Nine Songs: Emicida
Emicida’s music is a vivid and truthful result of someone who continuously thinks about life and spirituality, history and politics, love and empathy.
More than a decade into his career, it feels unfair choosing one angle to introduce Emicida’s artistic and cultural achievements. In their different ways, everything he’s created is no less significant or important than the other. One thing that it is safe to say however, is that Emicida changed Brazilian rap forever.
The change came through a myriad of layers; the strength of cultural identity in his lyrics, his pioneering flow, that’s well-versed in Brazilian musicality and the way he has managed his career, where Emicida has self-released all his music through a collective he started, Laboratório Fantasma, that has become a reference of urban culture in São Paulo.
Leandro Roque De Oliveira was born in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1985. The name Emicida came from his early days in freestyle battles and stands for the ‘The killer of MCs’. Later it was transformed into an acronym for ‘As Long As My Imagination Creates Insanities, I Own Art’.
His first EP came out in 2009 and the title - in free translation - is For Someone Who Once Bit a Dog Out of Hunger, I Already Came Far. The lengthy titles changed over time: his third studio album, released in 2019, is called AmarElo [Portuguese for yellow]. The record, a milestone in his career, features guest appearances from the likes of Ibeyi and Pabllo Vittar, and was the result of a long process of growth, in experiencing both language and life in a more present way.
“As time passes, I walk further and further away from the easy answers. Each record is a big jump from the one before, not only in terms of artistic manifestation, but also in terms of maturity, awareness, of my understanding of reality, philosophy, spirituality. A constant realisation that life is full of layers”.
Emicida made the record while growing plants in his garden. He explains this was his way of dealing with anxiety, and of connecting the creative process to a natural passage of time. “All this rushing and fuss and non-stop madness doesn’t make any sense to nature, it doesn’t translate. It’s something that is cultural - not natural. I wanted to connect to that concept of time, the time that plants take to grow. It’s not today or tomorrow; they will blossom in fifteen days and it’s up to you to take good care of your mind in those fifteen days. And then you also learn to wait for other people’s time. AmarElo is this, it’s a record that waits for time.”
His approach to his Nine Songs choices is similar to the way Emicida approaches music: with completeness and incredible depth of thought. His selections reflect not only some of the references that appear in his last album, but spread into his beliefs and views on politics, society and spirituality.
“I have lived inside each of these songs - I know them by heart, back to front, front to back. I thought I would share songs that influenced me in the process of making this album, which are also songs I have been listening to a lot recently. The thing is, I turn out to be a bit conservative with this thing we call music, ha ha! I always listen to the same songs. OK, obviously I also hear new stuff, but I always come back to the ones that I consider to be sacred. That’s where my inspiration always comes from.”
“O Samba É Meu Dom” holds a special beauty for me; making it to where you want to be and taking the time to be thankful to the ones who inspired you to get there in the first place. That’s what Wilson das Neves did in this song. He revered the people who deeply touched him and guided his steps towards his own path.
“The song is built in a poetic and cyclical way where he narrates his story in the verses, but always comes back to the same line - which is the title of the song. "O Samba É Meu Dom" [My Gift Is Samba]. It's a line that is repeated all over the song as a statement that his gift and mission in life was to live samba.
“And he lived… so much! He was like a walking history book; he took part in so many different moments of Brazilian music. The radio era, soap operas, movie soundtracks, music festivals. I mean, he recorded more than five hundred albums! His elegance, his constant love for research and search to learn more was deeply inspiring. This was a person who was 80 years old, created millions of fantastic things and still maintained the same discipline of waking up to study his instrument every day. He was devoted to it.
“In some places in Africa, they have a great saying for when someone important dies. They say that a Baobab has fallen. You know that tree, Baobab? It’s a symbol of life, a very mystical and secular tree. The lifespan can be as long as one thousand years, and in the forest, life happens around it. The aroma of the flowers attracts animals during reproduction; they are natural water tanks in dry regions; and, in some places, people even live inside of them - they are massive, really large and tall trees. So when a Baobab falls, it’s a loss of life.
“That’s what happened when Wilson Das Neves passed away - we lost a Baobab. He had a natural ability to speak to your heart and share what he had inside of his. He always made a point on the importance of proximity amongst people. There’s a lot of talk about how connected we are these days, but we are actually very distant as a society.
