Rave on the Great Wall with Totô de Babalong
Interview by Brianna He (BH), Terri Zhang (TZ)
Images courtesy of Totô de Babalong
TOTÔ DE BABALONG –– A MUSICIAN, DESIGNER, DIRECTOR, EDITOR, COMPOSER; A NAME THAT CAN BE AND MEAN MANY THINGS. SHOWCASING HIS UNIQUENESS THROUGH MUSIC AND FASHION, WE UNCOVER THE ROOTS OF HIS INSPIRATIONS: FROM CULTURAL INFLUENCES ACROSS THE WORLD TO DREAMS THAT GLIMMERED SINCE INFANCY. TOTÔ’S ENMESHMENT OF LGBTQ+ LATINA MUSIC AND CHINESE INFLUENCE BRINGS A NOVEL REPRESENTATION OF ALL CULTURES AND COMMUNITIES HIGHLIGHTED IN HIS WORKS.
BH: Tell us about yourself. Your name, starting off easy.
My actual name is Heitor. It's the Portuguese version of Hector. But my artistic name is Totô de Babalong. I came up with this name because, as a child, people would call me Totô. “Baba” represents the place I came from called Bahia, Brazil, and “long” means dragon in Chinese. I used to live in Shanghai, China, and I started this whole artistic journey in China, so I wanted to make something to show my love for China. Super irrelevant, I know.
I'm a fashion designer, and I'm also a musician. My first album is coming out next Monday.
Visualizers for contem1drama
TZ: I know that you lived in China for a short while, but I didn’t know that your creative journey also started in China. Could you tell us a little bit more about how that came about?
Sure. When I was 15, it was my first time going to China to visit a friend. And I fell in love. It was the most amazing place I've ever seen. And then after that, I started taking Chinese classes to learn Chinese. When I was midway through my college, I felt like I didn't want Brazil anymore and [an urge that] I needed to go to China. So I moved to China to continue studying Chinese.
After a while, something clicked – fashion in most places was boring, but when I was walking in the fabric markets in Shanghai, I saw some amazing fabrics. It was a paradise to me, and I could create anything. I’ve always liked shiny things, so when I'm looking for garments, I always look for something that looks a little bit silky. Even nowadays, when I wear something, it must be shiny, either leather or silk. It's like my signature. So when I was in the fabric market, I made a shirt out of silky fabrics. So I called my sister and said, Débora, let's make a brand; we have to start this now.
Six months after we started, we had a specific idea of how we want to present our brand in photographs. Somehow, it got the attention of Anitta. She's huge, especially in the Latin community. She has sung with Madonna, Major Lazer, and Cardi B. She got in contact with us through her team, and we made more than 20 looks. Just like that, they didn't say anything. And then she wore them when she was performing at Rock in Rio, which has more views than the VMAs. So everybody was so shocked. And I was like, what's going on? After she did that, a lot of artists came to talk with us. That's how it started. Thank god, Anitta.
TZ: Only takes that one person. That's all.
Yes, that's all it takes.
TZ: When did you go back to Brazil? If that's where you're at right now?
I came back in 2018 or 2019, I guess. It hasn't been that long.
TZ: How long were you in China?
I was in China for three years.
TZ: [Gasp] That's a long time.
Well, are you guys Chinese?
BH: Yeah, we're both Chinese.
TZ: Last time I visited Shanghai was almost 4 years ago, though.
BH: Yeah. I lived in Shanghai when I was a kid, actually.
Oh, this is nice. I love Shanghai. It's so nice. I really like everything about China. I really like Taobao and the Hongbao.
BH: We also wanted to know a little bit about other inspirations. Any inspirations from your experiences from childhood or your identity as a queer artist, especially in wherever you grew up? Would that be Brazil?
