If you ask Andrea Dissimile, he’d tell you there are no icons left in Italy. “They disappeared in the eighties and nineties”, claims the drummer, at least as far as music is concerned. One wonders what Nietzsche would think if he had witnessed the extinction of the famous icons that he believed would replace religious iconography, the mainstay of Western civilisation for centuries—a famous moment he delicately called The Death of God in Modern Atheism.
But Andrea couldn’t be further from the nihilism of old Friedrich. The cause of this drought of idols to adore is rooted specifically in the Italian music system. “There are loads of very talented people who almost never reach a certain level because of the market”, continues the Milanese drummer. “I’ve never been a big fan of academia. I’m self-taught. I started playing live very early on and since then I’ve done a thousand gigs, from shitty venues to the coolest stages. Come what may, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing. It’s the thing that keeps me alive.”
Dissimile and his infinite love for jazz, funk, blues, and RnB, which he pours into various projects, from 72 Hour Post-Fight to touring with Mecna, is the perfect example of a phenomenon that has been generating truly noteworthy output in Milan in recent years. It is an unstable, liquid trend that is fuzzy around the edges, but the general idea is that it draws extensively from black music and trans- lates it into different languages, some more conventional than others.
The mission we set ourselves with Dr. Martens was to take a snapshot of this heaving system of musicians and performers. Nothing new for the brand, which has always been in the business of icons, closely intersecting the shoe and its natural habitat: live music. And that’s not all. Dr. Martens has always believed in those who shun trends to stay true to diversity and self-expression, leveraging the concept of the rebel icon, in a historical moment where homologation and aesthetic standards seem to be the order of the day.
In an ecosystem very often far removed from the logic of major labels, this movement—which we might very liberally rename Neo-Soul—emerged a few years ago with Venerus, Frah Quintale, and co. Perhaps seeking something deeper and more human than trap. But it’s not an easy life, because, as Ethan Lara rightly points out: “In Italy, culturally, this RnB stuff doesn’t exist. We’ve tried it with some artists but it’s not ingrained in our culture.”
Image is something you can always change and the half-Florentine, half-Brazilian singer has been through a few different looks: from dishevelled rebel to Berlin raver. And he’s even sacrificed his language for his public too, switching from English to Italian. But sound and the true artistic nature of a musician are things you just can’t give up. “I never want to lose focus on my dreams. This is what I want to do and I’ve known it since I was nine years old. It’s one of the few things I know about myself. I like knowing that I will always have this musical hunger.”
For Ethan, the whole icon thing has one meaning. He knows that there is something unique about him, because “being iconic means you’re someone who, even if only by osmosis, has taken external stimuli and made them your own. Making something intelligible even for people who don’t have your knowledge. To be an icon is to make history.”
There are those, however, who take it much less seriously. Not for any lack of self-confidence, mind you. If anything, for an innate, irrepressible, and extremely ironic sense of humour that also serves as a buffer against the emotional blows of “failing to succeed”.
And yet, Julie Ant is doing very well for herself. But, if you ask her who her idol is, she’ll promptly tell you that it’s Renato Pozzetto. This says a lot about the drummer and saxophonist’s sense of humour. “Sometimes people just want me for my image”, she says with her usual smile. “but that wasn’t the case here, fortunately. That’s always a dilemma: how important is your image compared to your talent. I definitely take better pictures with the sax, because my face is always all screwed up in photos of me playing drums.” Plus, while it’s just as soulful as the drums, Julie’s saxophone is a fairly recent addition to her life. She studied on drums and cymbals, so she naturally feels more comfortable with two sticks in hand. And feeling comfortable is everything for her.
“It sounds trivial, but the only thing that matters is the way you do things. The same goes for life in general. I am always totally natural”, she explains, glass of wine in hand at her local. “When people ask me to play, I sometimes wonder why they chose me and not someone better. Perhaps because pure technique isn’t always enough. There are a lot of people who play and a lot of them are really good at it but often you need spontaneity. I do things because I feel like doing them, not because I have to.”
Expressive urgency may be the basis of any healthy artistic career, but Julie’s case confirms that a good dose of humility can help too. Take Evissimax, a DJ from Varese who’s been in the Milan orbit for years now but still can’t quite believe everything that’s happening to her.
She learned to DJ in 2022 and is already one of the hottest new names on the local clubbing scene. That’s down to her innate selecta skills and a charm that derives from the aforementioned humility. “I still suffer from Impostor Syndrome, so I sometimes wonder whether I deserve all of this. Because there are people who have been playing for years who might not have had the same opportunities as me. But at the end of the day, I do try really hard. Maybe I deserve it.”
Eva’s sound is perhaps the most recent and extreme derivative to emerge from this Neo-Soul forge: a mix of rap and RnB anthems revisited in an uptempo key, from techno to jungle. But whether it’s her ghetto-tech, Dissimile’s groove, Ethan’s RnB, or Julie’s thousand rhythmic facets that are the face of contemporary Neo-Soul, the only priority right now is finding the right place for all these different sounds to exist and flourish, at a time when there is a real lack of decent space in big cities. After all, if an icon doesn’t have room to grow, how can it hope to stand the test of time?