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Music

Way to go

With a new album out under his pseudonym WAY 45, AC Milan forward Rafael Leão took time out from the day job to explain why music is so important to him

INTERVIEW Caroline de Moraes | WORDS Sheridan Bird

Aspiring musicians heading to the big city in search of fame is a classic, universal tale. In Italy, those bright-eyed dreamers flock to Milan, the nation’s capital of sounds enticing hopefuls to its concert venues, record labels and radio stations. However, one musical artist ventured to the Lombardy metropolis for a very different reason. Rafael Leão’s day job is tearing down the left wing for AC Milan, but in his spare time he is the rapper known as WAY 45.

Spotify pegs the 24-year-old’s monthly listener total at over 23,000, with his fans based mostly in Lisbon, Milan and his father’s native Angola. His gallery of publicity photos features the obligatory chunky watches and necklaces, flashy vehicles and expensive clothes, but Rafael Leão was not drawn to the scene to bolster his image. Instead, he says, his passion is rooted in his DNA. “My love for music runs in the family because my father was a singer and my uncle was a DJ. Most of my free time revolves around music and it has become my companion – [especially] an African genre called semba, from Angola.”

Even so, it took the global pandemic three years ago to prompt the Portuguese international into taking his interest that extra step further. “My love for music, as well as for making music, emerged during lockdown as we had to stay at home for a month. Because I had nothing to do, I decided to give it a go and I’ve been doing it ever since.” 

He now has his own home studio and, in addition to keeping him busy, crafting songs has also proved therapeutic. “To me, music means love, escaping my troubles and finding myself. I always try to convey what I went through because, in general, it’s all about motivating people. On the pitch, I’m already motivating the youngsters who look up to me not to give up on their dream of becoming a football player. That’s also what I try to convey in music, because people only know ‘Rafael Leão, the football player’ – they don’t really know the person. 

Rafael Leão on the mic (above); and enjoying last season’s run to the semi-finals (top right)

“WAY 45 conveys Rafael Leão as a person, not as a football player. He talks about his feelings, his life story and lessons, for the most part, connecting them. Of course, I’m a football player – that’s my main job – but I try to motivate people not to give up on their dream, whether that’s to become a football player, a doctor, or whatever you want to do in the future.”

A distinctive stage name is crucial, as recent Italian chart successes Tony Effe, Mr. Rain and Marracash demonstrate, so how did Rafael Leão choose his moniker? “The number 45 is the postcode of the neighbourhood where I grew up, 2845, and WAY comes from the English word. I just connected both those things. Basically, it means never forget where you came from, always remember your neighbourhood and your roots wherever you go.” Straightforward enough.

As for his latest album, My Life in Each Verse, he says, “In each song, there are moments and experiences I have had during my life, and some lessons. It’s an album I worked on for a long time. There are some songs from 2021. And it was a heartfelt album that I’d wanted to put out for a long time. The feedback has been positive.” 

Many artists receive criticism for misogynistic or offensive lyrics. Does Rafael Leão prefer influential singers to address serious issues? “Absolutely, because there are lots of people listening to them and people relate to the music they make. So, they have to be careful about what they convey with their music, whether it’s good or bad, but preferably it should be good because the message is important too.”

Not being experts on the European music scene, Champions Journal asked producer Big Fish, the godfather of Italian hip-hop, to have a listen. Fish, real name Massimiliano Dagani, has been releasing hits since 1994, and says, “There are some interesting things in there. If you remember that he is not a singer and is doing it for passion, it’s impressive. He has got an interesting flow and you can tell he is influenced by Drake and Lil Baby. I would describe it as chill trap, or Trap&B. The best tracks are Início, Fede and Papo De Ninja.”

“Music means love, escaping troubles and finding myself”

The flying No10 isn’t the only music enthusiast in the Rossoneri squad, and the ‘choons’ play an important role in daily life at their Milanello headquarters. “The music culture is very mixed,” he explains. “We have a lot of music from all the different countries. Theo Hernández is usually the dressing room DJ on matchdays, and we usually all have a song that somehow identifies us and motivates us before a match. At training, almost everyone gets a go – it’s always changing.”

Rafael Leão makes sure that one artist never gets an airing, however, perhaps recalling the time former team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimović joked that he should stick to football. “I don’t like to listen to my music with people around. I would rather they listen to it when I’m not there. If I’m there, then I’m not too keen on my music being played.”

Of course, there is one piece of music that every player seems to love, including Rafael Leão. “The Champions League anthem can never be changed. It’s an anthem that inspires you and gives you goosebumps and fills you with unexplainable emotions. I don’t think there’s a right word to define what you feel when you hear the Champions League song on the pitch.”

The competition’s legendary theme was adapted from a piece by Anglo-German composer George Frideric Handel, who himself boasts a healthy Spotify following, with over 3 million monthly listeners at the last count. WAY 45 may be lagging some distance behind those numbers, but – for now, at least – his priority remains hitting the right notes on the pitch. 

