LGBTQ Artists Are Leading Brazilian Pop Culture

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 08: Pabllo Vittar performs at day 2 of LA Pride 2019 on June 07, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

When drag queen Pabllo Vittar released her soon-to-become-hits singles “K.O.” and “Corpo Sensual” in 2017, she sparked mixed reactions in her natal Brazil. For pop music fans, her pop take on regional genres from the North and Northeast sides of Brazil was a breath of fresh air. For the gay, trans, and non-binary fans — to whom having a drag queen as a Brazilian pop star seemed but a dream — Vittar brought long-overdue representation. But there were also people for whom seeing a cis-gay man performing as a woman while keeping a male stage name and singing forró tunes with a sexy attitude seemed like “too much.” A scapegoat was needed for their discomfort: Vittar’s vocals. From celebrities to netizens, the claims that Vittar couldn’t sing and that her success was proof that Brazilian pop had gone downhill were plenty. 

After Vittar’s performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” at the Brazilian TV show Altas Horas in Jan. 2018, soul singer Ed Motta made viral a Facebook post praising her low and high vocal registers. This was the first time someone as renowned as him talked positively about Vittar publicly. But unlike Motta, many Brazilians remained skeptical and uncomfortable with Vittar’s growing presence in show business. The over-sexualization and lack of depth in her lyrics compared to the music made by progressive, genre-defying icons like Ney Matogrosso were often cited to justify the hate, saying it had nothing to do with Vittar’s gender identity or sexuality.

According to the Transgender Europe (TGEU) report, 2018 marked the 11th year in a row of Brazil ranking No. 1 for countries with the most trans people murders — a record that the country upholds today. It was also a year marked by the spread of fake news and political polarity that led to the election of right-wing Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro. An on-the-rise Vittar was ultimately affected. False reports alleging that Bolsonaro’s opponent would make Vittar the face of the BRL 50 bill circulated, leading many to throw their disgust sentiments at Vittar as she became a symbol of the immorality conservative right-wingers fought against. Each headline shared about Vittar or her association with leftist politics was followed by a saying: “Agora a Pabllo Vittar foi longe demais” (“Pabllo Vittar has gone too far now”). The expression would become a meme. But also, it would become true.

Fast forward to 2022 as Vittar plays international festivals like Lollapalooza Chile and Coachella in the midst of her I am Pabllo Global Tour and collects collaborations with renowned artists like Lady Gaga, Thalía, Charli XCX, and Rina Sawayama, there are no doubts that she has indeed gone too far — but in a powerful way. And many have started to follow her lead in Brazil. Vittar’s success opened doors for more drag queen singers to launch or boost their careers: Gloria Groove, Aretuza Lovi, Lia Clark, and Potyguara Bardo, to name a few. They all contribute to forming what is, undoubtedly, the most thriving time for queer pop stars in Brazil. 

‘Agora a Pabllo Vittar foi longe demais’ (‘Pabllo Vittar has gone too far now’). The expression would become a meme. But also, it would become true.

Queer artists have always been among the driving forces of Brazilian music through names like Angela Ro Ro, Cássia Eller, Daniela Mercury, Ana Carolina, Cazuza, and Ney Matogrosso. Their music coexisted with the LGBTQ+ hate in Brazil.

Matogrosso, the most famous Brazilian queer icon before Vittar, was an obvious reference to whom Vittar was compared at the start of her career. In the 1970s, when Brazil was under a military dictatorship, Matogrosso’s body painting, dramatic performances, and vocal tone (which was considered too high and “feminine” for a man) were shocking. But the music he made with the progressive rock band Secos & Molhados earned him immense respect and critical acclaim. Vittar’s music, however, was not embraced in the same way. 

Much of the resistance against LGBTQ+ people in the arts lies in the belief that there is “a right kind of art” that an LGBTQ+ person should make. Yes, artists like Cazuza, Eller, and Matogrosso were unapologetically queer, but they wrote thoughtful lyrics praised by intellectuals and upper-class Brazilians as much as loved by the general public. In contrast, Vittar makes pop music based on marginalized genres from Brazil’s poorest regions and sings openly about her sexual freedom through melodies and lyrics that aim for not much more than just to catch people’s ears and make them dance. And even though she also releases conscious, motivational songs like “Indestrutível” and “Amarelo” (a collaboration with rapper Emicida and trans singer Majur), her career is mostly and foremost an exercise of her right to just have fun regardless of her gender identity or sexuality. She’s a pop star in the fullest range of the term: she is from and for the masses. 

It’s not that pop, carefree music, or entertainment hasn’t been done by LGBTQ+ people in Brazil before. But usually, such art had to be intentionally marketed as humor. It’s no coincidence that the most successful trans, non-binary, and drag queen artists in Brazil used to be comedians, such as Vera Verão or Nanny People. Their talent for comedy may not directly relate to their gender identity, but the lack of space for other forms of LGBTQ+ art suggested that these people could only make a living from art if they embraced the position of laughable, anomalous beings. It was not until very recently that gay, trans, and non-binary artists occupied the center of Brazil’s pop culture with art and music that dodged this bullet.

Before names like Pabllo Vittar took over Brazilian pop, queer representation in pop music was mostly restricted to fandom. Queer fans shake up the online music communities and dance clubs in Brazil, but such a strong presence was not proportionally reflected in the pop pantheons they worshipped or the people singing the music they danced to. The freedom found in music from cis-divas like Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Ariana Grande, and Dua Lipa now shares space with music made in Brazil — with pop and dance music informed by Brazilian genres and sung in Portuguese by artists representing a wide spectrum of identities and sexualities. Never had LGBTQ+ art had so much presence and relevance in Brazilian mainstream pop as now. 

Among Brazil’s most complete contemporary artists and main pop stars, for example, is the drag queen Gloria Groove, the artistic persona of singer, songwriter, and voice actor Daniel Garcia. In 2022, Groove became the most listened-to drag queen in Brazil and topped the competitive Spotify Top Albums Debut Global chart with her latest album, Lady Daleste. Groove’s combination of electronic dance music with Brazilian funk, paired with her theatrical performances and goose bumping vocals, took Brazil by storm through hits like “Bonekinha,” “Leilão,” “Vermelho,” and “A Queda.” 

But outside pop spheres, LGBTQ+ artists are also breaking barriers. MPB, or Popular Brazilian Music, and rock are home to most of the notable gay icons in Brazilian music. And while the only queer artists in these genres used to be cis-people, trans artists like Liniker, Linn da Quebrada, and Majur have now joined the new generation of MPB artists who happen to be gay, with names like Johnny Hooker, Filipe Catto, and Mart’nália. 

Ultimately, much has gotten better in Brazil when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights in the last few years. In 2019, the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled homophobia and transphobia to be subject to the same punishment as the crime of racism. And in 2022, the Maria da Penha Law, which punishes domestic abusers of women, was ruled applicable for trans women victims. There is still a long path to walk towards respect and representation for LGBTQ+ people in Brazil. But it’s hard to dissociate the legal improvements of the last few years with the rise of queer artists in music and media. 

Like the infamous critique that became a prophetic meme for Pabllo Vittar, we can only hope that these new artists continue to go very far.