Anitta’s Global Vision: A Trilingual Takeover
The Brazilian pop star had to create her own blueprint for international success — and is out to prove that for her, "there's no 'impossible.' "
Indio, Calif., and Rio de Janeiro are nearly 7,000 miles apart. Indio is a desert, and Rio a tropical beach paradise; Rio a bustling metropolis of nearly 7 million people, and Indio, for most of the year, a sleepy small town. But in mid-April, the disparate locales somehow became one when Anitta turned Coachella into a Brazilian Carnival.
Sérgio Mendes’ classic samba “Mas Que Nada” played over the speakers; then, as it transitioned into her own “Onda Diferente,” the 29-year-old rode a motorcycle onto the main stage, wearing a spangled and feathered Roberto Cavalli ensemble in yellow, green and blue, the colors of the Brazilian flag. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, her eye-popping show — a master class in twerking, with funk battle, samba and capoeira segments — transported the audience to the working-class Honório Gurgel neighborhood in which she grew up. Anitta’s message was clear: You can take the girl out of Rio — and bring her all the way to Indio — but you can’t take the Rio out of the girl.
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Three days before that history-making performance — the first-ever by a Brazilian artist on the festival’s main stage — Anitta is taking a break from rehearsal, looking far more low-key in loose pants, a crop top and an oversize jacket paired with sneakers. But the momentousness of the upcoming show (where her guest performers included Snoop Dogg, Saweetie and Diplo) is on her mind. “I will always need to carry my culture,” she says. “I could never just go to another market and do whatever. What would be the purpose: Fame? Money? I already had that, and that’s not the point for me.”
Since launching her career in 2010 with local hits like “Meiga e Abusada,” “Vai Malandra” and “Show Das Poderosas” — songs that fused Brazilian funk’s hip-hop beats with pop melodies — Anitta has become the biggest star in recent memory to emerge from Brazil and have major crossover success. That feat required both sheer force of will and industry savvy that she mostly learned on her own. Over the past seven years, with the help of her older brother, Renan (with whom she co-manages her career in Brazil under the joint company Rodamoinho), Anitta strategically built a foundation for achieving stardom outside her home country, spending an increasing amount of time in the United States (mostly Los Angeles and Miami) and collaborating with more mainstream artists and producers, including Ryan Tedder, Becky G, Prince Royce and Snoop on her 2019 album Kisses.
“Being an international artist is not only about being famous wherever you go, because the world is so big,” Anitta says. “It’s about being able to impact culturally different areas at the same time.” But achieving that would present unique challenges — and come at a cost. As she spent more time outside Brazil, Anitta had to pass on the kinds of brand deals and touring opportunities that could affect her music’s popularity at home. And history wasn’t on her side: Only a handful of big stars from Brazil have ever found lasting fame outside its borders.
That’s partly because Portuguese is the primary language spoken there, not the much more widespread Spanish. But in recent years, the country’s most popular stars simply haven’t needed to go elsewhere to find sustainable success. The Brazilian recorded-music market is the 11th largest in the world and, if not for the pandemic’s effects, would likely be even bigger (In 2017, it reached a height of No. 9.) It has grown for six years in a row, by 32% in 2021 alone (according to Pro-Música Brasil, the country’s recorded-music trade association and IPFI affiliate) to 2.111 billion reais ($451 million). Streaming, which represents 85.6% of the Brazilian music market, grew by 34.6% in 2021 to 1.806 billion reais ($386 million).
“We see many great Brazilian artists today who can’t achieve Anitta’s success because they are very attached to Brazil,” says Cris Falcão, managing director of Ingrooves in Brazil, adding that consumption in the country is nearly 80% Brazilian music. “Looking at the last 20 years, I don’t see anybody that has done what Anitta has done.” (Likewise, it’s still rare for non-Brazilian acts to take advantage of the market’s potential: “For artists to go in there, it has to be a relevant collaboration with a Brazilian artist,” says Falcão. “There is opportunity, but the strategy has to be well thought out.”)
Anitta vividly remembers how her brother responded when, back in 2015, she first told him she wanted to “go international”: “ ‘Why? You will need to start from the bottom and do the sh-t you were doing six years ago. You don’t even have the energy anymore.’ And I told him that’s what I wanted, although I was really scared,” she confesses. “It meant I would abandon everything I had done. I knew that if I failed, everyone in my country would laugh at me. That’s what happens to everyone who tries and fails. I didn’t want to become a joke. I wanted it to happen for real.”
She didn’t have much of a blueprint to follow. In the 1970s, tropicália pioneer Caetano Veloso and balladeer Roberto Carlos managed to find audiences in Latin America and Europe. But more contemporary artists from the country have found the global spotlight short-lived: Alexandre Pires scored six top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart in the early 2000s, and Michel Teló’s anthem “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” (an exemplar of sertanejo, Brazil’s country music) ruled Hot Latin Songs for 10 weeks in 2012, but neither artist has achieved that kind of success outside Brazil since.
