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Anitta, 2019
AnittaCourtesy of Edge Publicity

How Anitta became Brazil’s biggest pop star

She started her career in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and became a national star, but can she turn this momentum into global fame?

Until just a couple of weeks ago, Anitta was her own manager. The 24-year-old singer/songwriter/businesswoman built her career from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where she grew up, to the cusp of global superstardom, where she is today, by overseeing every aspect herself. “I’m the product that I sell, and I’m always travelling, so my company is on my cellphone,” she says casually. “I used to have a group chat for every section of what I do – press, music, dance, strategy, marketing.”

Her work clearly paid off. Anitta has collaborated with MadonnaMajor Lazer, and Alesso, and she has Snoop Dogg and Swae Lee features on her latest album, Kisses. She’s starred in her own Netflix docuseries, Vai Anitta. Then there are the numbers: more than 3.5 billion views on YouTube, and more than 40 million followers on Instagram. Oh, and she’s just been in the recording studio with Cardi B, a team-up which feels totally natural, Anitta says, because of the two artists’ “similar personalities”. For the next phase of her pop crossover, she’s finally bringing some support into the fold, having recently signed a worldwide management deal with Roc Nation partners S10 Entertainment.

Anitta and I are meeting shortly before she performs at Nile Rodgers’ Meltdown festival – she collaborated with the Chic legend a few years ago, and tonight he comes on stage to introduce her with real enthusiasm. Ahead of the gig, Anitta asks me about the London audience – will they really stay sitting down? She needn’t have worried; Anitta turns the stately Royal Festival Hall into a jubilant party, where a largely female and LGBTQ+ crowd dance and twerk to her irresistible funk carioca rhythms. “We’re from Brazil, we like to shake our asses,” Anitta says from the stage. She and her all-female troupe of backing dancers do exactly that.

Anitta’s new worldwide management deal is part of a remarkable two-pronged crossover strategy that she’s been working on since 2015. Anitta was already huge in her native Brazil and other countries where people speak Portuguese, the language she began her career singing exclusively in. But she realised that to go global, she’d also need to sing in English and Spanish, the language of the growing Latin pop market led by artists including Ozuna, Maluma, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin. So, this year’s excellent Kisses album is a tightly-constructed trilingual blast. Roll up that Tootsie, that Hershey, that bubblegum,” Anitta sings on a playfully suggestive club track called “Banana”. “I got a sweet tooth for love, baby, gimme some.”

“About four years ago, I figured out that Latin culture would be huge in time because people are looking for new rhythms and the internet is bringing the numbers (on streaming and social media) for everyone,” she explains. “So that’s when I started to learn Spanish. I already knew English, but I realised I couldn’t cross over straight to English, I needed to work the Latin side first. So I started doing stuff in Spanish and then I started to study the English side – doing a little bit of stuff (in English) to put myself in a position so that I could do a good negotiation when I had a manager in front of me. I worked hard to be at the same level as any manager so I could do a good deal for both of us.”

In person, Anitta is friendly, unaffected, and tactile, touching my arm a couple of times to underline a point. Because she explains her business decisions so matter-of-factly, it’s easy, at least in the moment, to miss just how impressive her achievements actually are. When I ask why she wanted the superstar Brazilian drag queen Pabllo Vittar to join her on sassy Major Lazer collaboration “Sua Cara”, Anitta’s answer is both savvy and socially conscious.

“I like to change things. My thing isn’t only to make music for people to have fun and dance to. I like to make people discuss things and think different” – Anitta

“I like to change things,” she says. “My thing isn’t only to make music for people to have fun and dance to. I like to make people discuss things and think different. I have a huge LGBT audience, and I’m bisexual – but when you see me, if I don’t tell you I’m bisexual, I don’t have the physical representation of the LGBT (community). It’s different when you’re a drag queen. They’re not treated seriously, or like they’re talented people. So when I invited Pabllo, the idea was to educate people without them feeling like they were being educated. It was super indirect. I invited her to show people: she sings well as fuck – better than me, actually – she dances, she’s super-cool, she’s beautiful, and she’s a drag queen, and she deserves respect.” 

Even the decision to shoot the “Sua Cara” video in Morocco was a masterstroke. “I chose a very conservative country to join these very different cultures. When we were shooting the video, people there were like, ‘Wow, what is going on?’ That was my idea – not to create polemic, but to make people discuss things. It’s the same when I kiss a girl in a video. It’s to say, ‘Hey, this is natural, and you need to treat this like it’s just as natural as when you see a man and a girl kiss.”

Anitta is equally self-aware and perceptive when she discusses the impact of collaborating with Madonna on “Faz Gostoso”, a hip-shaking highlight from the pop icon’s recent Madame X album. “It’s really good because she brought my culture, the funk music, to a big audience,” Anitta says. “My music, my rhythm suffers a lot of prejudice in my country because it comes from the ghetto, from the favela, from the poor people. It has basically the same history as hip hop in the 90s in the United States. So Madonna doing this for us, it was big. And she was the person who, if I’m free today to express myself the way I want to express myself sexually, it’s because she got all those hits on her face years ago to get us here.”

Next up is a collaboration with Cardi B, which the two artists teased on Twitter in mid-July, and confirmed last week on Instagram. “Oh my God, I love her,” Anitta gushes. “I think she’s so similar to me in her personality. You know, everything she says, when I hear it, I’m like, ‘That’s so me!’ Because she’s a very free person, exactly like me. She talks about sex, poop, whatever she wants – no problem. And I’m so like that. She’s been listening to a lot of funk (carioca) music, and I’m really happy about that because when I started travelling to other countries and would talk about funk, everybody was like, ‘What is funk?’ I always needed to educate producers about the rhythm. But now everyone’s like, ‘Can you give me the contacts of a funk producer, can you do a funk track with me?’”

With our time coming to an end – Anitta has a meet-and-greet with fans before she goes on stage – I ask how she stays so “free”. It can’t be easy with her growing global profile and colossal workload. Like many pop stars, she’s also had the odd brush with controversy. In 2017, she was accused of cultural appropriation when she wore her hair in braids for a video set in a favela. One cultural commentator wrote that “Anitta uses blackness when it suits her”. Anitta, whose father is black, responded by saying: “Nobody is totally white in Brazil.” 

“People like to give opinions about your life, but I don’t give a fuck,” she replies. “I don’t care, you know? As long as I’m respecting people and being a good person to the people around me, I think I’m free to do whatever I want. I’m never gonna be a perfect person, so I like to show my audience that I’m a human being like them. I make mistakes and you’re not gonna like 100 per cent of me. I like to be like that so people don’t expect perfection from me. I like to be free to be comfortable whenever you want.”

Does she think of herself as a role model? “No. I don’t like to have this kind of pressure in my mind. People always ask about my numbers (on social media) and my influence on people, but I don’t like to think about that because then I think we start to overthink. I always have my family around me. I have my brother with me now; on my last trip I had my father. I always bring someone who makes me feel at home and on the floor.”

Touching my arm to illustrate her point, Anitta adds: “I don’t think ‘I’m the boss’ or ‘I’m better than this’. I like to think of myself as a normal person, the same girl I was when I was poor.” As she hugs me goodbye and bounds off to meet her fans, I’m struck by her seriously impressive energy levels and work ethic. In exactly one hour’s time, she’ll be on stage singing, dancing, and making sure everyone is shaking their ass, so pre-show downtime is not an option. Then again, Anitta didn’t go from the favelas to the Royal Festival Hall without going above and beyond the pop star norm.