The entrance of a hybrid between a café and an Italian eatery of 70s provenance, cross-sections the corner of one of the few still-ungentrified buildings left in Pimlico.
An unassuming spot on a most unassuming road, it offers the typical menu of rich Italian flavours— albeit ultimately tweaked to please the British. Walls painted in underwhelming off-white might deceive the ambiance as aseptic but the perception at the sight is rather of contradictory warmth, of a family pull. Of an inability to let go of tradition, and of the classic old Neapolitan restaurants opened with little money and many hopes.
The walls remark on the concept, reassess it, covered in pictures of the southern Italian city and, inevitably, of the great era of Napoli Calcio, for Neapolitans still feel urgently compelled to affirm Maradona was better than Pelé. These are not the only relics claiming with possessiveness the heritage of the restaurant owners.
The infamous red horn-shaped pendants, a symbol of good luck, are decoratively pinned on the wall and a marionette of Pulcinella— the Neapolitan character from the Commedia dell’Arte mask theatre— figures behind the counter. There, a man in his 60s, supposedly the owner, looks at some account books, while a young waiter beavers away at water glasses with a cloth.
At four in the afternoon, too late and yet too early for pizza even for the most assiduous meal-schedule subversives, the place is almost empty. The silence of deserted tables and a sleepy kitchen is filled by an old radio playing neo-melodic music, the typical genre from Naples, sang in the now drawled and now syncopated throat sounds easily dragged by the local dialect.
The singer, lamenting his despair for how the girl he loves is too young for him, highlights on his hurt by harmonising “even the fits you throw and the faces you pull/ make me fall in love with you/ you don’t understand/ the pain you subject me to,” and the owner sings along under his breath, un-framed glasses low on the bridge of his nose.
Although reluctant, I must interrupt his singing. I walk down to the counter to ask if they can make me some good coffee. Taking the request upon himself as if it was a challenge, the owner places a candid ceramic plate on the green marble counter as he waits for the creamy brew to fill the tiny cup, which the then meticulously sets on the plate.
“Italian,” he accuses immediately, as I yet have to take the first sip, leaving me to wonder if it appears so obvious because I am having my coffee at the counter. Or is it because of the accent, or rather because I snorted at the song lyrics? As he clears cup, plate, and his throat and resumes with his singing, only more pointedly this time, I decide it was for the latter.“It’s Nino D’Angelo,” he informs me unprompted after the chorus fades into the bridge. “Good, yes?” he asks, clearly daring me to say no.
Cautious, I nod diplomatically as the singer demands “lift your eyes from the ground/look at my face/you say I’m a clown/picking on all the girls”, voice impetuous, not helping matters in making the situation less uncomfortable.
“Although, actually, I prefer Liberato,” I offer to the conversation when maybe I shouldn’t have. The man’s nostrils dilate perilously, and the teen waiter— whom I can stereotype as being from Naples by the trademark haircut, tamed with an unnecessary amount of hair wax— snorts and looks at me with a smirk. The owner spares him a hard glare, which he then turns to me, hands on his hips, eyebrows knitted together, half disappointed, half resigned.
“Can someone explain,” he pleads, trying and failing to school his expression into a calmer one, “who the [redacted] is Liberato?”
Which, to be fair, is a great question.
On February 13, 2017, on YouTube, where most of the Italian independent music scene finds a place, a mysterious video clip appears out of the blue, featuring a track — entirely in Neapolitan dialect — that mixes neo-melodic elements with trap and more electronic sounds. The video clip, great in pace and photography, is directed by Francesco Lettieri, on whose abilities and concepts many indie Italian bands and singers rely on.
The song is called Nove Maggio, or The 9th of May. The name of the artist is Liberato, ‘freed’, and that is all the information that is available. The video never shows the artist, but rather a teen girl, dressed in streetwear, lip-syncing to the song as she wanders around Naples. Notable — but not more explanatory — in the credits of the video, a special thanks to ‘grandmother Rosaria’ and a link to a Tumblr blog as only personal social media account. Like Frank Ocean. (I know).
As per the strange contingencies according to which everything that is a bit uncomfortable, foreign and unusual starts generating confusion and then, all of a sudden, uncontrolled and hyper buzz, Nove Maggio is first shared amid indie communities, noticed for Lettieri’s contribute to the project. Then, abruptly, it becomes viral, amassing, day after day, millions of views.
There is a song everyone is talking about, there is a new music concept being coined, there are success and accolades to claim, yet Liberato remains just a nom de plume and the track child of anonymity. As the popularity grew, so did the curiosity towards this mysterious and faceless producer who took traditional Neapolitan dialect and modern sounds and mixed them together as nobody had done before. It happened that what could have been simply an innovator in the music field managed to become something akin to an all Italian Banksy phenomenon.
