Tropicália: The Movement That Shaped Brazilian Queer Culture

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.

Similar to what was seen during the military dictatorship of the 1960s, Brazil’s counterculture is in full bloom today. An artistic renaissance calling for larger representation of the country’s diversity is quickly becoming mainstream. When it comes to music, the world is currently witnessing a rise in Brazilian LGBTQ+ artists speaking up on the rights of queer-identifying individuals and centralizing the repression and racism faced by the Black Brazilian community. Once reserved for cis-gendered men or white Brazilian women, these spaces are now home to a more racially and gender-diverse panel of artists within a blend of avant-garde and often explicitly outspoken music. 

As clubs blast drag queen singer Pabllo Vittar and crowds gather to watch Anitta’s Coachella performance, fans are reminded of the unique way Brazilian music is reinventing itself in search for freedom in self-expression. It’s reminiscent of what happened 55 years ago with Tropicália, a movement that called for a communion of the wide creative diversity within the South American country – and changed queer culture forever.

Tropicália arose in 1967 from a severe identity crisis in the country, where Brazil was divided between two very nationalist ideas. The conservatives defended the military intervention and blind patriotism, while the leftists’ anti-imperialist movements denounced any interference of foreign art in Brazilian culture. In contrast to both ideals, the Tropicália movement called back to an earlier art movement from the 1920s led by writer Oswald de Andrade called Antropofagia (or cannibalism), referring to the concept of cultural cannibalism. Angropofagia proposed that true Brazilian identity must embrace the immense diversity of the country’s regional cultures while also “cannibalizing” foreign art movements by absorbing its strengths, thus acknowledging the blend of civilizations that made Brazil the country it eventually became.

Brazil boasts of having one of the world’s most diverse populations with Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous representation, as well as diaspora communities from around the world, including Korea and more. By the time Tropicália arose, a Brazilian identity was hard to pinpoint because many identities and cultures existed within one country that differed from one another. This was a moment of opportunity for the leaders behind Tropicália, including the singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who believed in blending all cultural expressions. 

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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Tropicália performances purposefully blended performance art, theater, and fashion with music to create a complete experience. Each costume, set design, and instrument used in a concert was specifically chosen to further transport the audience into a world where rock and roll and traditional Brazilian songs could become one unique tool of self-expression. 

In its early days, Tropicália suffered a severe backlash from both leftists and conservatives. The pinnacle of this happened during one performance in which Veloso and Gil, joined by the band Mutantes, embraced an avant-garde and unusual aesthetic. They wore trash bags and gender-ambiguous attire and used sexually explicit imagery, sounds, and lyrics that openly criticized the repressive culture against sexual freedom. Not only were they booed, but the audience threw eggs, tomatoes, and even wood at them. This prompted Veloso to give a long speech on how the youth was conformist and unwilling to open their minds to new and unique art expressions. Enraged, he shouted: “So this is the youth that says they want to reclaim power?” 

Throughout the 1960s, this chaos became common in Tropicália-led events, whether members were performing or speaking in university student collectives. Eventually, the movement gained traction among students that felt stifled by strict cultural, gender, and fashion norms, and more artists became involved in its development.

But just as fast as it rose, the fall of Tropicália came as a consequence of legislation by the military dictatorship censoring all forms of art. By 1968, only pre-approved performances and artists were allowed. Consequently, Gil and Veloso got arrested, tortured, and later left for London in exile. During this time, the movement was considered so dangerous to the country’s “morals” that military intelligence deemed it a threat to the traditional Christian family values they so desperately tried to hold on to. 

Once in London, Veloso and Gil were exposed to a progressive counterculture that enchanted them. Surrounded by psychedelic rock and the exploration of sensuality, free love, and androgyny, they became infatuated with the sense of liberty. They were also exposed to artists like David Bowie and the Rolling Stones, as well as the hippie and punk movements and the increasingly more vocal LGBTQIA+ movement. It was easy for this duo to connect Brazilian identity with the androgyny they witnessed: they had already begun exploring how Brazil’s Indigenous peoples explored sexuality and gender through entirely different lenses than the Portuguese ever did.

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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After returning to Brazil in the ‘70s, Gil and Veloso made a point to highlight androgyny and femininity in their work. Inspired by female Brazilian icon Carmen Miranda, Veloso curated an image of gender and sexual ambiguity, while Gil wrote about a bisexual relationship in his song “Pai e Mae,” which translates to “Father and Mother.” 

Soon, those who remained inspired by the Tropicália movement fully embraced the concept of “amor-livre,” which was a love free of gender, sexual orientation, or any other social contract. Singers released openly-queer songs or delivered layered performances that hinted at queer relationships, including female singers like Gal Costa and Maria Bethania. Groups like Secos & Molhados expanded on the expressions of a genderless aesthetic and music. 

By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the post-Tropicalista movement was hindered by the epidemic of HIV-AIDS. The stigma contributed to an extraordinarily biased and extra conservative pushback from those who misunderstood that LGBTQIA+ people had disproportionally less access to sexual health than others. Like in the rest of the world, HIV-AIDS devastated the Brazilian queer community. Throughout that time, the country was also plagued by hunger, homelessness, and economic decline.

However, the early 2000s gave Brazilians hope through a significant political change through the election of left-wing president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Once Brazilian youth of all backgrounds gained better access to their basic needs of housing and healthcare, they became able to participate actively in school government, activist collectives, and the artistic renaissance of Brazilian pop culture — an embodiment that was once fading. 

Now, we see Tropicália mirrored in the recurring trend of Brazilian pop artists.

It’s no coincidence that the most outspoken artists in the LGBTQIA movement in Brazil currently utilize their bodies as a mirror of what activism looks like. Vittar can easily be considered the explosion of Tropicália in one single performer. She refuses to be boxed in one musical genre and consistently produces a body of work that, much like Tropicália, blends regional Brazilian music and political activism with often avant-garde aesthetics. She also consistently collaborates with foreign artists, focusing specifically on other LGBTQIA icons like Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama.

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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Vittar’s most recent album is a clear callback to the movement that sparked the interest in the exploration of gender and sexuality in Brazil, as their album was named Batidao Tropical (tropical beat) and blends all the elements that once made Tropicália the challenging and intense movement of artistry.

It’s safe to say that art is often a response from everyday people to the world around them, and it’s often a cry for what society wants and needs. That is the power of the Tropicália renaissance in Brazil. The loud celebration of everything we have achieved in the past and the urge for a brand new future free of fascism, censorship, and the chains of narrow social values and repression.