“Much is said about collectivism, but people are spending their lives being more distant from each other than ever. Most experiences are happening on an individual basis and this is very dangerous; it’s very dangerous to the world and to the human race. When we create our own individual set of views that separate us from others - and you stop acknowledging experiences that are different from yours - we also create cracks for hate to appear and grow.
“Wilson Das Neves was very aware of this and he used to constantly say that we need to stay close, stay together and stay strong together. When you climb up a step, you need to take people with you.
“There’s this thing he used to say to me, ‘Emicida, only bad people die.’ I didn’t understand what he was saying, thinking ‘No, no, a lot of good people are dying.’ When he passed away, I understood. He will never die - he will always be with us. When we speak about him and people carry the stories they shared with him, you realise that his energy still is very present over here.
“I think he was an orixá [a deity from candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion] that we had the privilege of knowing in life. Spending time with him was like going to University - it changed my life.”
“I’m fascinated by how these lyrics go from darkness to light, chasing the same cycle of nature he’s singing about. First, he’s in this dark and lonely place, very late at night, but then as dawn breaks, he’s held by hope when he realises that soon the sun will be out to deliver a good day, so that life can start over again. Tomorrow is always another day and another day is always another chance.
“I’m a big fan of Cartola and a couple of years ago we did this tour where we played his whole record from 1974. That was especially important to me, because amongst other things it taught me a lot about calmness. In hip-hop we speak a lot - songs are filled with words and lyrics are extensive - so in the first gigs of this tour, I would get desperate to say something in between the lines of the songs.
“If we look at those videos, you can see me trying to fill these gaps with words, because I just couldn’t hold myself! So, there would be one line of his songs, and in between, me going ‘Good evening everyone’. Then another word and then me again, filling up the space, talking to the audience. Then it suddenly hit me. ‘Brother, just stop! Let the music happen. We are dealing with another concept of time.’
“This song taught me to build a melody and let musicality take its own course. I started to feel it and understand the wisdom of his craft, his melody - his silence and his pace. The wordless intervals affirmed his poetry and allowed time for it to blossom in our ears. In “Corra E Olha O Céu” he says ‘Quickly, go look at the sky, the sun is here to deliver a good day’. To me, that is extremely sophisticated.
“We made a track called “A Ordem Natural das Coisas” where I really wanted to recreate that feeling - the feeling of listening to a song that when you close your eyes, you can visualise the sun rising. You remember the good things in your life, and you remember the importance of having calm. The serenity I needed to that create this feeling, I learned from singing Cartola’s songs.”
“Sometimes I sit by the computer, type the name of a country I have never been and research their culture. I dive into their food, their recipes, attractions… and their music. That’s how I came across Sauti Sol.
“I’ve never been to Kenya and I was reading this Twitter account about their street food. Question: What does Emicida do on his days off? Answer: He looks at recipes of countries he’s never been to, ha ha! Anyway, someone posted this band on that Twitter page, I researched it and the first song that came up was this one. I was like ‘Wow!’ It blew my mind and I haven’t stopped listening to it since then.
“I went so crazy about “Kuliko Jana” that I took the time to translate it. The lyrics are incredible. I thought they were singing about some kind of deity but it’s actually a Christian song. The signs that appear throughout the lyrics are African, but the main presence in the chorus is Jesus (Yesu). The character sings about his sins, and how he believes he will overcome them, because each day Jesus loves him more and he has the chance to be better than he was yesterday.
“It’s been five years now since I started to get more familiar with demonstrations of spirituality in music. I believe that music itself is a spiritual expression and this song summarised what I was longing for, which was the kind of atmosphere you need when you want people to get in touch with spirituality through a song. This is not about religion, nor about any religious institution or any set of codes. It’s about connecting with the universe; connecting with something bigger than ourselves. “Kuliko Jana” became like a mantra to me, like a prayer that I go to when I’m feeling low. It takes me to a meditative state.
“It’s a song entirely made from the human body. There are no instruments, only voices making the rhythm, harmony and singing in a choir. The band are like crooners singing on the top of an arrangement composed by the voices of the choir. It is such a special energy - I lived inside this song.”
“This song and this entire record are like a compass to me: when I feel lost in the world, I come back to it.
