When Brazilian singer Valesca, then a member of the group Gaiola das Popozudas, used to sing about being able to “f*** whoever I want,” critics and commentators were shocked. But there were also plenty of people living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro – especially her female fans – who loved hearing a woman speak her mind from inside the country’s male-dominated funk scene. It was the 1990s, and Valesca didn’t realize it at the time, but she and a handful of other female performers were starting a feminist movement in Brazilian funk.
At first, their music was dismissed as simply an excuse for women to use crude language and talk about sex. Two decades later, artists like Valesca, Deize Tigrona and Tati Quebra-Barraco have become feminist icons. Now their songs are acclaimed by critics and feminists alike, their fanbases continue to grow and they have inspired a new generation of artists to challenge the stereotype of funk as a boys’ club.
Valesca, 38, started performing at funk parties in the Brazilian slums (known as bailes) when she was 19 – first as a dancer, then a singer. At the time, there were very few women on the Brazilian baile funk scene and her sexually explicit lyrics caused a stir. “It freaked everyone out, but it was fun,” she says. According to Adriana Facina, an anthropologist at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who studies Brazilian funk, Valesca and her fellow female artists were the first women to talk about embracing their sexuality as a form of empowerment.
Feminists were quick to attack them for lyrics they saw as objectifying women and accused the artists of supporting the patriarchal system that was oppressing them. “Deize and Tati used to say they partied hard and they wanted to get pleasure this and that way. People listened to it and felt alienation not feminism,” says Facina. It was another decade before Brazilian society started talking about equal rights for men and women and feminists began to recognize the relevance of female funk artists trying to turn misogyny on its head.
“Nowadays it’s easy to speak the language of feminism. At that time, it was more difficult,” says Valesca. “We used to only listen to men’s side of the story, [talking about] getting tchutchucas (slang for beautiful girls), partying hard, and women were always portrayed as objects. With the growth of women in funk, we’ve shown that every story has two sides.”
Telling her side of the story made Valesca a breakout success. In 2009, she appeared on the cover of Brazilian Playboy and used the money to buy an apartment in Barra da Tijuca, a wealthy neighborhood in Rio. In 2013, she left Gaiola das Popozudas and launched her solo career with a new image. Instead of tiny shorts and tops, she wore designer clothes and expensive shoes. Her first video for the song “Beijinho no Ombro” (“Kiss on the Shoulder”) has had more than 72 million views. In 2014, she signed with Universal Music and released her only original album, Valesca Popozuda.
Valesca still sings about women in power, but without the bad language. She credits her feminist fans with helping her make the transition from shocking lyrics to political commentary. “The best part of [feminism] is having women by my side,” she says. “It has helped me evolve and change a lot.”
But few Brazilian female funk artists have that freedom. When they start growing a fanbase, many feel they have to stop singing about women’s issues. “The problem is that men are usually the bosses in the entertainment industry,” says Facina. “They say what can be sung and what can’t. Female singers who have a more political approach are suffocated.” The success of artists like Valesca has made it easier for the new generation to explore different styles, but there is still a long way to go, she adds.
For Tati Quebra Barraco, feminism isn’t about the lyrics she uses, but about the story she uses them to tell. In albums like Boladona, released in 2014, she addresses the battle for survival that women in the slums of Rio de Janeiro face every day. Barraco, 37, lives in the notorious Cidade de Deus (City of God) slum, known for its drug-trafficking gangs and deadly gun crime. In December 2016, her 19-year-old son Yuri was shot dead by police during a law enforcement operation in the favela. “You and your brother know what I did and have been doing to give you the best I can,” she wrote on Facebook.
“We are warriors,” says fellow funk star Deize Tigrona. “We have to work, we have to support our children. It’s a fight. For me, that’s feminism.”
Tigrona, 37, who also lives in the City of God slum, shot to fame in 2004, when her song “Injeção” was sampled by British artist MIA. She went on to work with American DJ and producer Diplo and toured Europe from 2005 to 2012, supporting MIA and singing at festivals. But then she stopped performing, following a bout of serious depression which she says came about when she was struggling to adopt her nephew from her sister, who refused to care for him. “I suffered a lot. I couldn’t travel, do anything. I missed my life in music a lot,” Tigrona says.
She now works as a street sweeper, performing in public in her spare time. And last year released her first new song in four years, “Madame,” about funk and sex.
“For these women, singing funk is a battle,” says Facina. “They sing; they raise children alone; they are breadwinners, often working from an early age. They can say, ‘I do not depend on men for anything.’ It’s a feminist way of being that is not always valued by everyone, but has huge significance for ordinary women.”