The Ageless Appeal of Jovanotti, Italian Rap Superstar

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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