The fall of Wilson Simonal: Downfall of Brazil’s first black Pop Star
Note from BW of Brazil: I still remember very clearly the first time I learned who singer Wilson Simonal was. After having “discovered” black Brazil on Christmas Eve of 1999, from then on I was on mission to learn as much as I could about the country with a huge black population that most people didn’t seem to know about.
Leading up to that first trip to the country on the last day of August in 1999, I had learned quite a bit and even spoke, I’d say, an advanced beginning stage of Portuguese. My nine months of intense study taught me about many important Afro-Brazilian historical and contemporary figures in politics, sports, religion, various other areas as well as, of course, music.
As I’ve written elsewhere, when one first becomes familiar with Brazilian music, some of the first names you’ll learn about are artists such as Jobim, João, Caetano, Chico, Gil, Jorge and Milton. For those into MPB (Brazilian Popular Music), one name for each artist shall suffice. I liked music by several of these artists, some more than others, but I wanted to learn more, so on that first trip to Bahia, I bought up 50 vinyl albums at this little hole in the wall sebo, a place that sold used albums. That store hipped me to still more Brazilian artists.
Then, one day on that three-week trip, I rummaged through some used CD bins in this outdoor type flea market. Ever notice how sometimes you can tell that you might or might not like an artist based on what their album cover looks like, or is that something that only I can do? Anyway, flipping through hundreds of CDs that day, I came across a sort of greatest hits disc by Wilson Simonal. He was black and I hadn’t heard of him. Looking through the names of the songs on that ‘Serie Aplauso’ disc, I came across a song called “Tributo a Martin Luther King”, meaning, you guessed it, ‘tribute to Martin Luther King’. Hmmm…’wonder what this song is about’, beyond the obvious I thought as I grabbed the disc and tossed the vendor a few reais for the CD.
Simonal’s music isn’t necessarily what I was looking for, a little too lounge-ish for my tastes, but I still wanted to know more about the artist. It would be some time before I discovered the complex history of Simonal. As an artist in the 60s, he could have arguably been considered Brazil’s first black Pop star. He lived big and had all of the trappings of a black celeb, you know, big house, fancy clothes, white wife, etc. His star shined so bright that he became, if not THE first, one of the first black Brazilians to be contracted as a pitch man for certain popular consumer products.
In 1974, there he was, dressed up like a superhero hawking products for Shell. At the time, Simonal had to rank right up there with futebol (soccer/football) legend Pelé as the most popular black men in the country. Such success was very atypical for black Brazilians, as was Simonal’s roller coaster fast crash to earth.
What happened and why is it that, even today, 20 years after I first learned about Simonal, do I rarely hear about him or even hear his songs on radio stations that play the oldies? I mean, I hear plenty of Brazil’s number one Soulman, Tim Maia, as well as the artists I mentioned above. And like Tim Maia, Simonal also had a movie released about his life.
Simonal, like numerous Brazilian artists, including Elis Regina, Jair Rodrigues and Djavan, also had children who followed in his footsteps into the music business. Wilson’s sons, Simoninha and Max de Castro were some of my favorite artists of the New MPB sound of the early 2000s. His sons have also out into much effort in an attempt to repair their father’s sullied image. Simonal died in 2000 at the age of 62. But again, what happened to Brazil’s first black Pop star?
The story goes that Simonal was suspected of being a “dedo-duro”, a snitch for a brutal Military Dictatorship that gripped the country for 21 years from 1964-1985. After that, even with the allegation not being absolutely proven, Simonal has been relegated to halls of forgotten, ostracized celebrities. The way he was treated kind of reminds me of what happened to the black goalie of the Brazilian National Soccer Team, the seleção, who was blamed for the team’s defeat in the 1950 World Cup.
Brazil has a way about dismissing its 60s/70s black male Pop stars…I’ve got other stories coming up about this, but in today’s era of cancel culture, the career of Simonal is something people should be aware of. The piece below doesn’t get into all of the details, but it’s a good introduction for folks who have never heard of him.
Simonal: What does cancellation culture have to teach us about the myth of racial democracy in Brazil?
By Adriane Primo
It’s understandable that Wilson Simonal (1938-2000) is a total unknown figure to Brazilian youth. He, like many black stars of the velha guarda musical (old musical guard) of the 1960s and 1970s, was canceled by public opinion with the help of the leftist media of the time.
That is why the documentary Simonal – Ninguém sabe o duro que dei (Simonal – Nobody knows how hard I worked) in 2009 and directed by Cláudio Manoel, Mical Langer and Calvito Leal is essential for the preservation of his memory. But not only that. It’s a denunciation of the ease that national historiography has in erasing the contributions of the black population to the formation of its society.