Yeah, I grew up in Brazil. A very small city in Bahia State called Porto Seguro with about 100,000 people. There are only one or two high schools, and it feels like everybody is connected in some way. Growing up as a queer kid… it’s crazy. I’ve always loved to express myself and showcase my culture, but at the same time, it's really hard because the smaller the city is, the more close-minded the people are. Coming from a small place where nobody believes in you and seeing your dreams manifest is a mind-blowing experience. It’s a difficult journey, but it pushes my growth. As an artist, I think the neglect I experience enhances my art; even though it's painful, it helps develop sophistication.
BH: Yeah, I think coming from a place of struggle adds another level of depth to your artwork. You also mentioned your sister, Débora. Is she a really big part of your life? How did your relationship with her grow along with your career?
I think women, especially women in the family, are always a huge inspiration for queer kids. She has a very strong personality. She is a very Latina woman, and she's an Aries, Sun and Ascendant. She is really impulsive, and that's very inspirational to me. Because I'm a Pisces, and I'm really in my own head. I'm artistic, but I really think before doing something, so when I see that explosion, I live for that.
Today she works with me. She's my manager, and she's my booker. It's only her and me, and we're independent artists. So we do everything together, even the brand. I'm the designer, and she's the mastermind. She's the CEO. She's the big boss. And I love that because I'm not really capable of being that much of a leader. She's the leader. I follow her. Having these strong women in your life makes you stronger. And I love her very much.
BH: Talking about influential figures, we've also seen other queer Brazilian artists like Pabllo taking over the music industry.
It's really nice how Pabllo Vittar is breaking these boundaries, especially internationally. Brazil is the country that has killed the most people in the LGBTQ community out of all of the countries. It's crazy how we have laws that support us and music that supports us, but in real life, we go out there, and it's not that nice, especially in smaller cities. So what she does is inspirational. And it's really nice because she opened doors for many artists –– drag queens are becoming a real thing in Brazil. They are number one on the radio. It's really bizarre how people are killing us, but at the same time, we are huge.
BH: How do you see yourself as a queer artist contributing to the industry in your own special way?
By being there, speaking on our experiences, and showing our pains. Just say what you want to say and dress how you want to dress. That's one thing that I always keep in mind when producing my music videos.
Also, I always always put somebody from the trans community either on camera or off camera. I try to show more of a romantic portrayal because usually, the trans community is very sexualized. So in my music videos, I tried to put them in a place of romance, to show love to trans people. I think that's very important because I don't see that. I don't see it. I think it's our duty to make our community better.
BH: It sounds like you direct your music videos yourself. Are you the one who presents the vision throughout the entire journey?
I'm a perfectionist, so it's really hard to put somebody there and trust them a hundred percent. I write all my songs, and I compose all my music. In this album, there is only one song I didn't write. When I compose, everything starts with melody. Then I bring it to my producer, he tries to translate my vision. When I'm satisfied with the music, I go to visuals, which is something so important, especially in our generation, because everything's about Instagram and TikTok. When it gets to that, I need to be 100% sure it's what I want to see. If it's a mood or a story, I want to make sure that it's clear. For many videos of mine, I was the one directing, and I'm a big part of the editing. I was the one that directed Caipirinha de Milão.
For many videos, I direct, unless I really trust somebody and their vision. But even then, I'm always there checking the camera. It's your art. It's your name. It's how your fans are going to see you. And it's how you are going to see you. The final product must be nice.
TZ: How is the music video for the new album coming along?
Perfectly. There are 13 songs, so I made visualizers, and because you know independent artists cannot afford many music videos. In these visualizers, I tried to bring the vision that I want you to see, which is like waking up, afternoon, and there's the interlude, which is like a sunset, and then night time or party time.
I also wanted to bring a dream. The first visualizer is me going to sleep. Then what I would envision would be a dream in my mind which then brings joy and love but also sadness. It blends a lot of my personalities into it, or at least one of them.
TZ: Are we going to be seeing more East Asian cultural references in the new album?
