After clobbering brainless blondes, idly-rich playboy heirs, and even the presi-dent, Gabriel O Pensador is back in the ring pounding at the portals of our perception with his second recording Ainda É Só o Começo (Still It Is Only the Beginning). Tall and slim, with the beard of an adolescent and long curly hair that frames his angled features, O Pensador (The Thinker) appears older than his twenty-one years.
But there is something even more puzzling about Gabriel. Maybe it is the contradiction between his inoffensive, straightforward appearance and the tremendous thunder of the lyrics he composes. Maybe it is a combination of the naïveté of his appearance with the blitz of success that has come to him so early. Whatever it is, there is nothing perplexing about his message. I've just finished listening again to Gabriel's new disc and to three tracks in particular that have dramatically etched themselves into my memory: Estudo Errado (False Study), Mentiras do Brasil (Lies From Brazil), and Filho da Pátria IIudido ( Deceived Son of the Homeland) the poetic connotation being filho da puta (son-of-a bitch). Rap is the label for this rhythm and this poetry that is scorching my nerve endings and making me restless, and it's great!
In general, rappers do not play instruments but are expert manipulators of pre-recorded material. They create sound collages in what many consider a "supposed-art." Since its origin, rap has been connected to a type of indignant language discourse. Singing has always been an insignificant component of rap. What is important, are the words themselves, the lyrics, the message. Sometimes the words are too strong. Gangsta rap, for instance, talks about weapons, bitches (women), and the murder of oppressors. The lyrics in most Gangsta rap have, for many, reached their tired perimeter.
Like it or not, rap today is universal. It is well known in North America, all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. In the United States rapping over the same monochord tune has too often limited itself to addressing only a narrow sector of social problems, and is only now moving incrementally into new territory.
Even in Brazil's fledging rap scene, the group from Rio Ryo Radikal Repz sings "foda-se a polícia" (the police fuck themselves) in a tune that exploded like a homemade bomb on the TV program Por Acaso (By Chance). On the other hand, some less obvious mixes by groups like Chico Science & Nação Zumbi that have mixed the diction of rap with the style of the Northeastern repente, are remarkably innovative. In the Northeast of Brazil, poetic song duels called desafios, are occasions where two repentistas (singers in the desafio) improvise insulting or funny verses (repentes) in a strict form, attempting to break the other singer's concentration.
In Rio funk is more common than rap. But what is called funk in Rio is really a form of rap that came from Miami. It's perfect for dancing and has lyrics that usually contain a humorous double meaning but really not much of a message. This Rio funk is common at parties where people tend to drink a little too much and get into fights.
The rap of O Pensador is not related to this Rio type of funk. In fact, O Pensador has participated in public declarations against violence and writes lyrics that often contain criticisms of the practice, lyrics that strive to lessen the violence at Brazilian dances. Def Yuri, one of O Pensador's rapping collaborators on Ainda É Só o Começo, explained also that although they don't write gangsta rap, they do believe in a guerrilla army but in a way that is very different from those encountered in the 60s and 70s.
As people involved in Brazilian rap know, the genre still is very much off to the side, not a musical forerunner. It was fortunate for the rap scene in Brazil that Gabriel O Pensador was one artist who got to the top first and at the right time. After Gabriel broke ground, those who followed (mainly in São Paulo) received the recognition they warranted. Gabriel definitely helped to expand the market.
O Pensador feels that some rap music is opportunist and addresses only fleeting concerns and temporary distractions that will not be discussed tomorrow, yet some concepts like racial and social prejudice persist and always have. O Pensador is a natural within the rap medium, a trail blazer who has had the wherewithal to make Ainda É Só o Começo excel by diversifying textures and ideas within the strict meter of rap.
When the Carioca rapper blew up in the music parades all over Brazil with his condemnation of conservative middle class conventions, people thought that when the summer was over the whirlwind around the man who declared death to the president would have calmed down. But with the surprising sales of 320 thousand copies of his first recording, Gabriel O Pensador proved the opposite. Two years later he launched his latest recording, Ainda É Só o Começo, which will further provoke those who did not believe in his artistic longevity. For Gabriel it is too soon to rest. He still has lots more to say.
