When the rapper Criolo takes to the stage in a packed club in São Sebastião, on the northern coast of São Paulo state, the crowd is a mix of classes and races that is uncommon in Latin America’s biggest country. There are diehard rap fans from the favelas, rich teenagers on vacation and older fans that have turned out to see one of the country’s most important new musical figures.
Criolo is one of the most widely respected emblems of a transformation that has taken place in Brazilian music alongside the country’s economic growth and the rise of a new middle class. As tens of millions have risen to positions of consumer power, gritty urban genres that the small elite had either looked down upon or associated with poverty and dangerous radicalism have become mainstream.
It doesn’t surprise Criolo, born Kleber Gomes and raised in Grajaú, a million-strong favela in São Paulo, that it took some time for his brand of hip hop to be accepted. The same happened with another genre which got its start among poor Brazilians of African ancestry: samba. “Things move slowly. It’s not overnight,” he says, in a soft voice at odds with a powerful stage presence. “It was the same with samba. Samba, our greatest musical expression, was also not welcome. It was looked down upon, it was unloved.”
Now, leading hip-hop artists, including Emicida and Rael da Rima are claiming big awards – Criolo swept Brazil’s MTV music awards in 2011 – sell out venues, and rack up tens of millions of views on YouTube. His sound has been effusively endorsed by two of the reigning Godfathers of the Brazilian songwriting tradition, Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque.
“Our Brazilian people, my Brazilian people, has long been submerged in literature. It’s a people that loves poetry, it’s a people that has always created and creates a universe of drama and theatre, a universe of texts, a universe of verses, prose, and poem,” he says. “So contact with rap, specifically, is very welcome, as rap is rhythm and poetry.”
Criolo plays with a live band, and his tropical rhythms often make him more accessible to international audiences than other Brazilian rappers. He has played in places like London, New York and Los Angeles.
But tonight, in a stripped-down show, he and longtime collaborator Dj Dan Dan, fly through a history of their São Paulo raps, focusing more often than not of the tiring, often lonely reality of getting by on the outskirts of the megalopolis, below the massive grey skyline.
In his breakout hit, “There is no love in São Paulo”, he croons soulfully of the city: “A mystical labyrinth/ where graffiti screams /you can’t describe it/ with a beautiful phrase / on such a sweet postcard / watch out for sweets / São Paulo is a bouquet/ bouquets are dead flowers/ arranged so pretty/ arranged so pretty just for you.”
Criolo had little formal education, but was raised by parents who served, and still serve, as intellectual flashpoints for his neighbourhood. His mother organises a monthly philosophy salon in Grajaú.
“Lots of dreams, few opportunities,” he says of his hometown. “My neighbourhood alone has over a million residents. From there you figure out how to survive.”