What’s happening in the wild mind of Brazil’s great musical hope
The last time I was in São Paulo, Brazil, you couldn’t go far without hearing Criolo. It was late 2011 and the 37-year-old rapper had just released his genre-bending magnum opus, Nó Na Orelha, after simmering in the city’s underground for decades. Suddenly, he was topping the bill at every major concert and festival. At every turn, you’d run into the weeping strings and delicate croon of the album’s lead single, “Não Existe Amor em SP” (“Love Doesn’t Exist in São Paulo”). It was the unlikeliest of Brazilian hits: a slow, cynical lament about the grey expanses of South American’s biggest city by a little-known rap artist, without any rapping whatsoever. But it was the kind of song that buried deep under your skin.
However unexpected, there was no denying it: Criolo was doing something new, something powerful. In a city with a thousand separate scenes, he spoke to them all. Hip-hop heads from the favela got down; tight-jeaned indie kids approved. Plus, he was anointed from above. In an article from earlier this year, Caetano Veloso called Criolo “possibly the most important figure on the Brazilian pop scene” today. That’s roughly the equivalent of Michael Jordon calling you the best ballplayer on Earth.
What separates Criolo from other pop artists is that he sees himself as much of a messenger as a musician. Leading a 7-piece band at Brazil Summerfest in New York City’s Central Park last week, he ambled around the stage looking elated, manic – almost messianic. “This is music for the heart and the stomach,” he shouted, as he urged the audience to put their hands in the air and wiggle their fingers, as if they were at Pentecostal church meeting. “Music that respects people.” He got on one knee and bowed in front of the audience, pointing one finger to the sky. “Music is love!”
Before the show, I chatted with Criolo backstage about his musical mission. In person, Criolo is disarming. He’s kind, almost shy, but with a quiet intensity. His eyes lock firmly onto whoever he’s speaking to, and he speaks in a soft voice that crescendos when he’s impassioned by the topics he’s moved by: disparity, inequality, injustice. He eschews small talk, preferring the language of grand truths, spoken in a Portuguese both precise and labyrinthine at once. Behold the mind of Criolo, São Paulo’s philosopher king.
You’ve had a long journey to get to this moment. Now you’ve been praised as one of the most important musicians in Brazil today. How does it make you feel?
In Brazil, there are people with great talent everywhere; some have opportunities and others do not. There are many people who helped me and continue to help me, and I feel thankful for their wisdom and affection. What I do, I do with all my heart. But I’m keeping cool.
You grew up in rap, but the album that has launched this phase of your career – Nó na orelha – isn’t a straight rap album at all. You sing on much of the album, from Afrobeat to reggae. What was the inspiration behind it?
Well, this album has songs on it that were written as far back as 15 years ago, and with many years comes many styles. My parents were migrants from the Northeast of Brazil, so I have strong influences from that area that run in my family. I grew up going to the DJ dances at school and church, and I learned about international pop music there. This album was an opportunity to put a lot of different kinds of songs together. It was very organic, very natural.
I was born and raised in the slums of Favela das Imbuias. I lived there for six years in a wooden shack, wooden ceiling, dirt floor. Then I went to Grajaú, just across the avenue, and I lived my whole life there. Every day, I saw my father leave at six in the morning and get home at midnight. That was everybody’s routine.
There was a lot of struggle. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, depending on what kind of neighborhood you grew up in and the clothes you wore, people would look at you a certain way. But I learned everything I know in Grajaú – how to respect people, how to survive in the city known as São Paulo where there is so much art and cultural diversity, but also so many challenges.
Would you say there is a lot of prejudice against favela residents in Brazil?
Not just in Brazil – throughout the world. Because people’s attitudes come from people’s cultural baggage, from their beliefs, from the way they label people. This disgrace is not unique to poor countries. Because there’s material misery, but also the misery of the soul that fails to understand we’re all brothers and we’re all equals.
So evil is not exclusive to certain parts of the world. Evil is contained in the human mind. That’s why art is so important. Besides chilling us out and bringing us good times, it [also] allows us to reflect. It creates an encounter between the souls, an opportunity to change our minds, to ask ourselves “what are we here for?” Prejudice is something petty and small that doesn’t deserve our mention.
