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

Seu Jorge
Frazer Harrison
Getty Images
Seu Jorge

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 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.

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