Actor Fabrício Boliveira will portray Brazil’s first black pop superstar, singer Wilson Simonal, in a 2019 biopic
By Marques Travae
When I first dove head first int the world of of MPB, or Brazilian Popular Music, I of course came across all of the greats that Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike will come to know. Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque, Gal Costa, Elis Regina, Maria Bethânia, Jorge Ben, Roberto Carlos, etc. But then once you get back the first tier of the classic artists, it really starts to get interesting.
That’s when I discovered artists like Tim Maia and Wilson Simonal. Two black singers of enormous talents emerging in the 1960s and 70s. Maia became known as Brazil’s “father of Soul Music”, having passed a stint in the United States and becoming immersed in the classic Soul music of the era. Even though Maia never quite reached the same success of Caetano, Gil, Buarque, Carlos, etc., his catalog is part of the repertoire of any Brazilian who listens to the radio for any amount of time. Maia’s “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” story is legendary and today his music pops up in films as well as television commercials with his life story making it to the big screen in a biopic back in 2014 as well as a musical that hit stages starting in 2011. Similarly, actor/singer Ícaro Silva portrayed Simonal in a 2015 successful musical.
Back in the early 2000s, when I spent a lot of time in sebos (used record stores) in Bahia, Minas Gerais and São Paulo buying up dusty albums, I got a lot of help from record vendors who would recommend this or that artist. And one day I came across a sort of greatest hits collection with the title of one of the artist’s biggest hit in letters across the front of a CD. “Tributo a Martin Luther King”, or “tribute to Martin Luther King” was the name of the song and the artist was Wilson Simonal.
The very fact that the iconic Civil Rights leader’s name was in the song obviously caught my attention first, but then I wanted to know about the black singer with the headband wrapped around his head with mic in hand. At first listen, I admit, I wasn’t really feeling Simonal’s music. A bit to “lounge clubby” for my taste. His horn accentuated, pop-swing arrangements were much closer to that sort of “Rat Pack” sound that one would expect to hear on a Love Boat soundtrack than I cared to hear. Wilson Pickett Wilson Simonal clearly was not. But who says he was supposed to be?
This is not to say Simonal didn’t release anything that I liked. And after going through most of his catalog of the 60s and 70s, I found his mid-70s releases to be more along my standards. No heavy funk for sure, but still a couple of grooves that were at least good enough to make you bob your head or chill out. Two of my fave joints by Simonal are his 1967 hit “Nem vem que não tem” that was featured in a pivotal hold up scene in the classic 2002 film Cidade de Deus (City of God) and “Partitura de Amor”, from his 1975 LP Ninguém Proíbe O Amor, a song co-written by another Afro-Brazilian singer/songwriters who developed a flare for American Soul music, Cassiano.
Like most Afro-Brazilians of his era, Simonal came from humble origins but with a meteoric rise to the top of Brazil’s pop music charts, he could be considered Brazil’s first black pop superstar, achieving unprecedented success, especially for a man with a clearly black phenotype. With sold out shows at huge arenas, three TV programs, big money, what was considered the biggest endorsement deal for a Brazilian artist at the time with Shell and three Mercedes Benzes in his garage, Simonal lived a success that would be hard to believe for a black man in Brazil. Perhaps too good to be true.
For actor Fabrício Boliveira, who will be bringing Simonal’s story to the big screen in 2019 (see clip here), Simonal was the first Brazilian star whose life and career was crushed by racism. The singer’s fall from pop superstardom began when he began to lose the support of public opinion because of his association with insiders from the DOPS agency, Departamento de Ordem Política e Social or Department of Political and Social Order, a sort of government secret service active during Brazil’s brutal 21-year Military Dictatorship. Simonal was accused of arranging for DOPS to kidnap and torture his own accountant when he began to experience financial problems. For the left he was a snitch, for the right, a subversive element,but the truth that the powers that be couldn’t deal with seeing a black man living such a lavish lifestyle.
Boliveira brings the Simonal story to the big screen at a time when Afro-Brazilian voices are leading the charge in the call for black representation on the big, the small screen and in Brazilian society as a whole. In Brazil’s movie industry, it is still rare to see black men or women cast as the top star of any production, much less a biopic. But after Babu Santana gave the character of the controversial Tim Maia life in 2014, Boliveira reviving the black superstar Simonal is perhaps recognition that, after the blockbuster success of Pantera Negra (Black Panther) in Brazil, black faces and stories can no longer be ignored on the big screen. Boliveira certainly understands this struggle up close as he is one of the few black actors appearing in the current Globo TV novela, Segundo Sol, a series that drew controversy upon the release of the first photos of main actors, mostly white, portraying characters in set in the heavily Afro-Brazilian state of Bahia.
Whether one is a fan of Simonal’s music or not, believes he was a government snitch or not, his story is an important piece of Afro-Brazilian history as, at that time, Brazil had never seen a black artist of such magnitude. A rise and fall tale of a black star comes along at the perfect time during the luta negra (black struggle) and success of a black population in a modern era whose success is still not accepted by a large parcel of Brazil’s middle class.