BLOG: Teaching Italian Language within a Transnational Framework: Mahmood's "Soldi" in the elementary Italian classroom by Giovanna Faleschini Lerner, Arianna Fognani, Maya Greenshpan

Giulia Riccò Blog Post

Teaching Italian Language within a Transnational Framework: Mahmood's "Soldi" in the elementary Italian classroom

Giovanna Faleschini Lerner (Franklin & Marshall College), Arianna Fognani (Coastal Carolina University), Maya Greenshpan (Franklin & Marshall College)

Most of our students enter college without any Italian at all and a lot of our teaching is devoted to language instruction. This has traditionally been seen as a liability in terms of opportunities for intellectual engagement, but it carries potential in terms of developing new and comprehensive approaches to the Italian curriculum. As Charles Burdett has written, indeed, “The separation between the study of language and the study of culture remains pervasive within MLs, but it is detrimental both within the academic context and within public perception” (Burdett 2018). In the Italian programs in which we teach, we work hard to challenge this separation, by highlighting, from the students’ points of entry, an approach to Italy conceived “broadly and dynamically [...] as a space shaped by global forces and the circulation of objects, people, and ideas across borders” ( 

We find that, particularly at the elementary level, students’ degrees of experiences, knowledge, and expertise related to Italy and Italian culture varies significantly. If on one hand such diversity poses some challenges, on the other it creates a fertile territory to problematize homogenous constructions of Italian culture and to start cultivating more nuanced representations of the country, its people, and cultures. Music can offer productive points of entry to discuss affinities and dissonances with what students perceive as being Italian. In particular, in recent years, the Italian music scene has brought to the fore emerging transnational Italian groups like Måneskin, who, in addition to having a Danish name, write and sing their lyrics both in Italian and English, and singers like Alessandro Mahmoud, also known as Mahmood.  Through a series of activities that can be adapted to different levels of language proficiency, we draw on Mahmood’s work to interrogate what it means to study (and teach) Italian in a transnational perspective.

Why Mahmood?

Mahmood won the Sanremo Music Festival in 2019 with the song “Soldi,” much to the chagrin of right-wing politicians like Matteo Salvini, who questioned the ability of Mahmood’s music to represent “la canzone italiana” (Horowitz 2019). (Salvini’s comments eerily echo other politicians’ statements in 1996, when when Dominican-born Denny Méndez won the Miss Italia contest).  Born and raised in the outskirts of Milan by an Egyptian father and a Sardinian mother, Mahmood belongs to a generation of Italian musicians, like the Italian-Tunisian Ghali, who appropriate a variety of genres, music traditions, and cultural influences to intentionally push Italian music in transnational directions, beyond the “multi-ethnic” or “multi-cultural” approach of previous artists and bands, like, for example, the Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio. 

In an interview with Time magazine, Mahmood says that he grew up listening to both Italian and Arab music, but also to American hip hop (Webster 2019). These influences and contaminations have produced an original music style that he labels “Morocco pop.” His song “Barrio” also engages with Latin American influences, through a collaboration with Colombian pop musician Lalo Ebratt. He sings in Italian, but has also produced a Spanish-language version of “Soldi” and has incorporated Spanish in “Dorado,” produced in collaboration with Colombian music artist Feid. 

After winning Sanremo, Mahmood represented Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest, placing second. The Eurovision Song Contest is itself an openly transnational project, created in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union to foster European unity in the aftermath of World War II. In recent years, it has included participants from non-European countries like Australia, Israel, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Its audience peaked to 200 million viewers in 2016, and has hovered around 185 million in more recent years. Eurovision has been seen as influential in giving visibility and legitimacy to European queer culture, from its more camp manifestations to more subtle challenges to heteronormativity. As scholar Catherine Baker has written, "Through Eurovision’s ‘visibility phase’ in 1997–2007, Eurovision’s non-heteronormative contexts [...] became part of the text itself" (Baker 2016). Mahmood’s own reluctance to discuss his sexual orientation contributes to the dismantling of stereotypes about Italian masculinity and gender roles in Italian society, even in the elementary language classes.

  1. Esploriamo la musica italiana 

“Esploriamo la musica italiana” is an assignment in which students independently explore the contemporary Italian music scene. It works particularly toward the end of the first semester. In addition to practicing specific language structures, such as descriptive adjectives, piacere/non piacere, or expressing agreement/disagreement, the goal is to establish a point of entry to discuss affinities and dissonances with what students perceive as Italian. Students have access to a list of Italian music artists from which they can select one song video to share on VoiceThread and present a short description to the class using the audio or video comment function. A few days after the submissions, students revisit the videos and leave new comments on their peers’ selections expressing their like/dislike of the artist, the song, or the video chosen. Students’ responses to these activities are always enthusiastic. What is perhaps surprising is that they tend to choose songs by Modà, Emma, Ultimo, Laura Pausini, or Il Volo, whose style and themes resonate with the Italian melodic and operatic tradition. Students seldom choose Italian rap, indie, pop, rock, or hip-pop songs by artists such as Fabri Fibra, Gue Pequeño, Marracash, Ghali, or Achille Lauro, perhaps because they do not recognize them as Italian. This exploratory assignment, therefore, in addition to fostering peer-learning and expanding the students’ familiarity with Italian music, prepares the ground for the next activity. 

