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Challenging traditional sertanejo, Brazil's Gabeu creates space for queer love songs

In his queer reworking of <em>sertanejo</em>, Gabeu flips the image of the macho cowboy on its head.
Pedro Nekoi for NPR
In his queer reworking of sertanejo, Gabeu flips the image of the macho cowboy on its head.

In celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, NPR Music is spotlighting a series of artists across Latin America who are engaging with their musical heritage in unique ways. From reworking conservative genres for new eras, to teasing out modern sounds from old-school instruments, these artists represent the wide range of experimentation that makes up contemporary Latin music.

In certain parts of Brazil, it's nearly impossible to escape the sound of sertanejo. Deep in the countryside, in the small towns that line soybean farms and endless stretches of land, you won't find bikinis, coconut water or samba for miles. This is the land of country music and cowboy hats. "It doesn't matter where you are — every dive bar or restaurant will be playing it," says singer Gabeu, who grew up in Franca, a small city in the state of São Paulo. "That or a duo will be performing sertanejo songs live."

Melding elements of rock, pop and forró, the melodic genre is often touted as Brazil's alternative to American country music. But it's also more complicated than that. "Unlike country, sertanejo is distinctly Latin American," says Gabeu, speaking via Zoom from his living room couch in São Paulo. "It draws inspiration from Paraguayan genres [such as the guaranía or the polka], for example. Maybe that's why it's hard to fully explain what it is." What is certain, however, is that it is the biggest genre in the country. Consistently topping the national charts, sertanejo is an increasingly popular — and lucrative — industry. Last year, 60% of the top hits played on Brazilian radio fell under the genre.

Part of what makes the genre so successful is that its artists are decidedly earnest. It's common in sertanejo for lovelorn musicians to sing about longing and heartbreak — experiences people often relate to. But not everyone can see themselves in these stories. Growing up, Gabeu, the son of well-known sertanejo artist Solimões, could never relate to the straight, heteronormative ballads around him. So on his 2021 debut album AGROPOC, which earned a Latin Grammy nomination this yearfor best sertaneja music album, he set out to change that by singing about finding queer love in the country's largely conservative heartland. Part of a new scene called "queernejo," Gabeu, 24, is among a group of artists leading the charge in the creation of a new kind of sertanejo — one which carves out space for more than one kind of love story.

That starts with flipping the image of the macho cowboy on its head. For as long as Gabeu can remember, sertanejo singers have been straight. And while they may no longer look exactly like they did in the '90s — women, for example, now hold an increasingly larger stake in the genre — conventional gender stereotypes and heteronormativity still loom large. "These days the look can feel more modern for men, it's more polo shirts and jeans, less traditional," says Gabeu. "Maybe a cowboy hat or a big belt buckle once in a while." But, at its core, the genre's relationship with traditional gender dynamics and aesthetics has largely stayed the same, he explains.

Gabeu started feeling like the odd one out in his city when he was a teenager. The longer he spent at sertanejo shows and drinking in the barzinhos around town, the more he realized these spaces weren't meant for him. "I was beginning to understand my sexuality and just couldn't see myself in any of it," says Gabeu, running a hand through his short, flame-colored hair. "That's when I started listening to American pop." Finding Lady Gaga helped. "I loved all the divas, but she was the main one for me," he adds with a laugh. "At one point, I really was that annoying fan."

Moving away from Franca to study film in São Paulo was another turning point. "While I was there, I started getting to know queer artists who were daring to try their hand at genres that weren't pop: people from working class neighborhoods that made hip-hop, queer musicians from the northeast making brega funk," an energetic style of dance music born in Recife, Brazil. It soon became clear that if they could do it, he could do it too.

The way Gabeu sees it, sertanejo has a lot to gain from mingling with other genres, from pop to American country to tecno brega. "I wanted AGROPOC to be playful," he says. "Every song points in a different direction." Lyrically, Gabeu's strength lies in his ability to craft evocative scenes out of personal experience — a characteristic shared by the best sertanejos. "How much longer do we have to love in the dark?" he asks in the track "Amor Rural" over a jangly guitar lick. "Every piece of this farm is hiding the truth."

AGROPOC opens with a fake radio message broadcast in an imaginary world. "This is AGROPOC, the most popular sertanejo radio station in the country," says Gabeu in the first track. It's wishful thinking, he tells me, but not necessarily impossible. In 2020, Gabeu and non-binary sertanejo artist Gali Galó launched the country's first queernejo music festival, Fivela Fest. Bringing together live performances and talks, it sought to introduce the genre to a wider audience. "People like Alice Marcone, Reddy Allor and Zerzil performed," says Gabeu. "It wasn't hugely popular, but we managed to reach our audience."

For Gabeu, it's impossible to separate the onset of queernejo from Brazil's broader political situation. Over the course of the past four years, a remarkable number of sertanejo artists have spoken out in favor of Brazil'sfar-right,anti-LGBTQ+ President Jair Bolsonaro. "That really messed with me," says Gabeu.

It was also about what the president represented to Gabeu. "I remember having a horrible experience around the time Bolsonaro was elected at a Shania Twainconcert in Barretos." During the show, Twain invited a gay couple onto the stage and one of them proposed. "I've never heard so much booing in my life," the artist says.

In some ways, the genre's support for the president is still ongoing. In 2018, leading artist Gusttavo Limadeclared his support for the president in a video in which he is seen shooting a rifle. Ahead of the presidential election on Oct. 2, the duo Mateus e Cristiano launched a jingle for Bolsonaro's campaign.

Still, the scene is changing. "In some ways, queernejo was born out of this gigantic need to redefine the genre's relationship with Bolsonarismo," says Gabeu. "It's also why we try to reclaim symbols too, even when it might seem like we're leaning on stereotypes: I want people to look at a cowboy hat and not see a Bolsonaro supporter."

This feels like a distant reality, but recent strides made by queer country artists in North America such as Orville Peck, whose song "Dead of Night" scored a highly discussed scene in the HBO hit series Euphoria this year, make him hopeful. For Gabeu, there's no reason queernejo can't enter the Brazilian mainstream in the same way one day.

For now, however, his focus is reaching queer Brazilians who, like him, grew up thinking sertanejo wasn't for them. "There are so many people in the LGBTQ+ community living in the countryside," he says. "How crazy is it to think that this is the first time they've been able to see and hear themselves in the genre?" It's no surprise many might feel inclined to change the radio station when sertanejo plays. But, if they hear a queernejo song instead, they might be inclined to keep listening.

Carolina Abbott Galvão is a researcher at Monocle magazine. She has also written for The New York Times, The Guardian and Refinery 29, among others.

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Carolina Abbott Galvão