Neo-melodic, or, as it is better known, Canzone Napoletana, can be dated back to the 13th century when it originated as a kind of popular music sung in Neapolitan dialect. Largely explored musically and especially lyrically, it gets major traction in the 1980s when it is used mostly to accompany romantic themes by the likes of Nino D’Angelo or Gianni Celeste, who became, at the time, quite popular across Italy.
While Italy is characteristic for its regional dialects, entirely different from Italian and varying completely from town to town, Neapolitan is undoubtedly one of the most renowned and the one which, inserted in traditional music, managed to get out of the borders of its birthplace.
Neo-melodic, as a genre, is now considered predominantly pop. Its lyrics are cheesy and direct and probably, to a modern listener, uncomfortably outdated. Many have taken traits of neo-melodic and merged them now with jazz, now with hip-hop.
Pino Daniele, one of the greatest musicians from Naples, a mixed Neapolitan dialect with blues and jazz. His lyrics, however, were deeper and more intricate than those belonging to traditional neo-melodic, just as many others who had tried to export Neapolitan into rap did so by exploring political or social themes and never gaining such mainstream attention.
Then there was Gigi D’Alessio, beloved especially by a female audience, who maintained the tones and the themes and the cadence but sang in Italian. And so classic neo-melodic was going amiss, labeled as uncool and unsophisticated amid younger generations and often even denigrated.
Then came Liberato.
Liberato, who combines trap and electropop with the same romantic themes, creating a new genre of its own right when it seems like everything has already been done and experimented in music, when in Italy tradition means nice voices that have been singing the same genre for the past fifty years and EDM means bad copies of something that already came out last year abroad.
Liberato borrows from numerous styles, but demolishes their rules and positions verses of refined dialect on a rhythm to which it doesn’t belong. He showed how you can treat love and neo-melodic themes and spread them on trap or R’n’B bars, maintain the dialect and make it all work.
It seems like everyone finds something likeable in his music. “He’s one of us, he could be whatever guy from the streets of Naples,” said Giacomo from Naples, when asked about what makes Liberato so special. But it’s not only the Neapolitans who appreciate him.
He has captivated the indie enthusiasts, the Neapolitans and the general public. He lends himself to dance club music, but he is also somewhat profound. “He’s veiled geniality,” Francesco, a music reviewer for an indie publication, told us.
And truly, everything about Liberato is veiled. Neo-melodic, with acoustic guitars and a folkloristic vibe, does not need interpretation. Liberato, with his relatable but not as straightforward lyrics, came out of the blue.
Clever name, no face, no press office, no label, but possibly some useful contact in Rolling Stone, which managed to interview him and which pushed him to the wider public, so much that his tracks skyrocketed to a rotation on national radio stations.
The interview is to these days the only direct account from Liberato, and it is — a particular piece of journalism, to say the least. It was conducted via email, and the answers are all in Neapolitan — obviously — and in caps lock.
To the first question, “what is your real name” he answers “do you think that after all this tarantella (traditional Neapolitan dance, here meaning effort) to stay under the radar I’m going to tell you my name? Come on. I can say that my name is Liberato, I was born in Naples and I make music.”
Amid conspiracy theories diligently gathered on the Facebook page “Who the [redacted] is Liberato” that vary from them being a producer, to a Neapolitan dialect scholar, to another Italian singer disguised with auto-tune or even Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina, many suspect that more than of a whom, we might be talking of a what, as it could be a joint project of lyricists, producers and somebody lending their voice and accent.
“He sounds like he might be from Scampia,” says Melania, a poetry graduate from Naples who helped me analyse Liberato’s lyrics. Scampia is a zone from Naples notorious for its high rates of unemployment and criminality. “The accent, the type of words he uses,” she suggests.
“In Nove Maggio he uses the expression being’m’è sfunnat’, referring to how the girl left him and, quite literally, destroyed him. It’s a very strong and urban expression. Deep dialect. He does that a lot,” says Melania. “Surely he knows Naples well. He names a lot of places where young people hang out, Mergellina, Marechiaro. Wealthy, but also more rogue places.”
These places become visual in the videos, showing glimpses of Naples amid intricate storylines tied to the city’s beauty with great frames and light. There are always only actors in the videos, protagonists of stories often more profound than the song itself, although the lyrics are cryptic enough to leave doubts on their real meaning.
Then there is a hint to the artist, a man shot from the back, wearing a jacket with ‘Liberato’ printed on the back, the camera panning on a mural on the wall reciting ‘L’anonimato’ (anonymity) as he walks past it and through Napoli’s characteristic streets.
