Batekoo: A Story of Liberation and Joy
This year, the Brazilian LGBTQIA+ collective hosted a Carnival party in Salvador, a city where slaves were once imported to. Now, Batekoo are reclaiming its shores.
It’s 10.30pm in Amsterdam and Artur Santoro is exploring the city by foot. It’s the second time he’s visiting the Dutch capital, and the first with a collective of friends called Batekoo. He’s on his own now though, joining me for a video call on his phone. His face is dimly lit by a nearby street lamp that punctuates the deep blue darkness of Amsterdam. As he walks, it creates a halo effect behind him like a fractured, glowing orb. The rainbow stripes of a Pride flag judder in and out of view as the shadowy shapes of buildings stream behind him. He’s wearing a white tank with a deep red shirt, his headphones plugged in. When Santoro speaks, he does so with a smile and ends his sentences with a chuckle.
It’s a busy time for Batekoo, a Salvador-based collective fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights and liberation in Brazil. Since their inception as a birthday party nine years ago, the collective have expanded exponentially, exploding from Salvador’s underground club scene to a much-needed movement for Black queer expression. Now, they’re celebrating the Batekoo Festival, which sees them touring Europe for the second time. A Carnival party in February marked a pivotal moment for the collective, taking place across the shores of Salvador that was once the gateway for the importation of slaves. A decade in, Batekoo have such a tight grip on Brazilian youth culture today that their influence can’t be understated – even grabbing the attention of cultural signifier Beyoncé herself.
But while their legendary parties have revolutionised the queer scene across Brazil, the group have their sights set on a global takeover. My communication with co-founder Maurício Bahia Sacramento takes place over a series of emails and messages, and by the time I’ve confirmed an interview with Santoro, they’re onto the third stop of their European tour. Santoro’s eager to venture into the city, so he takes me on his walk with him as he recounts Batekoo’s story, starting from the beginning to hosting the afterparty for Brazil’s second largest street party.
Salvador is the capital of Brazil’s northeastern state Bahia. In the 1500s, the city was a major importer of Black labourers. Investors in port cities – such as Bristol and Salvador – established Atlantic routes which acted as supply chains of slaves. Workers were held captive, forced to migrate and work across plantations, mines and factories. Maurício Bahia Sacramento, otherwise known by the moniker Freshprincedabahia, was born in Vale das Pedrinhas on the outskirts of Salvador’s Complexo de Amaralina.
“I grew up in a very misogynist and homophobic environment, and had my first experiences with my sexuality through everyday violence,” he writes, “which, combined with the violence of racism, turned me into a shy, ashamed, introverted person with self-esteem issues.” He realised he was attracted to both men and women from a young age, but couldn’t find a sense of self-affirmation in his environment due to its lack of references and role models. “For a long time it was a secret masked by shame, but that changed when I started going out in Salvador's nightlife. That's where I found myself,” he recalls. In 2013, Brazil was rocked by a wave of protests where over a million people filled the streets of several cities. Known as the Movimento Passe Livre, or the Free Fare Movement, protestors rallied for transport charges to be dropped. It was the first time Sacramento understood the power of protest. “My first understanding of politics and change was born there, igniting a flame in my heart that told me that, yes, I could do something to change my reality and consequently that of my peers.”
“[Carnival is] more than just a party, but is an occupation of a historical place for us”– Juju ‘Jujuzl’ Andrade
The nightlife scene in which he’d formed his identity wasn’t a perfect utopia for people of colour, however, and Sacramento frequently encountered racism within the existing LGBTQIA+ community. He threw a birthday party for Wesley Miranda in 2014 and this planted the seed of what would grow into Batekoo. “I spent months studying Black and Afro-diasporic cultural scenes that were already active in various parts of Brazil and the world,” he looks back. “I wanted to create something just as powerful but with an LGBTQIA+ focus, promoting respect for the diversity of Black people in the world today.” Joining forces with comrade Miranda – who he met within the nightlife scene – Batekoo’s first parties were like a “domino effect,” lighting a spark on the club circuit. The collective’s reach grew significantly when they expanded to other parts of Brazil, and in less than a year, they were hosting parties in over six cities. The project came with a manifesto (“we don’t want to be seen, we want to see each other”) and drew in Black and LGBTQIA+ youths in the country, particularly those living in the outskirts.
