Red Bull Music Festival São Paulo is one of the brand’s most popular events and this year brought in performances from global stars such as Avalon Emerson and Lorenzo Senni, placing them alongside vibrant local talent. As the country’s politics shift into fascism, John Twells examines the cultural resistance.

The first I heard of the current political situation in Brazil, I was on the way to Uganda to cover Nyege Nyege 2018. My cab driver had grown up in Brazil and relished going into detail about the imminent election. “It’s a shitty situation,” he told me plainly but urgently. “The country isn’t doing so well, and we have our own Trump.”

He wasn’t wrong. A few weeks later, retired military officer Jair Bolsonaro – a populist right wing gargoyle running on a “family values” platform – took 55.13% of the popular vote. He’ll be elected on January 1 and has, unsurprisingly, promised to eliminate corruption while taking steps to surround himself with compromised cronies. Sound familiar? In October, Bolsonaro told his supporters, “We want a Brazil that is similar to the one we had 40, 50 years ago.” That would take the country back to 1978-1988; Brazil was under military dictatorship from 1964 until 1985.

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018 review
São Paulo downtownPhotography by: John Twells

The Brazilian economy collapsed back in 2016 and the murder rate is alarmingly high; Bolsonaro will take the reigns of a country in crisis, but his solution to these issues is familiar and chilling. He has, like Donald Trump, stoked support from angry, repressed evangelical Christians, but that doesn’t resolve the narrative. The Social Liberal Party leader has spent years espousing his tone-deaf views on homosexuality, secularism and abortion and, despite his history of overt racism and colorism, enjoys the support of a large number non-white Brazilians. The country’s economic situation does not accurately explain the predicament: it’s about power, tradition and gender.

This was running through my mind when I was offered the chance to attend this year’s Red Bull Music Festival in São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city. I was hesitant at first, but felt motivated to talk to the local artists and promoters tasked with opposing this shifting reality. I wondered what it would mean to a city with such a vibrant, queer electronic music scene to have its existence targeted even more openly. In a recently-released Red Bull-produced documentary about local queer party outfit Batekoo, we’re informed that every 19 hours, a member of the country’s queer community is murdered; Brazil is already the most dangerous country in the world for queer people and Jair Bolsonaro hasn’t taken office yet.

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018 review
Selvagem at Red Bull StationPhotography by: John Twells

I landed in São Paulo on Thursday and headed straight to Red Bull Station, a converted 1920s power plant that sits at the heart of the city and serves as a sort of community center for locals and visiting artists. The first show I saw was low-key – a 12-hour live broadcast from Brazilian DJs and promoters Selvagem, aka Millos Kaiser and Augusto Olivani – but a necessary soft start, coaxing me slowly into São Paulo’s very specific rhythm. When I returned to the building the next day, I was introduced to Batekoo’s Maurício Sacramento, Wesley Miranda, Artur Santoro and Juju “Jujuzl” Andrade.

Sacramento was quick to explain his reasoning behind kicking off the series of parties. “[Wesley and I are] from El Savador and used to go to LGBT parties, and it wasn’t that safe,” he explained. “There were a lot of white people still, so that’s why we needed a new space.”

“In Batekoo we tried to make a more inclusive space,” cut in Miranda. “Not only for LGBT but for girls and black people too. I think it’s the unique thing about Batekoo. We can include a lot of people in a safe space.”

The group quickly focused in on something that’s often forgotten about clubs: price. Safety is crucial but it’s not the only concern; to make a party truly accessible, it has to be affordable to those you’re trying to provide access for. “Two years ago, we made parties in clubs,” said Miranda ruefully. “There, they’ve already made the prices, for the drinks, the door. Today, we don’t do parties in clubs any more, we use car parks, warehouses or empty spaces.”

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018 review
Batekoo’s Maurício Sacramento and Wesley MirandaPhotography by: Felipe Gabriel for Red Bull

“Now we can produce the party from the beginning,” added Santoro. “So we can put the price we think is fair for the entrance. And for a long neck beer that normally costs 10 Reals, at Batekoo it costs 5 Reals. It’s half as much as the clubs.”