Neapolitans are proud, especially patriotic, and it is why an artist coming from Napoli is always so closely twined with the city itself. Naples has a precise and strong identity that makes it renowned, for its good and bad. Liberato doesn’t have an identity, in the most literal of the meanings, but he borrows Naples’ one, its vibe, its soul and makes it part of his art, lyrically, conceptually, visually. There are strains of symbolism — or rather, waterfalls — in every frame.
It is almost a proud promotional showcase of Naples, a town so maltreated and unfairly judged, from the poorest neighbourhoods of simple boys, faces toughened up by a youth spent in the streets, fooling around, to the richest boulevards facing the sea, from the touristy areas, on a scooter — rigorously without helmet — on the Riviera di Chiaia up to the Vomero, where the streets are buzzing with life, work, food and chit-chat.
And Liberato recounts it all, and Napoli gets a new face with it. He explains it to the rest of the people, hope they can understand it a little bit better, that mainstream media have not always done a good job of it.As the track Nove Maggio kept gathering fans, on the actual 9th of May, the second single Tu T’e Scurdat’ ‘E Me, or You Forgot About Me, was published, legitimising the success. Again, the track mentions all these places symbol of Naples, a way to build an identity.
Neapolitans, listening, find themselves in these images, and whoever can’t understand the dialect can chalk up a picture product of a mix of imagination and comprehension. Then the repetitive ‘it’s me and you’, where with flooring nonchalance he manages to rhyme you with tu — the you in “I’ll take you wherever you want”— in the chorus brings you back to the main point, like a mantra that stays in your head, while all the same making it a bit more conformed to a classic EDM beat.
There’s silence on Liberato’s front after the second single — which becomes even more popular than Nove Maggio for its sharp electronic vibe — until he is announced as a headliner at the Miami Music Festival for indie music in Milan.
The murmurs and the fuss and questions on whether he’s going to finally reveal his identity go to waste. He could have performed while hiding his face or the whole appearance like Daft Punk does, but on the Miami stage, other indie artists go up to sing Liberato’s songs, which leaves a sour taste in the mouth of many who were hoping for a big reveal.
Liberato’s impact is once again confirmed when he is called to open for Richie Hawtin on the stage of the Club To Club in Turin. An artist with only a few tracks out is called on the stage of one of the most important and destructive electronic music festivals, and looking at videos uploaded on YouTube from the event, it looks like most of the public was there for him rather than for the main headliners.
In this move, what really shows is the power of anonymity. At the Club Club, probably in an attempt to avoid the criticism resulted from the Milan performance, three people were on stage, dressed in a black hoodie, face hidden. ‘Liberato’ finally did his set, no speech in between songs, finally consolidating what was starting to resemble a collective hallucination.
However, I have spoken to one concert-goer, who, like many others, as it emerged from social media discussion, thinks it wasn’t the real Liberato on stage. “The accent and the voice sounded off,” he told me, “and I don’t think it was just because of the auto-tune. The atmosphere was still incredible, though,” he told me. And like this, the mystery only grew.
What could have been only a precautionary move, to release music without being judged in case of failure, like early The Weeknd, is now a gripping saga. He would not tell Rolling Stone the real reason behind the pseudonym, but maybe this is why ‘Liberato’ was picked. Because he wanted to be free from pressures, from canonical ways of making music, from labels and from expectations.
He is a symbol for a generation that refuses labels, that just wants to do its own thing. To Rolling Stone, he said: “Just because I sing in Neapolitan do I have to be a neo-melodic? What is this need to put labels on things? If you are honest you can be a rapper, a neo-melodic, a singer, a monster, whatever you want.”
But Neapolitan is a trademark of neo-melodic, and vice versa. If there has been a time when Neapolitan music was only for those guys, no matter what part of Italy, blasting it at the highest volume in the car at night while wearing sunglasses and chewing on entitled chewing gum, he came to break prejudices and for that reason to become a cultural — other than musical — phenomenon.
Not only to draw people back to Neapolitan, when dialects are going lost, to show that you can make something new in Italy, but also to debunk those pernicious labels and prejudices about Naples on crime, camorra, on the waste excess, on unemployment: he does not mourn Napoli, he makes you live it, he takes you places, to the island Gaiola and to Marechiaro, he paints them for you and he takes you among the ‘lads’, in the streets, dancing, playing football, breathing existence, love. Especially love.
