The crowd at Nossa Casa, a multifunctional club space in São Paulo, is full of beautiful men in full face makeup and impeccably groomed beards, heterosexual couples, and tattoo-covered hipsters. Rapper Rico Dalasam, dressed in a University of Maryland Baltimore County jersey over a medieval hooded cloak and a fitted cap, is headlining the show. "One more night," he chants in his Brazilian-accented English, leading into his song "Nao Posso Esperar." It's a classic club track complete with a high BPM and hand claps. The title means "I can't wait."
The baile funk beat drops as Rico shouts, "Nao posso Esperar, nao posso esperar, nao posso esperar," bringing the crowd to an almost climatic rise. Even the straight-looking guys are screaming and dancing. Dalasam takes off the jersey and hoodie, leaving him in compression pants and black Adidas shoes. He's covered in sweat but seems to have just gotten started. "Onde é o menino eu iria beijar?!" ("where is the boy I will kiss") he sings into the mic. His gravelly singing voice drives the crowd crazy as they repeat the question back. Later, he'd tell me that he made that verse up on the spot.
Rico Dalasam makes this rap thing look easy. A former hairstylist, Dalasam began his career in music in 2014. In just a few years, he's already found unprecedented success, particularly for a black gay independent rapper in Brazil, scoring several underground hits and even a guest appearance on Brazil's first black novella, Mr. Brau . His music is political yet pop. His look varies: He can be masculine when he wants, but he can also serve haute couture looks on a platter. He tells you exactly how it is without hitting you over the head. And it doesn't hurt that he's fine as hell.
"The intention is always this—to resist," he told me as we were sitting in his new apartment in the centre of the city. "I want Brazil to hear us. They need this beat to motivate. This BPM, it hits here in the chest. Empty music without lyrics, without content, we have several already. It does not help us." We spoke in Portuguese, but Dalasam has a lexicon of phrases he's invented, one of which is "alibaba aluriê," a made-up riff on a Yoruba word. He describes the idea as "a code to explain something that is indescribable… It's like magic." This concept underlies the powerful qualities of his music.
"I need to generate an 'alibaba aluriê' in the listener's head, and then she can find a reason to be strong," he continued explaining as we sat in his living room. "If you can't stop and listen to what I'm saying, but you have that beat—sometimes the person does not even know what I'm talking about there. But," he added, mimicking a scream of excited discovery, "she's [like] 'Hey!' And that's magic."
Dalasam's flow is indeed magical, and it's totally his own. He casually switches between Brazilian Portuguese, English, and French, along with using his own invented words. He does the singing rap thing, and his deep voice recalls Ja Rule in the height of his Ashanti collaboration days. You can hear the technique most clearly on "Riquissima," which may be Dalasam's most popular song to date. It's a track full of pretty standard brags, but in Rico's case, the boasting is foreshadowing—not just about himself but about his peers. As he brags about the trips he'll take to Paris soon, he reflects on the knowledge that his generation is the first where international trips outside of the country are even possible for Afro Brazilians. Talking about taking trips abroad is no small thing. Naturally, the video features a grey-haired Dalasam rapping in London.
Being where they said he couldn't be, going where they said he couldn't go, doing what they said he couldn't do—this seems to be Dalasam's thing. The "Nao Posso Espera" video was shot in Brooklyn and features Rico dancing the "passinho," a popular baile funk movement that looks like an exaggerated samba, in front of the iconic Biggie mural. Even sonically, the song is full of cultural collisions, bridging samba, baile funk, latin music, EDM, and rap. It's doing a lot, but that's what makes it work. On "Essa Close Eu Dei" Dalasam goes for a Arabic-influenced track with a chorus that features gunshots and a clip reload as he sings the hook, which roughly translates to "this look, I give." The lyrics are a play on popular slang: Rico is telling you he's so full of style he can afford to give it to you and that there's plenty more where that came from.
These are not the only words Dalasam has to offer about his style. Although alibaba aluriê is the catchphrase, the entire chorus is full of words that Rico has assigned new meaning to, like "tolo não compriê, só copiê." He explains: "'comprie' is 'to understand,' [and] 'copiê' is 'to copy,' except I'm saying these words in French. Tolo is the fool who is not open to understand life; tolo means artificial people. It is the foolish, superficial, the person who is quick to judge, and does not want to know. But he copies; he copies the way I dress. He does not understand the history behind dreads, but he wants to have dreads. He does not understand rap, but he wants to hear the beat."
