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Grammy winner and Nike ambassador Seu Jorge on Bowie and Brazil

Grammy-winning artist Seu Jorge has come a very long way for a guy who grew up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The Drum catches up with the Nike brand ambassador backstage in Portland to talk Bowie, Brazil and getting kids active.

Portland embraced Seu Jorge like one of its own this past fall, the city’s quirky nature making certain slightly bizarre moments not seem at all out of place – such as when members of the audience showed up dressed as the crew of the Belafonte from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

Clad in light blue duds and red beanies, it was an outfit reserved for a very special show by Brazilian actor-musician Seu Jorge – The Life Aquatic: A Tribute to David Bowie.

Jorge recorded the Life Aquatic Studio Sessions in 2005; all covers of Bowie songs in Portuguese, sung in Jorge’s engaging smoky baritone. Like on the record, in the film and on stage, it was the simple beauty of artist, a guitar and the works of Bowie.

Wildly popular in his native Brazil, Jorge was skillfully cast as singing crew member Pelé dos Santos by director Wes Anderson for the film after seeing his turn as Knockout Ned in the powerful City of God, a critically-acclaimed 2002 film set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

In The Life Aquatic, Anderson played to Jorge’s strengths, despite the fact he was cast with no audition and didn’t speak English at the time. Anderson put a great deal of faith in Jorge to realize the vision of Bowie’s songs being performed in Portuguese.

In Portland and other lucky cities around the country, crowds were enthralled by Jorge who, like Bowie, casts a larger-than life figure. On stage, the two-time Latin Grammy winner for Best Portuguese Language Contemporary Pop Album shared interesting and humorous stories about his time on set as clips on screen peppered the performance, but clearly, his love and appreciation for the gifts Bowie gave him was undeniable. In fact, the late music legend, who was nominated posthumously for four Grammy awards, said of Jorge’s work: ”Had Seu Jorge not recorded my songs in Portuguese, I would never have heard this new level of beauty which he has imbued them with.”

The tour was all about appreciation and admiration. “What I learned in this process is how timeless his music is,” says Jorge.

Jorge’s tour highlights a run of several years that has seen his star continue to rise, becoming an envoy of Bowie’s music. He was inspired to tour after the musician’s death, which was followed by his father’s death three days later.

He has also been an advocate for his city and country, before, during and beyond the Olympics. As a fan of running, Nike took notice and made Jorge one of the brand’s ambassadors and engaged him in the brand’s ‘Olympic Villages’ initiative.

From favela to fame

But the run up to fame and the Olympics started in the steep hillsides of Rio, where the downtrodden favelas loom over a city that still doesn’t know how to deal with them. Those neighborhoods are where Jorge grew up, and he still has a great love for the people and the shanty towns that marked his youth, even if they were tough.

Born Jorge Mario da Silva (Seu Jorge is a nickname given to him by a musician friend), he was raised in a favela near Rio. Jorge began working at age 10, fixing car tires, in part to escape the favela violence – his 16-year-old brother was killed in one of the frequent battles between police and favela drug gangs. He also frequented dances and began singing early.

Jorge left home at 19 and was homeless for a few years before finding theater and music as an outlet – both his father and grandfather were musicians. His early influences were the ever-present Brazilian sambas, along with artists like Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Frank Sinatra, Stevie Wonder, Bowie and Michael Jackson, his first idol.

Through an audition for Paulo Moura, a clarinetist, a musical path was laid in front of him. He began appearing in plays for Rio’s state university’s theater program, then released his first solo album, Samba Esporte Fino. In 2001, and in 2003 and 2004, he won the Paulista Association of Art Critics award for best singer of the year. Since then he has received numerous awards and accolades for his work on screen and on stage, and sang at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Combining sports and music to lift up a community

Sport has always been important to Jorge. He played soccer growing up and still plays. When the Summer Olympic Games came to Rio, it gave Brazilians a deep sense of pride and community. Despite the issues facing the country and, indeed, those running up to the games, Jorge firmly believes that the Olympics moment in Brazil ran counter to expectations.

“It was a huge success and we are proud of it,” he says. “We proved to the world that it was possible to do this large-scale event and welcome the world to our country.”

Not far from the venues where world-class athletes competed, another investment in Rio – and specifically, the favelas – was being realized. During the games Nike unveiled an important project for the country’s youth: the ‘Olympic Villages’ project revitalized 22 community sports and recreation centers in the city’s more under-represented areas.

“The Olympic Villages are so positive for us and it’s a good investment for Brazil,” notes Jorge. “It represents so much for the future and legacy after the Olympic Games.”

Obesity and inactivity are continual problems in Brazil. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Brazilian kids are the least active in Latin America.

The goal of the Olympic Villages revitalization is to improve access to sports and physical activity from 25,000 today up to 50,000 kids over five years. It also includes training for educators on physical activity and Nike will provide 40,000 pieces of product and equipment for the program each year over the next five years.

“We know sport changes lives and we understand the importance of providing safe places for kids to be active and social,” said Nike chief executive Mark Parker on a visit to one of the villages in Rio last summer. “These Olympic Villages are the heartbeat of that effort here – where kids can experience truly transformative experiences.”

Jorge agrees, saying: “Favelas, in my opinion, don’t need to exist, but now these kids are involved in sports, are getting an education and building great relationships. Brazilian kids deserve this. Nike making this investment means so much to us. It’s human investment in people’s talent – their expression. It could be soccer, running, it could be music.”

Running to inspire others

Running is something that Jorge has come to enjoy recently. Noting, on stage, that it was mainly due to an increased girth of his own, Nike provided both product and training around two years ago. “I completely fell in love with running,” he enthuses. “I want to someday run marathons around the world.”

What started as exercise has evolved into a ritual, where Jorge, whenever possible, runs to his shows. Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, mixing with the locals in Venice and Malibu, California, and taking in the energy of Central Park are just a few of the runs – to his shows – that are favorites.

One tour, however, stands above the others. Celebrating the 10th anniversary of his collaboration with Brazilian singer Ana Carolina, the duo performed two shows in Rio and Jorge vowed to run 20km, to the show and back, each day.

“When I arrived she couldn’t believe that I ran the 10km to the show. She thought I wouldn’t be able to sing. Running makes my voice better, especially if I run before I sing. For me, it’s perfect. My lungs are open, my voice is clean, it’s awesome.”

Jorge has experienced great fame and is grateful for it, which is why he gives back through music, through running and through a sense that, even though things are still challenging in Brazil, he might just be able to help change them.

This feature first appeared in a special music issue of The Drum, published in partnership with Clio Music. You can subscribe to The Drum magazine here.