There is an imbalance in Italy between the North and the South, that sometimes makes it feel like they are two different countries. There is a different history, different pace of economic and social development. And although the country is working to smooth those differences, it requires sensitivity to level decades of having a different mindset and dealing with different struggles. Especially when there are political parties like the Northern League wanting the North to gain independence, while its leaders publicly and unashamedly denigrate Neapolitan people.
But now slowly, Napoli’s beauty and peculiar soul is being understood. Pizza remains probably the worldwide most loved comfort food, but also Gomorrah, the TV series, is exported to the world, Neapolitan football is going back to the top and Liberato celebrates it as he fiercely celebrates everything rogue and underdog.
His young public becomes a protagonist in a positive way in his music, and he is inclusive of everyone. He is not shy when narrating the lives of the African immigrants arriving on to Neapolitan soil, work-exploited in the fields of the hinterland, often caught victims of Camorra. Only there is no tragedy in his recount, only celebration of life.
He sings of it in Gaiola Portafortuna, or Gaiola Lucky Charm, challenging the reputation assigned to the island of Gaiola, notorious for the myths that see it being jinxed so that its every owner ended up dying prematurely. Once again, the theme of discord with a possible significant one and the promise to bring them ‘under the moon, Gaiola lucky charm is eclipsed by the symbolic use of semantics and in contrast with an up-tempo beat.
“The use of dialect is lived with great freedom. It’s a door on very immediate feelings, but it’s all done in a quirky way. For example, in Gaiola Portafortuna he says ’appocundria’, which is a word that cannot be explained or defined. It is like a very heartfelt interior existential malaise,” says Melania. “He uses expressions for feelings that otherwise would need rivers of words to be explained.”
A niche use of language didn’t hinder Liberato’s message at all, and he started chitchatting even outside the Italian border, so that a few weeks ago when the new single came out, it had English subtitles. Me Staje Appennenn’ Amo’, or Why are you leaving me, Love with its video, seems to be coming straight from the 80s as the song flows into pure dance. It opens with a moving speech from Rosa Rubino, trans activist, and it narrates the love story between two boys.
If Liberato is in it, he is always giving his back to the camera as he wanders, foreign to the scenes that make the main narrative of the story. He walks in atmospheres that are oneiric, filtered, different but comforting. The video goes from a soft caress to bold excitement, with lights, an urban vibe, the youth going out, people coming out of the stadium, club-goers coming out of the disco and having a panino with questionable ingredients from a little van parked by the exit—something every Italian teenager does — camera panning to a wall sprayed with the word “rebellion”.
Only then there is something that brings you back to where you are, a picture of San Gennaro, the Saint from Naples that Liberato always puts in his songs someway, a reference to the football club, a shot of an iconic landmark. He mixes common with controversial and treats taboo issues for Italy with disarming naturality. Different ethnicities in such a delicate moment, homosexuality, drag, trans, in Naples, a core of tradition and often of conservative social canons. And he breaks them, the track becomes a dance, and he breaks it all.
This is why, even if undoubtedly, undoubtedly Liberato is a well-executed stunt, as it becomes clear in the money behind the project, the genuineness of it all is not lost, but becomes salient in the symbolism, in the charismatic strong message and in the poignant artistic value, that managed to revolution the Italian music world – not only indie, not only alternative- and take it by storm with four mere songs.
To Rolling Stone Italia, asking whether he kept his identity hidden because of a strategy, Liberato answered with a laconic and caps locked “WHAT STRATEGY”. For how he might deny it, however, pseudonyms generate mystery, which generates conspiracy theories, fuel to keeping interest alive. Starting a game of ‘guess who Liberato is’ makes a great conversation topic and can revive boring nights out, I can confirm.
However, the choice of a pseudonym is also always to respect. It fits Napoli, the city of theatre and drama plays, of another mystery author like Elsa Ferrante, of Commedia dell’Arte, of masks and puppetry and Pulcinella. And as much as it is enticing trying to solve the mystery, amid conjectures, YouTube channels entirely dedicated to gathering information on the anonymous singer, it should be remembered that nobody would dare rip the mask off Pulcinella.
As for what is next for Liberato, even his next steps are wrapped in mystery. It is unknown whether he is going to release more music if it’s going to live up to the expectations that this crazy frenzy has created if he is planning on maintaining his anonymity if he is ever going to reveal what is so special about the ninth of May.
While it seems unlikely that he would have known one year in advance, many suspect an album is coming on the date. And he surely attributes a special meaning to it. Last year, to Rolling Stone’s question on what is the meaning of that day he answered, “wait in patience,” and then, as promised, patience was paid off with the new single, Tu T’è Scurdat e Me, which marked his success.
As for the next 9th of May? Once again, we wait with patience.
Featured image by Vlad Podvorny via Flickr CC