In 'Macho' Brazil, Fast-Rising Star Marília Mendonça Is Inspiring Women To Push Back

Jul 17, 2018
Originally published on July 17, 2018 9:15 am

As evening settles in among the cattle farms and soybean fields of southern Brazil, thousands of music fans, many of them young women, are assembling on the landscape. They are gathering amid a giant agricultural fair that's been busy with visitors all day, many of whom have come to buy or sell livestock, to inspect the latest farming technology or to dine at cafes where every main course once had hooves or trotters.

Children visit the food stall section of Expo Londrina, an agricultural fair in the southern Brazilian city.
Catherine Osborn for NPR

But the crowd gathering here is not focused on monster tractors, champion rodeo studs or best-of-breed competitions for pedigree sheep. They're here — in hats, tassels and leather boots — to see a singer who, at just 22, has become a superstar in Brazil for pioneering a barrier-challenging variant of the nation's traditional sertanejo (roughly, "backcountry") music.

Marília Mendonça is about to take the stage in the show ground's 15,000-capacity arena to perform songs that have earned her 4.7 billion views on YouTube and a reputation for championing the autonomy of women — particularly young, single women — in this conservative, macho-minded Latin American society. Among the crowd eagerly awaiting this performance is Camila da Silva, 28. She says she's a big fan, because Mendonça "sings with her heart" and writes lyrics that are honest and that give women a sense of self-worth.

Brazilians have given a name to this twist on the sertanejo genre: They call it "feminejo."

Travel Brazil these days and you'll hear Mendonça's music everywhere, in taxis, airports, bars and even the ferry boats that chug along remote stretches of the Amazon River. The country's Época magazine this month described Mendonça — or "A Rainha da Sofrência" ("The Queen of Suffering") — as Brazil's most popular artist.

On this night, Mendonça is performing at the annual Expo Londrina fair in Londrina, a city of about 550,000 people in the southern state of Paraná. The area is part of a vast expanse of plains and grasslands where Brazilian sertanejo was incubated in the early 20th century, usually performed with a viola caipira, a type of 10-stringed acoustic guitar.

Longtime sertanejo musician Antônio Xavier de Andrade plays each year at Expo Londrina.
Catherine Osborn for NPR

Traditionally, sertanejo encompasses songs of "love, adventures, herdsmen crossing rivers full of piranhas ... brave cowboys," says musician Antônio Xavier de Andrade, 68, who says he has been performing sertanejo in and around the region for decades. (Since then, the genre has spawned various offshoots and evolved to incorporate elements of pop and rock, along with a widened instrumental palette that includes electric guitars, bass, drums and synthesizers.)

Mendonça's stories are a far cry from tales of swashbuckling cowboys. She simply set out to tell stories "about my life, or the lives of other women around me," she tells NPR before going on stage. "Real stories. Stories of cheating," stories about women "who can't tolerate the lazy bum anymore," and so kick him out.

No one has been more taken aback by her rapid success — she's only been releasing music for a handful of years — than Mendonça herself. "It's been a very big surprise," she says. "I never imagined that we would win over my city, Goiânia, let alone my state, Goiás, and let alone Brazil."

Being able to manage all of this, to write my music, to organize my work, to present it to my manager, to make him believe in me, and consequentially, to have Brazil hear me and believe in me — for me, that's real feminism. - Marília Mendonça

Mendonça is, of course, far from the first female artist to sing about a chauvinist bum — he features prominently in North American country music, for example — but doing so in rural, conservative Brazil is a little different. Sexism runs deep: Men still hold two-thirds of Brazil's agribusiness jobs, although the number of women is growing, while the harassment, abuse and denigration of women is commonplace.

"It's kind of normal to hear men talking some bad things about girls and women," says Layssa Soares, 28, who's studying to become a veterinarian. "But this is not normal, and people need to know it's not normal." The rise of Mendonça and other feminejo artists is welcomed as a breakthrough by Soares. "Right now, women are taking a place in sertanejo music. So the subjects and the songs are different right now. They are representing girl power, I think."

Mendonça's "girl power" is driven by some bedrock themes — the importance of women being themselves and of standing up for themselves. She portrays herself as someone who tells down-home truths and someone who is "not hidden behind makeup or a mask that says 'I am a princess.' "

Fans of all ages — especially women — sing along at Marília Mendonça's Expo Londrina concert.
Catherine Osborn for NPR

She says, though, that she did not deliberately set out to make music with a social message. "Hearing the music ... women start to take positions," Mendonça says. "They take the appropriate measures, like sending an unfaithful partner away or abandoning a home that is without respect."

In the music, you can't miss it. In "Folgado," Mendonça sings about running out of patience with a domineering, uncommitted man. "Don't come over here, I'm living the way I want," she sings. "I didn't ask for your opinion. You got here and tried to boss me around." One of her biggest hits, "Alô Porteiro," is about calling a doorman to tell him a man is not allowed in her apartment building any more.

Mendonça characterizes her approach as a "feminism of attitude," rather than the traditional sort, of placards and marches. "I never went to protest in the street," she says. "My life is my protest."

"Being able to manage all of this, to write my music, to organize my work, to present it to my manager, to make him believe in me and, consequently, to have Brazil hear me and believe in me — for me, that's real feminism. ... For us to achieve with our own hands what we want and not just say it, you know?"