Even without the bombshell Tô Feliz Matei o Presidente (I'm Happy I killed the President), Gabriel's first release has made the strongest impact on Brazilian rap in the 90s thus far. Lôraburra (Dumb Blond), Retrato de um Playboy (Portrait of a Playboy), 175 Nada Especial (175 Nothing Special) were greeted as the best manifestations of intelligence from the almost invisible Brazilian rap scene. In Tô Feliz Matei o Presidente, Gabriel assassinates Fernando Collor, the president for whom his mother, Belisa Ribeiro, worked as a journalist.
The situation was explosive. While mother was working for the president, son was screaming out his hatred for Collor's regime. When Matei o Presidente was released, many journalists envied Gabriel's mother and tried to explore her position on the subject, as myriad rumors were spreading about her.
Gabriel is not ashamed that his mother worked for Collor. He doesn't feel that there was any crime in that. In fact, a short time before Matei o Presidente started being aired on the radio his mother fought publicly with Collor. She later left Brazil to live in the United States but has since returned to Brazil and is now living with Gabriel. Today the son of the famous journalist is more famous than his mother.
Gabriel has been writing since he was 16 years old. He started rapping when he was 17 or 18, at the time he recorded the music Tô Feliz, Matei o Presidente with a drum machine in eight channels. He took the finished tape to the RPC FM station in Rio. They liked it and asked to have exclusive access to the tape. The station played it for five days before it was censored. Gabriel started being interviewed and was offered contracts with two independent labels which he refused.
Tô Feliz was his biggest step in coming out from the unknown. He was very much an amateur at that time and had performed his first shows without contracts but continued to experiment until early 1993 when Sony signed him. In September Sony launched his first disc. Gabriel had no idea what was going to happen, but luckily the worst part was by then already over.
Gabriel's themes speak about violence, the church, and men who beat their wives and children. His work criticizes behavioral concepts that have become accepted patterns of adult behavior. For example, the playboy sons of upper middle- class Brazilian families who depend on their parents' money, probe for sex, and make no attempt to achieve anything on their own; and the "dumb blondes" attractive men or women who get through life simply by banking their appearance but who refuse to think critically about their behavior. Much of his work expresses ideas that people with integrity accept the axioms. Those who don't, many times are subconsciously attached to following these very patterns.
Most of the criticism O Pensador receives has little foundation. Even when it is couched in the objective of being constructive, it strives only to create controversy. Gabriel has a consciousness about his work; this stance has not changed. His work is intentionally aggressive and intended to trigger criticism, since that will make people become involved with the ideas. He cannot believe, for example, that the Catholic church is still condemning condoms. He is totally in favor of them and feels that condoms should be distributed for free to poor young people in Brazil who don't often use condoms because they don't have the money to buy them. And sex is one diversion the poor layers of society can enjoy chiefly because it is usually free.
While corruption exists and is easily identifiable, there will be no lack of subject matter for this torrential composer. In his previous work Gabriel opened fire criticizing racism, obligatory military service, and didn't stop to spare the impossible life-style of Brazil's homeless kids and the young girls who become prostitutes. This time the corrosive lyrics have transformed themselves into a detonating philosophical bomb.
His new targets are the Americanized youngsters of Brazil, Evangelical ministers, and the government's institutional system of education. Ainda É Só Começo powerfully criticizes, the police, politicians, abusive husbands, and religious fanatics. In Filho da Pátria Iludido he challenges a Brazilian who is so mentally crippled that he goes out on the streets of Rio wearing a shirt that looks like the flag of the United States. O Pensador knows that every story has more than one side, but with Ainda É Só o Começo he has chosen only the side that hits the hardest. Rhythm and poetry are again Gabriel's demolishing weapons in scrutinizing the truth.