“A hundred years ago, a Brazilian literary scholar called Aires da Mata Machado Filho found out that a language spoken in the region of Ouro Preto - southeast of Brazil - was very similar to one spoken in some places in Africa. This was 200 years after these people had been kidnapped from their continent, enslaved, relentlessly forced into speaking Portuguese and adopting another culture and religion. But still their culture survived.
"He deepened his research and wrote this brilliant and beautiful book - O Negro e o Garimpo em Minas Gerais (Black People and Mining in Minas Gerais). In the book, amongst other things, he transcribed their chants into sheet music, presenting the stories behind them.
“Fast forward to the ‘70s when people from Eldorado, a Brazilian radio station, had the great idea of making a record out of it. They read the sheet music and produced it in a way where you only have voices on top of percussion - nothing else. To sing, they invited three iconic characters of Brazilian culture: Geraldo Filme, Tia Doca and Clementina De Jesus. While Geraldo Filme’s voice captured the racial and rural history of samba in São Paulo, Clementina and Tia Doca were almost like deities, fundamental to the process of bringing the genre from Bahia to Rio De Janeiro in the first place. Women like them were the true protagonists of this story; guardians of its historical and religious tradition.
“There is this mad phenomenon that happens when the music industry gets involved and starts to re-write genders. All of sudden, women are deliberately neglected, and the genre is presented as something predominantly male, when the ones who did all the groundwork of spreading the music and keeping it alive were female. Specifically, the ones who were mães-de-santo [female leader figures of candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion]. Their houses were a safe space for artists to make music, in a time when you had the catholic church chasing other religions and imposing conversion into Catholicism. These women were a crucial political element in society: a force field that protected black culture in Brazil.
“A beautiful thing about this record, O Canto Dos Escravos is its melancholy - it crushes your heart. Those songs were made by people who had their families taken away from them; who had their whole lives completely torn apart. The relationship between the oppressed and oppressor is still present in there, that music couldn’t directly confront it all, but it was still the space where they could express their desire for freedom. The means they found to shout that they wanted to be free; their way of denouncement through poetry. It was a touch of genius bringing these three to sing together. They draw a real sense of melancholy through their interpretation. It comes from a pure place.
“In “Canto II”, you have the elder who couldn’t escape from the farm, looking at a child who has gathered their clothes, made a bundle, and run away into the forest. They don’t know what they might find in there; they might encounter all sorts of feral creatures and dangers, but it will still be worth it, because their desire for freedom is the best thing they have inside them.
"I identify with that, I see myself in this kid who breaks free and takes this step towards freedom, completely in the dark. It’s better to take this step in the dark to live in freedom than to spend the rest of our lives locked in.
“I consider myself lucky being able to share this record with people - the generation living on this planet now needs it. Victory is worth less if we can’t free the soul of the ones who came before us.”
“Carlos, who works with us as a driver, is the king of music USB sticks. These days, camelôs [unofficial street vendors from Brazil] no longer sell CDs - they sell music on USB sticks, all kinds of genres. Let’s say you like… classic rock, you can buy a compilation with a thousand songs of it.
“Carlos had many of these and we used to listen to them when we were driving. Amongst them, there was a samba-rock and soul one that had “Cool Cat” on it. I didn’t know this song when I first heard of it. When I went to research it, I almost didn’t believe it was by Queen! It doesn’t sound like the other songs we know by them, it’s a true B-side.
“When I listen to a song I like, I take my time on the lyrics and I can get very caught up in them. This song, I find especially intriguing, because I still don’t really know if he is singing about a human or a cat. A cool cat, ha ha! I mean, it could be both. I was in London recently and I listened to this song a lot when I was over there. There were moments that I was like; ’No brother, it’s definitely a human’ but then I would go ‘Wait, is it? It could well be a cat, the cool cat.’
“I am fascinated by these possibilities of open interpretations, because life itself is many things and there are endless ways to look at it. We are living in a time when a lot of people wish that art was only this one thing, but that’s not possible. That kind of closed interpretation, with a predefined intention, we can leave for advertisements. Not for art. Art has to be interpreted in a thousand ways, you know? It’s part of its nature. I think the possibility of duality in this song is great.
