With over a half million views for his music videos, Amir Issaa stood center stage at Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music on Oct. 3. The crowd was in awe of Issaa’s talent and how he was able to uniquely evoke today’s political issues through his craft – rapping. Issaa’s words take listeners on a journey of immigrants, the wrongs of racial inequality, exclusivity and the plights of growing up in a low-income family.
The path to Issaa’s rising success wasn’t easy. The Afro-Italian’s poetry reflects the difficult path he had growing up into the man he is today. Issaa’s father was incarcerated in front of him at three years old, living in Rome, Italy. A mix of emotions formed within him as a result of the racism and xenophobia he endured with his mother and siblings by his side.
As a means to escape from his harsh reality, Issaa would leave his small room to ride on his skateboard around town and write with Rome’s graffiti crew, The Riot Vandals. But he wasn’t fully satisfied until he encountered the world of rap.
“I felt like I was in a cage with the situation I was in,” Issaa said. “But when I listened to rap music for the first time, it changed my life. And I started to tell my story.”
Out of his hardships, Issaa became a powerful force who shares his testament without hesitation. He navigated life through hip-hop and felt comfortable in a community that finally accepted him for who he is.
Rap is a “universal language,” according to Issaa, and is inspired by Black innovation. However, the content of his music is different and specifies his personal stories in Italy.
The emerging hip-hop artist published his first solo album, “Vita di Prestigio,” and more notable singles that follow. But one single he holds dear to him, “Questa e Roma,” a personal and alternative piece about Italy’s capital. It as reached over 400,000 views on YouTube.
In between the lines that describe the rough predicaments that life threw at Issaa, there are words that shine a glimpse of hope and inspiration despite his circumstances.
Issaa encourages people not to feel confined by their past. His workshops, “Potere alle Parole” (beat and rhymes against discrimination), enforces people to see rap as a simple tool that keeps the flame of stories that need to be told. Issaa further extends his craft to highlight societal issues that pinpoint racial injustice and how stereotypes and prejudices feed discrimination.
“I teach to the kids and to the people to use words to express [themselves] and that rap music has the most simple technique,” Issaa said. “Some kids have a vision of rap as something [of prestige]. But people don’t realize that rap literally stands for rhythm and poetry.”
One of his pieces, “Non respiro” (I can’t breathe), refers to his beliefs, as it sheds light on the death of George Floyd. Issaa’s passion for explaining the political climate in the world doesn’t stop there.
He is the author of an award-winning autobiography, “Vivo per questo” (soon to be published in English as: “This Is What I Live For: An Afro-Italian Hip-Hop Memoir” in 2023), which is a testimony to the adversity and imagination of “second generation” Italy. His book, “Educazione Rap,” highlights his experiences speaking at universities, schools and prisons and it addresses rap through a poetic, linguistic lens.
To make his goals a reality, he collaborated with Save the Children, Centro Astalli, the Community of Sant’Egidio and National Office against Racial Discrimination (UNAR). The activist took part in “New Italians,” a campaign for citizenship for children of immigrants in Italy, by visiting the President of the Republic, making petitions and writing songs that focus on this important issue.
“My hope for people when they are listening to my music is to never give up,” Issaa said. “If you’ve been in a hard situation like me, I’m proof that you can evolve as a person.”
As Issaa closed his performance that night, people rushed for his autograph and picture as they were amazed by how he told his story. Alessandra Bontia, a senior television and digital media major, was one of those people.
“Seeing the passion he has [for] performing his message makes it so much more touching,” Bontia said.
People like Victoria Povolo, a junior biochemistry and Italian major, appreciate that there is actually a message in his songs.
“I thought it was nice to get the younger kids in America involved with what he had to do,” Povolo said. “His purpose in rap is a good way of making kids aware of the issues that are going on today, instead of just rapping about materialistic things. It doesn’t feel like he’s lecturing you, he’s smart with what he does.”
Sticking to his truth, Issaa continues to take a stance unapologetically against the animosity that pollutes the world through his powerful words.
“I’m a vision of the future because I love hip-hop,” Issaa said. “I know that hip-hop culture [is] born with a lot of different people. It’s an inclusive culture. And that’s what I love about this.”