Brazilian Pop Star Crosses Borders With the Help of Spotify and YouTube

  • Anitta aims for hits in English and Spanish to boost appeal
  • To make real money, Brazilian singers need to think globally

Last year, Brazilian pop star Anitta approached her advisers with a radical idea to export her seductive sound from the streets of Rio de Janeiro to capitals around the world.

She called the strategy “Check Mate,” and six months in Anitta appears poised to follow in the footsteps of Shakira, Marc Anthony and other singers who have made it big across Latin America’s borders. As Anitta would be the first to tell you, that’s no accident.


Photographer: Studio Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images for amfAR

“Every single step of my career, I have a plan,” says the 24-year-old, who learned English and Spanish years ago to help her break out beyond Brazil’s Portuguese-speaking market.

As a nation, Brazil has gained a reputation as a musical hub thanks to samba, bossa nova and tropicalia -- genres that reflect its history as a melting pot of African, European and indigenous cultures. But the country’s musicians have historically had a hard time becoming household names anywhere but Brazil, which accounts for just 1 percent of the $16 billion global music market. Doing so could come with a big payoff.

To jump those hurdles, Anitta conceived a plan to release back-to-back songs over four months in three different languages to showcase her range. “Every song has been different,” says Inigo Zabala, head of the Latin division of Warner Music Group, which represents her. “That was part of the strategy.”

From EDM to Funk

In September, she released the bossa nova-infused “Will I See You?” with Poo Bear, an American songwriter and musician best known as a frequent collaborator of Justin Bieber. A month later came “Is That for Me?,” an EDM song with Swedish DJ Alesso. In November, Anitta dropped the Spanish-language tune “Downtown” with Colombian reggaeton J Balvin. Capping her run was a bit of Brazilian funk, a beat-heavy genre that’s reminiscent of the early days of rap.

In that song, “Vai, Malandra,” Anitta co-opts a well-known phrase that roughly means baller in Portuguese and turns the word feminine. The opening scene showing Anitta’s Kardashian-sized booty -- imperfections and all -- won over even some of her detractors.

“Millennials value diversity,” said Mauricio Morgado, a professor of marketing at top business school Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo. “The fact that Anitta shows her cellulite and treats it naturally -- that’s part of the language for this generation.”

The many versions of Anitta have resonated in Latin America and abroad -- even if she is still missing a chart-topper in the U.S. Her first two English songs have racked up almost 100 million views on YouTube. “Downtown” was a bonafide smash in Latin America and still sits in the top 20 in most countries four months after its debut. And “Vai, Malandra” ranked No. 1 on Spotify for weeks and was the first Brazilian track ever to break into the top 25 on the streaming service’s global charts.

“The strategy is working,” said Sandra Jimenez, YouTube’s head of music in Latin America. “Some Brazilian stars have a following abroad, but none has the strategy that Anitta does.”

When Anitta was first signed by Warner Music Latin in 2013, the barriers confronting her were steep. The neighborhood where she grew up, while not as impoverished as the Rio favelas on display in “Vai, Malandra,” can’t be described as anything but poor by developed-world standards. She manages her career in a country defined by machismo. And though she first sang in the church choir, she became famous singing a type of funk known as carioca that’s besmirched by Brazil’s wealthier classes.

More Followers Than Madonna

She has thrived by embracing her background rather than neglecting it. Her curves and unabashed embrace of plastic surgery, her support of transgender star Pabllo Vittar and her style mixing funk and pop have helped her amass more than 27 million followers on Instagram. That’s about the same as Lady Gaga and twice as much as Madonna.

A couple years ago, Anitta decided it was time to look beyond her home country and flew to Los Angeles to meet with a dozen managers. None wanted to sign her. Until she had dinner with John Shahidi, a music and video-game entrepreneur who is now helping Anitta plot her global strategy. Spotify and YouTube have expanded the reach of foreign musicians like never before, and Shahidi has proved particularly adept at taking advantage of the medium.

“I told her: ‘You and me together, we can make people care about Brazil”,’ says Shahidi, who had witnessed the power of Brazil when he ran a video-game company and the Latin American nation became his second-biggest market. “We started managing her June 1.”

Anitta received the ultimate seal of approval when she was asked to perform at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio alongside Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, two giants of Brazilian music.

The moment she was asked, Anitta said she knew it was one more way to break the mold. “At the end of the day,” she says, “it was a success.”

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