Before Lin-Manuel Miranda put American history to music in his 2015 award winning musical, Hamilton, nobody had really thought of setting historical information to hip-hop rhythms with a novel and biographical rap. Nobody, that is, except a Catholic musician and a priest who wrote this rap about the life and works of Pope St. John Paul II.
Written and performed by Catholic songwriter Tom Booth and Fr. Stan Fortuna, with a writing credit extended to Matt Maher, “Giovanni Paolo” tells the life story of Pope St. John Paul II from his youth in Poland as Karol Wojtyła to his incredible deeds as pope. The tune, written in 2011, is driven by a rocking electric guitar and sung with an attitude that brings to mind early 2000s rap/rock acts like Linkin Park, just without the turntable.
The chorus of the song is a simple chant of “Giovanni Paolo,” the Italian form of “John Paul,” which was often chanted by crowds in attendance of JPII’s appearances. In fact, as Booth explains in the caption of the video, the concept for the song arose from the chanting crowds at Toronto’s World Youth Day in 2002.
Booth was standing with Matt Maher during JPII’s homily, but the pope had to keep stopping as the crowd spontaneously burst into the “Giovanni Paolo” chant. Booth wrote:
Matt and I knew that we would never likely hear his voice or see him in person ever again, and we were desperately trying to listen AND HEAR what he was saying. As often happened during those World Youth Day appearances, his homily was interrupted by the youth singing and chanting his name — like in a soccer match. Usually he paused, smiled and listened. This time however, John Paul the Great used all of his remaining energy to speak the words. Months later, Matt recorded a 30-second audio clip: he simulated the crowd chanting “Giovanni Paolo” and put a hip-hop/rap drum loop underneath it. I LOVED it! I told him if he had no further plans for it [sic], and he didn’t, then I did! Off I ran with an idea for a song …
Booth wanted the song’s content to be as close to John Paul II’s life as possible, so he turned Fr. Fortuna, whom Booth called a “JPII specialist.” The Franciscan priest, who is also an established Catholic musician in his own right, loved the idea and together the pair expanded on Maher’s chorus to complete “Giovanni Paolo.”
Of the work, Fr. Fortuna writes:
During his life, his heart was becoming ever more free and as a result he became free; a model of humanity redeemed by divine love. Freedom is attractive. Authentic freedom is the most attractive force in the world and JP II had it big-time. What he had, everyone wants! He was free to love and suffer. He was free to embrace trials and be faithful. This freedom was renewed in him daily. This is a beautiful thing, and in the midst of the massive ugliness of self-hatred, abuse, violence and the denied and undealt-with wounds and brokenness in people, it is no wonder that young people, old people and all people everywhere are fascinated with the greatness of this man.