“Oltre/Altre proposte” is a two-step activity designed around Mahmood after he won San Remo in 2019. Since students have probably never heard of San Remo, the first part includes a brief introduction to the festival history, location, setting and format and the debates it fuels on Italian media every February. Students then watch a sample of live performances on the San Remo stage by the artists they chose in the “Esploriamo” activity, and reflect on similar events in their home countries. The presentation ends with an explanation that recently different kinds of artists and music styles have become more visible at the festival, gaining awards and recognition both from music critics and the Italian audience. Mahmood is an example of this new trend. 

In the second part of this activity, students work in small groups to gather and present basic information about Mahmood’s life and music, and to write a short final reflection, in Italian, comparing him to another singer of their choice. Through group presentations, students learn about  Mahmood’s Egyptian and Italian origins and the pun behind his professional name: Mahmood as in “my mood” and echoes an Arab last name, which further emphasizes his transnational profile. They find out about the influences that Italian and Arabic music play in his songs and style along with the Sardinian language he inherited from his mother. Students also explore Gratosoglio, the area in the Milanese periphery where Mahmood grew up with other artists, with whom he often collaborates. By doing research about his songs, students discover that frequent themes include his childhood memories and upbringing in a complicated family and references to his neighborhood. Uncovering and sharing personal details about Mahmood’s experience, background, and musical tropes helps students to recognize the presence of common paths between the Italian and American rap and hip-pop traditions. On a deeper level, this process also begins to challenge their preconceived notions on Italian music, families, and national identities. 

  1. “Soldi”

The song Soldi can be used in a variety of classroom activities to practice language skills and engage with cultural content. The lyrics contain many verbs that exemplify different tenses and conjugations, while the story of the song and the artist’s biography offer opportunities for productive discussions around multiculturalism in contemporary Italy. 

A class can begin with a short reading on Mahmood’s biography and professional career (it could also include information about Sanremo and the Eurovision as institutions and about the mixed reception that the song received by Italian critics and audience). This reading can be supplemented by grammar exercises (I have used it to review relative pronouns), and comprehension questions (also in the form of true/false). At the end of the exercise, students are asked to summarize Mahmood’s biography and to articulate what they have learned about Italian and European song contests. 

The next activity is specifically focused on the lyrics. Here too, work on grammar and meaning proceeds simultaneously. For example, while reading the text and answering comprehension questions, the students are required to analyze the verbs and place them in a chart. After listening to the song and watching the video, the students are invited to share their impressions of the song and list their main takeaways. 

The comprehension of the lyrics can also be done by using a “call chart,” an activity borrowed from music teaching. The goal of this activity is to make immediate connections between melody and meaning, and, in this case, also images. For this purpose, the lyrics are provided together with a set of numbered short questions. Each question refers to a specific line and is positioned next to it (for example, which language is this? Use an adjective to describe his feelings, does he have money? Who is he talking to? What does the repetition convey? etc.). Students are required to answer the questions as they listen, read and watch (the song may need to be played several times). This exercise is engaging and enhances the discussion because it requires focus, fast thinking, and intuition. 

In addition to lending itself to a variety of exercises and discussions, “Soldi,” with its upbeat rhythm, is a particularly fun song to sing. As a final activity, students often enjoy singing the chorus and clapping hands at specifically the right moment. Singing enhances understanding of grammar, memorization of vocabulary and improvement of pronunciation through the repetition of sounds and structures. For example, in the case of Soldi, students retain words such as bugiardo and orgoglio, or structures such as come se avessi avuto that may be difficult to understand and memorize in other contexts. Finally, singing helps set a positive, cooperative and communal atmosphere in the classroom.


Bringing Mahmood’s music into the elementary-language classroom helps students recognize their own biases toward what constitutes “Italian” music. It also helps them gain an early understanding of the complicated and continued intersections of Italian linguistic, religious, and ethnic diversity with the nation’s history of emigration, immigration, and colonial and post-colonial entanglements, which Mahmood’s autobiographical songs highlight. Finally, it contributes to positioning Italy at the center, rather than the margins, of transnational cultural, economic, and linguistic exchanges. The recent transnational success of Måneskin who, similarly to Mahmood, won both Sanremo and the Eurovision Song Contest with the incendiary tune "Zitti and Buoni" in 2021, provides additional material to further reflect on the canon of Italian music and  the definition of heteronormativity in our language courses.