Two months changed my life forever

When I started rapping was 2008, in Guinea. My first song was called ‘Bembo’, the lyrics said that everything we earn in life is for our belly. We work the land in the countryside to help the family eat, to be full. We used to sing it everywhere in the neighborhood.
My name is Lancine, but at the time everyone was already calling me Larios, and that has remained my name as an artist.
I was a teenager and I knew I wanted to be a musician, but my relatives had another plan for me, to study, to become someone. So I stopped singing, I tried following their advice, but it wasn’t my destiny. A trip that was supposed to last two months changed my life forever.

In 2017 I started singing again, here in Italy, in Pisa. I was in a reception center, it was a difficult time for me, writing music saved me from depression.
I was 20 years old and I felt like a newborn, without knowing anything about my future, in a place I didn’t know, I was there without having chosen it.

I speak 8 languages, Kissi, Malenke, Bambarà, Giula, English, Susu, I rap in French and in Italian. In my music there is my story, that of the people I met, it is a collective message. Music is the means to convey a message, to talk about who has suffered what I have suffered. It’s not easy for immigrants to overcome a past that has been imposed on us, and open our eyes to the world. 

Sometimes we need to be reborn as adults. My message is also for non-migrants, to stop blaming differences and try to understand before judging or getting influenced by racist narratives from media and politicians.

I had never thought about leaving Guinea. I used to live in a muslim community in Kiniero, a small town where I never knew anyone who wanted to migrate to Europe. I was a student and had a job with 4 other employees. We repaired telephones and electronic devices, our life was good at that time.

Then one day a friend contacted me from Libya. He was struggling with something, so I decided to support him, spending some time together, just for two months. The war had already broken out in Libya, but his city was safe at that moment.

I love to travel, I have wonderful memories of my holidays as a boy in Mali and Ivory Coast. It is by traveling that I understood many fundamental points of life. Libya made me realize that when you feel your life is safe, you have nothing that threatens you, this is something to be grateful for. When you have food and somewhere to sleep you must be the king of your life without thinking that you failed in doing this or that.
There were times in my life when I didn’t have these basic things and I didn’t even care about money because I couldn’t do anything with it.

It was the summer of 2016 and I started my trip with infinite joy and excitement, by bus. Problems started in Agades, in the desert. Some armed men were stopping people lining them up with guns, they pointed their weapons at me. There you have two choices, either you continue on your own, by foot, or you pay the armed men and get on their pick-up that takes you to Libya. I chose the second option. Together with 35 other people, we traveled holding on to each other for 4 days and 4 nights, the vehicle hardly ever stopped. Anyone who falls out of the car is left to die in the desert. As we crossed the dunes we saw the UN blue helmets base, people were shouting at them from the car, someone hoped they would intervene to save us, but nothing happened. Apparently, they were engaged in another mission.

<<I’m lucky>>, I thought as we finally set off from the pick-up. After that, I said to myself <<I’m lucky>> many other times.

As I arrived in Libya, I could not find my friend. I later found out that he had been killed. To understand what happened to him, I started contacting other mutual friends. I didn’t have a phone so I asked for help from Ismolomekano, a guy from Ivory Coast who arrived in Libya to leave for Europe. Every now and then I go to his Facebook profile to look at his photos. Friendship in survival situations is something else, it is a bond between people facing death. One day, also Ismolomekano was shot to death, he is gone forever now.

Hell on earth is in Libya. When I found out my friend died, I started asking all the military I could find around how I could go back to Guinea, but that’s not really how it works, and I remained stuck there.

I didn’t have a house, sometimes I took shelter under the sheds. I joined other groups of African migrants who were looking for a way to reach Europe.
We were sleeping outside, the bullets were passing over our heads like falling stars, I remember the sounds and the colors. We had enough money to buy food, but having money there was like having nothing. We were afraid to go and buy food. Militias could stop and kidnap us to use our lives as bargaining chips.

I had no real groups, people were always changing, everyone was trying to save themselves. As a joke, among some friends we called ourselves ‘onions’, because once we hid in a warehouse with only raw onions to eat. We spent nights and days eating onions.
We were hiding from the military who forced us to move weapons and bombs for them. Especially when the material is considered dangerous, militaries recruit migrants to move such weapons, they keep them at a safe distance, giving orders and holding guns in their hands. They weren’t real soldiers, but mostly young boys doing the military service. You don’t know the difference between who’s in the army or not. They all look like soldiers, you never know what side they belong to, and above all, you never know what to expect from them.
Some gave us something to eat after we worked for them, some kicked us out, some can put you in prison and call your parents asking money to get you released, if your parents have no money you’re lost in jail.

