2019 got off to a bad start in Portugal. In January, the leader of a far-right group – who spent 12 years in prison for his role in a racist murder and other hate crimes – was invited to speak on one of Portugal’s most popular TV talk shows. On air, he argued that the country needs a new dictator.
Two weeks later, a video of police violence in Bairro Jamaica, a predominantly black neighbourhood in Lisbon’s suburbs, went viral. The next day, hundreds of mostly black demonstrators protested in the city centre against racist police violence. Police responded with rubber bullets.
Tiago Lila and João Caçador, musicians and activists in a group called Fado Bicha (roughly translated: ‘Queer Fado’), told me they could not stay silent. Lila took a classic Portuguese song and rewrote its lyrics to challenge the violence around them. Caçador picked up his electric guitar.
“Lisbon, don’t be racist,” sings Lila in a video posted on Youtube in February, and since then watched tens of thousands of times. Caçador sits on a living room couch, clutching his guitar. “Revisit your history”, the song’s lyrics continue. “Let’s stop glorifying an empire built on slavery”.
The guitar chords are well known in Portugal, taken from the classic fado song “Lisbon don’t be French”. But the lyrics have been changed to reflect on structural racism and colonial history. This is what Lila and Caçador do: transform traditional fado classics into anti-discrimination anthems
And their following is growing. Before 2019 their group had only played in smaller, alternative spaces in Lisbon and a few other cities. But now Fado Bicha are also performing in bigger and more well-known music venues across the country, and are planning to release an album next year.
The video (subtitles were added):
Fado is Portugal’s most famous music style. In 2011, it was recognised as part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But instead of a traditional 12-string fado guitar, Lila and Caçador use an electric guitar and rewrite the lyrics of famous songs to talk about current social issues.
Fado Bicha was formed in 2017. Lila, who was performing in Lisbon’s bars under the stage name “Lila Fadista”, joined forces with guitarist João Caçador. As gay artists, they say they wanted the project to tell the stories of LGBTIQ people – and confront homophobia and racism in Portugal.
Lila described how she wanted to combine a drag show with fado – and create a safe space to explore “non-normative” forms of expression. “I wanted to explore my feminine side and find a safe space to do it through music,” says Lila, who identifies as agender, meaning she rejects all gender labels.
In 2016, Lila signed up for classes at a fado music school but soon realised that she would not fit in its traditional circles. “Fado schools have a very rigid, tense environment and I didn’t feel comfortable there”, says Lila, who often uses she/her pronouns but was assumed to be male by her teacher.
“Once I wanted to sing a fado song called “Ai Mouraria”, and the teacher said I couldn’t sing it because it was meant to be sung by women. That was when I knew I wouldn’t be able to sing the way I wanted to, and that there was no space for me there, to express myself and to experiment”, she explains.
“I wanted to sing a different fado; songs that would allow me to explore my gender identity”, Lila says. Fado Bicha would create a safe space for LGBTIQ people and challenge the ‘rules’ on what is fado and how it should be sung.
“Fado was born among the oppressed… We are going back to its conceptual origins”
Fado’s 19th century roots are in the poorest neighbourhoods of Lisbon, amidst marginalised working classes and migrants. Famous fado singers including Severa were sex workers who performed with sailors. Fado classics are full of mourning and the bitterness of long hardships and oppression.
The genre was later appropriated by upper-class entertainers. Radio stations helped to popularise and commercialise fado songs. From the 1930s, the authoritarian regime that ruled Portugal for more than four decades imposed censorship on artists. Fado musicians were required to have licences to perform, while fado houses were regulated and institutionalised.
“Fado was born among the oppressed”, says Lila. “We are going back to its conceptual origins”. The song “Lisbon don’t be racist” mentions the name of Alcindo Monteiro, a black 27-year-old Portuguese man who was murdered in on 10 June 1995 by a group of far-right ‘skinheads’ who took to the city’s streets armed with knives, iron knuckles, sticks and metal bars.
The authoritarian regime had celebrated 10 June as a nationalist holiday, the “Day of the Portuguese Race”. One of the men involved in the rampage that killed Monteiro, and injured at least 10 other black people, was the far-right leader invited onto one of Portugal’s most popular talk shows earlier this year.
“Always remember Alcindo,” sings Lila. The song also mentions anti-racist activists like Mamadou Ba and Joacine Katar Moreira, as well as the (mostly black) cleaning ladies who live in Lisbon’s peripheries who are not granted “the right to dream”. Other songs tell the love stories of LGBTIQ people.
Fado Bicha wants to give voice to minorities and marginalised people who don’t easily find spaces to be listened to. “Most words used to refer to gay people are insults and related to abuse and violence. So we grow up without positive references associated with love and happiness”, says Caçador.
Homosexuality was illegal in Portugal until 1982. The authoritarian Catholic regime that ruled over the country for 48 years persecuted the LGBTIQ community. After a long fight for equal rights, gay marriage became legal in 2010 and adoption rights were given to same-sex couples in 2016.
But attitudes take a long time to change. “In recent years we’ve witnessed a lot of progress, but Lisbon is still a difficult place to live for anyone who doesn’t have a ‘normative’ identity”, says Lila. For her, the stage is a safe space to explore diversity in gender expression and confront discrimination.
“The word ‘bicha’ is a homophobic insult, but it is also a misogynist word. It’s a word of violence used to name the men who give up their masculinity to get closer to their feminine side”, explains Lila.
But the slur has been appropriated by some LGBTIQ people as an empowering term. “We are reclaiming the name bicha, overcoming negative experiences of bullying and subverting what was once used as an insult”.
Music has been a central tool of Portuguese activists for decades. Under the dictatorship, many artists sang in opposition to the far-right regime that imprisoned, tortured and killed thousands of dissidents. The term “música de intervenção” (‘music of intervention’), refers to these subversive songs.
The young officers behind the 1974 coup to overthrow the dictatorship, and establish a democratic regime, also used music to start their revolution. They took over a radio station and played songs as coded signals – like “Grândola Vila Morena”, which became an anthem and symbol of the revolution.
Fado Bicha is drawing on Portugal’s history of activism through music – and giving growing audiences a way to engage with social and political issues.
The new lyrics that Lila writes for well-known fado songs are not only aimed at confronting homophobia and reflecting the experiences of the LGBTIQ community. They challenge all forms of discrimination.
“As queer people there are issues that we care deeply about, like racism and the rise of the far-right,” she explains. Caçador adds: “We realised how these struggles are interconnected, we don’t think we can separate them”.
The group’s most recent music video, uploaded to YouTube this month, opens with the musicians reading a text about Portugal’s long history of Atlantic slave trade and how Brazil is a former Portuguese colony which had the largest number of slaves imported to the Americas.
The music video is based on a song by Brazilian singer Elza Soares and says: “On the avenue you left, the black skin and your voice. You are the woman at the end of this world. You are. And you will sing until the end".