Can a Brazilian pop star crack the US market? Anitta says yes

“Meiga e Abusada,” the 2013 song that first catapulted Brazilian singer Anitta to fame, begins with a Lady Gaga sample and a cool assertion. “I get everything I want,” she sings in Portuguese. “But it was so easy to control you.”

In the song’s music video, partly filmed in Las Vegas, Anitta frolics around the desert in a cropped plaid shirt, drinks Champagne and hits casinos in a limo. It’s a declaration of her prowess made all the more brazen by its timing: Only a couple of months before its release, it had felt like nothing would ever happen for her.

“I’m a pessimistic person,” Anitta said in a recent interview, speaking in Portuguese. That’s partly because the odds were never strictly in her favour. “Growing up, my father would say, ‘We’re poor, you can’t study the arts,’” she said. “He thought I’d need a plan B.”

She didn’t. Since putting out her first album at age 20, Anitta has gone on to become one of Brazil’s biggest pop stars. In the past decade, she has released four studio albums, performed at the 2016 Olympic opening ceremony and racked up numerous Latin Grammy nominations. Anitta got her start singing in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and success eventually followed her to the rest of South America, where a string of Spanish-language hits featuring stars like J Balvin and Maluma cemented her status as one of the region’s top performers.

The United States market feels like the final frontier. This month, Anitta will perform at both weekends of the Coachella festival. On April 12, her new trilingual album “Versions of Me” — her first since signing with Warner Records in 2021, and her first international LP — arrives. A solo female pop artist from Brazil has never become a star in North America, but Anitta’s team and label are intent on making it happen — and it shows. Featuring tracks produced by established hitmakers including Ryan Tedder, Stargate, and Andrés Torres and Mauricio Rengifo (who produced “Despacito”), the album’s sleek hooks, taut melodies and glossy production signal a clear attempt at breaking her in America.

Speaking via video chat from her house in Miami in late February, Anitta was barefaced on the couch, dressed in an orange Versace T-shirt. She looked tired, but her posture was flawless. “I got back yesterday from Rio and I was exhausted. I’d been working Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday without a break,” she said, petting her sleepy Italian greyhound, Plínio. (He had great posture, too.)

Born Larissa Machado in Rio de Janeiro’s working-class Honório Gurgel neighbourhood, Anitta, 29, first rose to fame after she posted a video of herself singing into a can of deodorant. Her stage name, an homage to a character she’d long admired from an old Brazilian TV show, “Presença de Anita,” came later. In the series, she explained, Anita would say that she wanted to wake up a different person every day: “She could be romantic, sensual, intelligent and crazy all at once.” Anitta likes playing with that idea too.

“People have always wanted to define women: Is she the marrying type? Is she the type that likes to go out?” she added. “But I can be both things, right?”

Anitta made a name for herself performing at parties around Rio’s favelas. Funk carioca, or baile funk, a vibrant rhythm that emerged in Rio de Janeiro’s predominantly Black working-class neighbourhoods in the 1980s, is the soundtrack of choice at these gatherings, where sound systems often blast the genre’s signature tamborzão beat. “I started bothering everyone and asking if I could sing at their events, the proibidas,” Anitta said.

Proibida is Portuguese for prohibited. In the early 2000s, the police — who deemed these bailes (dance parties) breeding grounds for gang violence — began violently sweeping events in Rio’s favelas under the guise of public safety. While the genre now plays in some of the country’s wealthiest neighbourhoods and in clubs popular with arty crowds in London and Berlin, its creators, especially those who haven’t yet risen to fame, are still marginalised.

At the height of the moral panic around baile funk, even stars like Anitta didn’t walk away unscathed. When she performed at the Olympic opening ceremony in 2016 alongside national icons Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, critics lashed out against her inclusion in the event, dismissing her as a “favelada.”

“Prejudice hurts,” Anitta said. “But what artists like Caetano, Marisa Monte, Djavan and Bethânia have always told me is that they were the Anitta of their time,” she said, referring to Maria Bethânia and other Brazilian stars who are mostly over 70 (Monte, the youngest of the group, is in her 50s). “Everyone told them they were bums and now they’re icons.”

Veloso, one of the country’s most revered singer-songwriters who has collaborated with the singer in the past, praised her in an email. “Anitta is so competent, sincere, direct and likable,” he wrote. “She has captured the zeitgeist in such an impressive way.”

In the mid-2000s, MIA and Diplo began to export funk carioca out of Brazil through songs like “Baile Funk One” and a documentary, “Favela on Blast,” but the genre never made it to the pop charts. Anitta still believes it has the potential to go global, though. And while her new album experiments with a range of styles — the Gaga-inspired electro-pop of “Boys Don’t Cry,” the rollicking reggaeton of “Gata” — “Versions of Me” never completely severs ties with her roots.