One day, in 2015, Batekoo met Juju – a dancer with “sick moves” – at one of their parties in São Paulo. The feeling of attending the party was strange, she reminisces. “I could barely understand what that feeling was, it was like recharging my soul. I felt that I finally had a space of autonomy to discover and be myself.” She went on to join the collective as an MC and dancer. Her greatest contribution to the group, however, is, she says, “identification”. She elaborates, “I believe that this pure feeling of joy and comfort with who I am ends up transcending and becomes identification and inspiration for the audience. My job is to make everyone comfortable, and it is clear that Batekoo is a place of respect above everything else.” In the Trippin cover shoot she’s wearing a yellow bikini, holding onto her body, and the expression on her face is one of glee and vivacious joy.
With more members joining, Batekoo needed to become a self-sustaining entity and it needed a business model. Santoro was born in Roraima, Boa Vista, in the north side of Brazil. His family are from Maceió, Alagoas, and Santoro moved to São Paulo as a child. “I remember being queer since I didn’t know I was queer,” he says. “I was what people call in Brazil a criança viada, something like a queer child.” On growing up in São Paulo, Santoro recalls he didn’t feel like he fitted in anywhere. In 2016, he worked on the curatorial team at the Brazilian institution Museu de Arte de São Paulo, where he realised curation could be used as a tool for social justice and empowerment. At age 18, he attended his first Batekoo party at a venue called Jongo Reverendo and found a home in the club scene. He joined the collective soon after, and those parties moved to a space called Morfeus for a year until Mafalda Ramos – the collective’s former executive producer – became a part of the group. With Ramos and Santoro on the team, Batekoo steered away from traditional clubs, producing parties in car parks and abandoned factories instead. It gave them the autonomy to experiment with cultural production, designing their events from scratch. In São Paulo, their gatherings of around 350 people grew to large masses of three to five thousand dancers. It was no easy feat though, and Santoro laughs as he reminisces over the mishaps that’ve happened along the way.
“The Batekoo Carnival is the only time of the year when we can take our vision of Black culture and happiness to the streets” – Maurício Bahia Sacramento
“Everything that could go wrong with a party has already happened,” he grins. Once, a burst pipe flooded the entrance of a party with water and there were holes in the ground. It looked like the event had to be called off… or did it? The show must go on, or so they say, and Batekoo rebuilt the street so people could enter the event. “That wound up being my biggest experience,” Santoro chuckles at the memory. “We'll find solutions for the problems that we face. When you have less opportunities, you need to struggle to get chances. Creativity is a part of the Black youth.”
On the team, Santoro led the creation of Escola B with director Leonardo Moraes: a free educational programme offering workshops and courses, and diving deep into the nuances of Afro-Brazilian history. “Brazil is a very extensive country with many capitals and regions,” Santoro explains. “In each city, Black people have created different kinds of cultural references, musical rhythms and genres, style, but they all connect as you see them in an Afro-Atlantic perspective.” He lists them out: “In Salvador we have pagodão baiano; Recife we have brega funk; Rio's funk carioca.” No Batekoo party is the same. “You need to go to each one to understand how complex the cultural and historical experience of being Afro-Brazilian is.” The Batekoo team remains small, so they work with locals in each area to accurately cover the cultural scene that’s brewing inside.
