Is the viral star the "biggest villain of the century"—or just a 22-year-old from a poor neighborhood who did good in life?
Photos by Caio Kenji
Good luck finding MC Bin Laden. In the last month, between going on a European tour and preparing for his first-ever US appearance— which was supposed to happen at MoMA PS1's Warm Up and GHE20G0TH1K this week— the Brazilian funk MC barely found time to rest, let alone talk to me. When we finally meet this past Wednesday, June 20, the face I'm greeted with isn't the happy one he wears on his daily Facebook video broadcasts to his fans. If you're thinking, "how is someone called Bin Laden going to be able to play in New York?", you're right, he won't. His visa was denied... Again.
While MC Bin Laden's name may suggest a dangerous individual with a penchant for causing controversy, he is far from it. In person, the 22-year-old comes across as an endearing, full time joker who alternates explicit lyrics with harmless songs about drinking from giant cups, all on the verge of the nonsense. With his hair dyed half blond and his ubiquitous social media presence, MC Bin Laden is the voice of a kind of Brazilian youth that the upper class—and music media—often chooses to ignore, one that fights not for political changes, but for never-ending fun. Still, his recent visa problems suggest that there are lines that US audiences, or at least, American authorities, are not willing to cross, no matter how humorously presented.
Until Tuesday, June 19, Bin Laden, real name Jefferson Cristian dos Santos Lima, was all set to go to the States. His visa papers had been submitted by a representative in the United States, his bags were packed, and plane tickets bought. But at the eleventh hour, the American Consulate in São Paulo called and asked for one final exam: a drug test, something unheard of for Brazilians travelling to the US. It happened before with Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse, Nigella Laswon and Russel Brand—all of whom had admitted to doing drugs before. Bin Laden, who is an evangelical Christian—the conservative-leaning, fastest growing religion in Brasil—insists that he is clean, but there wasn't enough time to get the test done before his scheduled departure, leaving him no choice but to cancel the scheduled shows in New York.
"In a previous interview with the consulate, they kept asking me about my video 'Bin Laden Não Morreu' (Bin Laden is Not Dead), what did I mean with it. I told them it was only a joke, a move I made in the beginning of my career. I'm at a different stage. But I don't think they got it," the MC told me.
He is a fat kid who did good on life. There's nothing to dislike.—Marginal Men's Gustavo Gomes
This wasn't the first time Bin Laden's been denied entry to the US. Last year, after meeting with Diplo in São Paulo in March and recording with the Portuguese producer Branko in August, he planned to do a mini-tour of the US. That plan fell through when his big entourage applied for a tourist visa. According to Bin Laden, the consolute rejected their application without providing a reason.
But Bin Laden thinks third time's a charm—his team is already working on rescheduling the Warm Up show. "For me, it's a dream come true to get to New York. I never thought I would do it, but now I have to go. And I will record a video there. Can you imagine? A Bin Laden video in New York? It's gonna stop the world, man," he jokes as he rushes to explain that he means no ill. "I just want to look to the Statue of Liberty and ask for some liberty for my jailed friends."
Bin Laden's music is characterized by controversial lyrics sung over a gunfire beat and sampled sounds ranging from motorcycles to the cocking of weapons and even barking dogs. In 2014's "Passinho do Faraó," one of Bin Laden's friends sets the rhythm by repeating "Tumba/ tumba/ tumba" nonstop while Bin Laden raps that "the pharaoh has left his tomb." "The lyrics are nonsense, it's like they are joking around, then someone has an idea and hours later that's a song," says Renato Barreiros, who directed two documentaries about funk ostentação in São Paulo. "But Bin Laden puts emphasis in the phonetics, so they became universal, you don't need to understand Portuguese."
While Bin Laden's lyrics sometimes veer towards offensive bravado ("I'm fucking the famous girl from Instagram", from "Famosinha do Instagram"), the young MC comes across as a humble kid who embraced his badass image to boost his career. Born to an impoverished family in the lower-income Vila Progresso neighborhood in easternmost São Paulo, he began rapping in his mid-teens with the stage name MC Jeeh 2K. In February 2014, he released "Bin Laden Não Morreu" on the record label and management agency KL Produtora, whose owner Emerson Martins was quick to notice the way to song was catching on to the Fluxos, a kind of party common to the favelas. So Emerson told the MC to change his alias to "Bin Laden," in order to capitalize on the single's notoriety.
Known to members of its crew as "The Office," the KL studio and label was founded in 2013, a time when funk ostentação was the norm. Funk ostentação grew out of late 90s early 00s funk carioca, a genre heavily influenced by Miami bass and spearheaded by DJs such as Marlboro. But while carioca focused on the DJ, ostentação shifted the spotlight to the MC, and was popularized by MCs like Guimé, who sang about expensive shit and how awesome the lifestyle of the rich and famous is.