Still, she knows success often takes time. “The main things are patience and persistence,” she said. “We have to do it step by step.”

Tedder, the frontman for the band One Republic who has written hits for Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, agreed to executive produce Anitta’s project halfway through their first studio session. “She’s easily the hardest working person I’ve ever worked with,” he said by phone. “She does not have an off switch.”

Tom Corson, co-chairman and chief operating officer at Warner Records, agreed: “Anitta has what it takes to be a global superstar.” The plan? “Obviously we want hit records,” Corson said. “And we’d like to see her as a unique force within the US and global market, toggling back and forth between languages.” The obvious comparison is Shakira.

While “Versions of Me” is above all, an international project, Tedder and Anitta were both adamant that Brazilian rhythms had to be a part of it. “I didn’t want to disenfranchise her Brazilian fan base from what she’s already built,” he said.

For “Faking Love” — a baile funk-inspired track featuring American rapper Saweetie — Anitta and Tedder flew Brazilian producers Tropkillaz to Los Angeles for a session. “The rhythmic movement of an actual funk beat doesn’t use what’s called quantisation,” Tedder said, referring to software that makes beats line up perfectly. “You have to program it in with natural human swing.” It took him several tries before he could get it right; Anitta sat and listened until she knew they’d found the one.

Anitta is aware that when it comes to her work, she is a perfectionist first. For years, she has worked with a speech therapist to minimise her accent, and even as she was putting the finishing touches on her album, she was rerecording parts of tracks. Would it matter if she sang in English with a strong accent? It shouldn’t, but it does, she said. “I realised that if I spoke slower in meetings or with an accent, people would respect me less,” she said, recalling how she felt when she started doing business in America.

Things are different in her personal life, but it’s hard to completely relinquish control when she has lived the bulk of it under a microscope. Anitta, who is bisexual, kept key aspects of her identity — including her sexuality — hidden from the Brazilian press for years. “It was complicated because it was all very taboo at the time,” she said. “Lots of singers weren’t out, and I don’t judge them because I know people really came after me.”

It was only after a bodyguard had to chase down someone who took a picture of her kissing a woman at a party that she realised she wanted to stop hiding. “My mom has known that I kiss girls since I was 13, why should I care what other people think?” she said in a second interview, throwing both of her hands up in exasperation as she slouched down on a hotel room couch in Los Angeles.

Politically, aspects of Anitta’s life have long been scrutinised too. The singer was criticised in 2018 when she didn’t outright condemn Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro during the early stages of his campaign. But she maintains there’s a reason for that. “I was having my religious initiation,” she said. In Candomblé, which mixes Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs, initiations typically require people to remain secluded for around 21 days: “I had no way of contacting the outside world.”

When it became clear Anitta would have to say something, she called a friend, Gabriela Prioli, a lawyer, journalist and political commentator, and asked for help. “I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t know what a congressman does or what a councilman does,” she said. “I’m not ashamed to say it because most Brazilians don’t.”

In the end, Anitta found the conversation so helpful she decided to start broadcasting political education classes with Prioli on her Instagram, which she hopes to resume before this year’s elections. While she won’t endorse a candidate, Anitta now firmly opposes Bolsonaro. In late March, when lawyers representing the president’s party petitioned Brazil’s supreme electoral court to stop artists from making “political demonstrations” in their sets, Anitta encouraged other performers to defy them. “To my friends who want to speak out: I’ll pay your fine,” she said in an Instagram story.

Bolsonaro and Anitta occasionally even butt heads on social media, where the singer boasts 61 million followers on Instagram alone. “He knows his conservative supporters don’t like me, so he uses my name to draw attention to himself,” she said.

Her follower count will likely only grow in the coming months. Popularised by the “paso de Anitta” — Spanish for Anitta’s dance move — her TikTok hit “Envolver” is the first song by a Brazilian artist to enter the Top 10 on Spotify’s global chart. In late March, it hit No. 1 there.

Anitta’s upcoming Coachella performance on the festival’s main stage marks another first for a Brazilian artist.

“I don’t want to think about it,” she said. “It makes me anxious.” But she is thinking about it.

Anitta said rehearsals for the show are happening in Rio, where she’s training with one Brazilian and one American choreographer. (“I wanted to combine both cultures.”) And after that? “I’ve only planned my life until Coachella,” she said half-jokingly.

“I’m not going to overthink things,” she said. That’s how music becomes formulaic. “I know what I want to do: if things work out, great,” she added. “If they don’t, that’s also great.” She wasn’t always this way. “But I’ve accomplished so much more than I ever thought I would. If I fell asleep now and woke up at 40, I’d still feel like I’d done what I set out to do.”

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