sat 20/07/2024

Interview: Karol Conka - a shiny new rap star from Brazil | reviews, news & interviews

Interview: Karol Conka - a shiny new rap star from Brazil

Interview: Karol Conka - a shiny new rap star from Brazil

Music and politics with Brazil's newest star, who opened the La Linea Festival with a bang

Karol Conka: 'I am protesting against unhappiness'

Three years ago Karol Conka was a receptionist. Since then she had made a living from her music and, with the launch of her first international album Batukfreak, (“Beat-freak”, more or less) is making waves internationally. But that doesn’t tell you the punch her music has or her style (when I meet her, she’s wearing cute Japanese shoes, dyed short blonde hair, super-colourful jacket).

Our rendezvous is in Concrete, a small basement club in Shoreditch where she is due to perform her London debut the same night as the opener for London’s always impressive La Linea Festival. She duly raises the admittedly small roof.

Unlike the more African areas of Brazil, like Bahia, where her grandmother came from, Conka lives in Curitiba in the relatively cold South of Brazil where blacks are in the minority. When I say that for most people, compared to North America and elsewhere, Brazil seems less racially segregated and everyone has friends of assorted colours, she says “Brazil is a contradictory country – there’s a lot of hidden racism”.

Curitiba is a city where rock music rules and there are rocky touches in her music, but more obviously other elements from her background: Afro-Brazilain rhythms, ancient chants from Bahia, flutes from the North East and charming sambas, all of which mash up magnificently against hip-hop and trap rhythms, as well as the hardcore bailé funk that has emerged from the favelas of Rio in the last decade or so. There’s one cover called "Caxambu", an old charming samba by Almir Guineto, which is given a brutal funk deconstruction.

Another influence are assorted musical Jorges – Jorge Ben Jor, Jorge Vercilio and Seu Jorge, all CDs her mother had. Her son is, naturally, named Jorge. Her breakout song was "Boa Noite", picked for a FIFA14 game, whose success "altered the direction of the album."  Other tracks like "Gandaia" used a similar template of ancient and modern (see video below)

The beats are created by producer Nave, fast gaining a reputation as kind of Brazilian Timbaland. Such was his dedication for Karol’s uncompromising debut CD he actually lived with her for six months (“As friends” she hastily points out) while they crafted the beats and the sonic architecture of what is one of the freshest pieces of music you will hear all year. Nave, who has produced the likes of Marcelo D2, is, she says, “a genius, a fantastic artist – he always made the beats the way I asked, especially for me.”

A lot of Brazilian hip-hop is gloomy protest music, but Conka insists she “wanted some happy beats – which was a challenge for Nave.” Her protest is more “about self-esteem, against unhappiness, showing that we can be stronger.” She sings about “struggle and glory.” Just using elements from her grandmother's north-eastern background, whose culture is often seen as backward in the south, is a kind of protest. 

Conka has huge potential. Like other recent international successes from Brazil before her, like Ceu and CSS and Bebel Gilberto, she thinks she may have to make it internationally before breaking in Brazil, because the media in Brazil is so conservative. In many ways she has more going for her than that trio. Ceu is wonderful but a little too arty, Bebel unlike Conka wasn’t so compelling live, and CSS were too tied into a mini-wave of electro-clash and whose postmodern irony perhaps limited their wide acceptance. Conka has more universal themes. And she is plugged both into hip-hop, which isn’t going away any time soon, and centuries-old traditions like the improvising repentista tradition, which could be seen as an early form of rap.

What makes a star? With the iconic ones there's a kind of heroic re-invention, a breaking of the mould. There was no-one like Mick Jagger or Caetano Veloso, or James Brown or Patti Smith or Fela Kuti before them. These were performers that audiences had never quite seen before. They appeared to manifest intangible energies in the ether. In a way, they were harbingers of new eras. 

You’ve never seen anything quite like Karol Conka. But you will, the gods willing, be seeing a whole lot more of her soon.

Conka is plugged both into hip-hop, which isn’t going away any time soon, and centuries-old traditions

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