'It takes courage to be who we are': Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar on the power of music

by Oscar Lopez | @oscarlopezgib | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 29 April 2020 18:57 GMT

Brazilian drag queen and singer Pabllo Vittar poses in this handout photo. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout by Ernna Cost

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The Grammy-nominated drag icon talks to TRF about releasing an album amid a pandemic, LGBT+ activism under Bolsonaro, and how music can help the world in times of crisis

MEXICO CITY, April 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From filling the airwaves with her campy, energetic songs to collaborating with international pop stars and performing at the United Nations headquarters, drag queen Pabllo Vittar's career has gone stellar.

The 25-year-old is one of Brazil's biggest exports, having racked up half a billion Spotify streams, a billion YouTube views and more than twice as many Instagram followers as drag icon Rupaul.

In 2018, Vittar was nominated for a Latin Grammy for her collaboration with electronic group Major Lazer on the popular song "Sua Cara" - a first for a drag artist.

Vittar, who identifies as a gay man but prefers the pronoun 'she' when discussing her drag work, is a vocal supporter of LGBT+ rights and outspoken critic of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is known for making homophobic comments.

In a country with a long history of violence against LGBT+ people and a popular evangelical Christian movement that opposes gay rights, Vittar has become an inspiration to many young LGBT+ Brazilians.

Last year the drag star exploded on the world stage as well, performing at Carnival in Rio and World Pride in New York in June, as well as being named as one of Time Magazine’s Next Generation LeadersIn March, Vittar released her third album, "111", featuring collaborations with stars including Mexican singer Thalia and English popstar Charli XCX and songs in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed Vittar about what it's like to release an album in the middle of a global pandemic and about how music can help the world get through this crisis.

What are you most excited about for your new album?

The album has a very Brazilian energy. It took a long search for sounds and rhythms to get to the final result. What excites me the most is this whole process of a project that starts from a thousand ideas and takes shape and is polished until it reaches streaming platforms. It's gratifying. Not to mention the feedback I get on social media.

Why did you decide to make this album in multiple languages?

After touring several countries, doing shows in the United States, Canada and Europe, performing at Prides in various cities, I felt the need to also sing in local languages ​​and to be able to communicate with my fans who don't speak Portuguese. Foreigners always try to sing in Portuguese with me, so now I decided to also communicate in their language. I study English and Spanish and I can get by OK.

How do you feel about releasing an album in the middle of a global pandemic?

We were all taken by surprise. The good thing is that with people at home, the music ends up being a source of hope, it helps to break up the quarantine routine. I received several videos with people dancing to the music of (songs) "Tímida" and "Rajadão".

You became a public defender of LGBT+ rights under the Bolsonaro government. Why was it important for you to become a voice for the community?

I think that it wasn't just me, but also several artists and public figures who gave a voice to the LGBT community in Brazil. For me it's important because I am one of those people who has an important platform on their hands and we do need to use it to try to change the reality of our society today. We urgently need a world with more respect, more equal opportunities and less prejudice.

You and your music often touch on the concept of gender. In a country and region where machismo is still common, why is it important to challenge gender expression?

It’s not a question of challenging the expression of gender, it's a matter of debating standardized, socially-rooted thinking. To show that gender isn’t necessarily connected to genitalia, but to how an individual is understood as a person and expresses themselves. I am a gay, effeminate man from northeastern (Brazil) who does drag. My story is marked by the fight against machismo and prejudice.

Many LGBT + people can be locked at home during quarantine with family members who may not accept who they are. What would you like your LGBT + fans to know right now?

It’s a delicate situation. It’s the time to create a support network - even if virtually - to say that we are not alone. I believe that dialogue and exchange of experiences are ways to strengthen ourselves, to face difficulties with more determination and courage, because it takes courage to be who we are and even more so to live with people who do not accept us. Therefore, social media is absurdly important - there, we have contact with stories similar to ours. To know that even in quarantine we are not alone.

Many LGBT + events like Pride parades are being canceled around the world because of the coronavirus. How do you think the LGBT+ community can still come together this year?

We remain united and we remain strong! We must always remember that we hold our parades to celebrate who we are and to also fight for our rights, but it’s not just during this moment that we have to be proud and seek advance - it’s every day, it is in any place or situation! Unfortunately this year we will not be able to celebrate together on the streets, but we will remain proud to be who we are, that is a fact

Your music is generally upbeat and fun. How important is music in times of crisis?

I like to make music to bring people together, so that they can have fun and forget a little about the everyday problems that we all go through. In times of crisis like this I see music as fundamental to help because, in addition to the day-to-day problems, now we also have to face the quarantine, the insecurity that COVID-19 brings us and the concern for the people we love. In the middle of it all, stop for a while, listen to a happy song, have fun, even for a few minutes.

What message would you like to give to your fans in Brazil and in the world at this difficult time?

Stay at home! Help whoever you can however you can! (I’m sending you) a kiss.

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(Reporting by Oscar Lopez @oscarlopezgib; editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)