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“Don’t think, just dance”:

Brazilian rapper Tássia Reis chats music, what she loves about Brazil’s music scene and why samba is next on her list

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It takes mere minutes for Tássia Reis to make you feel comfortable and at ease. Her shy smile, which we later learn dates back to high school, gives way to an openness that radiates warmth through the Zoom call like South American sunshine. A confident young woman who has proven her creative depth many times over and still has plenty to say, she also has the platforms from which to be heard as one of Brazil’s most audible MCs and vocalists. And then there’s the clothing brand.

A month before her December 2020 performance for Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music in The Round Sao Paulo she dropped the single Inspira, Try on a planet that desperately needed to unwind. Betraying the broad range running through her work, this particular tonic came as an exotic late night R&B stepper, deftly marrying fast Portuguese rap flows with laidback, sultry and unarguably intoxicating song.

Fierce to sophisticated in bold but seamless swoops, exploring her back catalogue widens that scope further, whether urban pop with hints of Bossa Nova on 2019’s Próspera LP, or playing hypnotic siren to Rashid’s verses on jazzy, smoked-out South American hip hop jam, Vicio. Ten years after moving to Sao Paulo an undergraduate student she recently returned from Brazil’s biggest city to her nearby hometown Jacareí more than a local hero. Appropriately, then, she opens with how she started.

“There are two things I used to do, the first is Samba dance. You know about Carnival? It’s something my family have always liked, so I started there. That made me go into other types of dance, which leads me to hip hop culture, and urban dances. At the same time I’m still involved in Carnival. So my background is really a mixture of these things, and I’ve been doing them since I was 14,” the 31-year-old tells us, a level of enthusiasm in her voice that does no disservice to a country known to wear dance culture on its sleeve.

“The roots are in the diaspora, from Africa. How dance and music is so important within African culture, I think Brazil has a lot of this culture in our rituals, parties, a lot of dance. So something religious, but also just a way to express ourselves. And for fun,” she replies when we ask for her take on the significance of dance in Brazilian life.

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“Moving the body is something special, because we are made of energy, and we can put this energy into something special for the world. I’ve never thought about how it’s special, but when you look at Carnival, it’s just part of our ancestry and our identity. I mean we don’t think, we just dance.”

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Switching from philosophical to direct is nothing new for Reis, as her lyrics prove (even when put through an English translation mill). While regularly touching on the state of things, perhaps what’s most impressive is her ability to tackle more abstract themes often as vast in scope as they are poignant. Ideas of self-worth regularly sit beside the need to self-actualise in order to change patterns and behaviours for the better. A kind of straight talking emotionally intelligent support that says plenty about attitude.

“My music is about life, it’s about my feelings. How I understand the world and society and my family. All my feelings. It’s something that I put into my music and my songs that I want to translate a positive message. But also I need to be a realist. We have had bad moments in the world, especially in Brazil, so I am positive but I need to be realistic and my songs, I believe, talk straight,” she explains.

“I started writing poetry first. When I was in school I loved to take the school books and go to quiet spaces to write. I was a shy girl and writing allowed me to express myself. My poetry then became songs when I realised ‘Oh my god, I can do music’,” says Reis, pointing out this wasn’t until later. “Something changed the moment I was moving to Sao Paulo. I was a fashion design student, but at the same time as studying I was starting to write songs, graduating into my music career.”

A decade or so after her breakthrough single Meu RapJazz created waves online, Reis has become a bonafide role model in Brazilian popular culture. An example of representation she sees as long overdue. “I used to watch artists like Beyonce and others dance, so for me it’s about telling a story about being free. At the time we weren’t seeing young Black people in Brazil doing things on television, so I think I embraced hip hop culture, and it embraced me, because I could see myself in other young people around the world. Not just from America, also African artists.

“But I’m a Brazilian woman and I find other inspiration, too, and it’s difficult to separate things — I’ve grown up with both inside me,” she continues, before we ask if the situation has changed in terms of representation and opportunities for exposure in Brazil. “There’s still a problem. But now we have the internet. That has made some things happen. Like my career, for example.

“And we have fought against racism in television, in the culture, everywhere. So we fight for representation. And something has changed, because they, the brands, are realising we need to see each other, and it needs to happen now,” says Reis, going on to suggest that while improvements are evident, the reasons behind them may not always be strictly humanitarian.

“I don’t think they are thinking ‘Oh my God, we need to do this for people’. It’s just about money. But things are changing, slowly, and they are changing because of the public demand, which is really important to continue,” she says. Our conversation moves to her own experience as a young Black female artist in control of her own career. “It’s not easy. But I’m a determined person, and I’ve been fighting, my manager has been fighting with me too. I believe it’s possible to change the world.”

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Reis’ goals for 2021 do nothing if not reinforce the idea positivity and doggedness are fundamental to her personality. “I have many plans. But an album, yes. Well, actually, I plan on releasing two albums this year. And then a book, I’ve started to write but I don’t know when it will be finished. It’s about the history of my family, I discovered many interesting stories I didn’t know.

“My manager is going crazy,” she replies with a mouthful of laughter when we ask about making two albums  and writing a book in another particularly unstable year for music, and life. “I want to do a new album with rap, R&B songs, some Brazilian songs, too. But I really feel that before the end of the year there’s an album of Samba also. A short one maybe. But it’s something I really love and I’ve never done this before, but this time I’ve realised that Samba is my first inspiration so maybe I can really take it on.”

A fitting challenge given Reis is currently back where it all began, unsurprisingly it’s unlikely to be a case of simply covering the classics. Like everything else, it’s about putting heart, soul, body and mind into creating new work, in this case compositions inspired by one of Brazil’s most significant cultural assets. Which also happens to have a particularly personal significance.

“I actually had some sambas I have written, there are classical music songs I want to record too. My dad has always said to me ‘You need to release some samba’. So this would be like ‘Yeah Papa, I can do this’. It’s something emotional and really true to my life,” she says as the call comes to an end, a closing statement that could easily be applied to just about everything Reis touches.

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