If you watched the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympics you may remember them, the young girl and the grown woman in neon-pink extensions, tearing up the stage. To stand out from among the bright-colored, high-plumed samba dancers they wore matching black and grey outfits. The woman, Karol Conka, fiercely sexual in thigh-high leather boots and a tiny, midriff-bearing getup. The girl, 12-year-old MC Soffia, in age-appropriate sneakers and a giant black bow on the top of her head. They were there representing Brazilian hip hop, making sure the world understood their huge, and hugely diverse, country would not be reduced to traditional rhythms, jiggling posteriors, girls from Ipanema. They embodied the culture of the streets, the millions of dark-skinned Brazilians who want, and deserve, the attention of the world: “Look at us!,” they called. “Here we are!” The world, at least for a short while, paid attention. Since then, things in Brazil have gotten much worse. Corruption scandals and economic crisis have rocked the country. Will there still be room for Karol and Soffia’s voices?
Though the two singers had never performed together they made an excellent Olympic match. Originally from Curitiba, Karol has developed an innovative and energetic style that mixes hip hop with traditional Brazilian wind and percussion instruments. Unlike many Brazilian rappers who gained notoriety in underground clubs, from the beginning Karol sought to spread her music as far and wide as possible. Despite having released only one studio album, many in the industry consider her the face of Brazilian rap. She is ubiquitous in magazine covers. Her videos are arranged by some of Brazil’s top producers. Her look and style are polished and very much seeking widespread appeal. To her credit, she has used her fame to spread an upbeat and positive message.
In interviews she recounts the bullying and discrimination she suffered as a poor black girl, in school and on the streets. Through music she found herself, her self-esteem and her power. In performance she blends the streetwise confidence of Lauryn Hil with the flamboyant extravagance of Lady Gaga. Her rap is usually clean and accessible to fans of all ages, mostly free of sex and politics, her message straightforward: be open, be accepting of others, be yourself. “Let me tell you about a crazy world,” she sings, “Where you’re allowed to be whatever you want.” Her wish is for everyone to find that world. In her hit single “Boa Noite” she says “I’m preparing to leave. Wherever I go I’ll take everything I’ve learned. I won’t give up. I’m not afraid to make mistakes.”
The young Soffia Gomes da Rocha Gregório Correa, better known as MC Soffia, is now where Karol was ten years ago, except that she has found her talent much earlier. Growing up in the Raposo Tavares complex in São Paolo, she has recounted, she was the target of bullying for the color of her skin and her abundant curly hair. She began performing at clubs and public events, from the start singing precocious lyrics about the plight of the poor and dark-skinned in Brazil. She has written several songs with her mother’s help, but is also able to improvise on the spot. She is confident and articulate when speaking of her favorite themes: the negative representation of blackness in Brazilian culture, the lack of opportunities for the poor and for girls in particular, and the quest to find the inner strength to fight such a world.
She began receiving national attention in 2015 after the release of the video of “Menina Pretinha” (“Little Black Girl”). In her lyrics, Soffia reveals the pain of rejection – “little black girl, you’re exotic but not pretty” – and then lashes against it with the power of her words – “I am black, and I am proud of my color.” In January of 2016, she was invited by the Brazilian Olympic Committee to take part in the Opening Ceremony. As many had predicted, she and Karol were one of the many highlights of the show. The exposure will surely do much to propel Soffia’s career.
In Karol and Soffia Brazilian hip hop has two charismatic and media-friendly stars. Both are engaged with important political and cultural issues but at the same time are very aware of their public personas. They are edgy, but not too edgy, and therefore not too dangerous. They were perfects spokespeople for a rising Brazil, a country that was trying to develop into an economic powerhouse while at the same time being open and honest about its difficult past. Now, though, the dark times have returned. The country’s president has been impeached and removed from office. Her predecessor was also the target of corruption investigations. There are few politicians, in fact, with clean records. After many years of growth, the economy is suffering its worst decline in decades.
There is a history in Brazil of “establishment” musicians helping to whitewash their country’s great problems. How will Karol Conka and MC Soffia continue to evolve as artists? Will they develop as musicians in more risk-taking, more critical directions? Or will they lose the rebelliousness that has made them so attractive, in order to retain their mainstream appeal? “O future dirá,” as they say in Brazil. The future will tell.