It was bossa nova giant Tom Jobim that said “Brasil não é para principiantes” – Brazil isn’t for beginners. This was true throughout Jobim’s life in the 20th century, and despite meaningful advances in the average Brazilian’s quality of life, Brazil’s learning curve remains undeniably steep.
This same learning curve is largely absent from Brazilian music and culture more broadly, though. From bossa nova to contemporary Brazilian funk, the country arguably exports more of its music than any other non-Anglophone country. Brazilian rap, however, has mostly stayed within national borders. As the child of outside influences and uniquely distinct Brazilian genres, Brazilian rap is a microcosm of Brazil — it is its own distinct landscape.
Brazilian rap has always felt caught between two worlds, unsure of whether to experiment with music indigenous to the country or follow the trusted pattern of American boom-bap. Cultural proximity to the US (namely in places like Miami and Boston, both of which have large Brazilian populations) has always guaranteed a link between the two country’s musical outputs; it’s often unclear who is emulating whom.
Roughly the first 15 years of the new millennium marked a deliberate transition away from American hip-hop, favoring instead indigenous samba/funk fusions, especially on the production side. The era of anxiety about American influence is over — this is evidenced by this trap-heavy list — but Brazilian rap is mature enough to comfortably pick and choose where it pulls from without being worried about fidelity to Brazilian tradition.
Streaming numbers still absolutely pale in comparison to genres like pop-funk and sertanejo, but rap has the support of music gatekeepers — Rolling Stone BR has, for the last few years, devoted inordinate space to rap in their features and yearly best-of lists. The way that the music academy has advocated for Brazilian rap in the last half-decade or so despite Brazil’s confluence of native genres is promising, and this institutional support helps ensure rap’s future.
Brazil’s political future, on the other hand, looks increasingly uncertain. The Amazon is burning, and in favelas, police are capitalizing on the carte blanche that was promised to them during the ascendency of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Vehement criticism of institutional racism and unabashed self-affirmation are common threads that run through this selection. In an era where favela-dwellers are assumed to be bandidos and the current party line is that a “bandido bom é bandido morto” (a good thug is a dead thug), self-love is no small task.
With all that in mind, here are 10 Brazilian rappers you need to know:
Rincon Sapiência is Brazil’s great crossover rapper loved by purists, trapheads, and casual listenersn alike. While recent BR rap has turned away from its big brother in Brazilian funk and veered toward trap, Sapiência is unique in that he manages to incorporate both into his music — in most of his popular hits, you can hear the tamborzão beat that makes Brazilian funk so distinctive. Sapiência’s wide appeal, however, doesn’t prevent him from writing unapologetically and directly about racial injustice in Brazil.
Sapiência is the vet of this list and the rapper most clearly working within a Brazilian tradition, but his ambition doesn’t stop at the Amazon in the North or gauchos in the South — Sapiência recently hopped on Red Bull Music Academy to break down his music-making process, and “Ponta De Lança” even features English subtitles. If Brazilian rap ever gains a larger audience outside of the Lusophone world, Sapiência will probably be the genre’s ambassador.
Northeastern Bahía native Baco Exu do Blues caught fire in 2016 with his song “Sulicídio,” (a pun that amounts to something like “Southicide”), in which he criticizes Brazilian rap for being so São Paulo and Rio-centric. Since then, Baco has released a string of R&B-inspired love songs with singers like Tuyo and 1LUM3 that have garnered more than 20 million streams streams and have found a larger audience outside of hardcore rap heads.
Some fans that fell in love with early Baco were disappointed by this commercial shift, but with his latest release Blackstreetboys, the 23-year-old continues to prove that he still has the breathless, relentless flow that put him on in the first place. Combine this range with soundtrack and writing credits for a short feature film about blackness in Brazil called Bluesman, and it’s clear that Baco can basically do whatever he wants. He is by no means universally loved in the Brazilian rap scene, but as he tells his critics on Blackstreetboys: “Y’all keep confusing arrogance with self-love.”
Born in the Índio favela of Belo Horizonte, Djonga is the latest reminder that being from São Paulo or Rio is no longer a prerequisite for making it as a rapper. For the last three years (on every March 14), Djonga has released a new album. With an aggressive flow, provocative music videos, and subject matter mostly about Brazil’s dramatic racial inequality, Djonga has the attention of all of Brazilian rap in a vice grip. His videos are at once imaginative and utterly necessary.
Djonga’s wide range of references is evidence of his absurdly broad cultural education — important American civil rights leaders, early Brazilian rap trailblazers, and Greek mythological figures are common recurring characters in his music — but he’s truly in his own lane. His three releases thus far have been dense and poetic, and require repeated listens. This year’s album Ladrão was probably the weakest of his three commercial releases, but this is just a testament to how truly great 2017’s Heresia and 2018’s O Menino Que Queria Ser Deus were.
On any given Yung Buda song, there will be, at least, three languages – Japanese, English, and Portuguese. In his three releases, all EP’s of around 14-15 minutes, Buda has perfected the sort of mid 2000s technobliss that Swedish former wunderkind Yung Lean more or less invented in his earliest releases. The music video for “Autumn Ring Mini,” whose title is a reference to the Gran Turismo video game series, is a beautiful, perfect summation of everything Buda — streetcar culture, anime, trap, and art escapism. In the song, Buda also references Amaterasu who, besides being a Shinto sun goddess, is also the protagonist of an obscure but critically acclaimed PS2 game called Ōkami.
