The Ageless Appeal of Jovanotti, Italian Rap Superstar

PHOTO: Jovanotti

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There was a time when Rome ruled everything, and it's something that Lorenzo "Jovanotti" Cherubini, like a good Italian, has not forgotten. He likes to boast about it, still.

"Being from Rome means I'm comfortable everywhere, it's the origin of humanity," he says, sitting comfortably onstage at the Grammy Museum for his an intimate concert event called "Spotlight: Jovanotti," the last stop on the first leg of his U.S. tour, during which he'll delight the mostly Italian and Italian American crowd with anecdotes of how he came to be where he is and acoustic renditions of his greatest hits.

"So when I go to a city and people show me ruins, I always joke, 'you call this old? We got old. Show me something new!"

To call him a rapper is to shortchange him. Jovanotti is a wordsmith, and lately, his aim is to humbly introduce himself and his music to the United States, for those who may not know him. And outside of the Italian American community – and a few Latinos like myself – that's most people. So in New York, the city he and his wife and daughter have called home since August, he's enjoying something he says he had been craving for years: near anonymity.

Back home, though, Jovanotti enjoys superstar status, with a career spanning 25 years, over 5 million units sold, and an Italian chart record of eight No. 1 albums and ten No. 1 singles. It's what's been able to afford him his 800-year-old villa in the town of Cortona, a little town in Tuscany by a lake, where only 1,000 people live and everybody knows each other. You know, like something out of Under The Tuscan Sun.

For someone who has lived all of his life – 46 years – in Italy, Jovanotti's English is impressive, even if he dismisses it as "Macaroni English." Then again, the accent has its charm, and so does the exaggerated use of his hands while speaking.

One of the first anecdotes he'll share tonight is how, on his way to the Grammy Museum, he rode in a taxi driven by a Russian man named Vladimir, who was blasting Pavarotti. "I told him that man [Pavarotti] was my friend," he says, and then goes on to describe how surreal it felt to look up at the palm trees and make his way to the same place where they hang Michael Jackson's jackets and Whitney Houston's gowns. "I almost cried," he says, in a rare moment of seriousness.

Later, when moderator Scott Goldman of Los Angeles Foundations asks him if he thinks U.S. audiences will be open to his music, Jovanotti will (convincingly) argue that many of history's most important Italian operas have successfully been produced in America countless times for centuries. "So it's not a question of language, it's just a question of good music," he says.

Jovanotti performs an acoustic set at the Grammy Museum in L.A.

In many ways, Jovanotti has never left home, because home is a state of being, not a physical place. "I live in my language," he states, matter-of-factly, "I take my words with me wherever I go."

Jovanotti then shouts out Hollywood director Gabriele Muccino (Pursuit of Happyness, Playing For Keeps), who's sitting in the front row in a show of support for his old friend and fellow proud Italian.

Before his Grammy Museum concert, Jovanotti sat down with me for a one-on-one interview. He looks older than I remember him on the album cover of Lorenzo 1994, the same album that Rolling Stone recently named one of the greatest Italian albums of all time. Even on the other side of the world, in Ecuador, Jovanotti was making waves. The album was huge in Latin America. I still can recite by heart the words to "Serenata Rap".

He stands tall and oozes confidence, but there is no trace of arrogance. He's intelligent and worldly, but also humanistic and compassionate. He's successful, but never complacent.

During our 40-some minutes, we talk about AIDS, world hunger, Europe's financial crisis, rap beefs, his relationship to Cuba, his friendship with Juanes, his profound love for New York, fatherhood, the meaning of success, and the things he still dreams of achieving.

But first I had to get something out of the way, and find out how a guy who spoke no English could become so enamored with hip-hop in the 80s that he took it upon himself to bring the art form to Italy. All it takes is one listen to his debut album, 1988's Jovanotti For President, the cover of which shows him rocking a sideways baseball cap, to realize just how much he was influenced by the culture.

"It was a way of having fun with words," says Jovanotti, who then breaks out into his best rendition of "Rapper's Delight." "Maybe that was the main reason that drew me to it, the fact that I didn't understand anything. I was like 13, 14, so at that time you're not interested in the lyrics. There was an energy inside that music and it was different from anything else I was listening to at the time."

Since the 80s, Jovanotti transcended the rap genre and started experimenting with classical music, ska, funk, rock, folk, and Latin rhythms, collaborating with the likes of Sergio Mendes, Ben Harper, TV On The Radio, the Beastie Boys, and even Pavarotti.

