RIO DE JANEIRO — A recent comment about Anitta’s butt tattoo has surprisingly led to investigations into local country music artists and misuse of municipal funds in Brazil’s agribusiness heartland.
While performing on May 12 in Sorriso, a small city in the Central-West of Brazil, Zé Neto of the sertanejo duo Zé Neto and Cristiano took a seemingly unprovoked swipe at the “Envolver” singer — the country’s biggest international act at the moment. Neto was commenting on an ongoing political debate about a Brazilian tax incentive law called Rouanet that is intended to stimulate cultural events in the country. Zé Neto, a far-right political supporter, wanted to be clear that he and his bandmate don’t need government support to be successful.
“We are artists who do not depend on the Rouanet Law,” Zé Neto told his audience. “Our fee is funded by the people. We don’t need to put a tattoo on our butt to show that we are doing well.”
Anitta’s supporters, however, did not care for Zé Neto’s not-so-subtle dig at the global pop star, understanding it was referencing her famous ink. While they accused Zé Neto of sexism with a wave of outrage online, the comment also had an unexpected result: Twitter users pointed out that despite his seeming criticism of the Rouanet Law, Zé Neto and Cristiano — like many other sertanejo artists — rely on other public money from local governments to fund many of their gigs.
In force since 1991, the Rouanet Law helps sponsor projects such as music festivals, tour production and album recordings by giving tax breaks to private funders. While Rouanet helps channel tax money to Brazilian culture, it has become the target of attacks by President Jair Bolsonaro and his far-right supporters, who have decried its use as a misuse of funds that could be better used for public services.
In February, the government enacted drastic changes to the law, slashing the maximum per-person artistic fees by 93% from 45,000 reais to 3,000 reais (3,500 reais, or $715, for musicians) per show. While this may not be the government funding Zé Neto and Cristiano are receiving, Anitta’s supporters have savvily pointed out that the group and others like it are tapping into local city budgets — and at disproportionally higher per-show fees. Now, state public prosecutors are investigating potential irregularities in 29 municipalities across the country for their use of public funds to pay for sertanejo shows.
The most ambitious package of investigations is being led by the Prosecutor’s Office of Mato Grosso, an agricultural state partly in the Amazon rainforest. On June 1, prosecutors there launched probes into 24 of the 29 suspected municipalities.
“And I was thinking that all I was doing was an intimate tattoo,” teased Anitta on Twitter on May 28, expressing surprise about the sudden investigations.
A handful of the probes involve sertanejo star Gusttavo Lima, a Sony Music artist whose single “Bloqueado” spent four weeks on the Billboard Global 200 earlier this year. Lima, who did almost 300 shows in 2019, is among the highest-paid performers in Brazil, typically earning at least 500,000 reais ($100,000) per gig, according to one person familiar with the matter.
Public contracts show that at least four small-sized cities hired Lima for shows with public money — at rates that sometimes exceeded his market value. One of those was São Luiz in Roraima State, in the isolated far north of the country. Roraima’s Prosecutor’s Office is examining a contract for 800,000 reais ($163,000) for a Lima show scheduled for December – an exorbitant amount for a city with just over 8,000 residents, which is the second-poorest city in Roraima, with an annual GDP of around $30 million. (Lima’s contract is 77% more than São Luiz’s yearly budget for school lunches, school busing and health surveillance services put together, according to public figures reported by the Brazilian media.)
“I never benefited from public money,” Lima said in an Instagram livestream on May 30. “Honestly, I don’t condone [the use] of public money.” But when artists do shows funded by municipalities, “we are massacred as if we were a criminal, as if we were a thief who was stealing public money. And it’s not like that, folks…It’s about valuing our work, which regardless of whether it is public or private [events], we have to be paid for.”
Amid the growing controversy, two of the four small cities — Conceição do Mato Dentro in Minas Gerais and Teolândia in Bahia – have recently canceled Lima shows scheduled for June.
Among the cities still under review is Sorriso, which contracted Zé Neto & Cristiano’s show on May 12 – when Zé Neto took a swipe at Anitta’s butt tattoo – for 400,000 reais ($82,000).
Like other investigations into publicly funded shows, the one in Mato Grosso is at an early stage, so“it still is not possible to know if there has been any illegality,” a spokesperson for Mato Grosso’s Prosecutor’s Office tells Billboard. “In order to make a conclusion, many issues need to be taken into account, such as analyzing the real need for that contract.”
Anitta, for her part, says she isn’t looking to pick a fight with the sertanejo scene, which has become Brazil’s most popular music in recent years. In an interview on the Brazilian TV show Fantástico, which aired on Sunday, Anitta said she broadly supports actions to stop corruption rather than an investigation that particularly targets sertanejo artists.
She noted, however, that irregularities in overpriced contracts is a reality in Brazilian showbusiness that she herself has witnessed.
“Those of us who work in music have always known this practice exists — I have already received proposals,” she said, going on to explain how she’s been approached with opportunities to commit fraud — possibly similar to what other acts have done.
‘You can charge this much, so I can take back this amount. He will give you some extra money if you declare that you’ve received less than what you actually did,’” she said.
Additional Reporting By Alexei Barrionuevo