“The end is where we start from.” Modernist poet T.S Eliot’s quote is perfectly fit to explain Brazilian rapper Criolo’s rebirth on music. Born Kleber Gomes in Grajaú, a favela in São Paulo, his stardom came when the musician was about to give up the mic. The 40-year-old had struggled for 20 years on the grassroots of his hometown hip-hop scene when, in 2011, the album Nó Na Orelha (Knot in the Ear) was announced as his second and retiring solo. At that time, Criolo was known as one of the pioneers of Rinha dos MC’s, a freestyle rap battling he founded with DJ Dan Dan in 2006 and where the artist used to shake off incisive and poetic rhymes. “I was struggling to survive, so I thought it was time to give up my dream of being a musician and find a regular day job”, he says.
Nó na Orelha was then Criolo’s venting of emotions, adding to his rap several different genres such as reggae, samba, jazz, tango, afrobeat, and soul. Produced by Daniel Ganjaman, same of Planet Hemp and Nação Zumbi, and São Paulo’s musician Marcelo Cabral, the album that was supposed to be Criolo’s farewell bid to music, became a revival of a subversive music style, which Brazilians had first embraced in the 60’s with the Tropicália movement and its “anthropophagic culture”.
Since its release, Nó na Orelha has received over a dozen awards and Criolo has since performed in New York, London, and Paris. In Brazil, success has led the rapper to share the stage with quintessential artists such as Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque and Ney Matogrosso. He has also collaborated with Portuguese fado singer Ana Moura and ethio-jazz icon Mulatu Astatke, among others. “I still don’t believe it’s happening”, says the artist who is quickly becoming the first hip hop artist to cross into what’s called Música Popular Brasileira, or MPB – that is, mainstream success in Brazil.
In 2014, Criolo released his second solo Convoque Seu Buda (Summon Your Buddha), again produced by Ganjaman and Cabral, continuing the experiment of musical genre blends (samba, forró, jazz, and dub reggae) with strong socially conscious lyrics.
Songs of Nó na Orelha and Convoque seu Buda, together with material from his single Duas de Cinco, are now part of the repertoire of Criolo’s live shows – and fortunately, the artist has no intention to stop anytime soon.