His latest album, Italia 1988 – 2012 on ATO Records, is not so much as a greatest hits album as a compilation of Jovanotti's most compelling work, including his first international hit, "Piove," from 1994.

But it's not all nostalgia on the album. There's also a new side to Jovanotti, which longtime fans will want to discover.

"In New York, I found Rome, I found Milan, I found Par-eese/New York is made of Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and Ven-eese/Grandmaster Flash, Beastie Boys/I wanna wake up in the city with Frankie and his voice," he sings on "New York For Life," one of four new tracks on the album. By Frankie, he means Frank Sinatra, of course, someone who comes up more than once tonight as his favorite singer of all time and happens to be – surprise, surprise – Italian.

For Jovanotti's new project, producer Ian Brennan says he chose to focus on the thread that runs through all of his work: "his voice, which, largely due to its understatement, resonates with a rare intelligence and humanity that makes it instantly recognizable, standing out like a sore thumb—in all of the best ways—from the sea of commercial Italian radio pop."

For Jovanotti, though, his success hasn't stunted his personal or artistic growth. He could have very well retired by now, but he's still looking for, as he calls them, new "refreshments."

"Most Italian artists, once they have success at home, they don't go away to look for more success outside," he says. "You feel like you're a part of this large, super-family, you feel so connected and you become a sort of relative to the people. Sometimes I feel like I have 50 million cousins.

Jovanotti with Scott Goldman onstage at the Grammy Museum.

"I'm not trying to have success in America," he adds, "I'm not doing this because I'm not happy with my life or because I want to prove something to myself or to somebody. The reason [for moving to New York] is more personal; I'm more looking for a refreshment in my musical experience. I can lose all the material privileges, but I don't want to lose my joy of feeling like I'm at the beginning of something. So for me, I love coming here to do tours and festivals, and to have a connection with American and Latin artists."

Sometime in the future, we'll be hearing a song produced by Bomba Estereo for Jovanotti's next album, he says, and he dreams of a Calle 13 collaboration. Jovanotti also confesses to liking Michel Telo's massive hit, "Ai Si Eu Te Pego," calling it "incredible, simple and catchy."

The conversation switches to how he came to be such a huge star in Latin America in the first place, to the point of him recording in Spanish, and he says that a lot of it started in Cuba. "I was the first Western pop musician artist to play in Havana," says Jovanotti. "I went there for the first time in 1991 and I really fell in love with the people and the culture. So we decided to do a concert in 1994, and we brought instruments and supplies to the schools."

Jovanotti says it was Italian tourists who brought his music to the island. "Young people gravitated toward it," he says.

It was in Cuba that he and his Colombian rock star brother from another mother Juanes bonded, he tells me. When Juanes decided to perform in Havana in 2009 for an open-air "peace concert" in front of 1.5 million Cubans in the Plaza de la Revolucion, Miami's conservative Cuban constituency turned against him. Though many people supported Juanes' decision to play a concert that was about "music, not politics," he also received death threats and harsh criticism, none of which stopped him from going ahead with it.

In the midst of the storm, Juanes found a prominent supporter in Italy, someone who shared his sense of responsibility to deliver music with a message.

"When I read about all the opposition to this concert, I wrote Juanes myself and I told him that I really admired what he was doing," says Jovanotti. "I told him, 'You're doing something brave,' and courage to me, is the most important quality in a human being. So I invited myself."

Jovanotti went to Cuba, and played with Juanes, joining other artists like Miguel Bose from Spain, Olga Tañon from Puerto Rico, and Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez and salsa icons Los Van Van.

"What you realize is that young people are the same all over the world," says Jovanotti of that unforgettable experience, "and they love the same music. Those young people represent the future. I know because I come from a country that managed to come out of a dictatorship."

Later, at the Grammy Museum, a kid who can't be older than 20 raises his hand and says something that's not so much a question as a statement. "I've always perceived you as ageless," says the kid, in a subtle Italian accent, much softer than Jovanotti's.

Jovanotti thanks him, then tells the kid that all of his favorite artists – Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra – are like that.

"I like artists that get better with age," he says, in that unmistakable accent. "So now I'm very interesting."

That's the thing about Italians – and I suppose all of us whose origins can be traced to Latin. We're proud, and we're not afraid to show it.

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