If Yung Buda is going to blow up, his time is now — just look at YouTube’s obsession with pairing lo-fi and anime. Buda is hyper-referential and, to use a term applied to A$AP Rocky when he first blew up, post-regional. He is Brazilian, yes, but more than anything, he is a product of introversion and broadband internet. His music is, in essence, that perfect mix of ironic and genuine nostalgia for the recent past that so perfectly characterizes millennial internet culture.
CHS probably won’t win any awards for reinventing the rap game, but since his days with the rap group Nectar Gang, he has put out an incredibly consistent body of music. He has a knack for creative hooks that are impossible to forget (In Brazil, my partner got upset with me for singing the hook of his song “Futura Ex” [“Future Ex”] over and over, which, in retrospect, was probably fair enough). It was with Nectar Gang that CHS earned a place in Brazilian rap, but as the group’s various members have focused on their respective solo careers, CHS has taken off since the release of his debut album CHAOS.
His name likewise comes from “chaos” in English, and a lot of his work addresses the utter disorder that is Rio de Janeiro specifically and highly-condensed city life in Brazil generally — roughly 86% of Brazil’s population lives in urban areas. In his hit of the year “Pesadelo da Cidade” (“Nightmare of the City” literally, but “Nightmare City” translates better), CHS raps about how, in his hometown of Rio, the distance between heaven and hell is sometimes less than a single block.
Mariana Mello is a bit of enigma. In 2016, she went viral in the Brazilian rap scene with a pounding, aggressive boom-bap track — all while heavily pregnant in the accompanying music video. Until then, she had been known primarily as a model and fashion icon with a large Instagram following. She has only the EP Mariana to her name, but fans have watched for every single release of hers with attention.
In her most recent track “Rosa de Plástico,” Mello scales back her aggressive delivery and instead opts for an autotuned trap sound. Mello opens with “I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do / a lot of time lost, asking God for help / I won’t hold my breath,” and throughout the track, messages of women empowerment flash in and out. The production, the message, the video — Mello’s ability to create a trap banger with an uplifting message begs comparison to M.I.A.
The single “Estilo” off of Hot e Oreia’s debut album Rap de Mensagem starts off very strangely. Sitting in an apparent massage train, extras start talking shit on the rap duo: “Hot e Oreia aren’t even rap. This album is going to be terrible.” “Massage Rap is a horrible name for an album.” Self-deprecation has found its niche in other national rap traditions, but in a Brazilian context, this playfulness is largely reserved for funk. Hot e Oreia are perhaps the most immediate example of how much the genre has matured — a group like this simply couldn’t exist if Brazilian rap wasn’t already on solid ground to begin with.
Not every song of theirs is a hit, and Oreia’s nasally delivery might be best in small doses, but Hot e Oreia sound like nothing else coming out of Brazil right now. The title of their debut album is itself a parody of Brazilian rap — it’s a pun of rap de mensagem, which translates into English as “conscious rap.” Hot e Oreia are pushing the limits of what Brazilian rap will tolerate, and the genre is better off because of it.
Despite only a mixtape and an album in 10 years, Flora Matos still has a larger fanbase than the majority of the other rappers on this list. In the song “Losing my Judgment,” Matos subverts traditional male brag-rap and sings about a woman who is in love with her.
In a country with alarmingly high levels of hate crimes against LBTQIA+ folks, few legal protections, and a president who once said that he would rather his son die than bring home a man, getting in front of a crowd and rapping about your same-sex partner is a perpetual act of bravery and defiance. Matos is by no means the freshman on this list — her long career guarantees that — but she’s still the gold standard for serious MC’s looking for pop appeal.
Akira Presidente has been around for a minute — a slew of early songs from the late 2000s reminds us of this — but he took a huge leap forward with his 2017 release Father (stylized as Fa7her), named in honor of his then-newborn daughter. “Melhoria Gang” is a song about the rapper’s anxiety over selling out disguised as a conventional trap track.
Everything about his music is self-aware, and anime’s influence is omnipresent — the name Akira itself is a reference to the eponymous 1998 animated cult classic, and in the music video for “Melhoria Gang,” original animation is combined with clips from the movie itself. But his reservations about catering his music to the trap generation take second fiddle to providing for his daughter — Akira’s most recent album Nandi, also named in honor of his daughter, was released in late June to critical acclaim.
BK formed 2/3’s of Nectar Gang with CHS before deciding to focus on his solo career, and since 2016, he has been busy. His first of two LP’s, Castelos & Ruinas, was voted first in a poll by Red Bull in Brazil for 2016 Album of the Year.
In between this and 2018’s Gigantes, he also put out two short EP’s. BK serves as a link between the old and new school — his production choices are rich and varied, and his live shows reflect his willingness to take aesthetic risks in an era devoted to trap. In “Take Your Little Vision” (a purposeful mistranslation of the Brazilian phrase “Pega a visão” which translates to something like “chase your dreams”), BK wanders through a Rio haunted by the pain of his ancestors in the same city. His album Gigantes (Giants) implies grandiosity, but for him, this grandiosity can be found in the minutia of everyday life: “[My songs are] the people; my friends; stories that have happened to me and people close to me.”
For more like this, take a look at 10 Nigerian Rappers You Need to Know.