“Many executives at labels told me that it was impossible to have an international career as a Brazilian, and they weren’t being mean — they just had never seen anyone do it recently,” Anitta says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know, there’s no “impossible” for me.’ I understood that you had to risk your whole career and you got to have balls to keep insisting. It isn’t easy or quick, especially when you’re already used to being treated as a star in a country and then you go to another market and you’re treated as a nobody.”
Now, Anitta is aiming to prove those early naysayers wrong once and for all. Her new album, Versions of Me — released in mid-April with the power of three different divisions of Warner Music Group behind it — is her strongest case yet for herself as a chameleonic artist with global reach: It’s trilingual, recorded mostly in English with a few songs in Spanish and one in Portuguese. The album has earned 111.7 million on-demand song streams in the United States, according to Luminate, formerly MRC Data. And though it has yet to enter the Billboard album charts, its third single, “Envolver,” has exploded — four months after its release — thanks to its steamy music video and equally suggestive choreography. In March, it reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Global Excl. U.S. chart and on Spotify’s Global list, making Anitta the first Brazilian artist to achieve either feat; the video, which she directed, claimed the top spot on YouTube’s Global Top Music Videos chart.
Her drive and I’ll-show-you attitude got Anitta this far — and judging by the thousands of fans at Coachella waving Brazilian flags, listening raptly to her speaking in Portuguese and singing along to every word of her funk carioca anthems, she may have cracked the code that has eluded her countrymen for so long. “That’s what I admire about Anitta, her perseverance and her focus,” says Brazilian-American artist Bebel Gilberto (the daughter of bossa nova legend João Gilberto), who had a taste of international success with her album Tanto Tempo in 2000. “What I was trying to do was basically maintain myself — completely different than ‘I want to be No. 1.’ But I don’t think it is fair to her to compare her to anyone else, because whatever she did, she was the only one who did it. Especially because she came from nowhere.”
Anitta wasn’t going to wait around for the world to come to her. Seven years ago, she boarded a plane to Mexico and, upon landing, asked a taxi driver to take her to “a rich people’s club.” To her surprise, she didn’t hear reggaetón, the genre she had been told at the time was the hottest in the Latin market. “I got another taxi and told him, ‘I want to go to the cheapest club here, where the poor people go,’ ” Anitta recalls. “He looked at me confused, but that’s where I saw people perreando, and I was like, ‘OK.’ ” She took notes, Shazaming each track that played, writing down the titles that got people “crazy and dancing.”
Next, she headed to Los Angeles, in search of people who could help her figure out how to make songs that would have a similar effect far and wide. WME agent Rob Markus, whom she had met at an event in Brazil, helped set up meetings for her with different managers. “Some people were nice, some weren’t,” she recalls with a shrug. “It was a mess, and I realized I would need to do things on my own.” By then, she was performing in Brazil on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then flying to L.A. on Monday to network Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — all while taking phonetic classes. She had learned English at age 10 but quickly realized that an international career would require perfecting it. “The more accent I had,” she recalls, “the less people respected me during the meetings.”
Her networking paid off. In 2017, she signed a management deal with Shots Studio heads John and Sam Shahidi and began collaborating with everyone from J Balvin to Rita Ora, Alesso and Ozuna. But growing her international presence meant she was less present — and less popular — back home. From 2013 to 2017, Anitta had averaged over 100 shows a year in Brazil; for her 2019 Kisses world tour, she did only about one-third as many. Last year, Anitta’s highest-charting songs in Brazil ranked at No. 169 (“Girl From Rio”) and No. 177 (“Me Gusta”) on Pro-Música’s Streaming Top 200, which was dominated by local genres, in particular sertanejo.
“When you’re out of the market, people start wondering where you are,” says Anitta. “I was used to being No. 1 [in Brazil] every single time, and I knew that as soon as I would leave the country for half of the year, I couldn’t make No. 1 again. I would lose exposure and money because I needed to cancel concerts back home. I knew it was a moment of going down a bit so I could eventually go up again.”
Search for the “Envolver” sound on TikTok, and you’ll get over 2 million videos: people bending over, executing a slow-motion pushup, gyrating their hips while holding a plank position — or at least somewhat awkwardly trying to. If you don’t have Anitta’s flexibility, or her upper-body strength, or her talent for eye-popping muscle isolations, this isn’t the dance for you.
