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Anitta, Brazil’s Biggest Pop Star, Doesn’t Need the U.S. But Could She Make It Here Anyway?

11 minute read

In February, Rio de Janeiro was the scene of the biggest party in the world: the annual Carnival celebration, a 10-day, 10-night, rollicking, sparkling stretch of music and dancing in the streets. In the thick of it all was Anitta, performing twice a day with a smile on her face and her skin slick with sweat. Brazil’s foremost pop star, Anitta is no stranger to hard work. She pushed her way up from a childhood in Rio’s favela neighborhoods to her current perch, at 27, as the music-obsessed country’s most recognizable new talent; she has taken home a slew of global and domestic awards, and it’s a rare week without her name at the top of her country’s charts. “I don’t think I have the best voice, I don’t think I’m the best dancer,” she told TIME from her Rio home earlier this month via Zoom, shrugging. “I’m a person who puts in a lot of effort to learn and do things right. I’m very dedicated, very focused.”

That focus has meant Anitta has clocked collaborations with global stars like Madonna, J Balvin, Snoop Dogg, Diplo and Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso. Her music has regularly topped Brazil’s charts, and become popular throughout Latin America and parts of Europe, Asia and Africa; this summer, she had a hit in Italy. Her colorful, dance-heavy music videos rack up hundreds of millions of views. But despite the United States’ increasing openness to global sounds like K-pop, Afrobeat and reggaeton, Anitta has yet to break big in America.

Part of the challenge is in the specificity of her music: Anitta’s roots are in Brazilian funk, also called “baile funk” and “funk carioca,” the distinctive Rio-born musical style that parallels hip-hop. Part of it is language: a native Portuguese speaker, Anitta is fluent in Spanish and English—and speaks some Italian—but the bulk of her songs are in Portuguese, which can alienate both Spanish and English-speaking audiences who just want to sing along. But that may be changing; her new single, “Me Gusta,” just cracked the Billboard Hot 100, her first breakthrough on that list.

For a while, Anitta was her own manager, hungry to make hits and maximize her exposure around the world. Her fifth album, due this year, is produced with U.S. hitmakers and studded with star collaborations: Cardi B on “Me Gusta,” popular Puerto Rican duo Arcángel & De La Ghetto on this summer’s “Tócame.” But Anitta says that despite the big names, the pressure—for once—is off. “I decided to change completely. Right now I don’t care if I put a song out and it’s not charting—whatever. I don’t even look at the numbers. I let my team worry about it, I don’t give a sh-t,” she laughs. Even before the pandemic took its toll on the music industry, Coachella, the canceled music festival in California, was her only scheduled international performance for 2020. For the first time in a decade, she’s now spending extended time in the home she bought in Rio, with her family and her dogs. It seems to suit her.

“I’m not competing with anyone,” she says, alluding to her comfort with her success so far. She may not yet be a household name in the U.S., but her confidence is a testament to the ways that cultural power has shifted globally, more decentralized than ever. It’s also a reminder of how unique her position is on the international stage—and the hazy, shifting target of what marks music industry success today.

From Brazil to the world

Brazilian music has a legacy of international influence: the nostalgic strains of bossa nova and the inescapable grooves of samba have inspired generations of classical musicians, rock stars and pop artists alike. Anitta’s mission is to bring Brazil’s newer offerings to the world. It’s a fitting goal for an artist who describes herself as always “in the middle.”

“My dad’s family, they’re all Black. My mom’s family, they’re all white. I’m in between,” she explains. “I was born in this community that’s not deep inside a favela, but the surrounding. What I try to do is always to listen.” Brazil’s favelas are informal, densely-populated communities that operate somewhat independently from their surrounding government municipalities. Over the past decade, many have been the sites of intense police “pacification” projects, incursions that have spilled blood and disrupted existing economic and social systems. They are also at the heart of Brazil’s—and especially Rio de Janeiro’s—musical innovation, and the funk music scene. By nature of its content and its birthplace, funk is inherently political: Brazilian conservatives have branded it as a kind of threat, and a vocalization of the injustices of the class system that persists. Anitta, positioned on the cusp of this culture, has been offering up a version of funk to the world for nearly a decade—with her own flair.

“I’ve traveled a lot to try to educate people on funk music and ‘ghetto’ music—favela music—coming from Brazil to other countries and other artists,” she says. “Funk music for example—it’s also a challenge to make it play for the Latin world. So I’m matching and switching cultures and people, representatives.” That means working with reggaeton stars like J Balvin, and American pop producers like Ryan Tedder and Norwegian duo Stargate, to create a hybrid sound that combines rhythms and origins. “I try to put everybody together, and educate one another on what’s the importance of doing it,” she said. “I explained to J Balvin the importance of singing a funk track from the favela, which was the same [as] reggaeton from the Latin world.” Every culture has its homegrown contemporary rhythms; Anitta wants to find the common threads, to host a kind of musical melting pot.

