Sitting on a wooden bench wearing head-to-toe black, Criolo holds the hands of his father, Cleon, and his mother, Maria Vilani. The last scene from the video for clean, tribute song released by the rapper two weeks ago, in partnership with DJ’s Tropkillaz duo, it portrays a family that balances on the strength of the other after being torn apart by the pain of death. “We are living our grief. That’s how it is in the quebrada, we’ve been fighting this violence for a long time. They are always distancing us from our dreams and undermining our lives. Even though the pain is enormous, we need to keep building something”, comments the rapper to EL PAÍS.
The song written in honor of her sister, Cleane Gomes, who died in June a victim of covid-19, aged 39, helps to explain contemporary Brazil. “We are just numbers in these people’s hands. They forget that we have father, mother, son, sister. In my case, I don’t have it anymore”, says Criolo. “It’s a continual dehumanization and glorification of cruelty. Death is part of the natural process, but they shorten our lives with the cruel mechanisms that are offered to us.”
In front of the blank canvas, Criolo elaborates his manifesto. The images of graves being opened in heaps, of bodies being buried quickly and without the right to a wake and farewell, form a country that inaugurated the modality of the ‘small deposit blue zone bead’. Nothing seems to sensitize those who govern us. “Are people dying? I write: ‘this trampled blood is not açaí’. Killed innocent? Screw this! Add granola and persimmon. They are eating us up in this mass murder that exterminates the black, indigenous and LGBTQI+ people of that country”, he stresses.
By inventing the term “Baryshnikova”, Criolo pays an opposite homage to Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. The introduction of the letter ‘A’ and the formation of the prefix ‘kova’ indicate that the play staged in Brazilian soil, with its 600,000 dead victims of the pandemic, is a dismal spectacle to watch. “Here we are led by the dancer of death, who will bathe in waves of blood on a beach of the dead.”
The idea that a family runs the country is also in the song’s lyrics. “It’s the boss’s boss who profits from the plague / It’s the father is the son, rich family / Who blames the poor who takes the punishment.” “We are living in a country whose life and death decision-making power is in the hands of few people,” he says. “This dancer of death imposes on us a cruel, cowardly and inhuman death. Dirty and sordid way of thinking about the life of all people in our country.”
Criolo keeps piling up references. “It’s the ‘litero-broken’. Ghetto literature beyond the gates that surround us. Every maloqueiro has empirical knowledge”, he explains. By using the word ‘Chambers’, which appears repeatedly in the chorus of the song, he sends a message to the National Congress. “They don’t care if everyone is going to die. Is it my family? Not? So I want to know my interests. This is the thought”, he analyzes.
Criolo is pure hatred and revolt occupies a prominent place on his podium of priorities. The rapper aims his artillery from dystopian Brazil to those who still haven’t understood the complexity of the moment. “If it’s not you, what’s going on?/ Sitting on the wall, comfort, exempt”, says one of the lines. In another, the musician announces: “you don’t know, people are dying”, as if the social inequality that victimized more blacks and poor people throughout the pandemic was something new for a part of the country.
“Veils were ripped open so that people could see the inequality that exists here. Only now have they discovered that there is no hospital in the favela? Who doesn’t have basic sanitation? That we die the most and in the most cruel ways? Just now?” he asks. “But I also have the feeling that a lot of people will still not have contact with the brutal way that our people are led”, laments the rapper.
The dichotomy between ensuring some sanitary security or weakening the economy, created by the Jair Bolsonaro government and sustained by its supporters since the beginning of the pandemic, is also the target of criticism by the rapper. “Companies closed? Am sorry. The favela wants to see everyone well, bro, including us. The businessman is sad because he lost the business. I understand perfectly, but whoever died doesn’t come back, there’s no way around it, there’s no way around it. “
The social division is nothing new for Criolo, since “this has always been lived in the favela”. “But it seems that now this split has increased a thousand times”, complements the artist, who lived a good part of his life in Grajaú, in the south of São Paulo. For him, any kind of reconciliation will not be easy. “You can’t waste love, but you can’t romanticize it either. We are at the bottom of our skin. What’s left of us? You have to love yourself, each in your own way, take a deep breath and make some contribution.”
Node in Orelha, ten years later
Criolo has been in rap since he was 13 years old, but he only managed to record and release his first album at 35. Produced by Marcelo Cabral and Daniel Ganjaman, Ear knot (2011) introduced the audience to songs that have become classics, such as Subirusdoistiozin, Grajauex and Bogota. “This record is the result of a lot of dreams, tears, despair, crying, the desire to be happy. From people who reached out and wouldn’t let me give up,” he says.
Biggest hit of the album, There is no love in sp it became an official soundtrack to narrate the rawness of the city, compared by the rapper to a “bouquet of dead flowers”. “The vast majority of people who live here have only the right to wake up very early to work and come home very late. They don’t live the city, only the reverberations of those who actually belong to the metropolis. These are deep layers of non-access and pockets of hostility. Here, we survive, and surviving is not living”, he explains.
At the same time, says Criolo, there is a great paradox, because the same city constituted to “be a machine for crushing people and wasting dreams”, is capable of “welcoming special people, full of ideas, paths and possibilities”. “For outsiders, it is very difficult to understand these conflicts that surround us every day.”
Criolo believes that the fact that the debut album is remembered as a milestone in national rap happens for some reasons. The first one has to do with the fact that the rapper considers the work “an invitation to exchange”. “It’s like an open window. There is no imposition. Whenever there is a heart willing to listen, this exchange will happen”, he comments.
The second, less lyrical motive involves the possibility of error. “It was 22 years licking the stage. Singing at church party, bingo, fair, June party. During this period, there were very few successes and many mistakes”, he recalls. “I suffered a lot until the album was released, because I thought it would never work. When it took hold, I realized that it had happened at the exact moment”, he adds.
The way you led your career to Ear knot makes Criolo reflect on the impact of the internet on current artistic production. The rapper remembers that he grew up and lived much of his adulthood without constant access to the internet. “You couldn’t post a video singing out of tune or a song that wasn’t well rehearsed”, he analyzes. “Today is different, young people don’t have time to experiment, and this is very cruel with each one’s artistic process. They have barely started and are already condemned between what is good and what is not good”, he emphasizes.
The rapper says that “there is a lot to learn with the new generation” and he starts listing names that he likes. He quotes the rapper Djonga from Minas, Matuê from Ceará, one of the main names in the trap in Brazil, and from Maranhão Pabllo Vittar, “with the sound aesthetics of this being of light.” “The public that consumes Rap, Trap, Funk and the wall of Belém do Pará created the new pop energy of Brazilian music. Nobody gave these artists anything for free. We need to celebrate and applaud these people.”
Ten years after the first album, Criolo says “I can’t believe that all this has been going on”. With a choked voice, he celebrates the making of his later works, which include the album summon your buddha (2014), a tour with Ivete Sangalo to celebrate the work of Tim Maia (2015), the re-release of There is still time (2016) and spiral of illusion (2017), title dedicated to samba.
Since 2018, the rapper has been recording sparse songs, such as Wolf mouth, Obtuse System and Fellini, portraits of the Brazilian social crisis. Asked about the possibility of a new album, he hints that this shouldn’t happen now. “The other things in life need me more. My parents need me, I need them. We still haven’t lived through our grief”, he says. “Brazil did not experience its mourning.”
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