‘Oh Novinha’ was maybe my favorite song of last week, but it made little sense in New York City. As much as New Yorkers like to think of their hometown as the throbbing, never-sleeping melting pot core of the universe, the energy of Brasil, spitting sparks of excitement like a flint on a stonemason’s wheel, is unparalleled. Wondering through São Paulo’s answer to Central Park yesterday afternoon, I was struck again by the same feeling I had when I first visited a couple of years ago; faced with a lineup of ten people, it would be more impossible in Brasil than in any other country to accurately identify a local, such is the diversity of looks, sounds, dress and general jinga (an amorphous Portuguese descriptor for ‘vibe’) here. So it was that I went out seeking someone, anyone, who might be into Don Juan as much as I was.
I think I found my people under an Oscar Niemeyer-designed structure in the park. It was an unseasonably warm afternoon in the city that is a distant second on tourists’ wish lists, and kids with almost identical Macklemore haircuts, caps, assorted chunky jewelry and tattoos that looked too big on their young bodies were spitting rhymes into distorted mics. In America, the spiritual home of the rap battle,I have never seen one as spontaneous, charged and intense as this. My friend, a well-to-do lawyer in the city as uncomfortable under the Niemeyer arch as he was at home in the marble-clad mall we visited later in the afternoon, shifted awkwardly. I loved it.
My anthropological curiosity is piqued in Brasil, at once a haven for Ferrari-driving playboys and a playground for rappers like MC Don Juan, not far removed from the kids in the park, who raps on ‘Oh Novinha’ about a girl coming over to the favela and sitting on his dick. Needless to say, I wasn’t aware of the Portuguese translation as I nodded to it on the subway last week. My Brasilian friends cannot understand my fascination with the song which, objectively, is less a song than a PA announcement with a lazy attempt at a beat backing it up. But it’s the rawness of it that gets me. On ‘Oh Novinha’ you can hear the sound of the struggle in neighborhoods made famous in films like ‘City of God’, but you can also hear the infectious enthusiasm for life that pulses through the ruas here. It is that fine balancing act, between abject poverty and unbridled joy. Where my Brasilian friends hear crude immaturity, I can’t help but hear this intrinsic tension, born out in suitably explosive fashion.