Criolo, Brazil's Philosopher-Rapper, Hits Big Time: Dom Phillips

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Criolo, the 35-year-old Sao Paulo rapper, is ensconced on the cover of another fashionable magazine, this time, a glossy monthly called Trip that focuses on surf, street culture, music and scantily clad young women. The accompanying article sums up a good year for Criolo:

Author of the most praised album of the year, lionized by reviews and a devoted mass of fans, nominated for five Brazilian MTV Awards, crowded shows. Criolo is on top, there's no discussion.

There's no discussion that he's on top, but plenty of discussion about what Criolo's unique blend of musical genre-bending and powerful, socially conscious lyrics says about how Brazil's culture is changing.

Criolo is fast becoming the first hip hop artist to cross into what's called musica popular brasileira, or MPB -- that is, mainstream pop success.

But, as Trip noted:

His success is anything but sudden. He is just reaping the fruits of more than 20 years in rap and of 35 of a dedicated and improbable story of family education.

The magazine's cover features the rapper in front of a wall painted with a graffiti stencil of a wheelbarrow full of books. The painting is in the sprawling Grajau favela on the poor edges of Sao Paulo -- where Criolo is from and still lives. His interview accompanied a special about education in Brazil and was published alongside one with his mother, Dona Vilani, a teacher who runs the Philosophy Cafe in their favela. Criolo too, Trip revealed, was once a teacher:

I worked with children and adolescents for 12 years. It’s one thing to know about things that happen, another to be there. Because my function a lot of the time wasn’t to give classes, teach. It was on the street, to make the first approach, to create a link. To open a dialogue.

Creating dialogue is both a key theme in his music and a motivation. Criolo's songs do not shy away from controversial subjects like the inequality of life in a favela like Grajau. But his attitude toward communicating these subjects outside the favela is positive: pro-education, pro-understanding. On stage he holds up signs reading "More Love Please," praises his parents, and calls for the end of prejudice.

Critics extol the universality of his lyrics. A cover feature on Criolo in the September issue of the Folha de Sao Paulo's monthly fashion and lifestyle supplement, called Serafina, printed the words to his torch song to urban loneliness, "There's No Love in Sao Paulo":

There's no love in Sao Paulo
The bars are full of souls so empty
Greed vibrates, vanity excites
Give me back my life and die drowning in your own sea of bitterness
Here, nobody goes to heaven.

Perhaps aware that the presence of a mixed-race rapper from a favela on the cover of Serafina could alienate the newspaper's conservative, white, upper-middle-class readers, the Criolo feature came with an opinion essay by Fernanda Mena, editor of the newspaper's highbrow culture section, Ilustrada. She exhorted readers to "believe the hype":

The artist uses the encrypted language of MCs. But the characteristic themes of national rap, such as crime and inequality, share verses with loneliness in the city and unrequited love, and it becomes easy to penetrate his dialect. The discourse becomes universal.

Brazil's domestic hip hop scene has its roots in the 1980s, and has produced some celebrated acts, such as Racionais MCs. Rio de Janeiro has its own "Rio funk" sound: an aggressive, favela-made mix of profane lyrics and digital computer beats. But as Mena noted, the country has never adopted a rapper as a pop star.

And even though half of Brazil's population is black or mixed race, outside of football, samba and the very occasional soap star, black people don't generally appear on magazine covers. Nor do people from favelas.

"Although rap has been the primordial font of North American pop music for at least ten years, Brazil has only flirted with the possibility of democratizing it," wrote Mena. "And Criolo is part of this movement to create a bridge between periferia and center, between blacks and whites, guys and hipsters."

At Criolo's shows, intriguingly, "There's No Love in Sao Paulo" typically generates the loudest response among both middle-class white kids and poorer black and mixed-race fans, who all sing along together.

It was this song that Caetano Veloso, the elder statesman of Brazilian pop music, chose for a duet he will perform with Criolo at the Brazilian MTV Awards show in October. In Brazilian cultural terms, the endorsement of a philosopher pop icon like Veloso carries huge weight: it's like Elton John inviting Eminem to perform a duet with him at the Grammies. One of Veloso's own classics, "Sampa," is also about being alone in South America's biggest city.

"It's not just because these are songs made for Paulistas, it's that the words and the sounds come from inside," Veloso explained in Serafina. "Criolo ... is great in all the other moments on the CD."

Brazil's noisy blogosphere agrees, and has widely praised the way Criolo mixes rap with singing, and hip hop rhythms with samba, reggae and even bolero.

A review on the blog Re-verb enthused about a sold-out show at Sao Paulo's Estudio Emme, as female fans focused on the other key ingredient to Criolo's blossoming profile: his undoubted charisma.

"Criolo, today, is cool and sophisticated and, definitely, not limited to the pure aesthetic of traditional rap," the reviewer, known as Flora, wrote.

One contributor to the Eu Escuto blog wrote:

In recent years I don't think I've heard anything so creative, diverse and intelligent as the work of this guy. It mixes rap, reggae, MPB and soul. Criolo is genius!

The Nutsideas blog even celebrated a September show in religious tones:

The artist appeared on the stage like a Messiah, spreading lessons of social equality and respect for the next person, performing an excellent show.

As Trip is not the only publication to have noted, Criolo has a new nickname: Criosho, the Rajneesh of Grajau.

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)


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