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Tropicalia Music Still Speaks To Young Marginalized Urban Brazilians


Brazilian music has always reflected the country's mood, from the fast-moving rhythms of samba to the soulful sound of Tropicalia. A few decades ago, when Brazil was a dictatorship, music was a way of speaking out. Now a massive corruption scandal casts a shadow over Brazil's government, the economy is in turmoil, and the music captures today's worries and frustrations. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from Rio de Janeiro.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's rappers' night in Rio's North Zone. We're in a skateboard park on a scruffy patch of concrete by a highway.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Rapping in Portuguese).

REEVES: This place is a world apart from picture postcard Rio. Here you won't find tropical beaches and fancy malls. This is Rio's flip side, a world overshadowed by poverty, drugs and deadly violence by gangs and police.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Rapping in Portuguese).

REEVES: It's after dark. Dozens of young Brazilians are here in flip-flops and baggy T-shirts listening to music that tells stories about their world. Luiz Felipe steps into the ring with his story about what it's like around here to be young, fatherless and black in a country where the far-right is on the rise.

LUIZ FELIPE: (Rapping in Portuguese).


REEVES: That derisive sheer was for a reference to Jair Bolsonaro, an ultranationalist who's second in the polls for next year's presidential race in Brazil. In this part of Rio, singing about life means singing about politics. That's why this music matters, says Felipe.

FELIPE: (Through interpreter) Poverty is increasing. Hunger's on the rise. So is the number of people in prison. There's crime and a lack of public education.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: This event's called a cultural circle. It's part of a project promoting art in the neighborhood. The local authorities allow these rappers to perform so long as the music stops at 10 p.m. Joao Paulo da Silva is a regular performer here. He says those who are poor and of color struggle to be heard in a society blighted by what he calls structural racism.

JOAO PAULO DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Da Silva believes this is all about giving people a voice, just as Brazil's musicians did with the Tropicalia movement. Tropicalia is an artistic movement that sprang up in the late '60s when Brazil was a military dictatorship. It became a form of resistance to the government and turned Tropicalia musicians such as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso into cultural heroes. They remain huge celebrities in Brazil and beyond.

FRED COELHO: The music from Tropicalism, 50 years after that they're still talking about our problems from Brazil. We are still listen Tropicalism as a kind of music that talks with our reality until today.

REEVES: Fred Coelho from the Catholic University of Rio is an expert on Tropicalia and its musicians.

COELHO: They made a song about how it's danger to walk in the street because the wolf is coming. So it's like, we have to walk underground, you know?

REEVES: And the wolf is...

COELHO: The wolf is the police. You know, the wolf was the army that was arresting people in the streets and tortured people at the moment.

REEVES: That song, "Enquanto Seu Lobo Nao Vem," is by Caetano Veloso.


CAETANO VELOSO: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Brazil's dictatorship ended in 1985. Coelho says Tropicalia still particularly speaks to young marginalized urban Brazilians.

COELHO: The dictatorship was a long time ago - right? - in Brazil. But for them the idea of oppression is the same. They know that could be arrested any time about their color, about the place that they live.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Back at rappers' night, Joao Paulo da Silva uses his cell phone to pull up the words of his favorite Tropicalia song.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Domingo no Parque," or "Sunday In The Park," a classic by Gilberto Gil written in 1967. For fun, he tries it as a rap.

DA SILVA: (Rapping in Portuguese).


GILBERTO GIL AND OS MUTANTES: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Time's run out. It's 10 o'clock. The music must stop. The crowd leaves quickly, evidently keen to avoid an encounter with the cops. A young black woman called Carolina Lopes arrives too late to perform. In a cafe across the road, she runs through one of her raps about empowering black women.

CAROLINA LOPES: (Rapping in Portuguese, speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Lopes calls this music the song of the soul.

LOPES: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "We sing about what we feel and what we see," she says, "and what we think people need to hear." Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.