With another group we used the nickname ‘Esprit de patas’, ‘Brains of sharing’. Even a single bottle of water was shared between us, a few sips, but for everyone.
Once, in a shed, the military came wanting to take us to jail. A mass of people started running like fools. I jumped a 3 meters wall to escape, only if you have a weapon pointed at your back you can jump that much, like in movies. As I jumped the wall, I fell on the property of a Libyan man and his family. I was stuck there and didn’t know how to get out. The man saw me and started speaking Arabic, I couldn’t get a word, we were both in a state of agitation. I was scared and wanted to run. 

 

I started talking to him in French and he understood a little. He told me that if I ran and his brother saw me he would surely kill me. He hid me in his garage, that was the only night I slept under something in Libya. The morning after he brought me back to the shed. I’m not sure why, but he decided to take care of me. Every day he came to visit me and talk to me, bringing some food. His name was Omar, or at least that was the name he said to me. Omar arranged and paid for the trip for me. I’ve been lucky. Once you arrive in Libya you are a bargaining chip, the price to move is several thousand dollars and can cost you your own life. I didn’t want to cross the desert in that pick-up again, the only way out of that hell was to embark, and Omar had contacts for a boat that was going to sail to Italy. Out of 35 people who had arrived with the same pick-up, I was the first to leave, and that was thanks to Omar. The others have spent months or years in Libya, many are no longer with us in this world.

On the evening of departure, I got in a truck that left us somewhere unknown. From there we walked for over 10 km between the forest and the seaside. Once we reached the pier we waited for hours before a small fishing boat arrived. There were 127 people inside a single boat.

We were like sardines in a tin. After 24 hours without drinking or eating our minds were clouded. There was a woman next to me holding a baby in her arms all the time, every now and then I was trying to hold the baby for her. She couldn’t take it anymore, in a state of delirium she said she wanted to jump into the sea with the baby and end the agony.
I remember people praying close to each other, Muslims and Christians, who were praying in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. On the boat, I was thinking about my grandmother. My mother died in 2000, and my grandma became the dearest person to me. I didn’t want to die before her. Among my 4 siblings, I am the closest to her. I thought that I would not be able to help her during the most difficult moments of her old age, and I cried.

The journey from Tripoli to Lampedusa lasted 9 hours. At 9 in the morning we saw a ship coming towards us and panic ensued. As we thought that there could be Libyan authorities, we wanted to jump out into the sea. We didn’t know anything, whether the ship belonged to the Italian marine authorities, the police, the army, or whether it was an NGO. At one point I saw an African guy beckoning far away from that boat and I had faith.

I don’t remember how we got off the ship, but I recall that I was immediately asking to be repatriated to Guinea. Once again, it doesn’t work like that, it’s all complicated. There is no Guinean embassy in Italy, there is only one consulate, and until you haven’t received ID documents issued by the Italian State you cannot move, you cannot return.

Authorities took us to the largest reception center where all migrants arrive in Lampedusa, a small island that emerges closer to Tunisia’s coasts rather than Italy. That place is the symbol of immigration, of boats, of people coming from everywhere in Africa who are called ‘illegal’ and ‘clandestine’. I was without documents, I had nothing. After the experience in Libya, at that moment it was enough to have a shirt and a pair of trousers. They transferred us to a temporary reception center, we were more than 250 people from many different countries. They assigned us identification numbers, they were literally calling us as numbers, rather than using our name.

After 20 days they called my number telling me to get on a bus without saying where they would take us. The bus crossed half of Italy, they told me to get off in Pisa, in a reception center.

I have a paperwork folder collecting all the bureaucratic papers I received from my arrival in Lampedusa until today, I’ve never thrown anything away. I managed to come back to visit Guinea only after 8 years, the life I had there before was gone. I don’t want to start all over again.

The reception center is quite a challenge. There are different people with different stories who speak different languages. Communication is a fundamental aspect, we mixed all languages to understand each other, Italian, French, English, Malenke. You have no choice but to live surrounded by people who don’t know anything about their future, everyone is in a bad mood in there. Each individual is mostly waiting for the same thing: the response of judges and legal commissions who are in charge of determining if you are eligible to get a residence permit. I waited for 5 years.