“And there’s the arrangement. Absolutely brilliant. The guitar of our song “Cananéia, Iguape e Ilha Comprida” was totally inspired by “Cool Cat”; it was on repeat in the studio when we recorded it. I’m fascinated by the simplicity of it. It’s easy to get people’s attention when you have a full orchestra, it is very difficult to do that with very few elements. To create something sophisticated and simple, and then get people to feel a lot from a little, is magic.”
“I was listening to this song yesterday and I came to this conclusion: Gilberto Gil is the closest to God that we will get.
“Usually when people sing about God, saints or some kind of deity, they refer to it in the third person - something from another reality, a different dimension. Not Gilberto Gil though, he speaks to them like he’s having a chat with one of his mates. Well, that is because he is one of them; they are his mates.
“That’s what this song is about. “Filhos De Gandhi” is a phone call to God and deities from candomblé. It’s a very informal atmosphere - just a quick buzz to let them know that Filhos De Gandhi [a traditional carnival group from Bahia, derived from candomblé] is going to come out on the streets and they need to get out to see it. ‘God, tell Xangô, Yemanjá, Oxóssi, and the other deities, to come down to Earth - there will be a cool party and you should all come.’ He’s having a conversation with them from the same ground. Gilberto Gil is next level.
“I saw this interview once where he was asked about a popular Brazilian saying that claims that people from Bahia [state in the northeast of Brazil] are lazy. This myth is rooted in racism and goes back to slavery, when the number of people kidnapped and enslaved was higher than the demand for work. Often these people accumulated in the farms and, without any work to do, were called lazy and received punishment for it, when none of it was true. The truth was that they kidnapped millions of people.
“Gilberto Gil then said something beautiful about this. He commented on the need for a relationship with work that is different from the one we imported from Europe. He pointed out the danger of worshipping work and productivity as the main reason for our existence on Earth. It’s a dynamic that didn’t make sense in this part Africa, that was now building itself in Brazil. Our experience is more fluid and organic - less like a stone, and more like water. Water runs free and finds its own way, it’s an element that flows.
“I find this fascinating, because it’s closely connected with Afro-Brazilian manifestations of spirituality and how close to our life on Earth they are. When you study the orixás [deities from candomblé] you see that they had very human qualities: flaws and gifts, failures and successes. Their nature was at the same time human and divine, and this brings them closer to us. When there is this one God that is seen as perfection, people can’t get anywhere near that - they are always less and not enough. Spirituality and the connection to divine lives inside each of us. This is extremely profound.”
“Everybody Loves The Sunshine” gets me thinking that what we need to do with music is the same thing that the sunset does to humans: it embraces everyone. Everyone acknowledges its beauty, because it’s clearly beautiful but also because it’s free and available to everyone. I think a lot about that; about the meaning behind the sunset and about how to create music with that same atmosphere, that same message.
“When we look at soul and black music, they were singing about love in a very dense and sad time. A lot of those songs were written in the middle of this fierce, relentless fight for civil rights in the USA. There were a lot a racial crimes happening constantly, and, still, what they chose to share in their music was love. That was the way they found to bring hope to a different tomorrow.
“This was one of my main quests on my last record, AmarElo. To create a lightened-up atmosphere, like the one the colour yellow brings to us - a space of light, heat and warmth. I wanted to make something similar to what Roy creates in this song - a channel to share love.”
“Nanã is the orixá [deity from candomblé,] that represents the beginning of it all, the deity that guards’ mud. She was the one that provided mud to God so that he could create human beings. This song has a strong spiritual presence, that kind that makes you think: ‘Hold on a second. God wants to talk to me.’
“This song has this special pace and a rhythm that speaks to our ancestry. If we could turn the song upside down, you can relate the base of it to funk. And the base of funk is a candomblé rhythm called Congo De Ouro. So it’s not that she dialogues with funk - it actually brings the ancestral rhythm that funk originated from. It is like the precise centre of this experience of black music in Brazil.
“There is this funny story that when I went to record my first record, I didn’t know Moacir Santos was no longer alive. I went to the studio and said to everyone I was going to ask him to arrange the record. ‘Brother, let’s talk to Moacir Santos about collaborating on this record. We are going to do this, we’re going to do that, it’s going to sound great!’ They knew he was already dead, but I was so excited about it that they were too shy to tell me.
