Leandro Aparecido Ferreira laid bricks and flipped burgers for a living until becoming one of Brazil’s most famous funk musicians.
This year, the 26-year-old – whose stage name is MC Fioti – has added a new and unexpected string to his bow: as an unlikely champion of science and vaccinology in a country being pounded by coronavirus.
A remix of Fioti’s biggest hit – celebrating Covid inoculation and boasting a music video shot at one of Brazil’s top biomedical research centres – has become a viral sensation, notching up millions of YouTube views and sparking a nationwide outpouring of emotion.
“I’m still trying to get my head around everything that’s happened but I can see I quit my job in that fast-food restaurant to make history,” the rapper said this week as his “vaccine anthem” made headlines and playlists around the world.
Fioti is unsure who first noticed his sexually charged 2017 hit Bum Bum Tam Tam had the potential to become a celebration of science, although the answer lies largely in wordplay.
The song’s original title – formed by the Portuguese word for a bottom (bumbum) and the sound of a percussion instrument (tam tam) – bears an uncanny similarity to Butantã, the Tupi-Guarani name of the São Paulo research institute now producing millions of doses of the CoronaVac.
That discovery gave the catchy Bach-sampling track a new lease of life and encouraged Fioti to update its lyrics so they praised doctors, not derrieres. “This is the intriguing vaccine, that messes with your mind … and will cure us from the virus and save loads of lives,” he sings in the new version.
São Paulo’s governor, João Doria, a prominent rival of Brazil’s Covid-denying president, Jair Bolsonaro, quickly spotted the song’s marketing potential and called the rapper. He was invited to shoot a new clip inside Butantã’s research centre shortly before the start of vaccination on 17 January.
When Fioti arrived at the Butantã compound, he found staff members and scientists, who appear in the three-minute video as dancing extras, raring to shake their stuff. “It was all so natural – they wanted to do it as much as me. This energy comes across in the clip.”
Fioti was cautious in his comments about Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who has sabotaged Brazil’s vaccination campaign by declaring that he will refuse to be vaccinated himself and even suggesting the Pfizer vaccine might turn people into alligators.
Critics also accuse Bolsonaro’s administration of failing to secure sufficient vaccines to properly protect the country’s 212 million citizens. More than 220,000 Brazilians have now lost their lives, second only to the US.
But the funk musician, who has lost one close friend to Covid, said he worried many were influenced by the president’s denial of science and argued Brazilian lives were “worth much more than the word of a president”.
“It’s not normal for people to be dying. It’s not normal to say that’s just how it is, that we’ll all die one day,” he added, in an allusion to Bolsonaro’s inflammatory remarks on coronavirus which he calls a “little flu”.
Fioti said he hoped his music could spread a fact-based, life-saving message about the benefits of inoculation. “When I started thinking about doing this version, I told my followers on social media and lots of people said they wouldn’t get vaccinated. After hearing the song the very same people got back to me to say they had changed their minds,” said the fatherof one.
“We are getting the message across. But more than 2 million people have already died around the world,” he said. “We’ll only get rid of this virus together and by getting vaccinated.”
Fioti, who hails from the gritty south side of São Paulo, recalled dropping out of school to help his mother pay the bills by serving food at Burger King. “So for me, as an artist from the ghetto, it’s a massive thrill to see funk join hands with science to save lives.”