Aspiring musicians heading to the big city in search of fame is a classic, universal tale. In Italy, those bright-eyed dreamers flock to Milan, the nation’s capital of sounds enticing hopefuls to its concert venues, record labels and radio stations. However, one musical artist ventured to the Lombardy metropolis for a very different reason. Rafael Leão’s day job is tearing down the left wing for AC Milan, but in his spare time he is the rapper known as WAY 45.

Spotify pegs the 24-year-old’s monthly listener total at over 23,000, with his fans based mostly in Lisbon, Milan and his father’s native Angola. His gallery of publicity photos features the obligatory chunky watches and necklaces, flashy vehicles and expensive clothes, but Rafael Leão was not drawn to the scene to bolster his image. Instead, he says, his passion is rooted in his DNA. “My love for music runs in the family because my father was a singer and my uncle was a DJ. Most of my free time revolves around music and it has become my companion – [especially] an African genre called semba, from Angola.”

Even so, it took the global pandemic three years ago to prompt the Portuguese international into taking his interest that extra step further. “My love for music, as well as for making music, emerged during lockdown as we had to stay at home for a month. Because I had nothing to do, I decided to give it a go and I’ve been doing it ever since.” 

He now has his own home studio and, in addition to keeping him busy, crafting songs has also proved therapeutic. “To me, music means love, escaping my troubles and finding myself. I always try to convey what I went through because, in general, it’s all about motivating people. On the pitch, I’m already motivating the youngsters who look up to me not to give up on their dream of becoming a football player. That’s also what I try to convey in music, because people only know ‘Rafael Leão, the football player’ – they don’t really know the person. 

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Rafael Leão on the mic (above); and enjoying last season’s run to the semi-finals (top right)

“WAY 45 conveys Rafael Leão as a person, not as a football player. He talks about his feelings, his life story and lessons, for the most part, connecting them. Of course, I’m a football player – that’s my main job – but I try to motivate people not to give up on their dream, whether that’s to become a football player, a doctor, or whatever you want to do in the future.”

A distinctive stage name is crucial, as recent Italian chart successes Tony Effe, Mr. Rain and Marracash demonstrate, so how did Rafael Leão choose his moniker? “The number 45 is the postcode of the neighbourhood where I grew up, 2845, and WAY comes from the English word. I just connected both those things. Basically, it means never forget where you came from, always remember your neighbourhood and your roots wherever you go.” Straightforward enough.

As for his latest album, My Life in Each Verse, he says, “In each song, there are moments and experiences I have had during my life, and some lessons. It’s an album I worked on for a long time. There are some songs from 2021. And it was a heartfelt album that I’d wanted to put out for a long time. The feedback has been positive.” 

Many artists receive criticism for misogynistic or offensive lyrics. Does Rafael Leão prefer influential singers to address serious issues? “Absolutely, because there are lots of people listening to them and people relate to the music they make. So, they have to be careful about what they convey with their music, whether it’s good or bad, but preferably it should be good because the message is important too.”

Not being experts on the European music scene, Champions Journal asked producer Big Fish, the godfather of Italian hip-hop, to have a listen. Fish, real name Massimiliano Dagani, has been releasing hits since 1994, and says, “There are some interesting things in there. If you remember that he is not a singer and is doing it for passion, it’s impressive. He has got an interesting flow and you can tell he is influenced by Drake and Lil Baby. I would describe it as chill trap, or Trap&B. The best tracks are Início, Fede and Papo De Ninja.”

“Music means love, escaping troubles and finding myself”

The flying No10 isn’t the only music enthusiast in the Rossoneri squad, and the ‘choons’ play an important role in daily life at their Milanello headquarters. “The music culture is very mixed,” he explains. “We have a lot of music from all the different countries. Theo Hernández is usually the dressing room DJ on matchdays, and we usually all have a song that somehow identifies us and motivates us before a match. At training, almost everyone gets a go – it’s always changing.”

Rafael Leão makes sure that one artist never gets an airing, however, perhaps recalling the time former team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimović joked that he should stick to football. “I don’t like to listen to my music with people around. I would rather they listen to it when I’m not there. If I’m there, then I’m not too keen on my music being played.”

Of course, there is one piece of music that every player seems to love, including Rafael Leão. “The Champions League anthem can never be changed. It’s an anthem that inspires you and gives you goosebumps and fills you with unexplainable emotions. I don’t think there’s a right word to define what you feel when you hear the Champions League song on the pitch.”

The competition’s legendary theme was adapted from a piece by Anglo-German composer George Frideric Handel, who himself boasts a healthy Spotify following, with over 3 million monthly listeners at the last count. WAY 45 may be lagging some distance behind those numbers, but – for now, at least – his priority remains hitting the right notes on the pitch. 

