Brazil’s biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, are infamous for their favelas, or slums – row after row of small, makeshift houses stacked on top of each other. The lack of government oversight in these favelas breeds vibrant underground economies, dangerous gangs and creative, resourceful residents. It is out of this mixture that most Brazilian rap artists emerge.
Then there’s Fabio Azeredo ’14. In his high-school years, Azeredo – well-heeled schoolboy, grandson of a famous Brazilian poet – made visit after visit to the legendary “Batalhas do Santa Cruz” rap battles held near Sao Paulo’s Santa Cruz metro station, in which participants try to vanquish their foes with rhymes that mock their opponents.
“Everybody was making fun of me,” says Azeredo, whose stage name is Fabio Brazza. “I was a white boy. I was in the wrong place.” But he won. His strong vocabulary and eagerness won the day. And he kept winning. For a month, he went back each week, winning each time. When he finally lost, he says, he felt “humiliated,” but that state of mind didn’t last.
“When I lost my fourth championship I felt bad and thought about giving up,” he says, “which never happened, because after the feeling of being humiliated I continued to battle, and in every win or loss I was improving my skills, making friends, and learning what the hip-hop struggle was about.
“I was disappointed, but I thought, Man, I love this. This is what I want for my life.”
That life is happening. One day in early October, Azeredo relays through a crackling phone line from Sao Paulo how a day earlier he’d appeared on Altas Horas, a long-running variety show on one of Brazil’s biggest TV networks, Rede Globo. Audience members shouted out words, and Azeredo freestyle-rapped according to the topic. He had the audience cheering, applauding and cackling with laughter.
Between the Santa Cruz rap battles and his appearances on national TV, Azeredo spent four years at Wingate University, starting for the soccer team and finding his way academically. During those four years, Azeredo honed his skills as a rhetorician, learning to get his point across persuasively and confidently. He is now an established star of the underground rap scene in Brazil, with nearly half a million subscribers to his channel on YouTube, where several of his songs have more than a million views apiece. He has released three albums, rapped face-to-face tributes to Brazilian soccer legends, and been commissioned by Nike to create a song for a Brazilian commercial. YouTube commenters liken him to a Brazilian Eminem.
And although he felt a lot like the famous American rapper in the movie 8 Mile during those Santa Cruz rap battles, Fabio Brazza is looking to forge his own legacy in the worlds of rap and poetry, in his own style and on his own terms.
Keeping things light
Azeredo was one of a contingent of Brazilian soccer players – all from Sao Paulo – who came to Wingate in the early 2010s. The chance to get a college education in the U.S. is enticing for many non-Americans, especially those from developing countries, but Azeredo, bitten by the rap bug in high school, didn’t exactly jump at the chance to sign with the Bulldogs. He was already eyeing a music career. “It probably took the better part of four or five months to convince him to do it,” says Gary Hamill, Wingate’s longtime men’s soccer coach.
Once he got here, though, he was committed. On the field, Azeredo was a starting forward, helping lead the Bulldogs to a Southeast Region championship and a place among the final eight teams in the NCAA Division II tournament in 2012.
He scored three goals and had three assists in 16 starts that year, but it was off the field where his infectious personality and musical ability helped keep the tone light as Wingate charged through the South Atlantic Conference and the Southeast Region. At times, it was like Azeredo was part of a traveling musical show. As a freshman, he won a student talent show with a freestyle English/Portuguese rap. He carried his ukulele around with him on campus, and in the locker room he would create rhymes just before kickoff that sent his teammates out onto the pitch in the right frame of mind.
“His positive message, in the last minute before we left the locker room, kept everybody upbeat and happy,” Hamill says. “To me it lightened the mood. Obviously, before you take the field everybody’s serious, especially in the NCAA run that we made. He had a great knack for telling jokes and keeping everything in perspective.”
It would be easy to assume that Azeredo’s happy-go-lucky demeanor translated to classroom apathy. And, for a while, he did struggle academically. Azeredo admits that it took him a long time to figure out the true purpose of education. As a schoolboy, most of his academic efforts were parent-motivated.
“I had the attitude that I just need to go to school because my parents want me to,” he says. “I acted out of obedience and fear. ‘If I don’t do the homework, I won’t have the grades and my parents will get mad.’”
