Lina Simons Is Back With In The Block | “Now I Know What I Want”
We met the London-based Italian artist Lina Simons to talk about life, music, Italy and fully embracing her identity through her new project in Neapolitan dialect.
Growth, stalemate, changes of direction: fundamental steps that mark the path of every artist. And if it is true — as Matisse teaches — that creativity requires a lot of courage, Pasqualina De Simone, aka Lina Simons, has got tons of it.
Rapper and singer, she is and always has been a force to be reckoned with. When we first met her, she had just moved to London, leaving behind Italy, Cerreto Sannita — the village where she grew up — and all the sorrow and frustration that those who embody Italian diversity still have to face.
Today, almost at the end of her university studies in Music Business & Entrepreneurship and after 3 years spent in one of the most forward-thinking cities in the world, Lina is a different person, she’s a woman in control of herself and her artistic choices. But above all, she is an artist who has developed a new perspective and is ready to fully embrace her Italian identity and her language with a series of new singles in Neapolitan dialect. The first one is called In The Block and it gives us a taste of Lina Simons’ new sound, showing the artist with her friends, her chosen family, in the places that represent her new universe.
After almost four years since our last interview, we met Lina to find out about her life in London and her new musical adventure. If the conditions were there a few years ago, now they are stronger than ever, and with the energy and talent that Lina manages to bring to every project, we just have to sit back, fasten our seat belts, and enjoy the show.
GRIOT: When we first met in 2017, you had only been living in London for a few months. Who was Pasqualina when she arrived? Who is Pasqualina today?
Lina Simons: When Pasqualina moved here she was a girl who did not know much, she was much more naive. I came from a small village, I wasn’t used to the city, I was used to being pampered because I had just left home and my parents gave me everything I needed. London has changed me in so many ways, both positive and negative. It made me discover what independence is: now whatever I want, I know how to go and get it for myself.
However, Pasqualina is slightly more anxious now, literally in every sense, because this city has also left a mark from that point of view. It is a very unpredictable, fast city, you never know what happens, as a result I am always in “fly and flight” mode. Now I have grown a lot from this point of view, I know where I want to go in life and slowly I’ll try to get there. It is a continuous discovery, after three years I am still discovering myself. I know what has changed and when it changed, but who I am may change again in the future, so I don’t know.
In a practical sense, how has this city changed you?
My lifestyle has changed a lot. Here I began to understand how important it is to take better care of my body and my mental health, things that are truly linked together. For example, I quit smoking because I realised it was related to many things with regards to anxiety and my low mental state at times. I am very exuberant, but slowly I noticed that this exuberance was fading away, and I didn’t like it. I began to understand that it was linked to smoking, to my diet and things like that.
London helped me understand my binge eating disorder, but not only that, also how I see myself. In short, it made me realise many things that were already there, but spending more time with myself, I said, ‘Ok, this is something that needs to be resolved.’ I don’t know if it makes sense, but I’m learning how to solve these underlying problems.
In the Block is your first piece in Neapolitan dialect, and I would also say in Italian. How did you take the decision to try to rap in Italian?
To be honest, I was brought to this realisation. I have always been very fixated on English, because I have always wanted an international career in order to leave Italy behind me. However, a very dear friend of mine called Khaled (CEO of Real Talk) listened to my songs and contacted me on Instagram saying: ‘Why don’t you try to do something in Italian?’ I immediately said no, but then we met, we talked, he followed me for a while and in the end, I said: ‘It’s not that bad after all!’
At the end of the day, I’m an artist, so yeah, I can do it, and that’s how it happened. I think it was a sign because my current manager and friend Marco Villa, aka Gransta MSV, also contacted me saying that he was opening a label and management company, that he had heard my music and he believed there was potential to do things in Italian but not only. They wanted me to discover myself as an artist and therefore they gave me lots of freedom. When this opportunity arrived, I began to like the idea, especially of using Neapolitan because it is truly a very musical language, and for me it comes out much easier than Italian. I discovered the beauty of this dialect and I said ‘Why not!?’
I think the Liberato phenomenon has widely demonstrated the need for this type of sound and representation, in particular to platform our diaspora and to show how much Italy we carry inside. The need is great and a big part of the country is ready to open up to this new plural Italy.
Of course, this part of Italy has been kept hidden, I honestly don’t know why, because we really bring great wealth. I like the fact that lately people have had more courage to speak out and express themselves in certain ways. In the past it did not happen out of fear, or because people were afraid of being rejected. Today there is undoubtedly more indifference, but also a stronger desire to be heard. And honestly it’s cool for me, because I feel calmer now, I feel less judged when doing something like that. If I had done it years ago – I don’t deny it – maybe I would have thought: ‘Pasqualina maybe not, because so and so …’ With all my insecurities, you know … I think I have overcome them now. I also wanted to do it because it is part of my culture, I grew up partly in Naples, I was there all the time, so I felt like it was the right thing to do.
Tell me about the creative process: the production, the lyrics. How was the track born?
In The Block was one of the first pieces I wrote in dialect. I sat in my room with a beat by an Apulian producer called Strange Beats and Gransta MSV, and the lyrics came out naturally. It was weird for me too because I wrote this piece, my manager just gave it a few tweaks and so it was born. We decided that it would be the first song to be released because it’s a sort of business card: I talk about who I am, what my themes are, what I care about, what I’ve been through, it’s just like a small summary. There will also be other tracks in which the whole thing will be expanded in order to give a wider picture of who I am on an artistic level.
So is In The Block part of a bigger project?