The beds are like those of the military, 2 or 3 mattresses one on top of the other. Sometimes there were 20 or 30 people in a room. It was impossible to clean. It’s been years, but still today I can’t sleep in a single bed, I can’t live in crowded places and I choose to move to the countryside, to get some peace.

I was very depressed at first. I called my girlfriend in Guinea and told her I didn’t know anything about my life, I didn’t know where I was going to be and for how long. I told her we were forced to break up, I told her to live with another person. I had also discovered that I had passed an important exam in Guinea, to continue my studies, and I could not return. As a result of my frustration, I took it out on the workers of the reception center. I thought they were the ones setting the rules and I wanted to rebel. In time, I realized they are instead people who want to help migrants but find themselves cogs in a system they did not choose, towards which they have no power for a change. We protested many times, we did not want only pasta to eat, we did not want a 10 pm curfew, and at the end of the day, every reason was good to start a fight.
I could not work, I could not communicate with anyone. I lived like a vegetable. I only got out of bed to eat and go to the bathroom. The rest of the time I was watching movies to get a break from that sad reality.

One day a friend forced me to go out. We arrived in the city center of Pisa and there was a demonstration, so many people on the street, I didn’t even know what they were protesting for. I met some Italian guys who spoke to me in French. They gave me very useful information, where to find opportunities for people like me, to work, to learn Italian, to make friends. If they had given that information in the reception center it would have been very useful also for other migrants who live isolated, afraid of everything, who don’t know what to expect.

One night a young guy in my room received a letter from the police station. He typed every single word on Google Translate until he found the word ‘executive’ translated as ‘execution’. In a rush, he packed his bags to run away thinking the police would have come to kill him. I spent 3 hours convincing that guy that it would never happen. This is the level of panic that such places can create.

With music I try to explain the experiences of migrants, and how I came out of isolation, something that not many migrants manage to do, unfortunately. 

Imperialista, imperialist

It took me a while, but at a certain point I felt motivated, I wanted to push with my life. I slept 4 hours a night for two years, I studied, worked, followed training. I got my middle school diploma, then the high school one. At the reception center I was receiving 75 euros a month as pocket money, and that’s how I paid for the exams in installments to get my driving license.

In that period I met Paolo, a student at Pisa university often performing around rapping in freestyle. We couldn’t communicate in French, and I was still struggling in Italian, but he was kind to me, speaking slowly so I could understand. 

I told him that I used to rap too with my friends back in Guinea, but I hadn’t done it for a long time, I didn’t even know if I was able to rap anymore. We started to hang out and soon got into the underground rap scene of the city.

During a rap music event, Paolo invited me to perform, but I was ashamed to go on stage. Pushing me to sing, Paolo and his friends organized small gatherings of artists, where at my turn I could feel comfortable and rap. I slowly gained courage, sometimes I would leave the stage in the middle of my performance, blaming myself for not singing as good as I would have liked to, mistaking the lyrics in Italian.

Today I’m 27 and I’m the producer of my own music. I also collaborate with beatmakers and other musicians. To me, the most important aspect of music is to build and deliver a message. I don’t sing for money or glory. When I go on stage it’s like entering another reality, a suspended place to express myself and get in touch with people, it is happiness.
I participate in various music events, in the evening and on the weekends, during the day I have another job, like everyone else.

For work, every day I meet at least 10 different people I haven’t seen before in my life, I enter their homes and talk to them while installing internet connection devices. On average, I’d say that out of 100 people I meet in a month, only one is racist to me. This does not mean there is no discrimination. Police stops me in the street just because I’m obviously a foreigner, a specific type of foreigner, the immigrant who came with the boat. This does not hurt me anymore, I let it go. There is often ignorance and a wrong image of Africa, a very vast and very different territory. One day a guy asked me “where do you live in Africa? Do you have houses or huts?”, I resented and replied that we all sleep up on trees.

People who dare to judge migrants are not aware of many things. On the other hand, migrants judge Italians without understanding, they just get angry. There is no direct communication, the media often give a different image from reality.
With music I try to bring people together, to push them to understand each other, I try to be neutral in doing so. My first album is based on the experience in the reception center, but I also talk about love, life and the environment.

The past cannot be changed but the consequences that that past has on our future can make a difference, both migrants and locals can ‘decolonize their minds’ and get out of the restrictive idea of borders, of us and them.
When I talk about decolonizing one’s mentality, it is because for all my life I’ve been hearing people saying the government must change this and that, or we are not white we can’t succeed. Those are old words that have never been the reality. We must go on, and be independent. Whether it is in Africa or elsewhere, we must free our minds.

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