Batekoo have thought about this deeply; they are their own audience, replying to a very real community need and doing right by their friends and family. In this respect, allying with commercial brands, who have their own capitalist interests, hasn’t been an easy choice to make. The group put together their first branded event three years ago and hit a stumbling block when one of their artists stopped the music in the middle of the party to make a political statement.

“The producer of the event said: ‘less politics, more party’,” recalled Santoro with an eye roll. “If you hire Batekoo for a party, you ain’t getting anything less. People need to know what we are. It’s like school for people. In Brazil, black history is an invisible thing. In school we learn that the black community in Brazil are slaves, and after that they don’t exist any more.”

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018
São Paulo downtownPhotography by: John Twells

Now, Batekoo are extremely particular about who they work with. They know their message needs amplification, but are unwilling to compromise even slightly. Red Bull, to my surprise, has allowed Batekoo to control their own narrative. “The Batekoo documentary is the first historical document of what we do here in Brazil,” said Santoro soberly.”It’s a very big thing because it’s a milestone for black Brazilian youth,” replied Miranda. “Because it didn’t happen a few years ago, it was a very different country with Brazilian funk music. They didn’t focus on the LGBT speech or agenda.” Miranda is referencing the global success of funk carioca, or “baile funk”, that soared in popularly in the early 2000s. While the music had emerged from the Afro-Brazilian community, these origins were erased as the music was co-opted by Americans and Europeans and sold off to global franchises.

Afterwards, I headed to Fabriketa – a semi-covered labyrinth of stalls and warehouse rooms – to join in a celebration of Pedro Santos’s legendary album Krishnanda, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Santos died 25 years ago, but the album has grown in popularity since and was performed in its entirety by Lúcio Maia, Mauricio Fleury and friends. By this point in the night though, the rain was biblical, tumbling down with such intensity it felt like a running faucet. Since the venue was partly open-air, ponchos were handed out at the door. This might have been unusual weather for me (despite years spent living in soggy Manchester) but for São Paulo it was simply Friday. Thankfully, it didn’t compromise the event at all – the music was joyful and ecstatic and was adored by the dedicated, damp audience – but I wondered how the next evening’s busier club event would fare in similar conditions.

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018
FabriketaPhotography by: John Twells

The next day, I investigated the city a little more. Home to over 12 million people, São Paulo has plenty for tourists, from galleries and monuments to shopping and dining, and I was staying close to two malls I’d been meaning to investigate: Galeria do Rock, a rock ‘n roll-themed mall established back in 1963, and Shopping Frei Caneca, a shopping center tailored to the needs of the queer community. The first thing I noticed about both spaces was that they primarily hinged around safety. Shopping Frei Caneca, most obviously, provided a place where queer people could go about their day-to-day lives without being targeted or victimized, even subtly. Galeria do Rock had been modernized, dragged into an era of cynical globalism where ’90s goth fashion, Rick and Morty merch and SUPREME knockoffs are all part of one vague “identity”, but there was still the sense that at some stage this had been a vital hub for outsiders.

That night was the main event for Red Bull São Paulo. Entitled “Zonas Limiares”, it brought together vital local DJs and producers and presented them alongside starry international names like Avalon Emerson and Lorenzo Senni. This was a smart move on Red Bull’s part and, thankfully, rain didn’t wash all those plans down the drain. Badsista was the first act I caught and was the highlight of my night. It’s hard to stress how intuitive and how brave a DJ she is: this isn’t lazy club spinning with thoughtless transitions and eclecticism as a replacement for actual thought. Badsista knows how to party; she read the room intuitively and gave her mostly queer audience not what they wanted, but what they needed. Tempos would shift radically every few tracks, genre was completely, utterly fluid and the energy in the room was unsurpassed for the rest of the night.

“When you’re listening to my set you don’t have time to think, you just have time to feel,” she laughed when I caught up with her after the set. “I give you the break to feel, and get a rest with your legs, then we come back. It’s like a trip with Badsista, a musical trip.”

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018 review
Badsista at Zonas LimiaresPhotography by: Felipe Gabriel for Red Bull

She’s a regular fixture on the São Paulo scene, performing so frequently that she can barely contain herself. “Yesterday I played three parties,” she gasped exhaustedly. “There’s a lot of things happening here in São Paulo, people like me from the poor neighborhoods and LGBT people, thanks to technology and through this kind of music or through the other parties or through YouTube or SoundCloud just like me, we started to do parties to listen to what we like to hear, and to dance to what we like to dance to.”

