Finally, Portuguese Creole rap is getting the attention it deserves
With increasing major label interest, the scene inspired by its Cabo Verdean heritage, Afrobeats and UK drill is on the rise.
Vado Más Ki Ás "Godzilla"
The Republic of Cabo Verde is made up of 10 islands and has a population of just over 500,000. Including its diaspora, there are less than a million speakers of Cabo Verdean Creole, its Portuguese-based native language. But music in Cabo Verdean Creole is having an outsize impact. The language has birthed traditional genres like the bluesy string-based morna -- which features on UNESCO’s list of culturally-important things worth safeguarding, and lays claim to giants including its late queen Cesária Évora -- as well as critically adored young genre benders Dino d’Santiago and Mayra Andrade, who mix modern pop with classical Cabo Verdean sounds. But in 2020, it’s Portuguese Creole hip-hop that really took off, finding widespread appeal in the international mainstream.
In the early 90s, over a decade later than the rest of the world, Portugal was waking up to rap. And while the first Portuguese rap hits began seeing meaningful airplay, a handful of local Creole artists like Djoek and TWA were laying down their take on the genre in their mother tongue. A crossover with Creole music was a natural fit, as many of the scene’s most fertile neighbourhoods also had sizeable Creole-speaking populations. Districts like Cova da Moura, a vibrant, if poverty-stricken community outside Lisbon’s city centre, and parts of residential Margem Sul, which sits across the river from the capital, where Creole remains the preferred lingua franca.
Journalist Ricardo Farinha, who has covered the local scene for years, confirms that while rap had long been an afterthought in the Portuguese musical landscape, this was doubly true of its Creole variety. “It’s important to stress though, that it’s all the same scene -- whether in Portuguese or Creole, it all falls under Portuguese rap, or rap tuga, as the locals call it,” Ricardo adds. “The movement encompasses different variations, sounds and languages, but there’s no real distinction between them.”
With the success of the wider scene on the rise, the most notable Creole rappers are currently racking up streaming numbers that push eight figures -- not far behind some of Portugal’s biggest pop/R&B crossover stars like Richie Campbell and Mishlawi. Part of the subgenre’s increased popularity in recent years is likely due to just how well suited it is to the YouTube era. After all, Creole rap has always had something of a DIY aesthetic -- lacking support from major labels, artists often recorded in modest home studios, paying jobbing videographers to come shoot music videos in Lisbon’s outer subúrbios.
Local community programs, too, have played a vital part in supporting Creole rap. One notable example is Kova M Éstudio, a nonprofit in Couva da Moura aimed at fostering local artistic development. The studio, part of the larger Moinho da Juventude Cultural Association, played an important role in the early careers of rappers like frequent collaborators Nico O.G. and Timor YSF, as well as Vado Más Ki Ás and Mynda Guevara. When we asked Mynda what she draws creative inspiration from, she was quick to shout out her neighbourhood: “My inspirations have always been my life, Cova da Moura, my reality, everyday situations.”
Creole rap’s collective, mostly unsuccessful, bid for mainstream attention had been slow and steady for some time, but when Rafa G -- a soulful, trap-influenced rapper from Vale da Amoreira -- signed with Universal last year, it seemed like the floodgates had finally opened. Julinho KSD and Vado Más Ki Ás have both since signed with Sony, while DreNaz joined Rafa at Universal. “Julinho KSD and Vado Más Ki Ás are both extremely talented,” said Afonso Rodrigues, A&R at Sony Portugal. “We expect that within this fusion of languages and sounds, new artists will continue to emerge.”
To followers of the Creole rap scene, it’s clear that this new attention is just the beginning. If we look back at when Portuguese-language rap and Creole music of other genres saw increasing attention from major labels in the late 2000s, Creole rappers were largely left behind. And the lack of interest was understandable: Portugal’s rap audience was small, with the Creole-speaking portion smaller still. But times and attitudes towards foreign-language music have changed and Sony, whose roster already boasted a wealth of Creole artists, was uniquely positioned to usher in this new era of Portuguese Creole rap.
So what does that look like? Well, collaborations between Creole and Portuguese rappers remain a hallmark of rap tuga -- it’s all one scene, after all -- but collaborations between Creole rappers and more successful Creole artists of other genres have become increasingly common. Julinho KSD is a prime example, whose remarkable range makes a collab with Cabo Verdean-influenced R&B singer Dino d’Santiago on 2020’s “Kriolu” (which currently has over three million views) sound just as natural as “Depósitos” with trap-influenced Creole rapper Rafa G. Vado Más Ki Ás, too, has benefitted from his willingness to experiment: “I like to maintain a level of diversity [in my work],” he tells us. “I think it helps keep fans curious about what they’ll hear next.”
This increased openness to incorporate new sounds has undoubtedly impacted the explosion of Portuguese Creole rap. The Portuguese scene has long veered toward boom-bap, and Creole rap was no exception, generally prioritising dark and melancholy production faithful to American hip-hop’s golden age. But this is no longer the case. Recalling groups like Buraka Som Sistema -- arguably one of Portugal’s most notable musical exports ever -- Afrobeat production choices are now a mainstay of some of the genre’s brightest stars, especially in the work of Julinho and his group Instinto 26, who are also signed to Sony.
Others, like Minguito 283 and Vado Más Ki Ás, pull from the UK’s drill scene when it comes to both production and aesthetics. This diversity is true of the wider Portuguese rap scene too: in a single album it’s not uncommon to hear the influence of Brazil’s distinctive tamborzão, Afrobeat, drill, fado and boom-bap in the span of just a few songs. Similarly, in any Portuguese Creole rap song, it’s likely you’ll hear at least a verse in Portuguese and even the occasional English ad-lib. “Creole is usually my base, and Portuguese is a sort of addition,” Julinho KSD says of the role that language plays in his music. “Ever since I started writing lyrics, they were always in Creole,” adds rapper Mynda Guevara. “It’s part of me and my culture, and it’s the language I feel most comfortable in.”
Switching between Creole and Portuguese has become standard practice for Creole artists, with both Mynda and Vado Más Ki Ás suggesting their decision to branch out to the latter is in part down to maximising reach. But it’s also a natural extension of what it means to be and speak Creole, itself a blend of languages and a defining feature of what people are dubbing the “Nova Lisboa” — the “New Lisbon”, where the merging of cultures has created a singular art and culture scene.
The fact that Guevara, Julinho KSD and others have managed to attract significant interest in Creole-only or largely Creole songs reflects a larger global desire for foreign language music. Music in languages other than English has always had an audience, but only to the extent that it could be called “world” music. We need only look toward the global rise of K-pop and the wild popularity of Spanish-language artists like Rosalía and Bad Bunny to see that it’s easier than ever to attract a large fanbase while singing in a language other than English. The rise of Portuguese Creole rap can be understood in similar terms, albeit on a smaller scale: the majority of its fanbase doesn’t speak Creole, and nobody seems to mind.
The artists and local voices we spoke with stressed representation: to speak a Creole language in the shadow of its parent language is in itself a perpetual bid for recognition, for legitimacy. But to see the recent influx of innovative Creole music coming out of the country as solely a pitch for representation fails to explain the genre’s growing popularity among non-Creole speakers. Nestled between musical worlds, Creole rap is saying something new. Both fans and labels are listening.