Rita Lee: Brazilian Black Sheep

Rita Lee: She was never a good example, but she was a good person

Over the past weeks, many papers worldwide have reported Rita Lee’s death. Countless headlines refer to her as ‘Brazil’s Queen of Rock’, ‘Tropicalia Pioneer’, or ‘Os Mutantes Founder’. None of them is a lie, but she was more. Her legacy extends beyond 40 discographies.

Behind a successful woman, there is a tribe of others who hold her back. Rita Lee’s musicality was influenced by her own mother, who played piano. This became a hobby, where Rita Lee had classes with no other than Magdalene Tagliaferro, a traditional Brazilian classical musician.

Rita Lee: Patroness of Freedom

Her youth and career development were simultaneous in the 1960s. In Brazil, it started a military dictatorship with many censorships, repression, and violence. From 1964 to 1985. However, the ‘years of lead’ did not slow the cultural revolution. Many Brazilians, like Rita Lee, were influenced by the British invasion and counterculture. This is notable by her rebellious behaviour, defying authorities, and transgressive attitude, since her adolescence that was kept to her stage persona.

Her first bands were Tulio Trio which played tribute to Ray Charles, where she was a backing vocalist. Teenage Singers, her school band in which she played drums. The second one caught the attention of the Brazilian reputed singers of the beginning of the decade, Prini Lopez (tribute singer to American artist Trini Lopez) and Tony Campelo (brother and co-worker of Celly Campelo). This eventually led to Teenage Singers contributing as backing vocals on a few albums.

During 1964-1965, Teenage Singers met Wooden Faces, the Baptista brothers, who were also their rivals. In the course of time, they united and became the Six-Sided Rockers. The Continental, a traditional pioneer Brazilian record label, suggested they change their name to something in Portuguese to get closer to the audience. This was the moment the band was renamed O’Seis.

Throughout time, the band members were shortened to a trio, which was initially called Os Bruxos. The group was known for its extravagant performances, derisive lyrics, and alternative effects and techniques from the time-as they originated from equipment that did not arrive in Brazil until then. They presented in the debut of O Pequeno Mundo de Ronnie Von, who was a rising star and baptized a new band named Os Mutantes. Ronnie Von was inspired by a sci-fi book he read at the time.

The day of their debut in the mentioned television show is also known as the start of psychedelic rock in Brazil. In a nutshell, the style of rock music popular in the late 1960s was largely composed under the effect of hallucinogenic drugs.

Rita Lee: She was never a good example, but she was a good person | Rock & Art
Os Mutantes, original formation (Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sérgio Dias)

Many considered Os Mutantes the Brazilian Beatles. Initially formed by Rita Lee, Arnaldo Baptista, and Sergio Dias. However, throughout time its members changed, and after her departure, they became a progressive rock band. Before these changes, the original trio kept their uniqueness from Os Bruxos. Extravagant performances, humorous aesthetics, lyrics, costumes, and alternative techniques. They were pioneers in the mixing of Brazilian rhythm with foreign rock. Their sound attracted and was complimented by other big names in the music industry.

Os Mutantes were called to do the backing vocals for “Bom Dia” by Nana Caymmi, the owner of an exceptional musical voice and daughter of none other than Dorival Caymmi, another reputed Brazilian singer. The song was initially composed by Gilberto Gil, a revered Brazilian singer, and invited them to join him in “Domingo no Parque” at the Festival de Música Popular Brasileira de 1967. This event became a musical truce between Brazilian rock and MPB (Brazilian Popular Music). Earlier in the same year, specifically in July, there was a march against electric guitars. It was in opposition to the influence of foreign music on Brazilian songs. Claiming the instrument that could affect Brazilian music.

Under this scenario, on the same day as the performance of Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes, the festival mentioned marked the start of Tropicália. This amalgamated genres from abroad and national instruments/rhythms. It was influenced by the counterculture and a resistance mark against the military dictatorship through critical lyrics. Sooner or later, many artists from the movement were arrested and exiled, which ended the movement.

After misunderstandings between the members, Rita Lee was no longer a part of the band in 1972. She came to London in the 1970s. This journey changed her completely. When she was part of Os Mutantes, she was a feminine hippie persona. After she visited the UK, she was influenced by glam rock, specifically David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Her famous persona adopted Bowie’s iconic androgynous style and red fringe hair, which became part of her identity. She became a queer icon, and a female vanguard, as will be mentioned in the following paragraph.

Rita Lee: She was never a good example, but she was a good person | Rock & Art
Babilônia (Rita Lee, 1978)

When she returned to Brazil, she created the duo Cilibrinas do Éden with Lucinha Turnbull, famous as the first female guitarist in the country-their style, a mixture of Brazilian rock and folk music. They met the band Lisergia, and together they created Tutti Frutti. She was a part until 1976, the start of her solo career.

In her autobiography, Rita Lee said in many interviews that the music industry, especially the rock genre, was a male-dominated environment and highly sexist. However, she aimed to prove them wrong and paved the way for many female rockers in the country. Being one of the first females to do songwriting and musical arrangements and playing an electric guitar.

Not to forget, she was arrested under military dictatorship when she was pregnant with her first child. This was an attempt by the military to represent their power under the naughtiness of the youth. Rita Lee was an example of the great habits of the traditional Brazilian family that supported the coup d’etat. The military arrested her under drug possession. However, in her autobiography, she admitted that during her pregnancy, she was sober and did not use drugs. Elis Regina, another Brazilian iconic singer, was released from prison, where she almost suffered a miscarriage.

She was a woman ahead of her time in favour of free speech, especially in the post-military dictatorship environment. Her songs touched upon taboos for the conservative society of the time, especially when they came from a woman’s perspective. Her feminist lyrics touched upon female sexuality and pleasure, menopause, and menstruation. Homages to national feminist icons such as Pagu. References to the repressed queer culture and homosexuality.

Her rock and roll attitude prevailed, challenging the status quo, even if her songs were a mixture of many other genres. She never denied her use of drugs, not only illegal ones but also alcohol. Eventually, this will result in dependence and, therefore, rehabilitation. Her iconic performance and “É Proibido Fumar” cover with Gilberto Gil, the two artists were standing on marijuana legalization. It became one of the causes she fought for publicly.

Last but not least, she became an icon generation after generation. Not only the youth of the 1960s or the legions of female fans. She was the queen of Brazilian soap opera soundtracks. Also, she conquered the hearts of younger generations with children’s books and music. Additionally, she has a global fan base. Besides the iconic artists aforementioned, she was famous in countries such as France and even in the United Kingdom, where a Daily Mirror headline from 1988 said that none other than King Charles was her fan.

She was iconic off-stage as well. When she became a vegetarian, an environmentalist, and pro-animal rights in an era when such topics were popular political stances in Brazil, besides that; after she declared her retirement from concerts, she decided not to dye her hair anymore. She accepted her natural ageing with grey hair and without surgery. In 2016, she published her autobiography, where she unravelled more taboos, including abortion and abuse during her childhood.