"[Guimé's music] stopped resonating with his original audience, people who lived in poorer neighborhoods and favelas and who could not afford that," explains Barreiros. "And then appears Bin Laden." While other ostentação MCs were riding expensive cars, Bin Laden stayed true to his simpler roots. "Even when he got his first hit with "Bololo Haha," he was still posting photos [on his social media] of him riding the bus," says Barreiros.
"I just want to look to the Statue of Liberty and ask for some liberty for my jailed friends."—MC Bin Laden
Bin Laden talks about drugs and sex in his music, which aligns him with another subgenre called funk proibidão, which is marked by gangster-style lyrics about hard living. While funk proibidão singers and DJs were rumored to have ties to local organized crime back in the 90s, the current generation of artists are more likely to treat this badass image like a joke.
"This new wave of Proibidão was just cartoonish. There was MC Kauan, who called himself The Joker, and then there was Bin Laden, who these kids see as the biggest villain of the century," says Barreiros. While his name of choice may sound insensitive, it's also tongue-in-cheek. When you take into consideration that Bin Laden grew up in an extremely poor area, where you had to be smart with words and aggressive enough to stand on your own, it's perhaps less surprising that he embraced the attention-grabbing persona, performing with backup dancers dressed as terrorists and even an actor dressed as Bin Laden with a long white beard in music videos like "Bin Laden Não Morreu" and his live shows.
His name is unfortunate. But that's what happens: you choose a name in the beginning of your career and then you're stuck.—Branko
But aside from these stunts, Bin Laden's music has little to do with the terrorist from whom he derives his alias. Arguably, his greatest hit is "Tá tranquilo, tá favoravel." Taken literally, the title translates to: "It's calm, it's favorable," but that just doesn't fully capture the sentiment of the track, that feeling of well-being during parties even if your life is not that good elsewhere. In the song, Bin Laden asks people to do "o sinal do Ronaldinho"—Brazilian soceer player Ronaldinho's signature hand gesture, a "hang loose" sign. "Something funny happened when we played 'Tá Tranquilo' in Lisbon last month," Gustavo Gomes, one half of Brazilian DJ duo Marginal Men, tells THUMP. "Some people knew the song, but some confused Brits started making the hang loose because they expected us to put on 'Hotline Bling'."
Last year, Bin Laden and Marginal Men got together at the Red Bull Studio in São Paulo to record a song called "Louca" for Branko's new album on Enchufada, Atlas. "I think it was his first time in a studio that big, but that didn't stop him from owning it as soon as he got in—joking with everybody and then focusing on the work when time came for him to sing," Gomes recalls. Atlas was launched at a Boiler Room party that Bin Laden played in September 2015. The energy Bin Laden displays during that show is a window into explaining his appeal. "All the clubs I played in Europe were packed. And people couldn't stop jumping and singing. I think they are not used to seeing a muleque doido ("crazyass kid") like me," jokes Bin Laden.
"It may seem that he's clueless, but that's not true. He's completely aware of how he should act in everyplace he is. If he has to play crazy, he does. And people love him for it," explains Gomes. For Branko, the fact that Bin Laden is one of the first funk MC's from São Paulo breaking through overseas is simple to understand. "He's an entertainer, and a pretty good one at it. His voice is smoother than most of the others, he's more family friendly [compared to other MCs], he's always there for his fans and he fits with the global bass sound that has been appearing all over the world," he says.
"His name is unfortunate, yeah," Branko adds about the elephant in the room. "But that's what happens: you choose a name in the beginning of your career and then you're stuck." That being said, Branko himself changed his name from J-Wow in 2013 because of Jersey Shore's Jwoww. Upon reflection, Branko thinks the world is ready for someone with a name as controversial as MC Bin Laden. Gomes agrees: "He is a fat kid who did good on life. There's nothing to dislike."
Sitting in a couch in KL's HQ wearing flip-flops and golden bling he brought back from Europe, Bin Laden's sadness over his visa denial fades quickly. "You know, I'm a little bit sad today, but at the same time I'm happy because I've just meet some girls who travelled two hours to see me. I feel like I have a family in my fans and that's all I need. This, and making music," he tells me as he gets his phone to play me a new song he'd just recorded in his home studio. Before he presses play, I ask if it is about this whole New York episode. He says no and gives me a big smile. "But you just gave me a great idea."
Later that day, Bin Laden posted a video to his YouTube channel with a cheap rhyme: "Aiaiaiai aiaiaiaiai aiaiaiaiai a Estátua da Liberdade eu não vou conhecer mais"—"The Statue of Liberty I will meet no more."