Batekoo, Santoro says, always had “a logo, a Tigrona and a dream”. Aside from producing parties, that dream was to work with Deize Tigrona herself – one of the first women in baile funk. Two decades into her career, Tigrona was no longer able to dedicate her time to music. Batekoo wanted to help kickstart her career. Alongside Escola B, Santoro and Sacramento launched Batekoo Records with a release from Tigrona, followed by music from Tícia – an artist from the Bahian scene who “turns everything around her into melody”.
“The Black youth in Brazil have a lot of creativity. We'll find solutions for the problems that we face” – Artur Santoro
On pioneering women, I ask: what was it like working with Beyoncé? Two years ago, Batekoo appeared on the campaign for an Adidas x Icy Park collection – the winter drop for Beyoncé's Ivy Park collaboration with the sports brand. Juju’s dressed in a brown ‘fit (a leotard with a metallic floor-length puffer jacket and white trainers), squatting for a photo while holding up her long, baby pink braids. “We are all Beyoncé fans,” Santoro beams. “We used to say, I had dreams to work with Beyoncé, and we got this huge opportunity. It was amazing to feel like we are being seen.” He looks like he’s in a dream as he says this, looking ahead and smiling as though in a joyful reverie. “The campaign was really great for us because many brands started to look for us, so we were able to survive the pandemic.”
Before the pandemic, a string of Carnival parties had taken place in São Paulo but this year marks their first in Salvador. Given its history, Batekoo’s afterparty was a momentous turning point for the Black community. Away from the studio and on the shores of Salvador, their photos of the Carnival party feel raw and unfiltered; a couple are pictured kissing in the streets, holding one another in an intimate embrace. Two people can be seen biting another’s “koo” – a bottom (‘Batekoo’ translates to ‘shake that ass’). One dancer is captured with their long braids streaming behind them, suspended in the air. Their posture looks powerful: back arched, shoulders pushed back. In another image, a party-goer is on the floor, captured in a death drop, dressed in a yellow fishnet top and black underwear. They look so free. “The Batekoo Carnival is the only time of the year when we can take our vision of Black culture and happiness to the streets,” Sacramento writes to me. “Defending Black and peripheral culture is always a challenge. When we started, funk music was still labelled as vulgar and censored in various spaces. Batekoo was always a platform that supported and tried to validate these cultural expressions as legitimate.”
Where slaves were once brought to these shores, Batekoo’s Carnival-goers now dance upon them. At the event, one dancer can be seen with embellishments around their eyes: dark beads framing a swathe of silver, glittery eyeshadow. Circles of space are created for dance offs. There’s the deft movements of a dancer vogueing. Batekoo have painted a picture of freedom over the violent past of the port city, turning a history of pain and captivity into unbridled joy and liberation. “Salvador is a great landmark of Black Brazilian culture, and it is not a coincidence that it is the birthplace of Batekoo,” Juju tells me. “[Carnival is] more than just a party, but is an occupation of a historical place for us.”
It’s clear that the success of Batekoo derives not only from their business model and cultural production, but also from the need that queer communities in Brazil had for such a collective. “I think everyone always wanted something like Batekoo,” Santoro muses. “When it started to expand nationally, people were presented with the name for what they always wanted.”
The streets are awash with lights now and Santoro’s reached his destination. I lose him briefly and when we reconnect, he’s exiting a building. There were connection issues inside. A neon green sign gleams above him and it says ‘420 CAFE’. He’s spinning around, assessing his surroundings as he speaks down the phone, looking up to find his words. Amsterdam is a whirl of colours behind him, smudged into a blur, and I am the little eye of his front camera peering up at him. Reflecting on Batekoo’s journey and working within the culture industry, he laughs and scrunches up his face. Nodding and smiling, he says he’s tired. His infectious enthusiasm is palpable even from my viewpoint. It’s his downtime before he continues the stretch of parties before him, and Batekoo aren’t showing any signs of slowing down. They’re just getting started. How do you prepare for that? “My tip is,” he proposes, “get your koo ready!” We wrap up our call and then he’s gone, into a 420 coffee shop in Amsterdam.