which also features Ray Jeezy, and whose video summarises what it means to be a migrant in Sicily.

The proliferation of the artists and ordinary migrants running legal businesses has also had a positive impact on the city. Palermo’s suburbs have traditionally been known for runaway crime, but are now experiencing a significant reduction in illegal activity, and are now thriving scenes of culture and music.

As Afrobeats grows in popularity globally for its unique style of expression that traces its origins to West Africa and Nigeria, music sensations like Wizkid, Yemi Alade and Burna Boy light global stages with their Afrobeats-inspired acts. Young Nigerian artists in Palermo are optimistic about reaching such heights someday. For now they are working on growing their brands in Italy, sparking a music revolution and highlighting the lives and times of migrants, one beat at a time.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Italy Nigeria
Brenex Baba summarizes what it means to be a migrant in the Sicily city.
Surging migrant numbers and an alleged rise in crime have seen refugees arrested, repatriated or held in government-run ‘campos’ as they plead for asylum.
In the Sicilian capital of Palermo, nicknamed the “Kingdom of the Sun”, migrants have found a safe haven.