In 'Macho' Brazil, Fast-Rising Star Marília Mendonça Is Inspiring Women To Push Back Marília Mendonça has reclaimed Brazil's traditional genre sertanejo and created "feminejo," providing women with a voice in a traditionally macho society.

In 'Macho' Brazil, Fast-Rising Star Marília Mendonça Is Inspiring Women To Push Back

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This is a crucial time for Brazil. In a couple months, Brazilians will elect a new president. It's not clear yet who will win. The country is trying to dig out from a huge corruption scandal and the worst recession in its history. NPR's Philip Reeves traveled deep into Brazil to find out how young people are thinking about their futures in difficult times.


PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We've come to the south of Brazil, to cattle and soya bean country.


REEVES: Antonio de Andrade's been making music around here for decades.

ANTONIO DE ANDRADE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: People here are particularly fond of Andrade's specialty...

ANDRADE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Brazilian music called sertanejo.

ANDRADE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Andrade says people here prefer a traditional kind of sertanejo - country songs that speak of...

ANDRADE: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Romance and adventure, of brave cowboys crossing rivers teeming with piranha fish. He's actually wearing a black cowboy hat.

ANDRADE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: These are songs from a man's world. Now a new form of sertanejo's arrived here that's defiantly giving voice to Brazilian women who are young and single. It's proving very popular.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken over loudspeaker).

REEVES: We're at Expo Londrina, a giant agricultural fair in the Brazilian state of Parana. Andrade plays this gig every year. Ranchers and breeders come to the show to see the latest technology, to auction cattle.


REEVES: ...And to display immaculately groomed sheep in the hope of winning a trophy. Here, you can buy a supersized tractor, a peacock or a pig.


REEVES: You can eat in cafes where every main dish once had hooves or trotters, or go to the horse shed and admire a legendary rodeo stud. This is mostly a macho world. Men hold two-thirds of Brazil's agribusiness jobs. Yet, young women are pushing back, says Layssa Soares, who's 23.

LAYSSA SOARES: That is changing. You can see women driving trucks, working in farms, veterinarian girls. So I think it's getting better.

REEVES: Soares is studying to become a veterinarian and has come to the fair to attend a lecture. She wants a successful career, although she sure she'll face discrimination because of her age and gender.

SOARES: I feel like when we are working, people think women can't do that, but no, women can do anything they want. It's kind of normal to hear mens talking some bad things about girls and women, you know? But it's not normal. You - people need to know that it's not normal.

REEVES: Soares says one way Brazilian women can get that message across is through sertanejo music because music is changing, too.

SOARES: Right now, women are taking place in sertanejo music, so the subjects in the songs are different right now. They're representing the girl power, I think.

REEVES: The sun is beginning to set over the expo's show ground. Crowds of young women are heading for the ground's giant arena. They're here to see some of that girl power firsthand. One of its pioneers, Marilia Mendonca, is about to perform. At 22, Mendonca is already a superstar. She was Brazil's most popular singer on YouTube over the last three years. You hear her songs all over the country. Some people use another word to describe her kind sertanejo - feminejo.

CAMILA DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Camila da Silva, who's 28, is among the fans.

DA SILVA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Marilia Mendonca sings great songs," she says, "that give women self-worth."


REEVES: Mendonca arrives for the show and steps into her dressing room.


REEVES: Stardom so early in life has taken her by surprise.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) It's a very big surprise. I never imagined that we would win over my city, let alone Brazil.

REEVES: Mendonca says it happened naturally and thinks this is because she sings about the world as it really is.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) I say that Marilia Mendonca is various different women rolled into one. I talk about things that have happened in my life and things that have happened in the lives of other women around me.

REEVES: In Brazil, Marilia Mendonca has become the voice of young women who push back by singing about walking out on bad relationships and about having the confidence to be yourself. One of her biggest hits, "Alo Porteiro," is about banning an ex-boyfriend from returning to her apartment. Mendonca says she never actually set out deliberately to spread a social message.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) But women identify with the music, and they start taking action like kicking a partner out who's unfaithful or leaving home if they're not being treated properly there.

REEVES: This is not exactly radical feminism, but remember; Brazil's, at heart, a conservative country. Machismo runs deep here. Marilia Mendonca relishes challenging that in her own way.

MENDONCA: (Through interpreter) My feminism is a feminism of attitude. I've never gone out to protest in the street. My life is protest.


MENDONCA: (Yelling) Hello, Expo Londrina.


REEVES: Her show begins.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: The arena is filled with some 15,000 people.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Fans are taking videos with their cellphones and drinking beer.

MENDONCA: (Speaking Portuguese).


REEVES: "Who's single, happy and doesn't want to get hitched in 2018? Raise your hand," says Mendonca. Lots of hands go up. This crowd has many young women.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: Many seem to know these songs by heart and are singing along.

MENDONCA: (Singing in Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Singing in Portuguese).

REEVES: "I'm not obliged to satisfy you. I take care of my own life," say the lyrics. As the nights deepens and Marilia Mendonca's songs echo across cattle country, there's every reason to hope these young Brazilians will take care of their own lives very well, indeed. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Londrina.


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