Azeredo’s next sentence hints at something deeper underneath that carefree surface. “When you act out of obedience and fear, you are not free,” he says. “One day, I became free, because I didn’t have my parents there, and if I didn’t want to go to a class or do homework, it’s my fault.”
Azeredo, a philosopher at heart, simply needed a framework and a course of study that interested him. After a freshman year in which he “was in, like, random classes and some classes I didn’t like, like math and business,” he discovered courses that were more to his liking. With an eye on a career as a lyricist and performer, Azeredo chose to major in communications. By his junior year, he was making A’s and B’s.
“I started to do these classes because I thought they were interesting for me, and I want to learn those things,” he says. “I never thought I was doing communication because I wanted to be a journalist or I wanted to do this or I wanted to do that. I didn’t pick communication; communication chose me.”
Azeredo says that, while making his rap and spoken-word videos, he uses techniques he learned in speech and persuasion classes at the University. Education is a strong theme in his work. He says it is the key to reducing the disparity between the haves and have-nots in his country, and even if you don’t understand Portuguese, it’s easy to see how his confident demeanor on screen would be persuasive.
Growing up, Azeredo got an education both in and out of the classroom. He was greatly influenced by his grandfather, Ronaldo Pinto de Azeredo, one of the original “concrete poets.” The concrete-poetry movement came about in the 1950s, when Ronaldo Azeredo and others produced work that was as visual as it was verbal. To concrete poets, shape, texture and material are at least as important as the words in a poem. Azeredo’s grandfather wrote his poems on cloth, maps and other items.
The words, of course, mattered as well, and Azeredo learned much from his grandfather, who died when Azeredo was 16, about how to write lyrics. Mainly, he passed along a love of literature and poetry to his grandson.
“I wanted to be like him,” Azeredo says. “He was the biggest influence. I was a bad student, but outside of school, I was schooling myself with books and literature and poetry and samba songs and rap songs.”
As he devoured Brazilian and Portuguese literature (Machado de Assis and Jorge Amado) and poetry (Oswald de Andrade, Sergio Vaz and Fernando Pessoa), Azeredo was unwittingly laying the groundwork for what would become his career. His vocabulary was growing, and he was getting an innate feel for his native tongue.
In his videos, he spits out words rapidly, punctuating them with typical hip-hop hand gestures and an expressive face.
“People see my great quality as I’m very lyrical,” Azeredo says. “I don’t have the best voice, but I’m good lyrically. Whenever I went to the first rap battle and won, the compliment the guy gave me was, ‘Your vocabulary is so rich.’ I realized I was studying to be a good rapper.”
He also realizes that, growing up white and in a good neighborhood, he had an advantage. And that’s why, once he earned his communications degree, he headed straight back to Brazil, rather than looking for work in the United States.
“Brazil is such an unequal country,” Azeredo says. “Some people have money, and others don’t have the opportunity at school, or the cultural privilege. I felt like when I was in Brazil I had so much privilege in my life to have a good family, to study in the best schools, to have a grandfather who is a poet and who could teach me and show me poetry. All this privilege that I have, I need to give back somehow. I would be selfish if I got married and stayed in the United States.
“My goal in life, my mission, was to go back to Brazil and give back my privilege somehow. I think in the rap and in the poetry I have given back my privilege. I think that I can help more.”
The fight for Brazil
Azeredo’s privilege has allowed him to pursue a career in rap. When he returned to Sao Paulo with his communications degree in hand, one of the first things he did was to record a CD.
He wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation.
“I thought everyone would recognize my talent,” Azeredo says. “That’s not what happened. Everywhere I go, the places were empty. They don’t want to listen to you talk about social problems.”
He had resigned himself to finding an office job, but his mother convinced him to continue pursuing his hip-hop dreams, since the family wasn’t hurting for money. Azeredo started making videos, a few of which went viral on the Internet.
His big break came when he showed up in 2016 at the Florida Cup – an exhibition soccer tournament featuring huge clubs from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin American teams. Azeredo had prepared lengthy rhymes extolling the virtues of some of the game’s great players, such as Brazilian legends Ronaldinho and Ronaldo. He “ambushed” the players and had someone record him rapping to them.
