The musician known as Nagrelha died on 18 November in Luanda, succumbing to lung cancer. He was 36 years old.
Born Gelson Caio Manuel Mendes in 1986 but better known to all as Nagrelha, he was a complex, charismatic, controversial, larger-than-life figure who epitomised the nuanced contradictions so prevalent in Angolan life.
Nagrelha is synonymous with kuduro, the hard-hitting, gritty, endlessly danceable urban music style that could only have been created on the streets of Luanda, where it feels so at home. That kuduro was able to internationalise itself and become ubiquitous around the world is a testament to the influence of Nagrelha and his group, Os Lambas, whose first major hit, ‘Comboio‘, was released in 2006.
Kuduro’s universal appeal
Nagrelha was a product of Luanda’s marginalised, poverty-stricken slums, a man whose life was shaped by the severe shortcomings of the Angolan state – with its lack of access to education, health, and social services and its corrupt nature.
His earlier years were moulded by delinquency, drug abuse, gangs, and stints in jail. Just like certain hip-hop artists, Nagrelha could be boastful about his past, and his lyrics and videos are steeped in that ethos. He celebrated where he came from and was in no way ashamed of his upbringing or background. And the streets loved him back: Nagrelha’s appeal went far beyond his native neighbourhood of Sambizanga, one of Luanda’s most notorious and, coincidentally, the birthplace of former president José Eduardo dos Santos.
Youth looked up to him as an example of the possibility of achieving fame and wealth even if you came from the slums.
Kuduro’s place in Angolan society can also be compared to Nagrelha’s journey to superstardom. It was initially shunned by cultural elites as violent and unrefined, seen as music from the musseques (the slums), unfit for consumption by those from the asfalto (quite literally, the part of town where roads are paved). But its infectious rhythm and dance appeal, as well as its lyrics that so aptly convey what it is to live and breathe Angola, quickly took over national airwaves.
For many years now kuduro has been everywhere, from musseque raves to asfalto weddings, so much so that it was eventually gentrified and embraced by the elite. One of the former president’s sons, Coreon Dú, himself a singer in his own right, ran the ‘I Love Kuduro’ festival and took it to some of the most popular music venues in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere. And Portugal saw the birth of Buraka Som Sistema, a multicultural “progressive kuduro” outfit that sold out shows throughout the world. Kuduro became a global phenomenon.
All the while, Nagrelha cemented his place as Angola’s most popular kuduro artist and one of the country’s most famous musicians. Young people looked up to him as an example of the possibility of achieving fame and relative wealth even if you came from Luanda’s most impoverished areas.
Thousands would regularly flock to his shows, so much so that MPLA, Angola’s ruling party since gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, quickly coopted him and incorporated his acts into political rallies. Nagrelha happily obliged. Himself a staunch MPLA supporter, he professed his love for his party right up until these past elections. So popular was Nagrelha that he would fill up MPLA rallies with his own fans, and announce his departure after he finished his sets; thousands would leave with him, leaving bewildered politicians speaking to near-empty stadiums in their wake.
‘Zé Dú’s Son’
One of Nagrelha’s several nicknames was “Filho do Zé Dú”, or “Zé Dú’s Son”, as his relationship with the former president was reportedly close. But their funerals couldn’t have been more different in terms of public outpouring of grief.
While Dos Santos’ funeral on 28 August was a subdued affair that could lead a casual observer to conclude that there wasn’t much love lost between the ex-president and the people whom he ruled over for 38 years, Nagrelha’s was something utterly different. For two days Luanda was overwhelmed by the biggest crowds it had ever seen – a prominent journalist compared it to the funeral of Angola’s first president, António Agostinho Neto – but on the day of the actual funeral, chaos quickly ensued.
Angolans are fed up with the lack of access to social services, healthcare, and education.
Angola is one of the most unequal societies on Earth, and its population has long been fed up with the lack of access to social services, including healthcare and education. The cost of living has shot up, and many feel that wealth is inequitably distributed. They’re right of course, given Angola’s rampant corruption has concentrated wealth in the hands of a select, politically connected few.
Angolans also feel a lot of resentment towards the authorities, including the police, and this was displayed in full force during Nagrelha’s funeral on 22 November. The sheer number of people paired with the unpreparedness of the police devolved into riots, with people smashing shops and vehicles, attacking policemen, and attempting to get into the cemetery at all costs. Widespread robberies were reported as criminals sought to “honour Nagrelha” by robbing people in broad daylight. Scores were injured and a minor lost his life.
Despite outwards signs of stability, tensions are simmering in Angola. A disenfranchised population is never far away from lashing out, and at mass events like this, violence is never far from the surface.
Reginaldo Silva, a well-respected political commentator and journalist, summed it up in a recent Facebook post: “Explosions like the one we saw at Nagrelha’s funeral are already part of other realities outside our borders, where the most exacerbated social conflicts take place with regular public protests, which normally lead to clashes with the authorities.”
The death of one of Angola’s most popular kuduro singers of all time, himself a quintessential product of the status quo, has laid bare the country’s contradictions, its controversies, and its future challenges.
Gelson Caio Manuel Mendes aka Nagrelha, leaves behind his wife and four children.
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