The big hit off your record is “Não Existe Amor Em SP”(“Love Doesn’t Exist in São Paulo”). Do you really think there’s no love in the city you love?
It’s a song that speaks directly to the people who create Sao Paulo’s reality. Love exists, yes, in the heart of each person. But I ask myself, is there love in the people who make decisions in the world? And how can we create a situation in which people feel better about themselves?
It’s easy to say that people are depressed. But when you are born, you are born a pure creature. And from that point forward, everything you experience is caused by your situation: you have everything if you are born rich, or nothing if you are born into a struggling family. Your chances are determined by the two or three steps before you started making decisions yourself. So where is this discouragement born?
We can travel the world and see we have common points of beauty, cultural diversity, but also people are living in the street, people are starving. There is so much love in the heart of every person living in any city on the planet. But I wonder if there is this positive thinking for those who imagine the city to its citizens.
A lot of people are talking about the massive economic growth in Brazil today. Do you think things will improve? That inequality will decrease?
This is a question you have to ask our leaders. What I know is that every day, 95 percent of the population wakes up in the morning and sells his life to bring dignity to his family. How can we be the sixth biggest economy in the world, and still people have so much need? Our people are so worthy, so good-hearted, such hard workers and yet, have gone through so many injustices.
Previously, you went under the name Criolo Doido. Criolou is a derogatory term for people of color in Portuguese, and “Doido” means “crazy”. Why did you choose that name for yourself?
I see the word “crazy” as something positive – someone who tries to be different and looks for other ways to live. I believe I still have a lot more to build before I truly earn that adjective.
Tell me about the song “Bogotá” – you don’t often hear a Brazilian sing a song about a city in Colombia. What was the idea behind it?
Because it’s a city that is still spoken about in a negative light. Why is it so easy to stigmatize other places? But the song isn’t really about Bogotá. Every day in every country there is a trade of guns and drugs, that ends up entering people’s homes and destroying people. Why does that happen? Who lets them come in? So the song is a tribute to decent people in a city that is struggling. It’s easy to go on television and blame the 8-year old boy who is selling drugs, but who is earning millions and millions? Let’s become traffickers of books, art, beauty and love. That’s what I’m talking about.
That’s interesting to me, because listening to the album, it’s not obvious that these songs have such strong political meanings. It’s more subtle. Was that your intention?
That’s the natural way for me to make music. If I thought about winning your affection when I made music, what I’d make would be a lie and I would not deserve for you to listen to my record.
How did you develop an interest in social activism?
What I do is very little. But growing up in difficult conditions of the favela would mark the soul of anyone. Hence the importance of music in my life. Because it’ll put you in an elevated state, make you feel powerful. You feel like you are someone because you made something. That’s the importance of art.
I’ve been doing what I do for 23 years now. I think the real power comes from collective exchange. It’s not one person who changes the world. A small gesture can contribute a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, it takes collective effort. I have to thank all the people in my country who have spread my music and given me the strength to be where I am today. So thus there’s this collective consciousness, all the extended hands that help you along your journey, this positive energy that wells up and spills over at this moment. Life is made of moments. There are cycles but I think my voice is a collective one, a unified whole that does everything it can to avoid being silent.
Rap in Brazil has always been something of an underground movement. Do you think these days, with the success of artists like you and Emicida, that hip-hop will now be able to reach more people?
Actually, rap always been strong in Brazil. Some people do not realize that. Hip-hop is a universal energy. It is a positive gesture. Each person creates his own connection with this communication tool. And that’s it, he’s an individual. How he moves, how he captures the world around him and then processes it back out, that’s in his heart. So we have both the individual subject and we have the collective whole, each one as an individual unit but each unit gaining from collective strength.
So I say, rap has always been strong and always will be. Because it comes from a very simple need: the quest for equality. Wherever there is an injustice a positive gesture will emerge to correct it.
Many people complain that today, hip-hop has devolved from a socially conscious art form into a very capitalist, materialistic genre. What do you think?
Each person has their way of telling things. What makes one cry makes another laugh. What one does is up to each person.