The song soundtracking the challenge, however, jibed with a far bigger audience. It certainly wasn’t the first reggaetón-leaning track Anitta had released, but after four years of the grind, it was the right one at the right time: In March, “Envolver” became the first song by a Brazilian act to enter the top 10 on Spotify’s Global chart and subsequently hit No. 1 in Brazil. “Finally, everything got well-oiled,” says Hector Rivera, Warner Music Latina senior vp and head of A&R for Latin music.
In 2019, Anitta had signed with a new manager, Brandon Silverstein, and his S10 Entertainment for a worldwide deal. Their initial conversations, Silverstein recalls, were about “trying to figure out how to bring together everything that is authentic to Anitta: Brazil, her personality and the music she loves,” he says. “She believed in ‘Envolver.’ There’s that side of her where she has a good gut instinct — she knows what she wants.”
Anitta knew immediately that she wanted to sign with Silverstein: The day they met, “I thought, ‘This guy is young, hungry and beginning his career, too.’ He had the same energy I had.” But before officially bringing him onboard, she required him to pass a somewhat unconventional, yet very Anitta kind of test. “He had only seen my business side,” she continues. “So, I started to talk about my crazy things, like sex, going to a strip club or getting drunk and throwing up, talking about poop to see how he’d react. There’s a side of me that’s very serious, but there’s another side of me that’s just crazy and he needed to see it. He was just laughing, and I told my brother, ‘That’s the guy.’ ”
Their first priority as new partners was to renegotiate her label deal — she had previously only been signed to Warner Music Brazil — to also include a deal with Warner Records and Warner Latina. “My main purpose was to get the push and the team for her to make sure there’s a global focus,” Silverstein says. Earlier this year, Anitta left WME and signed with UTA for worldwide representation. And in the wake of the TikTok-driven success of “Envolver,” her team is doubling down on the platform’s potential to push the rest of the songs on Versions of Me. “We’ve single-handedly built her platform so that we can market the album’s songs there,” says Silverstein. “We flew in the biggest TikTok creators from around the world to create content with Anitta that you’ll see roll out on her page” — where, he adds, she has gained 8 million new followers over the past four months.
And as her audience grows so too, her team plans, will the size of the stages she’s playing. “Anitta is already on her way to the next level, where the world will see much more of her on headline and festival stages across the United States, Europe, the rest of Latin America and beyond,” says Jbeau Lewis, her agent at UTA. Marcos “Marquinhos” Araújo, owner of Brazil festival company Villa Mix, predicts her profile will soon change at home, too: “In six months to a year, she will come here to Brazil and on her own draw 40,000 people. She will fill a stadium in two years if she continues this growth trajectory.”
On the cover of Versions of Me, six different photos of Anitta appear — including older ones taken, she says, before her now well-known plastic surgeries. “It sends a message about not being embarrassed of your past or mistakes,” Anitta continues. “If you didn’t like who you were before, it’s OK to change.” That kind of candor is, says Brazilian music journalist Kamille Viola, the reason why Anitta’s fan base in the country remains strong. “Here is this singer who has made decisions for herself in her career. She has autonomy,” says Viola. “I think it represents many desires and contradictions of women in Brazil today.”
That was, Anitta says, always the point — to “open doors for other people. For them to believe it’s possible, they need to see that someone did it first,” she says. “I want to be able to make a difference in other sh-t, not only in music. It’s about how women will be treated in their jobs, about how society will act, how they will vote.”
Throughout the pandemic, Anitta immersed herself in a research project quite different from the one that enabled her entry into the music industry years ago: She decided to learn more about Brazil’s politics, asking her friend Gabriela Prioli, a criminal lawyer and political commentator, to broadcast political education classes on Instagram to her 60 million-plus followers. Prioli recounted the history of Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship (which ruled until 1985), the global history of fascism and the country’s laws relating to indigenous peoples, among other topics; both women have urged young Brazilians to vote their country’s far-right ruler, President Jair Bolsonaro, out of office in the coming October elections.
As much as her music, that has made Anitta feel more present in Brazil than ever. “She is so attentive to everything that goes on here that it looks like she lives here,” says Paulo Junqueiro, president of Sony Music Brazil. And through her own management company, she has invested in the next generation of Brazilian music stars, mentoring emerging local acts — like singer Juliette, one of her signees — who could, someday, maybe become the next Anittas. “The legacy that she’s leaving for Brazilians is big, especially for pop artists that want to have an international career,” says her brother and business partner, Renan. “To know that we’re helping others cross this line is really important for us.”
At first, Anitta planned to call her new album Girl From Rio, after one of its tracks. But “I like being a different person every day,” she says. “Today I’ll be romantic, tomorrow I’ll be nerdy, tomorrow I’ll be sad. That’s what I think it is to be Anitta: to be limitless.”
Additional reporting by Alexei Barrionuevo and Beatriz Miranda.
This story originally appeared in the May 14, 2022, issue of Billboard.