Brazil’s Rock Icon and AIDS Wake-Up Call
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
He did for Brazil what Magic Johnson did for the U.S., and shocked the country into AIDS awareness.
Perhaps the most memorable rock concert in Brazil’s history was performed by a dying man. His name was Agenor Miranda Araújo Neto, but Brazilians know him as Cazuza, a lionized figure in Brazilian music and cultural history, the subject of endless tributes. During the 1980s, he was something of the Bruce Springsteen of Brazil, a voice in the dark of a musical lull period, shouting about love and corruption, tapping the vein of Brazil’s societal woes during the collapse of the dictatorship.
In Brazil’s ’80s, Cazuza dominated — first, with his rock band Barão Vermelho, and then via a solo career. He sold 5 million albums, packed with 11 No. 1 singles. And he did all of that in a career that spanned just nine years. He died, 25 years ago, at the prime age of 32: Brazil’s first high-profile AIDS victim.
What stands out is the fact that Cazuza continued performing throughout his illness.
Born in Rio de Janeiro to a record producer dad, Cazuza’s career started with a musical silver spoon; his band’s first albums were released on his dad’s label. But he quickly challenged the status quo: Publicly bisexual, Cazuza brought an “appreciation for sexual ambiguity into hard rock,” notes James Green, director of the Brazil Initiative at Brown University, that’s been kept alive by musicians like Ney Matogrosso. Inverting his privilege, Cazuza would end up using his platform as a way to eviscerate the corrupt elite of Brazil. “Your swimming pool is full of rats!” he spit at them. “And your ideas don’t correspond with the facts.”
Green notes that Cazuza showed fans of Brazilian popular music who had hated rock that rock could offer inquiries into Brazilian life that were “just as compelling as those offered by other Brazilian genres.” His legitimacy as a bold new lyricist of disenchanted youth was cemented when Brazilian songwriting legend Caetano Veloso suggested he was the greatest poet of his generation.
He soon would become an icon of a different, darker sort. While he wasn’t the first Brazilian celebrity to contract AIDS, he was the first to publicly admit his illness, which he did in 1989. (By contrast, Renato Russo, a Brazilian rock star with a parallel career, contracted the disease that year, but never publicly admitted it.) Two years later, Magic Johnson made his own alarming announcement. Once Cazuza learned he was infected, at the age of 28, he began a furious, frenetic creative process that would produce some of the most memorable anthems in the Brazilian songbook, and lend a heartbreaking note to his greatest hit, “O Tempo Não Para” (“The Clock Is Ticking”). He would record his final album from a wheelchair.
What stands out in particular about Cazuza’s story is the fact that he continued performing throughout his illness, shamelessly shoving into the spotlight a shocking image of the deterioration caused by this new disease. He posed emaciated for a magazine cover: “A victim of AIDS agonizes in the public space” read the headline. Performing his epic 1989 concert in a white T-shirt draped loosely over spiny collarbones, he gripped the microphone with brittle wrists, resting on a bench during slower songs, giving all he could through sunken eyes buried behind protruding cheekbones. Within a year, to no one’s surprise, he was gone.
It stunned Brazil to see a beloved, unstoppable rock star and sex icon at the peak of his career disintegrate at the behest of a disease most people hadn’t even heard of. As a result, Cazuza turned out to be the best AIDS awareness-raising campaign the country could have possibly had. His legacy, of adoration and tragedy and song, relived in hundreds of tributes this weekend across the country, is perhaps best eulogized in the words of one of his own sweet love songs, one he would have sat down for: “You dreamt while awake / A way to not feel pain.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the year of Cazuza’s death.