Her multitude of fans seem to approve. As Mendonça finally takes the stage and launches into song, a huge cheer goes up around the arena from some 15,000 people, amid a blaze of flashes from cellphones.

"Who's single, happy and doesn't want to get hitched in 2018?" yells Mendonça during a break between numbers. "Raise your hands!"

Lots of hands go up.

"I'm not obliged to satisfy you," she sings. "I take care of my own life." The crowd joyously sings along.

Rio de Janeiro producer Valdemar Geo contributed additional reporting to this story.

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This is a crucial time for Brazil. In a couple months, Brazilians will elect a new president. It's not clear yet who will win. The country is trying to dig out from a huge corruption scandal and the worst recession in its history. NPR's Philip Reeves traveled deep into Brazil to find out how young people are thinking about their futures in difficult times.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We've come to the south of Brazil, to cattle and soya bean country.


REEVES: Antonio de Andrade's been making music around here for decades.

ANTONIO DE ANDRADE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: People here are particularly fond of Andrade's specialty...

ANDRADE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Brazilian music called sertanejo.

ANDRADE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Andrade says people here prefer a traditional kind of sertanejo - country songs that speak of...

ANDRADE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Romance and adventure, of brave cowboys crossing rivers teeming with piranha fish. He's actually wearing a black cowboy hat.

ANDRADE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: These are songs from a man's world. Now a new form of sertanejo's arrived here that's defiantly giving voice to Brazilian women who are young and single. It's proving very popular.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken over loudspeaker).

REEVES: We're at Expo Londrina, a giant agricultural fair in the Brazilian state of Parana. Andrade plays this gig every year. Ranchers and breeders come to the show to see the latest technology, to auction cattle.


REEVES: ...And to display immaculately groomed sheep in the hope of winning a trophy. Here, you can buy a supersized tractor, a peacock or a pig.


REEVES: You can eat in cafes where every main dish once had hooves or trotters, or go to the horse shed and admire a legendary rodeo stud. This is mostly a macho world. Men hold two-thirds of Brazil's agribusiness jobs. Yet, young women are pushing back, says Layssa Soares, who's 23.

LAYSSA SOARES: That is changing. You can see women driving trucks, working in farms, veterinarian girls. So I think it's getting better.

REEVES: Soares is studying to become a veterinarian and has come to the fair to attend a lecture. She wants a successful career, although she sure she'll face discrimination because of her age and gender.

SOARES: I feel like when we are working, people think women can't do that, but no, women can do anything they want. It's kind of normal to hear mens talking some bad things about girls and women, you know? But it's not normal. You - people need to know that it's not normal.

REEVES: Soares says one way Brazilian women can get that message across is through sertanejo music because music is changing, too.

SOARES: Right now, women are taking place in sertanejo music, so the subjects in the songs are different right now. They're representing the girl power, I think.

REEVES: The sun is beginning to set over the expo's show ground. Crowds of young women are heading for the ground's giant arena. They're here to see some of that girl power firsthand. One of its pioneers, Marilia Mendonca, is about to perform. At 22, Mendonca is already a superstar. She was Brazil's most popular singer on YouTube over the last three years. You hear her songs all over the country. Some people use another word to describe her kind sertanejo - feminejo.

CAMILA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Camila da Silva, who's 28, is among the fans.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Marilia Mendonca sings great songs," she says, "that give women self-worth."


REEVES: Mendonca arrives for the show and steps into her dressing room.


REEVES: Stardom so early in life has taken her by surprise.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) It's a very big surprise. I never imagined that we would win over my city, let alone Brazil.

REEVES: Mendonca says it happened naturally and thinks this is because she sings about the world as it really is.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) I say that Marilia Mendonca is various different women rolled into one. I talk about things that have happened in my life and things that have happened in the lives of other women around me.

REEVES: In Brazil, Marilia Mendonca has become the voice of young women who push back by singing about walking out on bad relationships and about having the confidence to be yourself. One of her biggest hits, "Alo Porteiro," is about banning an ex-boyfriend from returning to her apartment. Mendonca says she never actually set out deliberately to spread a social message.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) But women identify with the music, and they start taking action like kicking a partner out who's unfaithful or leaving home if they're not being treated properly there.

REEVES: This is not exactly radical feminism, but remember; Brazil's, at heart, a conservative country. Machismo runs deep here. Marilia Mendonca relishes challenging that in her own way.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) My feminism is a feminism of attitude. I've never gone out to protest in the street. My life is protest.


MENDONCA: (Yelling) Hello, Expo Londrina.


REEVES: Her show begins.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: The arena is filled with some 15,000 people.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Fans are taking videos with their cellphones and drinking beer.

MENDONCA: (Speaking Portuguese).


REEVES: "Who's single, happy and doesn't want to get hitched in 2018? Raise your hand," says Mendonca. Lots of hands go up. This crowd has many young women.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Many seem to know these songs by heart and are singing along.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: "I'm not obliged to satisfy you. I take care of my own life," say the lyrics. As the nights deepens and Marilia Mendonca's songs echo across cattle country, there's every reason to hope these young Brazilians will take care of their own lives very well, indeed. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Londrina.