Brazilian Singer Seu Jorge: On Music, Race, And Luck Versus Hard Work : Code Switch The celebrated musician stopped by NPR's Alt.Latino to chat about his incredible musical journey.
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Brazilian Singer Seu Jorge: On Music, Race, And Luck Versus Hard Work

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Brazilian Singer Seu Jorge: On Music, Race, And Luck Versus Hard Work

Brazilian Singer Seu Jorge: On Music, Race, And Luck Versus Hard Work

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ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

Seu Jorge is a contemporary Brazilian music icon. He strings together funk, soul and traditional Brazilian rhythms with his unusually deep and raspy voice. He's also an actor. You might have seen him in the Brazilian film "City Of God" or Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." Jorge's performing tonight and tomorrow in New York City. That's where NPR's Jasmine Garsd caught up with him to talk about his unlikely rise to fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

CARL DOUGLAS: (Singing) Oh, ho, ho, ho...

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: There's this scene in the Oscar-nominated 2002 film "City Of God" - it's nighttime, strobe lights illuminate glistening bodies and shiny afros. We're at a massive block party in a favela, one of Brazil's notorious slums.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

DOUGLAS: (Singing) ...It was a little bit frightening...

GARSD: A handsome bus driver, played by singer Seu Jorge, is dancing with his girlfriend to the tune of "Kung Fu Fighting." Jorge says disco and funk had a huge impact on him growing up.

SEU JORGE: Especially for black people in Brazil, too - a lot of African soul in Brazil. And when James Brown arrived, it's like a door open for us.

GARSD: The funk was heating up in Rio de Janeiro, but so was the violence. At the dance, the beautiful girlfriend catches the eye of a young drug dealer. A few nights later, he rapes her and goes after her boyfriend, Jorge's character.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

GARSD: Bullets spray his home and kill his little brother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CITY OF GOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (Speaking Portuguese).

GARSD: It's a story that hit close to home for Seu Jorge, who grew up in a similar favela right outside Rio de Janeiro. His own brother was killed in the ongoing violence.

JORGE: I lost my brother. My life is really hard. I don't have a job over there. I have nothing to do. You know, education is very, very poor. The only thing that's different is my choice.

GARSD: He chose music and acting. Success took a while, though. By the time he was in his 20s, he was acting in a university play house and performing with local bands. He was also homeless. He recorded an album that got some attention. In 2001, his second album came out. And thanks in part to this song, it made him a household name in Brazil.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINA")

JORGE: (Singing in Portuguese).

GARSD: The album caught the ears of Brazilian music lovers around the world. And then he got a phone call.

JORGE: I grab the telephone, but I don't understand any words the guy say to me.

GARSD: He handed the phone to his wife. It was director Wes Anderson. He was putting together his movie "The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou." He wanted to know if Seu Jorge could do covers of a few David Bowie songs. Jorge said yes and moved to Italy to film. He plays a musician who travels with the title character's oceanographic expedition.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU")

JORGE: (As Pele dos Santos, singing in foreign language).

GARSD: When matters of the heart one cannot comprehend, he sings, the covers are filled with saudade, Portuguese for sadness and homesickness. Part of that comes from the hostility towards black men Seu Jorge said he felt in Italy.

JORGE: I suffer a lot racism...

GARSD: A lot of racism in Italy.

JORGE: Yeah. When I go out and go to my home - I need to go to the pharmacy, buy stuff for my kids, I need to get a cab, I need to go to the restaurant, you know, things - like normal things - and the people don't look at me like a good person.

GARSD: The result, however, led David Bowie himself to say that the covers made him rediscover the beauty of his songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU")

JORGE: (As Pele dos Santos, singing in foreign language).

GARSD: These days, Seu Jorge is no longer melancholy. He says he hopes to one day join the pantheon of great Brazilian musicians.

JORGE: I'm trying to follow the same steps as beautiful icons, Brazilian icons - Caetano, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento's careers.

GARSD: His career is well on its way. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIFE AQUATIC WITH STEVE ZISSOU")

JORGE: (As Pele dos Santos, singing in foreign language).

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