As our conversation touched on the country’s recent political shift, she reacted quickly and passionately. “If we don’t get together, if we don’t enjoy each other, I don’t know, maybe I would feel lonely and sad,” she explained. “So we have to get together, especially in times like this in Brazil. We don’t have time to get sad. We’re fighting for our lives, for our right to live.”

Back on the dancefloor, local legends Cashu, the co-founder of Mamba Negra, and Amanda Mussi of Dûsk impressed with a startlingly diverse set of angular, bass-heavy club music, drawing influence from across the globe. They’re experienced DJs who play constantly but they save their duo performances as Lorac Issum for special occasions. “We feel like Red Bull is to experiment and do weird stuff,” said Mussi when we met after the set. “It’s a super good and big thing for me to be part of this,” added Cashu. “And especially as local artists because we’ve been doing so much here, it’s really special that they have us and we’re not playing what we normally play – we had a lot of freedom. It was more like a show than a DJ set.”

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018 review
Lorac Issum at Zonas LimiaresPhotography by: Felipe Gabriel for Red Bull

Both artists stressed to me how important the festival was for São Paulo’s next generation of creatives. Eighteen-year-old Benjamin Sallum was the festival’s youngest performer and, incredibly, has been involved in the local scene since he was 12. “That’s pretty young,” he giggled, recounting his short life story with enviable ease. “It was my mom’s world, because she was running her own party at the time. I was DJing in my room but just in my home, but I was doing tattoos with my mate. There were squat parties and I didn’t know how to tattoo but that was the thing – really cheap tattoos that you could even make yourself – stick and poke. I started DJing and Cashu helped me a lot with how to search music and her boyfriend at the time taught me how to produce.”

The rest of the night’s music was expressive and the crowd was deliriously responsive, lapping up great sets from FACT favorites like Avalon Emerson, Hieroglyphic Being, Rezzett and Lorenzo Senni, but the evening’s stars were rooted in São Paulo and it was clear what the local community prioritized.

Red Bull’s events subsided once the sun rose over Fabriketa, but I had made the decision to stick around in São Paulo for a little longer in an attempt to see more of the city while I had the opportunity. On Sunday, I dusted myself off and headed to an anonymous apartment space (our cab driver had no idea how to find it, which set the tone of the evening well) to check out an event from local party promoters Tormenta. It was important for me to see how São Paulo parties outside of a branded event, and my answer came swiftly. Planet Mu’s Bonaventure was headlining alongside performances from Bala Club’s Uli K and Tormenta’s own Pininga and the atmosphere was warm and familiar. This wasn’t a space led by drinks sales, branding or awkward idol worship, it was a group of motivated outsiders, responding to their persecution with surreal, hedonistic self-expression.

Red Bull Sao Paulo 2018 review
Bonaventure at TormentaPhotography by: John Twells

It didn’t matter that the event was somewhat ramshackle; the live-streamed performance from Uli K cut out multiple times, but the technical issues had no impact on our enjoyment of the event. When Bonaventure performed, the room buzzed with life and the mood held for the rest of the evening, through a transformative set from Pininga that was notable for not only its bravery but its spiky sense of humor. When I spoke to Badsista earlier that weekend, she credited Pininga with giving her the confidence to take more risks in her sets and to break down the stuffy boundaries that hobble so many DJs. It was obvious seeing this event just how crucial and how influential Tormenta is to its community of explorative, often queer creatives.

“Many people were on Facebook after Bolsonaro won the elections like, ‘what do we do now?’,” Batekoo’s Artur Santoro told me earlier in the week. “The only steps we can take is forward, and we’re creating ways to preserve this world we’ve created. Being verbally assaulted in the street is part of my daily life, so it’s going to get worse. But we already know how to resist – we need to show the conservatives now our resistance. People are looking to us to create safe spaces and in the next year, that’s the most important thing we have to do.”

John Twells is FACT’s Executive Editor and is on Twitter.

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