The resulting videos became big hits online, and Fabio Brazza was suddenly an Internet star.
“I went without tickets,” he says. “I made some poems for some great players – kind of raps for them. It went viral. They hired me for 2017 and for 2018.”
So this year Azeredo got paid at the Florida Cup for his lyrical talents, and his CDs are starting to sell, he’s getting airtime on TV and he’s getting commissions to create songs for commercials.
As he’s become more and more successful, Azeredo has begun creating content that is more and more political and social.
Having studied in the U.S., he says he realizes that education is the biggest difference between America and Brazil. In Brazil, he says, education is more of a privilege than a right. That’s why someone like Barack Obama can grow up to become president in the U.S. “That’s where the fight is,” Azeredo says. “The fight for a good, strong Brazil is the fight for education.”
To further that cause, Azeredo uses entertainment to educate others and prompt them to think. Azeredo has recently recorded a series of five songs that deal with some pretty heady topics: power, the Big Bang, Auschwitz. “I always bring a philosophical and a moral reflection in every song,” he says.
One song in the series is about Gyges’ ring, a tale told by the Greek philosopher Plato about a man who finds a ring that can make him invisible. The protagonist makes himself invisible in order to do selfish things and then visible whenever he does something worthy. At the end of the song, Azeredo reveals that the modern-day Gyges’ ring is the cell phone. He says that what you do behind the shield of the phone reveals your character.
The final song, about Auschwitz, came from a memoir Azeredo had recently read by a Holocaust survivor, who said that even prisoners in concentration camps had to choose between being good or evil. Some prisoners, the book reveals, stole the bread of other prisoners.
“So the author is saying that evil is a personal choice and you can never blame your circumstances for how you act,” Azeredo says.
Sticking with Portuguese
Similar to how his grandfather helped usher in a new form of poetic expression, Azeredo likes to experiment and keep his lyrics sharp. In addition to spoken-word poems, which he also records and posts on YouTube, and his traditional rap songs, Azeredo periodically creates songs under an ethos he calls “the challenge of the rhyme.” In the first “challenge” song, he tried to rap using the longest words in the Portuguese language – “and we have big words in Portuguese.”
The second challenge was to rap using words starting with A, followed by words starting with B, all the way through Z. The resulting video has had 850,000 views.
He followed that one with a palindrome, but he complains that it did not go viral. “I think people didn’t understand what I was doing,” he says. “It was hard to explain.”
For those who don’t speak Portuguese – and that’s 99.9 percent of the readers of Wingate Today– Fabio Brazza’s videos probably make little sense, though the accompanying electronic beats are recognizable enough. But Azeredo has already discounted the idea of trying to break into the English-speaking rap universe, for several reasons.
“First of all, I don’t have the knowledge of the language,” he says. “I don’t master English enough to be as good in English as I am in Portuguese, because I was born here. I read Portuguese literature and study the language, so I’ve mastered the language, and my vocabulary is very good. In English I will never get to the same level, unless really I studied hard and read American literature.
“Another thing in rapping, whenever you write a rap, you use cultural references and stuff that connect you to the people that listen. And the message that I bring connects to the Brazilian people. But if I translate most of my songs to English, some people wouldn’t understand what I’m saying, because the historical and cultural reference I make won’t make sense.”
In Brazil, Azeredo has the chance to make Fabio Brazza a star. The hip-hop firmament is much more crowded in the United States.
“Here, in Brazil, the rap is something that’s still improving,” he says. “And then I think, if I try to rap in English, I will compete with Eminem, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar – you know, the best in the world. Hip-hop was invented there, and you guys mastered this. Here, I have more room to grow than I will have in America, because my accent is bad. If you listen to me rap in English, you will laugh. You won’t take me serious.
“It’s like an American trying to play samba. We were born literally with samba. We invented samba. If an American tried to be a samba player, in America you can be successful, but if you come to Brazil to compete, I don’t think an American will have a chance.”
Samba itself, along with other established musical genres, such as bossa nova, sertenajo and funk carioca, presents another obstacle. Rap is still somewhat in its infancy in Brazil, and it’s hard to predict whether it will rise to the level there that it has in the U.S.
If it does, it just might do so on the back of Fabio Brazza – poet, rapper and Bulldog.
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