Yes, there is always a bigger project, every little thing always starts to become something bigger. I don’t know if it will be an EP or an album, it could also be a mixtape, we have been talking about that too. Let’s see what it transforms into.
Your block was Cerreto Sannita, now it’s Kilburn. Differences, similarities, paradoxes? How do you experience the London community?
Yes, North West gang! London is reserved, but at the same time it helps you when you need it. The differences are that it is not like in the village where everyone gossips all the time. Here people mind their own business, but it is more chaotic, there is much more noise, more trouble from all points of view. The village is quieter in that sense. These I believe are the basic differences, then the food? The food in Cerreto Sannita is much better! This must be said, unfortunately Italian cuisine in general — I raise my hands — I don’t know how many kilos I’ve lost since I’ve been here.
What about the making of the video? Who are the people flexing with you in your block?
Gransta put me in contact with a former student of his who lived in England, Pietro Biasia, he is a video maker, director and producer. We brainstormed some ideas and we had very similar visions, he understood the track as I did. We decided to shoot in a friend’s block in Hoxton, East London, because it was exactly the type of block I had in mind and because I spent a lot of time there at my friend’s house, so it’s like a second home to me. Pietro followed the direction of the project from a distance, because he currently lives in Portugal, and Armzy, another video maker, took care of the shooting.
Who appears with me in the video? Basically all my friends, there was Aaron Anderson, who is an artist and producer; Prince “Delaghetto” Dahany, who is a DJ; Susy Etionsa is a very dear friend of mine and she is a model; Isatu Bangura, also an artist, and Ayomide “Mariam Sweetbar” Aloyin who has been part of my team since day one, she takes care of the make-up and helped me with the styling for all my videos. Then, Abdi who was amazing at capturing the vibe of the set in pictures.
Seeing you there, so beautiful and proud in your block reminded me of Zero and of the great sense of pride I felt watching the series. To me you were all superheroes, each one of you. Have you seen Zero? If so, what did it mean to you?
Unfortunately, I haven’t watched it yet. I didn’t have time because of work and when I get home, I just collapse – I think I’ve been paying my Netflix subscription for three months for no reason, because I literally abandoned it.
However, despite not having watched it yet — and therefore I cannot give a complete or honest review — I am very happy that Afro-Italians or Afro-descendants finally have such a platform to express their creativity. Netflix I mean, it’s something that makes you proud because it doesn’t happen every day. If it happened every day, it wouldn’t be an event to celebrate, but it doesn’t happen, and that’s what makes it even more special. I’m happy about this, finally.
Going back to music, who are the artists that soundtracked your lockdown?
Azealia Banks, even though crazy, I love them. I disagree with many things they say and do, but musically speaking, they drive me crazy. I listened to Liberato a lot, then Yank, who is a rapper from Brescia, I love him. Stoney Heart, who I discovered recently, she is so good. These are the ones who have kept me the most company. Peace of Mind is a song by my best friend, Aaron Anderson. If I get nervous, I listen to it and it calms me down. Then, Jack Arlo, Janelle Monea and many others.
What difficulties do you experience as an artist and a Black woman, if there are any? What are the advantages?
There are so many difficulties, the first is that many people in the industry, especially those who matter, will ask for sexual favours to help you with your career. As a matter of fact, many women are subject to such things because, especially in the industry in which I find myself operating, the hip hop scene, the male presence is dominant and it is a fact. There are a couple of female acts that are emerging, obviously I’m not saying that they agreed to do things, but it happened to me and I find it really bleak. Actually, I am happy to have found a team that is morally strong and to have people with integrity close to me who know how far you can go with just your talent. Yes, it’s a real thing, these are the cons, what disgusts me the most.
The good thing is that I’m a woman, I can either show my feminine, sexy side or my more masculine, tomboy side, and no one can tell me anything. From this point of view, it is true: as far as I have understood it, if we show our masculine side, we are slightly less criticised.
How did you react to George Floyd’s killing and to what happened afterward?
I felt terrible. I grew up with the white part of my family, because I grew up in Italy, my father was Italian. One of the first things I did was talk to them and say: ‘Since you are having and will have children, please educate them to be open-minded, teach them to use their privilege to support certain social causes. Make sure they are aware of these social causes, because these are battles that do not take a couple of years to be won, it takes decades, hundreds of years. So, to all the people closest to me I tried to say: Please use your privilege to ensure this battle is won. You know how it is, when something does not happen directly on your skin, you do not understand it, there is no empathy. But if I am part of the family, you have to take responsibility, you can’t boast because of me only when it suits you, but when bad things happen, you keep your mouths shut. I am very much for the future.
What you’re saying makes me think of what you told me during our last conversation, about the fact that you have a love-hate relationship with Italy. Is it still like that?
Yes, but I’ve started to rediscover the beauty of dialects and how to use them in my art. This is a beautiful thing because I can say everything I want to communicate with a certain type of language and no one can say they don’t understand me: I’ll tell you in dialect, I’ll tell you in Italian, now you have no excuses!
The relationship with Italy is still what it is for the simple reason that so many things have pushed me away. I am Italian, I recognise it, but I do not know if it is the country where I’ll want to raise my children in the future yet, because I don’t know how it will be: will my children have to go through what I have suffered or will it be a different environment? Maybe it will improve with time, three years are not enough to tell.
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I’m a very eclectic person with an obsession for music, writing and sociology. I was born and raised in Italy, but London has been my second home for over a decade. Here I make music, DJ, write, dance, sing and bake.