On December 18th, the Brazilian singer Anitta set a record that went unnoticed in most of the English-speaking world. In just 12 hours, her brassy baile funk single “Vai Malandra” became the first Brazilian song ever to debut on Spotify’s Viral Global 50 chart. Soon there will be more: Baile funk, which Brazilians just call funk, is the latest strain of Latin American popular music zipping towards global ubiquity.
Eight songs by Brazilian artists appeared on YouTube’s Global Top 100 chart by mid-January, including two by Anitta, a pair by MC Kevinho, who single-handedly racked up 3.3 billion views on YouTube last year, and another by MC Fioti, whose “Bum Bum Tam Tam” single has more than half a billion views to date and seems likely to become the first Brazilian single to cross the one billion views threshold. Sandra Jimenez, head of Latin American music at YouTube and Google Play, calls 2017 “the year Brazilian talents broke the language barrier.” “Funk is really a phenomenon right now,” agrees Roberta Pate, Spotify’s Head of Artist & Label Services for LATAM & US Latin.
The funk phenomenon correlates closely with the overall rise of Latin American music in 2017, when listening grew 110% on Spotify (hip-hop grew 74%) and 45 of the Top 100 music videos on YouTube were made by Latin acts. The majority of those artists sang or rapped in Spanish, but the same factors that helped them reach a global audience — notably the increasingly heavy use of streaming services across Latin America — have also impacted Portuguese-speaking Brazil, which ranked third globally in total YouTube watch time, according to Jimenez, and is the biggest country in Latin America by a hefty margin.
At the same time as Latin America has flexed its streaming muscles, regional rap sub-genres from around the world — afrotrap from Paris, Latin trap centered in Puerto Rico, SoundCloud rap storming out of Florida — have built dedicated fanbases through streaming. These two trends collide in the elevation of baile funk. This music was once closely related to Miami bass, a high velocity, low-end-heavy strand of electro-rap. Baile funk thrived in Rio de Janeiro, and gradually the Miami bass signifiers in the music receded as they were intertwined and chopped up with samples from local music, especially Brazilian drum sounds, and rapping in Portuguese.
In recent years, the majority of the funk that’s exported from the country has come from São Paulo, and the genre’s sound has shifted once more: “It’s become really minimal, boiled down into this skeletal form,” says Uproot Andy, a DJ who co-founded the Latin dance parties Que Bajo?! in New York City. In the popular funk hits of the moment, there is usually just one melodic riff — a squiggly trill on horn, synth or guitar — joined with a light, highly syncopated drum pattern scooting at around 130 beats per minute. “It’s very hypnotic,” says Inigo Zabala, President of Warner Music Latin America & Iberia. (Warner signed MC Fioti and MC Lan last summer.) “This sound is attracting everybody,” he continues, “[because] simplicity is sometimes one of the most difficult things to achieve.”
The simplicity can become so extreme that funk MCs often rap parts of their songs a capella, letting their tongue-twisting rhyme patterns serve as both rhythm and melody. “Some of these new vocal approaches are to me the freshest thing in music,” adds Mike Caren, CEO of Artist Partner Group/Artist Publishing Group, who has been a fan of funk since he first went to Brazil in 2003.
YouTube channels play a crucial role in the dissemination of funk. Canal Kondzilla, established by Konrad Dantas, who directs many of the videos he posts, is one of the top 25 most-subscribed-to YouTube channels on the planet, with over 25 million subscribers (roughly as many as Ed Sheeran). Kondzilla helped launch both “Bum Bum Tam Tam” and MC Kevinho’s “Olha a Explosão” into global orbit. Another popular funk channel, GR6 Explode, also sports more than 10 million subscribers.
Like many viral American hip-hop singles, funk hits gain additional momentum through popular dance videos. “In 2014 and 2015, all the MC’s started associating choreographies with what they were saying in their songs,” says Branko, a Portuguese DJ who surveys global dance music on his monthly radio show Enchufada Na Zona. “With choreography comes a YouTube video, and with social media being as active as it is in Brazil, the dances spread like a virus.” Daniel Saboya, a Brazilian choreographer who posts video routines for hits like “Vai Malandra,” has over 9 million YouTube subscribers. That’s more than all but the biggest American artists.
Perhaps that’s why English-speaking acts are starting to take advantage of funk’s streaming potential. In December, Future appeared on a remix of “Bum Bum Tam Tam” and Maejor rapped on “Vai Malandra.” Paulo Lima, President of Universal Brasil, says the label is working on more collaborations for the first quarter of this year; so does Zabala. Tropkillaz, the production duo who helped craft “Vai Malandra,” have songs in the works with Aloe Blacc and Major Lazer.
This is the way music from other countries enters the U.S. mainstream today: A vital local scene streams its way onto the global charts, at which point English-language acts start looking to collaborate, escalating the music’s spread. YouTube’s Jimenez has seen this pattern before. “Now what happened with [the second wave of] reggaeton is happening with Brazilian music,” she says. “I was talking to Daddy Yankee the other day, and he said, ‘I have to go to Brazil.'”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of Billboard.