SPOTLIGHT ON… Criolo
Criolo, a Brazilian rapper with the deepest, most intense eyes, has come a long way. At 39, he has spent over half his life singing and longer still living in poverty. At the start of this decade, he became a leading figure in the South American hip hop scene. He is currently on tour in Europe, and he performs in Paris this week.
So, Criolo, how is the tour going?
It’s wonderful, impressive, really special.
You are very eclectic and you are known for much more than your style of music. How would you define yourself? As a rapper? An activist? A cultural agitator?
I think defining me is probably a job for other people, isn’t it? It’s not something you do yourself. It’s other people who, with their different perceptions, their culture and their cultural baggage, try to define you, to attribute characteristics to you based on what they feel about you.
So do you try to project a certain image to those who are going to define you? No, that would be fake. You have to be yourself.
Where did you get your taste for music?
From my parents and from Brazil. It’s a musical country. Our people make music every time they speak. Brazil is a country that is more like a continent. Each part has its own way of speaking, and that, in itself, is music.
You used to call yourself “Criolo Doido”, but you’ve taken off the “
“doido” (which means “crazy”) because you thought that calling someone “crazy” was a compliment in the society we live in. What is a crazy person for you?
I say “crazy” in that people tend to underestimate other people when they choose a different way of life. For example, when a young person chooses to study arts or take an alternative path from what society considers to be the best route or the fastest way of achieving wealth and status, that person will tend to be considered as ‘doida’, crazy.
Where does your musical inspiration come from?
The tracks that have had the strongest effect on me are the ones I listened to as a child. My parents are from the Northeast Region, so I am influenced by that region, which is beautiful, wonderful, and more generally by our country as a whole. Where I grew up [in Sao Paulo, Ed.], there were people from lots of different states, so I learnt from the musical styles of several different parts of the country, and that was what made the biggest impression on me.
Your lyrics are witty, but they also convey a social and political message. What inspires you?
Everything happens really naturally, man. I don’t really choose. I’ve done a few romantic songs, too, where I talk about completely different things. Social and political themes tend to crop up in most of my songs because I grew up in a favela, man. I know what suffering is. I know what I don’t want myself or my people to go through anymore. So I made the choice to sing about hope, positive energy. We sing about our dreams, not just our depression. We sing for a better future. It happens quite naturally, because we don’t want bad things to happen to us or anybody else.
How are you coping with your relatively new-found fame?
It doesn’t make me any better than anyone else. Success is having good health, brother.
Isn’t there a contradiction between singing socially engaged lyrics and performing to wealthy European crowds?
I sing for human beings. What is important for me is the heart. I don’t have any prejudices. Music can lead to transformation. One day, in your soul, you might be hungry too. I don’t judge anyone. I don’t have any prejudices. For me, what matters is the heart. The paradox is wanting to divide society on a social issue.
There is a lot of indignation because lots of people have lots of things, and the vast majority have nothing. That is true all over the world. But I don’t see singing in Europe as glamorous. I’ve got a story to tell – a story of surpassing oneself.
Glamour only exists for those who take pleasure in glamour. I want to be part of a process of love.
Do you think you have become a role model for your Brazilian fans and for all those who have followed you since the beginning?
No, I am those people. You aren’t any different just because you sing, or you’re a footballer, or you play an instrument, or you’re a great surgeon. It doesn’t make you any different from other people. For me, there’s no such thing as role models.
Criolo’s latest album, Convoque Seu Buda
How would you describe the Brazilian rap and hip hop scene? Does it have a “trademark”?
I don’t know if it has any defining characteristics, but one thing that makes it special is that lyrics are of paramount importance.
Is that true throughout Latin America?
Not just in Latin America, but for hip hop throughout the world. Hip hop was born out of a desire to change things. It was created by young people who wanted change in their communities, in the world, and who rejected war. The first breakdance steps were initially designed to imitate helicopters during the Vietnam War. In hip hop across the world, the way people sing and the way they dress are imbued with concern for social justice. However, depending on what is wanted from a given industry or artist, we are starting to see nuances of what it means to survive in a society.
Have you any collaborations with other artists planned?
I haven’t got the courage to ask for anything from music anymore. What will be will be. I am lucky enough to have sung with Tony Allen, Milton Nascimento and others.
What is your take on Brazilian politics, after the demonstrations of 2013-2014 and the elections which were nevertheless won by the incumbent government?
It’s too early to say. We are seeing history made. We are writing history. We cannot expect immediate answers to questions that date back to the colonial era. But the fact that people are coming together in the streets is very important. People are feeling the reality, touching it, understanding it. We always want answers in a hurry. We can be superficial. Every one of us has to be very responsible about what we say and how we say it. Things happen gradually.
Can the people’s social demands be expressed through politicians?
Who isn’t the people? We are all the people. Of course, everyone has their own interests and those are not always the same interests as the group that has access to power. Of course, it can happen. I have hope for our generation. We are seeing something special happening in the world today. Young people all over the world are rising up, organising and wanting something good.
What advice would you give to a promising young musician in Brazil?
Listen to your parents. Who am I to give you advice? Listen to your parents, listen to your heart, what will be will be, and it will be the fruit of your efforts.
Speaking of family, what role has yours played in your career?
They are everything to me. They have influenced everything I do. They are wonderful. Their life story, their love, I would be nothing without them. They have always pushed my brothers and me to lead a dignified life. In our case, as a poor family, that meant keeping warm and not going hungry. We didn’t think about the future. In the midst of all that, my mother still tried to immerse me in culture.
How do you see the future?
The only thing I’m sure of is death. In the meantime, we need to plant the seeds of goodness, wherever in the world it may be, without prejudice.
Criolo will be in concert at the Alhambra (Paris) on January 29.
Thanks go to Alexandre Müller (translation), Branca Lessa and Claudio Cabral (video/sound)