The new recording employs samples (textures and phrases extracted from other songs) from the music of Bob Marley, Rita Lee, Gilberto Gil, Legião Urbana, Soundgarden, Azymuth, and Tom Tom Club to enrich the non-stop thrashing of the disc's themes. In Mentiras do Brasil (Lies from Brazil) Gabriel makes an insightful use of music from the opera O Guarani by Carlos Gomes integrated with the dazzling pandeiro work of Marcos Suzano. In keeping with the same voracious creativity that distinguished Gabriel's first project, Ainda É Só o Começo harbors the same incisive style of writing .
Some of the raps were created through improvisation. FDP, for example, was born one afternoon when Yuri was at Gabriel's house. They were just improvising with a few ideas and started singing the refrain "Filho da puta/Filho da puta/Filho da puta'" (Son of a Bitch/Son of a Bitch/Son of a Bitch) over a bass line. Other lyrics were created while Gabriel was driving his car or taking a shower. Notwithstanding, Ainda É Só o Começo is a prodigious work, especially when compared to the generation of rappers whose vocabulary is limited to anything that rhymes. The development of characters and unusual situations is one of the disc's strongest merits. The teacher calling roll in Estudo Errado transports the listener with an archetypal childhood memory.
With this second release, Sony has projected sales in the area of 500 thousand units. Production of the new disc was painstakingly thorough. It is a work of superior quality. An affinity between the technology and quality of material, that listeners find missing at times with other rap projects, forcefully comes through. However, Ainda É Só o Começo, did face some extra difficulties before entering the market. There were some serious problems with a few of the samples Gabriel wanted to use. Producer Fábio Fonseca assumed that everything was ready when they were prevented from using samples of Money by Pink Floyd, Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, and the theme song from the cartoon show The Jetsons. As a result, the arrangements that were using parts of this music were modified at the last minute. And unfortunately, the video Sony wanted to include with the first pressing didn't materialize due to time restraints.
Gabriel is comfortable and says that he is happy and secure about his work, that he only wants people to become more aware, more conscious. He is cognizant that young people are not informed, that they seldom read the papers, and in many cases are completely alienated. The lyrics in rap music many times are their only way of knowing about politics. But Gabriel is not only concerned with politics. What he wants is for people to think with their own heads, to pay attention to the concepts that were implanted early on in their behavior, and trust their intuition.
What captured Gabriel's attention and opened his eyes were the children who know and love his lyrics. When he realized that kids listen to his music, pay attention, and understand what they can, he was challenged, started weighing everything that was happening, and sensed that his work could be something very positive for these young people. This insight is reflected on the disc's cover photo which shows a happy baby wearing headphones presumably listening to what's inside.
O Pensador makes many criticisms of the police but lives and works around several types of policeman and pays attention to the differences that exist. He feels that everyone has to be careful and avoid making judgments, know how to express criticism, and have the perception to not exaggerate. These are concerns that Gabriel analyzes closely. For O Pensador, it is not a question of thinking lightly about criticism to criticize lightly is pointless but to think twice before condemning. After all, empty headed people may also be victims. He wants people to wake up to reality. Although his work is aggressive, he is cognizant that his criticisms are necessary and that his work will stimulate ideas.
Sculptor Auguste Rodin's private vision of the trials and torments of human existence, The Gates of Hell, is a panoramic statement of his own belief that hell is suffered not only by the dead, but by the living; that it is a bleak realm of false goals, lost dreams and unrealized passions. Man with his pride and hopes, strives for fulfillment only to meet his certain fate disillusionment and ultimate destruction. Brooding over the Gates is Rodin's famous paradox, The Thinker. Representing man's ability to reason and to create, The Thinker sits as if in judgment of his fellow men and himself. On the back cover of Ainda É Só Começo, Gabriel dares you to take up the headphones, while brooding like a guardian angel over his right shoulder is an illustration of Rodin's The Thinker sporting the rappers' backward baseball cap a metaphor not lost to the listener.