“Me Gusta,” her newest song, is a good example. It is woven with Rio favela funk and pagodão, the equivalent from the Bahia region’s communities, “plus Latino reggaeton, plus American pop radio.” It features Cardi B and Myke Towers, a popular Puerto Rican rapper. Even the music video is a nod to heritage both Brazilian and pop: filmed on location in the city of Salvador in Bahia at the same site as Michael Jackson’s 1995 video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us,” it is a celebration of womanhood in many forms, featuring models of a range of identities and appearances dressed in Brazilian fashions.

“Me Gusta” could have been a minefield for cultural appropriation. In Brazil, as in the U.S., questions about race and appropriation are fraught: European colonization and forced African immigration mean that the present-day Brazilian population represents a blend of ethnicities, with an often-blatant colorist hierarchy at play. Anitta has been called out for the ways she wears her hair, the shade of her skin and her fashion choices, with some critics noting that she draws out traditionally Black characteristics for music videos like her hit “Vai Malandra.” These comments have stuck with her. “I’m always worried about this: how I’m going to represent these people. And if I’m part of a mix, how I’m showing up,” Anitta says now. She works with a specialist who monitors on-set choices, with an eye toward avoiding exploitation of Black cultures. “Me Gusta” seems to have struck the right chords: dressed in bright colors and flashy cuts, Anitta and her cohort of models and dancers evoke the spirit of a tropical, futuristic runway show.

Speaking up for Brazil

Anitta has grown accustomed to controversy, and not just around her aesthetic choices. “My career was always a huge wave of criticism and prejudice,” she says, because she’s chosen to be unusually frank. “When I decided to be sexy, when I decided to tell everyone that I also like girls, when I decided to tell everyone I change boyfriends as much as I change outfits—I don’t care!” she explains. “Yes, I’ve done a lot of plastic surgeries, and I can do more if I have time. People always get so shocked. But I’m like, what do you prefer? Have plastic surgery but pretend that I don’t? Say it’s the weather that made me prettier?” (Brazil has one of the world’s highest rates of plastic surgery. And while same-sex marriage is currently legal, President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters have threatened the progress of LGBT rights in the country.)

As Anitta’s profile has risen, so too have the expectations levied on her to speak out more firmly when it comes to politics in her country. It’s a role she’s only recently taken on: after admitting to her general ignorance about government, over the summer she began a self-education program of sorts, sharing her learning on social media. Now, she’s quick to call out the populist, conservative Bolsonaro for letting the Amazon burn and his alleged corruption. “He tried to fight with me on Twitter days ago. I was like, what? Are you really concerned about fighting with me, on Twitter? You’re the president! Go worry about something that really matters! Are you crazy?”

Newfound progressive politics, a passion for showcasing her country’s culture and considerable domestic fame should be a solid recipe for international dominance. But the U.S. market—still the world’s largest music consumption market, and the home of arbiters of success like the Grammys—has remained elusive. Even juggernauts like K-pop’s BTS or reggaeton’s Balvin, her frequent collaborator, have struggled to break through on terrestrial radio and mainstream charts. (For the week of Oct. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, for instance, the half-dozen Spanish-language songs on the list all landed below the 50 mark. Anitta, coming in at 91, tallied her first-ever Hot 100 with the Cardi B collaboration, sung in a mix of Spanish and English.)

The problem stems from entrenched record label interests, which tend to promote English-speaking and homegrown talent over international acts. The other wild card is virality: currently about half of the top 10 Billboard songs received significant boosts from TikTok, the social video app with a Gen Z audience. And while Anitta’s dances should—and often do—transfer easily to viral dance challenges, determining just which track will take off is an unpredictable business. Plus, we’re still living through a pandemic, which has shuttered the nightlife spaces where Anitta’s brand of hip-shaking dance music would usually flourish.

But the metric of U.S. success, once the ultimate mark of global stardom, seems like a decreasingly important target each day. Brazil is the world’s tenth-largest music market, but is its fastest-growing, followed by fellow Latin American countries. Anitta already has 48.9 million Instagram followers—well beyond the audiences of chart-toppers like The Weeknd, Megan Thee Stallion and Billie Eilish, and more than double her idol Madonna. “Brazil has the power to be one of the biggest countries in the world,” Anitta says, referring to its potential for influence. “We got used to being exploited by the government, and we forgot how valuable [our culture is]. That’s why I try to bring this back to the people. The way we party, the way we have energy to receive people, to welcome people: it’s different.” Anitta has put in the work. She’s thrown the party. The rest of the world will have to choose whether they’re ready to join in.

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Write to Raisa Bruner at raisa.bruner@time.com