Rita Lee, Brazil’s Queen of Rock and Tropicalía Pioneer, Dead at 75
Rita Lee, the legendary Brazilian musician at the forefront of the Tropicália movement as the co-founder and lead singer for Os Mutantes, died Monday, May 8. She was 75.
Lee’s family confirmed her death in a statement shared on Instagram. In 2021, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, jokingly nicknaming her tumor “Jair” after Brazil’s former, and much loathed president, Jair Bolsonaro.
In their statement, Lee’s family said the musician died at her home in São Paulo surrounded by family. As per Lee’s wishes, she will be cremated. A public wake celebrating her life and career will take place tomorrow, May 10, at the Planetarium in Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo.
“In this moment of deep sadness, the family appreciates everyone’s affection and love,” the family said.
Lee enjoyed a successful, six-decade career, selling millions of records as a member of Os Mutantes, various other bands, and as a solo act. She suitably earned the honorific title in Brazil as “Rainha do Rock” (“Queen of Rock”), though as she told Rolling Stone Brasil in an interview last November, “I like being called the ‘patron saint of freedom’ more than the ‘queen of rock’, which I find a little tacky.”
On Twitter, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva called Lee “one of the biggest and most brilliant names in Brazilian music” and said she “helped transform Brazilian music with her creativity and boldness.” He continued: “She spared nothing and no one with her humor and eloquence. She faced machismo in life and music and inspired generations of women in rock and art.”
“Rita Lee was a visionary artist and one of the best-selling singer/songwriters in the history of Brazil,” said Manuel Abdu, CEO of the Latin Recording Academy. He added: “‘[T]he Queen of Brazilian Rock’ spearheaded the Tropicália movement with the bands Os Mutantes and Tutti Frutti. After embarking on a solo career, she recorded several albums — amongst them her legendary 1979 LP Rita Lee — which catapulted her to massive success and gave us classics like ‘Mania De Você, ‘Lança Perfume’ y ‘Caso Sério.'”
Rita Lee Jones was born Dec. 31, 1947 in São Paulo, where she grew up. (Her father was an American-Brazilian descendant of the “Confederados,” Southern Confederates who fled the U.S. for Brazil after the Civil War and Reconstruction; hence the middle name “Lee,” in reference to Confederate General Robert E. Lee.) Lee started playing music at a young age, even asking her parents for a drum set, in lieu of participating in a debutante ball as a teenager.
In 1966, Lee formed Os Mutantes with brothers Arnaldo Baptista and Sérgio Dias Baptista. After meeting Gilberto Gil, they were soon looped into the budding Tropicália movement, which blended British and American pop rock and psychedelic rock with Brazilian and African influences. The music was also fiercely political, emerging largely in protest to Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1960s.
“’Our whole thing was playing pranks and defying authority, but you had to be careful in those days because friends were disappearing or being forced into exile, and the cops would often come in and bust up our shows,” Lee told The New York Times in a 2002 interview. ”We had to be creative but evasive to avoid the repression, and so we’d tell each other, ‘Let’s make this song complicated so that nobody understands it.’”
In 1968, Os Mutantes released their self-titled debut album and appeared on the famous compilation, Tropicália: ou Panis et Circenses. The group released four more LPs before Lee left the group in 1972, citing her “search of Brazil, Brazil, Brazil,” as her bandmates started to pursue a more “progressive rock direction” that was “more foreign influenced.”
Before leaving Os Mutantes, Lee had released her first solo album in 1970. A second arrived in 1972, but then Lee linked up with a new backing band, Tutti Frutti, with whom she released several major albums over the course of the Seventies. After Tutti Frutti disbanded, Lee’s career continued apace and she formed a particularly prolific and fruitful creative partnership with her husband, Roberto de Carvalho.
While always wildly popular at home, Lee’s music — and especially that of Os Mutantes and other Tropicalía artists — started to find more listeners in the United States in the late Nineties and early 2000s. At one point, Os Mutantes even reunited, though Lee declined to participate; instead she continued to focus on her own music (her last solo album arrived in 2012) and tour, while also writing several books, including an autobiography in 2016. Last year, Lee was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Grammys.