The idea of O Pensador, the rapper, is a little controversial. He is always asked how he can rap and still be from the middle class. The fact is that Gabriel has never paid much attention to social class. He has always had both rich and poor friends and always invites the most humble people to his parties. When he was living in São Conrado he knew many people from the Rocinha favela. On his fourteenth birthday, a group of friends from Rocinha came to his party, though intimidation almost turned them away at the door. Gabriel has also known people who have lived in posh condominiums, but most of his friends are from the poor areas of Rio.
The 21 year old philosopher says he recognizes who his friends are. They are those who like rap, those who like funk, those who like pagode, the people on the beach, the people in the slums, the people from Rio's South Zone, and the people from the North Zone. He feels that Rio is very mixed up and that it doesn't matter what area, north or south, people come from. O Pensador is aware that is impossible to establish social divisions in Rio, a tropical Babel that brings together the rich and the poor. To Gabriel it all depends on the uniting element. When everyone was cheering for Brazil in the World Cup they all had the same agenda. When listening to music it is the same.
People per se don't irritate Gabriel by being themselves. What irritates him are the pretentious people who intervene in others' lives and those people who need to show off. What he criticizes in his music are empty, futile people. He perceives that many people have little respect for the experience of older people, and he is against anything that alienates and leaves a person dependent, tied up. He believes that the church and TV can be considered drugs.
It is very easy for Gabriel to express his values and to pass on his message. He composes rapidly. He lives and breaths his poetry. Once the basic music tracks are recorded, he can come back the following day with the lyrics. His poetry is not in any way sentimental. On the contrary, it is aggressive, annihilating, and always has a conscientious message that brings a social or political awareness to the listener. The message functions as an escape valve for those who are oppressed by social conventions. His lyrics are extremely long chronicles of a young man who wants a different world. They do not offer help to endure the pressure of today's world like the books by Paulo Coelho; they offer words to be screamed by a crowd.
He approaches themes that reach many people. It is very easy for listeners to identify with his music. Gabriel suspects that music was what gave him his personality, principally the music of Bob Marley. Today he is nourished by rap. The more he leans on the vehicle of rap music, the more he gets from it and the more motivated he gets. He feels that he is still opening his first doors of perception.
He prefers that people not assume he is a singer. On the track Como um Vício (Like a Vice) from the new disc, Gabriel yells, "I don't sing well. I'm not a singer. I'm a composer." Once at a show in Salvador where Julian Marley (son of Bob Marley) was also performing Gabriel decided to show reverence and sing "No Woman No Cry." It was so scary that the musicians, embarrassed by his singing, tried to hide behind their instruments. Gabriel said that it was hilarious.
In the future O Pensador would like to write for a different medium, but not for the papers, something more free, maybe a book. He doesn't know. He finds that now he is limited by the meter of rap. He has always wanted to write but is now confined by a style of writing that must fit a rigid meter. He notes that before he writes for a different medium he will need to read a lot more and hasn't had much time to read.
O Pensador did enjoy reading Nélson Rodrigues, the sports writer, author, playwright, journalist, and innovator of a type of theater in which different scenes of action take place on various raised platforms at the same time. Rodrigues was also responsible for creating a scandal in the 60s with some themes he wrote about in O Beijo no Asfalto (A Kiss on the Asphalt). The play was on the surface about a man who had an accident on the street and survived by receiving artificial respiration. The underground theme, however, was homosexuality. O Beijo no Asfalto created a tremendous controversy at the time.
In another line from Como um Vício Gabriel says, "Pay attention to what I say. Keep that. Hip hop enters through your ears and goes to your head." Gabriel confesses in the tune that he is involved to his bones. He cannot go out. He is already addicted, passionately in love, and dependent on the thoughts that feed his mind and that push him further every day, and asks himself where he would be if it were not this way.