It’s 86 minutes that walk through the peak and decline of the greatest black celebrity of the time told in the most basic form of documentary cinema – talking heads with images from archives. However, this basic formula didn’t take away the shine of the work. After all, the edition gave the most attractive tone. The comments complement each other and create a palpable scenario for any generation to understand who Wilson Simonal was in Brazil in the 1960s.
And who was Wilson Simonal? Remembered by everyone as a great singer and showman, Simonal was adored for his friendliness and gingado carioca that led him to be the first black man in Brazil to have a program on television a decade after the device was launched in the country and the auditorium programs previously broadcast on the radio went to TV. It’s important for the reader to understand that we are talking about the period when the government regime was of the Military Dictatorship, where the repression of artistic productions that criticized the government was atrocious and many artists were tortured and exiled as penance.
It’s worth mentioning that the Movimento Negro Unificado (Unified Black Movement) was still being structured in the country and at the time of the Military Dictatorship, its more effective action was impossible, since the government was afraid that the militants would have the same strength that the Black Panthers were having in the United States. So, until now, Brazil “exited” the slave system “only as a legal achievement, since the black population remained (remains) in a disadvantaged social, economic and political situation” in relation to the white population and staggered (staggering) to become a modern nation. In the arts, the discrepancy between races was (is) no different. The country’s political project also denied (denies) Afro-Brazilian contributions to culture, limiting them to entertainment for whites.
In this scenario Wilson Simonal appears. A man with negroid traits who supposedly chose to lead his career through the path of individuality and not collective action – even though his existence in this place is inherent to the collective struggles of the black population, which permeates the valorization of his work – different from the “leftist” artistic world of the time, engaged in the struggle for freedom of expression. That said, when his accountant, Raphael Viviani, denounced him for kidnapping and assault, the leftist press, formed mostly by white middle-class men, it spared no effort to change public opinion about the internationally successful black artist “little interested in politics”.
The cancellation came when Simonal was accused of being associated with the Department of Political and Social Order (DOPS), a government agency that hunted, arrested and tortured opponents of the Military Dictatorship, because they assumed he was snitching on his colleagues in the arts. According to documentary reports, the “superb” artist did not deny the accusation because he must have felt trapped or because until then he thought everything was a big mistake, which triggered a series of tragic episodes in his life. For some it’s a naive act, for others it is pure ignorance.
The fact is that the silence of the artistic class was fatal. Simonal was sentenced to 15 years in prison for Viviani’s complaint, lost contracts, was not received in any media and was banned for twenty years from the artistic world. The hurt was relentless and the events led to alcoholism and later death from liver cirrhosis in 2000.
Before, Simonal tried to prove his innocence and even managed to obtain from the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs of the Presidency of the Republic a declaration that affirmed that no document had been found left by the defunct DOPS that identified him as a servant or service provider of the agency. But it was already far too late. The joy so shared with the public was no longer part of his life.
The doubt left in the documentary is still relevant today. Wilson Simonal: a tough-guy or a complete artist in a country that cancels blacks while supporting itself in the myth of racial democracy?
Nem vem que não tem (don’t come because you won’t get it)…(see note one)
It’s evident that those responsible for Simonal’s decline were the government, media and civil society (white and bourgeois, of course) in a kind of push-push game. And after 40 years it brings us many reflections on what it is to be black in Brazil and how the culture of cancellation is the newest disguise of whiteness to spread its hatred to the black population.
Because to be black in Brazil is to live daily with the cancellation of our humanity. Whether you’re a celebrity or a maid.
To be black in Brazil is to have the daily job of becoming effective as subjective individuals who think on their own, because otherwise a leftist white academic and “ally” with the media seal comes and cancels us by stating that art is not valid in the struggle for our existence because the reference used is aesthetics and European science doesn’t explain this in its books (laughs).
A symbolic cancellation of the validation of our actions, which, for me, is, above all, the contribution of racist maneuvers. Because at the end of the day, the right to improve being belongs only to the “schizophrenic” and delusional white person.
O Movimento Negro Brasileiro – escritos sobre os sentidos de democracia e justiça social no Brasil, Belo Horizonte, 2009, PEREIRA, Amauri Mendes and SILVA Joselina (org), page 55 to 61
Documentary: Simonal – Ninguém sabe o duro que dei (2009) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItVY5xs3_VM
Fiction: Simonal (2019) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vd7zgqPj1Q
Source: Mídia 4 P
- The sentence is actually the name of one of Simonal’s biggest hit. Many will remember the song from a scene in the popular 2002 film Cidade de Deus/City of God