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Jovanotti performs an acoustic set at the Grammy Museum in L.A.

In many ways, Jovanotti has never left home, because home is a state of being, not a physical place. "I live in my language," he states, matter-of-factly, "I take my words with me wherever I go."

Jovanotti then shouts out Hollywood director Gabriele Muccino (Pursuit of Happyness, Playing For Keeps), who's sitting in the front row in a show of support for his old friend and fellow proud Italian.

Before his Grammy Museum concert, Jovanotti sat down with me for a one-on-one interview. He looks older than I remember him on the album cover of Lorenzo 1994, the same album that Rolling Stone recently named one of the greatest Italian albums of all time. Even on the other side of the world, in Ecuador, Jovanotti was making waves. The album was huge in Latin America. I still can recite by heart the words to "Serenata Rap". 

He stands tall and oozes confidence, but there is no trace of arrogance. He's intelligent and worldly, but also humanistic and compassionate. He's successful, but never complacent.

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During our 40-some minutes, we talk about AIDS, world hunger, Europe's financial crisis, rap beefs, his relationship to Cuba, his friendship with Juanes, his profound love for New York, fatherhood, the meaning of success, and the things he still dreams of achieving.

But first I had to get something out of the way, and find out how a guy who spoke no English could become so enamored with hip-hop in the 80s that he took it upon himself to bring the art form to Italy. All it takes is one listen to his debut album, 1988's Jovanotti For President, the cover of which shows him rocking a sideways baseball cap, to realize just how much he was influenced by the culture.

"It was a way of having fun with words," says Jovanotti, who then breaks out into his best rendition of "Rapper's Delight." "Maybe that was the main reason that drew me to it, the fact that I didn't understand anything. I was like 13, 14, so at that time you're not interested in the lyrics. There was an energy inside that music and it was different from anything else I was listening to at the time."
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Since the 80s, Jovanotti transcended the rap genre and started experimenting with classical music, ska, funk, rock, folk, and Latin rhythms, collaborating with the likes of Sergio Mendes, Ben Harper, TV On The Radio, the Beastie Boys, and even Pavarotti.

His latest album, Italia 1988 – 2012 on ATO Records, is not so much as a greatest hits album as a compilation of Jovanotti's most compelling work, including his first international hit, "Piove," from 1994.

But it's not all nostalgia on the album. There's also a new side to Jovanotti, which longtime fans will want to discover.

"In New York, I found Rome, I found Milan, I found Par-eese/New York is made of Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and Ven-eese/Grandmaster Flash, Beastie Boys/I wanna wake up in the city with Frankie and his voice," he sings on "New York For Life," one of four new tracks on the album. By Frankie, he means Frank Sinatra, of course, someone who comes up more than once tonight as his favorite singer of all time and happens to be – surprise, surprise – Italian.

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.