Aspiring musicians heading to the big city in search of fame is a classic, universal tale. In Italy, those bright-eyed dreamers flock to Milan, the nation’s capital of sounds enticing hopefuls to its concert venues, record labels and radio stations. However, one musical artist ventured to the Lombardy metropolis for a very different reason. Rafael Leão’s day job is tearing down the left wing for AC Milan, but in his spare time he is the rapper known as WAY 45.

Spotify pegs the 24-year-old’s monthly listener total at over 23,000, with his fans based mostly in Lisbon, Milan and his father’s native Angola. His gallery of publicity photos features the obligatory chunky watches and necklaces, flashy vehicles and expensive clothes, but Rafael Leão was not drawn to the scene to bolster his image. Instead, he says, his passion is rooted in his DNA. “My love for music runs in the family because my father was a singer and my uncle was a DJ. Most of my free time revolves around music and it has become my companion – [especially] an African genre called semba, from Angola.”

Even so, it took the global pandemic three years ago to prompt the Portuguese international into taking his interest that extra step further. “My love for music, as well as for making music, emerged during lockdown as we had to stay at home for a month. Because I had nothing to do, I decided to give it a go and I’ve been doing it ever since.” 

He now has his own home studio and, in addition to keeping him busy, crafting songs has also proved therapeutic. “To me, music means love, escaping my troubles and finding myself. I always try to convey what I went through because, in general, it’s all about motivating people. On the pitch, I’m already motivating the youngsters who look up to me not to give up on their dream of becoming a football player. That’s also what I try to convey in music, because people only know ‘Rafael Leão, the football player’ – they don’t really know the person. 

Rafael Leão on the mic (above); and enjoying last season’s run to the semi-finals (top right)

“WAY 45 conveys Rafael Leão as a person, not as a football player. He talks about his feelings, his life story and lessons, for the most part, connecting them. Of course, I’m a football player – that’s my main job – but I try to motivate people not to give up on their dream, whether that’s to become a football player, a doctor, or whatever you want to do in the future.”

A distinctive stage name is crucial, as recent Italian chart successes Tony Effe, Mr. Rain and Marracash demonstrate, so how did Rafael Leão choose his moniker? “The number 45 is the postcode of the neighbourhood where I grew up, 2845, and WAY comes from the English word. I just connected both those things. Basically, it means never forget where you came from, always remember your neighbourhood and your roots wherever you go.” Straightforward enough.

As for his latest album, My Life in Each Verse, he says, “In each song, there are moments and experiences I have had during my life, and some lessons. It’s an album I worked on for a long time. There are some songs from 2021. And it was a heartfelt album that I’d wanted to put out for a long time. The feedback has been positive.” 

Many artists receive criticism for misogynistic or offensive lyrics. Does Rafael Leão prefer influential singers to address serious issues? “Absolutely, because there are lots of people listening to them and people relate to the music they make. So, they have to be careful about what they convey with their music, whether it’s good or bad, but preferably it should be good because the message is important too.”

Not being experts on the European music scene, Champions Journal asked producer Big Fish, the godfather of Italian hip-hop, to have a listen. Fish, real name Massimiliano Dagani, has been releasing hits since 1994, and says, “There are some interesting things in there. If you remember that he is not a singer and is doing it for passion, it’s impressive. He has got an interesting flow and you can tell he is influenced by Drake and Lil Baby. I would describe it as chill trap, or Trap&B. The best tracks are Início, Fede and Papo De Ninja.”

“Music means love, escaping troubles and finding myself”

The flying No10 isn’t the only music enthusiast in the Rossoneri squad, and the ‘choons’ play an important role in daily life at their Milanello headquarters. “The music culture is very mixed,” he explains. “We have a lot of music from all the different countries. Theo Hernández is usually the dressing room DJ on matchdays, and we usually all have a song that somehow identifies us and motivates us before a match. At training, almost everyone gets a go – it’s always changing.”

Rafael Leão makes sure that one artist never gets an airing, however, perhaps recalling the time former team-mate Zlatan Ibrahimović joked that he should stick to football. “I don’t like to listen to my music with people around. I would rather they listen to it when I’m not there. If I’m there, then I’m not too keen on my music being played.”

Of course, there is one piece of music that every player seems to love, including Rafael Leão. “The Champions League anthem can never be changed. It’s an anthem that inspires you and gives you goosebumps and fills you with unexplainable emotions. I don’t think there’s a right word to define what you feel when you hear the Champions League song on the pitch.”

The competition’s legendary theme was adapted from a piece by Anglo-German composer George Frideric Handel, who himself boasts a healthy Spotify following, with over 3 million monthly listeners at the last count. WAY 45 may be lagging some distance behind those numbers, but – for now, at least – his priority remains hitting the right notes on the pitch. 

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