Brazilian Singer Seu Jorge: On Music, Race, And Luck Versus Hard Work

Feb 27, 2016
Originally published on February 27, 2016 5:56 pm

Seu Jorge is an internationally acclaimed Brazilian actor and musician. As he wraps up a series of New York City performances and prepares to go off to Europe, he sat down with Jasmine Garsd, from NPR's Alt.Latino.

There's this scene in the seminal Brazilian film City of God: It's night time, and pulsating strobe lights illuminate glistening bodies and shiny Afros swaying to the sounds of disco and funk. We're at a massive block party in a favela, one of Brazil's notorious ghettos.

In one corner, Mané Galinha, a handsome busdriver played by singer Seu Jorge (his character is called Knockout Ned in the film's English subtitles), is playfully dancing with his girlfriend to the tune of "Kung Fu Fighting." It's a scene that might go unnoticed amidst so many stunning moments in the film. But it's a pretty informative snapshot of race and culture in 1970's Brazil.

Seu Jorge says disco and funk had a huge impact on him growing up at that time. In fact, he says funk changed the way black Brazil saw itself. "There's a lot of African soul in Brazil. When James Brown arrived, it's like a door opened for us."

The funk was heating up in Rio de Janeiro, but so was the violence. At the dance in City Of God, the beautiful girlfriend catches the eye of a young drug dealer. A few nights later, he rapes her and goes after her boyfriend, Jorge's character.

Seu Jorge says he recognized himself in the character of Mané Galinha. Before he became an internationally acclaimed Brazilian music star, he was a kid growing up in a very similar favela to the one portrayed in the film, right outside Rio de Janeiro. His own brother was killed in the ongoing violent confrontations with the police. "I lost my brother . . . My life was really hard," Seu Jorge reminisces. "I didn't have a job over there . . . Education was very, very poor. And it's still like that. The only thing that is different is my choice . . . I think I was a product of luck and hard work."

While the character of Mané Galinha turned to a life of revenge and crime, Seu Jorge chose music and acting. It nonetheless cost him dearly — by his early 20's, he was homeless. But he was also acting a university play house, and playing at a bar in northern Rio. And playing in bands — his big break came when rapper Marcelo D2 invited him to play drums with the band Planet Hemp. "Marcelo D2, he saved my life," says Seu Jorge.

Seu Jorge became a household name in Brazil in 2001 with the sophomore album Samba Esporte Fino. It also his first international album, in which he mixed the funk he'd fallen in love with as a kid, and traditional Brazilian sounds.

But then, in 2004, came the role that pushed him into cult-classic status around the world. "One day I'm at my home, and someone calls me. I grab the telephone, but I don't understand any words the guy says to me."

He handed the phone to his wife. It was director Wes Anderson. He was putting together this movie, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. He wanted to know if Seu Jorge could do covers of a handful of David Bowie songs. Seu Jorge said yes, and moved to Italy to start working on the film. He plays Pele Dos Santos, a musician who travels with the oceanographic expedition.

He changed the lyrics in translation: "There are so many things of the heart that I cannot understand," he laments. The covers are filled with saudade, a form of Brazilian melancholy and homesickness. Seu Jorge says the hostility towards black men he was confronted with in Italy gave his work its sad tone.

"I suffered a lot of racists in Italy," he says. "When I would go out, and go to my home...I'd need to go to the pharmacy, buy stuff for my kids...get a cab. Normal things. And people don't look at me like a good person, because I'm black."

The result, however, was stunning. Bowie himself said, "Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese, I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with."

Several years later, Seu Jorge is no longer melancholy. He says he's looking forward instead. "I'm trying to follow the same steps as these beautiful icons, Brazilian icons, Caetano [Veloso], Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento's careers."

He's well on his way.

You can hear the entire interview with Seu Jorge this Thursday on Alt.Latino.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Seu Jorge is a contemporary Brazilian music icon. He strings together funk, soul and traditional Brazilian rhythms with his unusually deep and raspy voice. He's also an actor. You might have seen him in the Brazilian film "City Of God" or Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." Jorge's performing tonight and tomorrow in New York City. That's where NPR's Jasmine Garsd caught up with him to talk about his unlikely rise to fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

CARL DOUGLAS: (Singing) Oh, ho, ho, ho...

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: There's this scene in the Oscar-nominated 2002 film "City Of God" - it's nighttime, strobe lights illuminate glistening bodies and shiny afros. We're at a massive block party in a favela, one of Brazil's notorious slums.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

DOUGLAS: (Singing) ...It was a little bit frightening...

GARSD: A handsome bus driver, played by singer Seu Jorge, is dancing with his girlfriend to the tune of "Kung Fu Fighting." Jorge says disco and funk had a huge impact on him growing up.

SEU JORGE: Especially for black people in Brazil, too - a lot of African soul in Brazil. And when James Brown arrived, it's like a door open for us.

GARSD: The funk was heating up in Rio de Janeiro, but so was the violence. At the dance, the beautiful girlfriend catches the eye of a young drug dealer. A few nights later, he rapes her and goes after her boyfriend, Jorge's character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

GARSD: Bullets spray his home and kill his little brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARSD: It's a story that hit close to home for Seu Jorge, who grew up in a similar favela right outside Rio de Janeiro. His own brother was killed in the ongoing violence.

JORGE: I lost my brother. My life is really hard. I don't have a job over there. I have nothing to do. You know, education is very, very poor. The only thing that's different is my choice.

GARSD: He chose music and acting. Success took a while, though. By the time he was in his 20s, he was acting in a university play house and performing with local bands. He was also homeless. He recorded an album that got some attention. In 2001, his second album came out. And thanks in part to this song, it made him a household name in Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINA")

JORGE: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: The album caught the ears of Brazilian music lovers around the world. And then he got a phone call.

JORGE: I grab the telephone, but I don't understand any words the guy say to me.

GARSD: He handed the phone to his wife. It was director Wes Anderson. He was putting together his movie "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." He wanted to know if Seu Jorge could do covers of a few David Bowie songs. Jorge said yes and moved to Italy to film. He plays a musician who travels with the title character's oceanographic expedition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU")

JORGE: (As Pele dos Santos, singing in foreign language).

GARSD: When matters of the heart one cannot comprehend, he sings, the covers are filled with saudade, Portuguese for sadness and homesickness. Part of that comes from the hostility towards black men Seu Jorge said he felt in Italy.

JORGE: I suffer a lot racism...

GARSD: A lot of racism in Italy.

JORGE: Yeah. When I go out and go to my home - I need to go to the pharmacy, buy stuff for my kids, I need to get a cab, I need to go to the restaurant, you know, things - like normal things - and the people don't look at me like a good person.

GARSD: The result, however, led David Bowie himself to say that the covers made him rediscover the beauty of his songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU")

JORGE: (As Pele dos Santos, singing in foreign language).

GARSD: These days, Seu Jorge is no longer melancholy. He says he hopes to one day join the pantheon of great Brazilian musicians.

JORGE: I'm trying to follow the same steps as beautiful icons, Brazilian icons - Caetano, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento's careers.

GARSD: His career is well on its way. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU")

JORGE: (As Pele dos Santos, singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.