After five days of the intense day-and-night party that takes over Brazil during Carnival, drag queen Pabllo Vittar is exhausted. The 23-year-old phenomenon, who kicked the internet into overdrive last month after making out with Diplo in her music video for “Então Vai,” can finally take off her high heels, put her wigs away and reflect on her accomplishments: The country with the worst rates of anti-LGBTQ violence in the world has chosen her, a man, as its pop queen.
Homophobia remains one of Brazil’s most serious problems. Despite its gay-friendly image (think São Paulo’s Pride Parade, the world’s largest, or Rio de Janeiro’s gay beach), Brazil’s “homophobic violence has hit crisis levels, and it’s getting worse,” Amnesty International’s Jandira Queiroz told The New York Times in 2016. A recent analysis by Grupo Gay da Bahia (GGB), Brazil’s oldest LGBT rights organization, estimates that violent deaths of LGBTQ Brazilians have hit an all-time high in 2017: at least 387 people were killed, an increase of 30 percent from the previous year. As a comparison, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported 52 deaths in the U.S. during the same time.
But a collective of drag queens — with Vittar at the forefront — is helping to change Brazil’s acceptance of the LGBTQ community, using music and performance as their means. “I’m very happy that I have this space and an opportunity to lend my voice to the LGBTQ cause, and to represent my sisters,” says Vittar, whose videos for “Corpo Sensual” and “K.O.” have collectively earned more than 275 million YouTube views. (A video for “Sua Cara,” a song she recorded with Diplo’s Major Lazer and Brazilian bombshell Anitta, became the fastest video to reach one million likes on YouTube — in less than six hours.) “Knowing that other people will grow, by having more examples, and more people that can inspire them is wonderful,” she adds.
Some performers, like Vittar’s frequent collaborator Aretuza Lovi, faced homophobia at home before entering the world of drag. “When my dad realized I was gay,” Lovi says, “he treated me horribly [and] beat me up. I was afraid to breathe next to him.” She started doing drag as a joke with some friends, but when her career took off she felt empowered, and she now uses drag as a platform. The response has been sizable: Last year the she signed with Sony Music (“I’m so happy that labels now are embracing diversity”) and her latest single “Joga Bunda,” a collaboration with Pabllo Vittar and Glória Groove, got more than 10 million YouTube hits in a month.
For Gloria Groove, female impersonation — and hip-hop, which influences much of the queens’ music — would be her way to “use my own voice to point out what’s wrong [in Brazil],” she says referring to anti-gay violence, which is something she experiences every day: “I’m queer, effeminate, a non-white drag queen, and I always put myself out there in a country with the highest number of LGBT murders in the world.”
Groove has released four singles off her first album O Proceder (2017), and she’s already working on new material: Her latest single “Bumbum de Ouro” has reached the top of Spotify Brazil’s viral chart and the video has been watched over 5 million times on YouTube in three weeks.
“Every kid who’s different and non-hetero has experienced bullying in school,” says drag sister Lia Clark, who adds that she has also experienced it in her career. Clark’s first single “Trava Trava” quickly grabbed the second spot in Spotify’s viral chart when it came out in 2016, but the success of last year’s “Boquetáxi” was hindered by YouTube, when it classified the video as “restricted” within hours of its release. After receiving several complaints due to the video’s sexual nature, the streaming platform decided that it was too risqué for general viewing.
To Clark, the censorship was a clear display of homophobia. “If mine was blocked, then other videos should be blocked too,” she says referring to songs by cisgender hetero artists who also do Brazilian funk, a mixture of gangsta rap, electro-funk and regional rhythms known for its sexually explicit, misogynistic and homophobic lyrics.
The power of the Brazilian genderfuck performer goes beyond YouTube and music streaming services. Linn Da Quebrada is a transgender multimedia artist who does “experimental afro-funk” music, and who’s currently performing on a seven-city tour throughout Europe. Raised by a strict Jehovah’s Witness mother, she experienced anti-queer sentiment from a very young age, but her work helped her through it. Today she’s an important trans activist in Brazil who uses her “aesthetics as radical aesthetic experimentation” to promote dialogue through her music. “One of the great potentials of art is to create, using myself, my existence, my relationships.”
A documentary about her life entitled Bixa Travesty premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this month, and last year she was featured in another documentary, Meu Corpo é Político, which examines the trans experience as it follows the lives of four activists in São Paulo.
One Facebook fan defines Da Quebrada as a “gender terrorist, who uses her body as politics, and her life as art,” which she agrees with. As a trans woman of color, she suffers with transphobia and racism — especially when “I am not Linn da Quebrada, and just a dark-colored and perverted body.”
With their revolutionary work, camp sensibility and fierce drag aesthetic, this new generation of artists are using their unprecedented visibility to confront Brazil’s deep-rooted machismo. “We are making a tiny dent in the history of music in Brazil and that is really cool,” says Lovi. “[I want] our music to be a lot more revolutionary than what it is.”