This Liberian Italian beatmaker uses music to tackle racism in Italy

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Marco Werman: The Black Lives Matter movement is at work in Europe, highlighting issues for people of color across the continent. For one musician in Italy, that issue is citizenship and who actually gets to call themselves Italian.

Angelica Marin has more from Rome.

Angelica Marin: When you have a message of protest, you take it to the People's Square. It's a piazza crowned with statues and churches, smack in the center of Rome. In recent weeks, a wave of young Italians gathered here. People of all colors, six feet apart, wearing face masks, down on one knee with their fist in the air.

The fight against racism in Italy has a central demand: Young black Italians want to become citizens, plain and simple. You see, they were born in Italy. They were raised on pasta. They went to school here. But because their parents are immigrants, they were denied citizenship at birth. By law, they are second generation foreigners.

"Enough is enough," activist and singer Anna Maria Ghenyei tells the crowd. They know her better by her stage name, a tribute to her cause.

Ghenyei: I'm Karima 2G.

Marin: Her name, Karima, means "kind and generous." And “2G” stands for second generation.

Ghenyei: I do music to send a message and to express an anger and the need to be recognized as Italian, but also as a black woman in Italy.

Marin: Karima's style is called Bantu Juke Fever, a mix of techno, hip hop, reggae, Chicago Juke and grime. Her family roots are in Liberia. For her, stories come from Italy. One of their songs slams an Italian senator who compared Italy's first ever black government minister, a woman, to an ape.

Karima says she has been called the N-word. As a young black woman in Rome, she says she had to explain herself a lot. Twice, the police held her at a bus stop, assuming she was an African prostitute. She sings about policing in one song.

Karima's art stirs uncomfortable conversations, but she knows how to get people to listen — like when she opened a concert for American rapper Azealia Banks in Milan in 2015 and wrapped herself in an Italian flag in front of 20,000 people.

Ghenyei: And I remember that crowd looking at me like, "Oh, my God, she's doing that. The black girl wearing the Italian flag." So, it was very provocative. And I explained the reality of the second generation. The crowd was completely silent. I remember leaving the stage and this guy came to me and told me, "I apologize. I never knew that you guys were going through a lot of struggle."

Marin: In Italy, there are one million second generation foreigners. They can try to become Italian citizens when they turn 18, but the odds are stacked against them, says Guido Tintori, an expert in European immigration policy at the FIERI Research Center in Turin.

Guido Tintori: They have to produce proof of continuous, uninterrupted and legal residency first, which is very, very demanding, especially because their legal status is not dependent on that. It is dependent on their parents, but also on the Italian bureaucracy and the Italian laws about immigration.

Marin: If their visa expired at any point, their application will be rejected. When most European countries relaxed their nationality laws in the 1990s, Italy went in the other direction. And while it's difficult for second generation youth born in Italy to become Italians, it's easy for pretty much anyone on the planet with blood ties to Italy to claim citizenship. If you live in New York or Tokyo and your great-grandpa was Italian, there's a pathway.

Angelica Pesarini: Italian identity is profoundly based on whiteness.

Marin: Angelica Pesarini is black Italian and a professor of race and gender studies at NYU in Florence. Her ancestors came from Somalia and Eritrea, where Italy had colonies during Mussolini's fascist era. Pesarini says, this period in history has had a lasting effect.

Angelica Pesarini: Being black and Italian for some is a sort of oxymoron. If Italians are white, all the black bodies would see they don't belong. They must come from somewhere else. So, "we're not too interested in their rights." 

Marin: Musician Karima 2G stepped into that backdrop. In song after song, she's pushing Italy to reexamine its relationship with race, inviting Italian people of color to organize.

Ghenyei: I think we are living in a very historical moment right now. A lot of people are still experiencing racism, but I think that we can come together and kind of create also a sort of leadership. So, this is my main goal right now, to empower myself, to empower women most of all because I believe in women, and gain also a black loyalty, an Italian black loyalty.

Marin: Karima's message has been out for a few years, but now she and the second generation are riding the global wave and calling for change.