Seu Jorge stares and sings into our souls

The actor and musician talks about his work in ‘City of God,’ and on his new album, ‘Cru’

Jenna Ross

It was his eyes in “City of God.” As Knockout Ned in the 2002 film, Seu Jorge’s wide eyes expressed the desperation of the favelas, or slums, outside Rio de Janeiro. They saw his girlfriend raped, his brother shot, his home destroyed. And we glimpsed the tragedy.

Now, it’s his voice. With “Cru,” his solo album released last week, Jorge’s voice knots around his own life in the favelas and swirls in the happiness he has since found. And we hear the journey.

Most of Jorge’s songs don’t focus on politics. But he does. In an e-mail conversation last week (he needed the questions in Portuguese and we needed his answers in English), Jorge talks about the Brazilian government, drug addiction and Elvis Presley.

What do you think U.S. citizens should know about the favelas?
I hope through “City of God” and through my music people from all around the world are made aware of the tragic conditions many thousands of people live in. Whereas most governments have some kind of social policy for the “poor” in their society, we do not.

A lot of police dare not even go into the favelas – never mind police them – and the favelas become a law unto themselves. If people try and escape, more than likely they are drawn back to the way of life because it is now in their blood.

I had no home for three years. I lost weight, got addicted and did not sleep. When you are on the streets, the gangs try and burn you when you are sleeping. So you don’t sleep for long!

It is a way of life that needs to be looked at. And the more people that become aware of it, the more the Brazilian government might do something about it.

What is your life like now? How is it different than what you would have imagined 10 years ago?
It is very different. But I had a very good upbringing. Although my family was poor, they were very supportive, tender, and they loved us all equally. To them the measurement of success was that I became a man of dignity who knew what was right and wrong. This ensured that I stayed strong when I could have been easily influenced, persuaded to fit in with everyone else. I suppose they call it the gang mentality.

I am now an actor and musician. I have a lovely home and family. My feet are firmly on the ground, as I know how easily you can be drawn back into the favelas. And it can take very few steps to get there. I hope each step I make enables me to get further away from it.

Why do you make music? What do you hope people get from “Cru”?
I have always loved music – from the age of 10. My father was a musician who played in small orchestras. I used to watch him as a child. I started saving up for a saxophone but due to my brother’s murder (he was murdered with many other people in a gang killing), we were then all made homeless. I was lucky to have been given an old guitar by a stranger when I lived on the streets and taught myself to play. It was my music that drew attention to me and later enabled me to get a job in acting.

With regards to my music – I not only hope people will like my music, but it is also quite cathartic for me, as it gets a lot of the demons out of my system. You can’t have the background I did and not carry emotional baggage with it.

Why cover songs by Elvis Presley?
I have always loved his music and felt that Elvis was a man that brought “black” music to the white masses, enabling black musicians to be not only heard but accepted by white people in America. I feel I am just taking back what is ours.