Sporting shocking-pink dreadlocks, a black sparkly catsuit and a giant bow, 12-year-old rapper MC Soffia stole the show at this year’s Olympic opening ceremony in Rio in August. She performed on stage alongside Carol Konka, one of Brazil’s leading female rap artists and instantly became an international sensation.
Asked by a fellow performer shortly before going on stage what it meant to be part of such a big event, she said: “I’ll be representing all the black kids from the outskirts who can’t be here talking, I’ll be their voice.”
Within minutes of appearing on stage, photos of her performing were splashed across Twitter and other social networking sites, while several international papers declared her the star of the show.
For a country that has struggled with racism, it was a powerful moment brought about by a young girl who says her music is inspired by her experiences of being bullied growing up.
Afro-Brazilians make up 53 percent of the country’s population, a total of about 106 million individuals. It is the world’s largest black population outside Africa and the second largest after Nigeria. According to UNICEF, black Brazilians aged 12 to 18 are nearly three times more likely to get killed than their white counterparts.
MC Soffia, whose real name is Soffia Gomes da Rocha Gregório Correa, began rapping when she was in primary school.
“My mother took me to a hip-hop workshop when I was six,” she says. “When I started singing, I wanted to make rap music because it helps you say how you are feeling, what you’re seeing and what is happening.”
Her lyrics are mix of childish ideas and powerful political messages. In one song called Menina Pretinha – “little black girl” in Portuguese – she sings: “Barbie is cool but I like Makena [black dolls made by Lucia Makena] best.”
The song, about a fairytale princess with dreadlocks, continues: “Exotic doesn’t mean beautiful; you’re not cute, you’re a queen.”
Her no-nonsense attitude reflects a new generation of young black girls in Brazil who are being raised to feel more confident, and to fight racism, from an early age.
“I don’t want children born today to suffer in the way I have suffered,” she says. “I was a victim of racist bullying. I didn’t do anything about it [at the time] but now my school has an anti-bullying group, where we discuss this kind of thing.”
Her message to young black girls is simple. “The first thing you need to do is to accept yourself, to love yourself,” she says, adding that girls need to stand up for themselves when people criticise them or say things mean about their appearance. When someone mocks her hair, she says she always knows what to say: “My hair is not kinky, it is coily [sic],” she says. “Kinky is your prejudice.”
While she says most of the time her life is like any other young schoolgirl – she plays with her friends and hangs out at her dad’s or her aunt’s house on weekends – she also sometimes gets stopped in the street by fans.
“When I am walking downtown, usually someone stops me to say things like, ‘you influenced my daughter,’ or ‘you inspired my niece.’” Young girls also come to her gigs and tell her how much she influences them.
MC Soffia’s own influences include Willow Smith and Beyonce. She says she wants to be that famous, too, one day.
Speaking about her Olympic performance, she says she was nervous before going on stage, but Carol Konka joked around with her, helping to keep her calm.
“The moment I started singing, I didn’t see anyone anymore.”
MC Soffia also credits Carol Konka and other rappers with helping her fight sexism in the music industry and rise as a star.
“When a woman suffers, we all suffer together and the rap scene is very prejudiced,” she says. “When I began singing, no one helped me. Only Criolo [a Brazilian rapper], he gave me a microphone as a gift. But now [that I’m well-known] I think I have earned their respect.”
In order to capitalize on her fame and newfound respect among Brazil’s more mature rappers, MC Soffia says she plans to release a new single and video soon.
“Her career is on the rise,” Kamilah Pimentel, MC Soffia’s mother, told Women & Girls Hub. “We expect even bigger visibility after the release of the new clip, [which] will talk about the empowerment of black children.”