Yes, actually, in my lead single I did some freestyle in Chinese. I felt the need to say something in Chinese because the beat called for it, although it doesn't necessarily make much sense. I really wanted to bring something Chinese into the album because it's a huge part of my life.
There is also a 3D visualizer of a song in the album of me flying through Shanghai. You can see the buildings of the Bond in the background.
BH: Do you think you're going to be visiting China again anytime soon?
I mean, I love China, and I really want to visit there again. It's just hard because it was closed, right? I don't know if it's open again. But for sure. It's a huge inspiration. Not just for the music and vision. When I see the culture, when I see the A Yi's (old Chinese ladies) and their fashion, it's mind-blowing.
[More hysterical laughter]
There is also this one party that I really like on the Great Wall with many DJs. This is the type of experience I miss. I miss it a lot. But I can only talk about my vision and experiences as a foreigner in China. I don't know how you guys felt in China growing up.
Rave on the Great Wall
TZ: I think for us growing up experience is very different from when we go back to China during adulthood, which is exactly the same as a foreigner. What aspect of Chinese culture makes you keep wanting to come back?
I always tell my friends and family that there was a time in my life when I just didn't want to stay in Brazil. I just want to go the furthest place I could and feel something I have never felt because sometimes it's just like "enough is enough." I needed to see something novel and extraordinary because life was getting boring. I was sad in college, and I felt like it was not the life I was meant to be living in. Not this routine every day. So I went to China, and I began living the exact opposite. I had new experiences every day. Even the parts where people get annoyed, I enjoyed it, because I've never seen it. And it comes from a place of admiration from being so so unique. That's what I love about China – its uniqueness. I miss the people, the friends, and the food. There's no authentic Chinese food in Brazil.
TZ: I relate to your experiences in some ways because China was my birthplace. I also went to a university in China, and I felt like I wanted to escape. That's why I came to Canada. So Canada to me is like China to you. I think at specific times of our lives, we need this other-body dissociative experience through traveling, which happens to be China for you.
I just wish it was a little bit closer; that would be amazing. I think we have similar experiences, but I guess in opposite directions.
TZ: Are you still doing both fashion and music at the same time?
Yeah, I'm doing both. But at the same time, I'm paying more attention to my music career because it's working out better. People are calling me to do concerts all the time.For my upcoming album, I'm making a press kit to send to influencers, which I developed through designing and making people's clothes. I will send a Get-Ready-With-Me kit with everything from my album. I made this soap-wrapped printed hair. Very me, I guess. And then I put the soap, clothes, combs, and scent all together to make the get ready with me. But yeah, fashion is a huge part of my life, and I'm never gonna leave it, but at the same time, I'm taking a break to focus more on making music because it's something I really love.
And it's working out, so I'm choosing to focus on it more.
BH: You mentioned how your interest in fashion started. What about your music career?
Growing up, while taking a shower, I would imagine myself performing in VMAs or the opening ceremony of the World Cup. I would think big, go big. But I was never really brave enough to sing in front of people. And it wasn't something that I was really gifted in. You know those people you meet, and they're born to be singers. But I always love music. In the new album right now, there are songs that were composed ten years ago. It didn't click that this was something I could pursue, although I have been composing. The love for music was always there, especially coming from Bahia, which is really huge for music. It's very present there.
Even when I was in China, I was making songs. And then, one of those days, I met this very good friend of mine who's well connected with producers in the music industry. She heard what I wrote and said, wait, let me call someone. His name is RDD and he was like, let's make some songs. After the second song, things started picking up, and people were listening. One thing led to another. I started taking singing lessons and studying music. And then I started dancing more. My mom is a ballet dancer. So artistry is in my blood. It's just a matter of having the opportunity and seeing something that's working.
TZ: I can see the multidisciplinary impact on your music career compared to those who come from a musical background. It's different from what we've seen before.
I know my vocal range, so I won’t get crazy with it, but I can do enough.
BH: If anything, it's the intention behind the work.