Era uma vez duas criacinhas Um mundo do faz de conta era onde elas viviam Seus nomes eram José e Maria E verde e amarela era a bandeira que vestiam Queriam viver com felicidade mas pra isso era preciso saber sempre a verdade Os adultos hipócritas provocavam sua ira Pois quem é puro não gosta de conviver com a mentira Mas Zizinho e Maria eram puros porém sabidos Deixavam tapados um dos lados dos seus ouvidos Pra não entrar pro aqui e sair por ali O que escutavam e achavam importante refletir E na TV as estórias que os adultos contavam Eles gostavam de ver Mas nem sempre acreditavam Se revoltavam vendo coisas que até cego já viu E resolveram fazer um lista com As maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) As maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) E uma mentira absurda encabeçava o rol: Deus é brasileiro... (Só se for no futebol!) Certas frases conhecidas são mentiras e ninguém nega (Por exemplo?) "A justiça é cega!" Quem prega isso é canalha (psh! Não espalha) Porque aqui a justiça tarda... E falha! E o Zezinho gargalha com outra mentira boçal (qual?) "O brasileiro é cordial" aha! Mas que gracinha, imagina se não fosse! Se o brasileiro é amável, Adolf Hitler é um doce Porque a lei de Gérson é nosso Evangelho Todos querem se dar bem e não se repeita nem os velhos Dizem também que o pobre é malandro Mas o povão tá só ralando e quem tá armando são os grandes empresários e empreiteiros Mas até hoje só prenderam o PC e os bicheiros No país da impunidade tudo é contraditório Deixam o resto em liberdade em troca de um simples bode expiatório Que situação patética É real ou ilusório o processo restauração da ética? Será que é boato? Zezinho e Maria perguntavam E enquanto isso anotavam As maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) As maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) Mentira tem perna curta e se desmente facilmente Zezinho estava em frente a uma loura linda e inteligente E tem gente que diz que toda mulher bonita é burra Quem acredita merece uma surra Dizem que o bebê vem da cegonha E que cresce pêlo na mão se bater uma bronha Mas o pequeno Zé não acreditava E se crescesse ele raspava A lista de mentiras aumentava: Comunista come criancinha, Aids é doença de gay. "Mentira!" (seu comunista, bota camisinha!) Mariazinha ficou mocinha e descobriu que era caô Que só exisitia sexo com amor Aprendeu a falar inglês e viu que não é só filme brasileiro que tem muito palavrão Pois foi no cinema e ouviu tudo que eles cortam na legenda e na dublagem da televisão Queriam as verdades sem cortes Queriam liberdade Queriam independência ou morte Perguntaram ao fantasma de Cabral a história real entre Brasil e Portugual: "Não foi sem querer que descobrimos vosso país Nós portugueses não somos burros como se diz!" Outra piada que não era nada séria era que a seca do Nordeste era a culpada da miséria Desculpa esfarrapada puro blá, blá, blá,... Pois se os políticos quisessem eles faziam o sertão virar mar! Tem também a lenda eterna da falta de verbas As moscas mudam mas é sempre a mesma... E a lista continua sem parar Com mentiras que o Pinóquio teria vergonha de contar As maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) As maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) Diziam que o Brasil era o país do futuro Mas eles viram que o melhor era viver o presente Zezinho e Maria decidiram mostrar pra todo mundo que é mentira que o Brasil não vai pra frente! Eram crianças Tinham muita esperança Mas não queriam esperar pois quem espera nunca alcança Acharam nojento todo aquele fingimento E começaram a ficar violentos (O brasileiro tá cansado de ser enganado Daqui pra frente os mentirosos serão enforcados) E começaram assim uma revolução Controlaram todos os meios de comunicação E revelaram sua lista com as milhões de mentiras Que atrasavam a ordem e o progresso da nação Só tinham uma saída pro país Acabar com as mentiras pela raiz E como toda revolução deixa cicatriz O sangue jorrou feito um chafariz Foi uma vitória do povo e no final da conquista Zezinho e Maria puseram fogo na lista das maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) As maiores mentiras do Brasil Vocês e suas mentiras vão pra... (primeiro de abril!) E ao voltarem pra casa encontraram seu pai emocionado por tudo que eles tinham aprontado Uma nova era tinha começado e não era à toa que os olhos do coroa estavam encharcados Uma lágrima desceu e Zezinho percebeu que descobria mais uma mentira nessa hora...Homem também chora.