She was one of those artists who, in a country full of discord, everyone knew all the words to her songs. Marília Mendonça, the 26-year-old Brazilian musical superstar, died on November 5, 2021, when the small plane carrying her, her manager, producer and two crew members crashed into a small waterfall near her destination of Caratinga, Minas Gerais, in central Brazil, where she was to perform.
The following day, a hundred thousand people lined the highway as her body was carried atop a fire truck and followed by the tour buses of other singers of sertanejo, Brazil’s equivalent of country-western music, for the trip to her final resting place in her home state of Goiás.
Singer, musician and composer of Brazilian sertanejo, a traditionally male-dominated and macho musical form that originated in the cattle-raising interior of the country, Mendonça inverted the accordion-based style, singing about both romance and empowerment from a female perspective. Unapologetic about a woman’s appetites and desires, as in “Bebi Liguei” (“I Drank, I Called”), she became an icon for young Brazilian women, as at her 2019 concert in Manaus, where the huge crowd sang along to her hit “Supera” (“Overcome”).
Following her lead, “feminejo”, a woman-led sertanejo movement, has become popular. In one collaboration with duo Maiara and Maraisa, Mendonça sings about female solidarity in “A culpa é dele” (“It’s His Fault”):
“I’m not going to stop
Being your friend
Because of some guy
Who doesn’t respect a woman.”
Mendonça also fused sertanejo with the rhythms and instruments of the entire country, incorporating batucada and bossa nova while touring every corner of Brazil’s 8.5 million square kilometers. Her songwriting and singing of heartbreak, strength and empowerment resonated with the country at large, making her one of the most popular artists in Brazil.
During the pandemic, she livestreamed herself singing non-stop for 3-1/2 hours, breaking Youtube’s record with a peak of 3.3 million viewers. Her heartfelt lyrics were simultaneously translated into Brazilian sign language, and the virtual show raised 220 tonnes of food and household goods donations, for a country wracked by political turmoil and high rates of crime and violence and decimated by the world’s highest mortality during the pandemic.
Her deep and powerful voice, wide range, and songs about heartbreak, led to her being called the Brazilian Adele, especially following her juggernaut hit “Infiel” (“Unfaithful”) in 2016. With her characteristic humility and self-effacement, the talented musician responded simply, “They just call me that because I’m a little fat.”
But like the British singer, Mendonça had the rare talent of touching and uniting people of diverse backgrounds, even reaching those in opposition to each other.
Brazilian footballer and Paris Saint-Germain player Neymar tweeted, “I refuse to believe this. I refuse.” On Saturday, he lifted his jersey on the playing field to reveal an undershirt with the handwritten words, “I will be your eternal fan”. Numerous Brazilian football clubs expressed their sadness as well.
Bossa Nova legend Caetano Veloso recalled how he cited her not once but twice in his 2021 song “Sem Samba Não Dá”(“Without Samba, There is Nothing”), calling her “Maravília” (Marvelous) Mendonça.
Mendonça’s death also affected the country’s disparate contenders in the upcoming presidential elections. Current president Jair Bolsonaro, now accused of genocide over his handling of the pandemic, lamented the singer’s demise, albeit circumspectly. While visibly moved upon being asked for comment, he quickly regained his composure. “We all have to die sometime,” he explained.
Ex-president Lula Inácio da Silva, imprisoned by the Bolsonaro government for almost two years until he was recently exonerated, cancelled an interview on Friday and his engagements for the weekend as he mourned the loss. Lula is leading in presidential polls by a wide margin.
Perhaps heralding a new direction in her career, Mendonça premiered a video-film, again with Maiara and Maraisa, just three weeks before her death, on October 15, 2021. Entitled “Esqueça-me Se For Capaz” (“Forget Me If You Can”), directed by Belle de Melo, the trio riff on the Leonardo di Caprio film “Catch Me If You Can”, wanted by the police but never captured by continually changing costume and personality. In their version, the trio progressively assume various postures only men could previously aspire to, throwing down their aprons to win poker games and pilot airplanes.
The 4:45 minute video ends with the three in pilot uniforms, flanked by six male stewards, walking defiantly to a small plane, just like the one in which Mendonça was killed. Police cars screech onto the tarmac and officers draw their guns as the singer-pilots raise their hands in supposed surrender. But out of the darkness other women arrive in support, fists in the air; so many that the police desist. A female police officer raises her own fist in solidarity, while a voiceover that has been recounting statistics about women’s pay and social standing states, “we cannot deny that these women have made history.”
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