Rico continues to translate the chorus for me, explaining that "alibaba no barbiê navalha que falaha, malha, o cabelerê" is another riff on French. It means, "barbiê is the barber: In the work of the barber, the razor can not fail. I'm always sharp with my tools" And then there's vim pagar sua covardia pelo bom trabalho, which translates to "I came to pay your cowardice for a good job."
"Music is a mantra, and black people have always lived in survival mode. The world wants to shame us, but we have to resist this."
"To enslave another is to show cowardice, holding a people without them being able to defend themselves," Dalasam told me, his hand beginning to move as he grew more passionate. "You were a coward with me, but I'm here. All this bullshit that was supposed to have knocked me down, supposed to left me overwhelmed, make me paralysed in life—congratulations, it served no purpose. I have come to pay your cowardice, and look what I am returning here with: music! Art is the payment. Congratulations for your cowardice. Look what she generated in me: good music, an aesthetic, representation, smiles from the people who see themselves in me."
A day before the show at Nossa Casa, I met up with Dalasam, who had just been robbed in broad daylight. He'd lost his phone and bank card. We went to the police station to file a formal report to give to his insurance, which would help alleviate the cost of replacing the stolen iPhone. Dalasam was hesitant to file a police report, as the relationship between Brazilian police and black and poor people is volatile. Brazilian police are some of the most violent in the world: A recent Amnesty International report on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's second-largest city after São Paulo, found that more than 15 percent of homicides were by police, which is particularly significant in a country where a young black man is killed every 23 minutes. The station was surprisingly empty, but the police appeared uninterested in helping him. "Look at them, they're not doing anything" he said, as the wait to be serviced drew longer. After we'd sat in a waiting room where we were the only non-white people for about 20 minutes, Rico decided it was better to just leave.
"Every week they're taking our rights away," he stated plainly, pointing in particular to recent government upheaval and a general rightward shift in politics. "But people from the favela—we've never had good times. We never had good times… maybe [ousted liberal politicians] Dilma and Lula experimented on us with the possibility of consumerism—'go buy a cellphone'—but this never made our lives better."
In his song "Procure," he calls out these ideas. At first when I heard it, I thought he was encouraging people to work hard—or harder. Despite the highly propagated image of shiny brown bodies playing soccer and dancing samba in the sun, most black Brazilians are still employed as maids and doormen, with little hope for progress unless you marry up (read: white). Dalasam corrected me, pointing out the sarcasm of the lyrics.
"'Vale' is an expression for sucker," he said. "Sucker is kind of an idiot, you know? It's like they give us a card that says 'idiot' to us. You idiots. Go on, you idiots work eight hours then go. You idiots get on an overcrowded bus every day. Go. There, you idiot, work hard for this little bit of money." Later, he added, "The sucker life, doing what society tells, has worth, has value—until it doesn't. It's not forever, you see? Time's up. For me, this time is over, and I want this time to end in the lives of everyone: people who submit to their boss, oppression, little money and a lot of work." Staying true to his style, even though the lyrics are heavy, the sound is cheerful and diverse, drawing on house music and Afrobeats.
"I have to motivate people so that we can survive," Dalasam told me toward the end of our interview, "Music is a mantra, and black people have always lived in survival mode. The world wants to shame us, but we have to resist this. We can't explain why we still laugh and dance despite all this. Everyday they want to take away our colour, our smiles. And when I say we, I'm talking about all the marginal communities I'm a part of—young, black, gay—all of these identities are forced to be ashamed by the oppressor. But I'm the potential of resistance." Indeed, his mere presence in the rap world is a testament to the power of music, and it has made him aware of the power that the straightforward imagery of being present can have.
The video for "Mandume," a posse cut featuring Dalasam and a host of other rappers to watch in the São Paulo scene, is all about breaking stereotypes and social norms. Rico's lyrics are accompanied by visuals of what appears to be a black man putting on makeup and heels, getting ready to join a party downstairs. The person gets to the bottom of the steps, and the people in the party look upstairs for a moment before smiling and waving the new guest into the room. That acceptance from the larger community is a form of resistance in its own right, as well as a symbol of Dalasam's rap journey. It also speaks to the power of manifestation that he has seemed to master. He's created the world he wants to live in through his music, literally rapping his reality into existence.
"Alibaba Aluriê will hopefully catch on," Dalasam told me after playing me the track for the first time. "It's another way to describe my life even. I met so-and-so, so-and-so liked my music, then this person wanted to shoot my video, then this DJ played my music, I did a show, I did two, then I saw I was called to play in London… alibaba aluriê: Poof! I'm here."
Photos by Marcelo Silva Paixão
Nia Hampton is a writer from West Baltimore currently roaming South America. Follow her on Twitter.