Jony Colombo is one of the biggest names in neomelodica, a style of Italian music that combines elements of traditional Neapolitan song (think O Sole Mio) with modern pop influences. He has released over 20 albums, performed in concerts across Italy, Germany, Canada and the United States, and has hordes of fans.
It is also alleged that part of his fortune comes from laundering money for the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia, made famous by his portrayal in Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorra and its television adaptation. On December 21, Italian police confiscated property from Colombo, including an apartment, two cars and €80,000 (£66,000). In 2019, Colombo married the widow of a Camorra boss and he was reportedly seen at Camorra parties; prosecutors believe he received dirty money from his wife’s clan and attempted to pass it off as proceeds of his music career. He has always denied any involvement in organized crime.
This is not an isolated case. Neomelodica singers are often accused of colluding with the Camorra – sometimes through their actions, sometimes through their music. And, as authorities circle Colombo, Italy’s parliament is also discussing a law criminalizing mob glorification that appears specifically drafted to target some neomelodici.
This somewhat mirrors other disputes around the world. London drill rappers, for example, are censored by police who fear their songs incite gang violence; Spanish rapper Pablo Hasel has been arrested for glorifying terrorism and insulting the monarchy in his lyrics, while musicians led by Jay-Z argued this month for New York law to be changed so that lyrics don’t cannot be used as criminal evidence. “These days you go to TikTok and it’s all guns and money,” says Gianni Fiorellino, another popular neomelodici – who has no connection to organized crime, but is appalled that his style could be censored. “I don’t see why it should be allowed and lyrics about organized crime shouldn’t.”
Neomelodica was born in the 1980s as a reaction to societal changes and the crisis of the canzone napoletana, the hyper-sentimental traditional Neapolitan song (sometimes accompanied by mandolin or guitar) which flourished at the beginning of the 19th century. By the 1970s, the canzone napoletana had gone out of style, and around the same time its home, Naples, underwent a transformation, with the creation of neighborhoods completely separate from the polite society of the city.
“In a way, neomelodica was to Naples what hip-hop was to America, it gave a voice to poor neighborhoods”, explains Marcello Ravveduto, professor of history at the University of Salerno. While canzone napoletana represented an idealized and perfect Naples, neomelodici began to portray the harsh reality of its peripheries.
Mixing the Neapolitan dialect with Italian, neomelodici sings of lost lovers and betrayal, teenage sex and divorce, drugs and broken homes. Some of them also sing about organized crime, a subject fans know well, touching on issues such as latitanza, mafia soldiers hiding; and repentancearrested mafia soldiers collaborating with the police.
“It’s music rooted in the territory, with great melodies, where the lyrics are central – they’re like a mirror of the Neapolitan feeling,” says Fiorellino, who has released around 12 albums.
Fiorellino is one of the few neomelodici to have played in Italy’s most important music festival, Sanremo, but, apart from a few exceptions like him and Gigi D’Alessio, the Italian mainstream culture frowns on the neomelodica.
On the one hand, it is associated with urban poverty, while some neomelodica hits openly describe the Camorra, and more rarely the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Tommy Riccio’s Nu’ Latitante talks about hiding from the law, away from his family. Then there is Il Mio Amico Camorrista (My Camorra Friend) by Lisa Castaldi and ‘O Killer or Carcere Minorile (Prison for Juveniles) by Gianni Vezzosi. Ravveduto describes these songs as “a way of justifying a way of being”. On the one hand, these songs are critiques of society and the way it drives people towards crime; on the other, they are proud of otherness and of resorting to violence to obtain what one wants.
Some see these songs as a propaganda tool for the mob, and this criticism has become more vocal. Prior to streaming, neomelodica was broadcast by small local radio stations, sometimes directly controlled by organized crime, but the internet has transformed the genre into a near-national phenomenon.
Last April, demonstrations by anti-Mafia activists forced Niko Pandetta to cancel a concert in Ostia, near Rome. Pandetta, a Sicilian who stands out for his combination of neomelodica and trap, is also the nephew of a prominent Cosa Nostra boss, Salvatore “Turi” Cappello. He dedicated his first hit to his uncle.
MP Stefania Ascari introduced a bill that would make glorification of the mafia illegal. She says she doesn’t want to target neomelodica as a genre, only artists “who are close to organized crime”, and points out that the Camorra has exploited neomelodica to send veiled messages. For example, two years ago a group of gangsters detained in a high security prison near Avellino shot a video to the beat of the song Si Sto’ Carcerato (The Inmate, by Tommy Riccio) to send the message that their clan was strong even behind bars. “Yes, I’m an inmate, it was a lifestyle choice,” the lyrics read, as they greeted their families.
“If you’re in a high-security prison and all the inmates are asking for neomelodica songs, you start wondering why,” Ascari says.
Fiorellino is skeptical of the bill, even though it wouldn’t target his purely romantic songs. Ravveduto says the idea makes sense, at least in theory – “when songs glorify mafia powers, they should take them off the market” – but in practice, he thinks, there is a risk that a such a measure turns into a boomerang. There is a precedent in Mexico, where some northern states have banned narcocorridos, the songs glorifying the drug traffickers, and end up making them the anthems of the rebellious youth. “If you suppress the music, you might end up providing the crowd with new propaganda ammunition,” he says. “They could end up with even more influence on young people: ‘You see, the authorities don’t even let you speak out.'”