“Something I love about Moacir Santos is simplicity. He is very close to what we could call classical music, but he creates songs like “Nanã” that people feel connected to. To me, this connection comes from the rhythm.”
“One of the things I really like about Afrobeat - and Fela Kuti in particular - is the length of the songs: they are long.
"When a song is extensive, to me it suggests that we are being guided to this place that is similar to a trance. I’m fascinated by how this state can get you to start seeing life in a different way, like meditation does. If you try to meditate without emptying your mind, you don’t concentrate on anything and you miss the opportunity of connecting with yourself. Now, when you take the most basic, and often the most neglected, thing we have - breathing - and focus on it, you gain it all.
“This song creates a similar experience. “Water No Get Enemy” is serene. It takes its time to happen and to fully present all of its elements - piano, keyboard, drums, bass, guitar - but while they develop, you’re in there, flowing, and being conducted towards this daze, where the title is repeated several times ‘Water has no enemies.’
“This has a lot to do with what we spoke about Gilberto Gil and that philosophy where water is the main reference. A different logic from this, is that justifies our existence with production, as if we are alive to work. This is a very dangerous way of thinking, especially in the times we live in now. It encourages people to acknowledge nature as a mere battery that enables human beings to exist - a simple stock of elements necessary for life on Earth. No! That’s not the way it goes. We exist inside of nature, and nature exists inside of a bigger cycle. We are part of nature, and nature is not here to be seen as a reservoir for our needs.
“Fela Kuti injected new fuel into Nigerian music: he connects with tradition at the same time as making a dialogue with youth. His music was political and positioned itself against the government in a very direct, straight way. This matched the outrage of young people that was bursting out all over the globe - especially in the American continent, where descendants of people who had been enslaved were seeking to regain everything that was stolen from them. And still are.
“Water No Get Enemy” was like premium fuel. It said: ‘This is grandiose, this is beautiful, sophisticated, intellectual - and it is black.’ It’s ours. It comes from us and this is the kind of grandiosity we need to defend ourselves. That wasn’t only coming from Fela’s music. You had Malcom X in the USA, you had Abdias de Nascimento in Brazil. In Brazil, you also have samba continuously consolidating itself as a place of resistance. Fela Kuti used to speak about that; about how music can be a weapon, and samba was very effective in that sense. It brought our self-esteem back to us. It was music being used as a weapon of freedom. If we were to wait for history books or entertainment to do that, we would be a hundred years late.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people still can’t understand the depth of this - the depth of this shout for freedom that samba brings. They get to a place where they overstep different ways of existing to prioritise and centralise a specific one. Centrism is a very dangerous thing. Many lives were lost because of this way of thinking, that sees Earth as the absolute centre of the universe.
“Look at the world from a humbler perspective, and there are no issues with Darwin’s theory of evolution. For some people it’s very offensive to consider that at some point in history we were monkeys, because of this thought that perceives humans as the centre of all things, of the sun and the universe - God’s greatest creation. This is threatening, not only because of its vanity, but also because it’s not based on reality. It comes from a very limited and ignorant perspective about what surrounds us.
“One expression of it is Eurocentrism. We live in a world where there are many different ways for societies to structure and develop themselves, thousands of ways to comprehend human life, and think of philosophy, art, technology, architecture that are beyond Europe. This is not to diminish the European contribution to the world. It’s important to recognise it, but it is crucial that we question what our necessities are in the 21st century. It’s urgent for us to start understanding other epistemologies, other forms of organization - I believe our salvation will come from there.
“I don’t think cars, computers, mobile phones or scooters will save the human race. It will be the capacity to look at another human-being and to recognise their humanity as a field that connects all of us. It’s from there that we can understand how to individually contribute with the world and then work towards it. It’s pointless to be an astronaut, biologist, civil engineer, a scientist or a millionaire if, first of all, we can’t be human.
“Let’s think about why water has no enemies. What would be water’s main purpose? To create life. It doesn’t create life out of love or hate, it just does what it’s meant to do. And this, a lot of the time, is beyond the comprehension of a human being. For example, when there are floods and human life suffers from it, it can be hard to not build an emotional perspective of it as an element of nature.
"Water is what it is, and it does what it does. Wherever it passes, it opens the possibility for a new kind of life to be born. In the end, life always wins. It might not be ours, but life still overcomes.”