“Mas sou minha, só minha, e não de quem quiser.”
(“But I am mine, only mine, and not of whomever.”)
— Cássia Eller
To talk about an artist is all too often to talk about their work. An artist’s creations can say much more about the person creating than was ever intended and can give us insight into their minds that we would never have had access to otherwise. It becomes difficult when there is a language barrier between the artist and oneself. There are translations of course, but so many translations are robotic at best, literally so if google translate is the only option. Instead, we can look to the impact of their work, and the effect their art had on their community. This is what we will be doing as we look at Cássia Eller, a Brazilian rock and MPB musician.
Born in 1962 in Rio de Janeiro, Cássia Eller was named after the Catholic Saint Rita of Cascia and was the daughter of an Army parachutist and a housewife. Her interest in music began early at the age of fourteen when she won a guitar in a competition and began playing covers of Beatles songs. It wasn't until she was eighteen that she was able to pursue music in earnest. After her family moved to Brasilia, she dropped out of school and began to sing in a choir, audition for musicals, and work as a showgirl in an Opera. Though she initially began singing with a forro group, she soon explored other genres, including Samba and electric. There she joined a trio called “Massa Real”.
Though she got a few jobs singing in bars she eventually decided to move to Belo Horizonte where she found work as a bricklayer, a job that gave her more independence and her own flat. It was only in 1989 that her music career really took off, as her uncle got her a meeting with the label that eventually signed her.
Declaring herself an “interpreter” most of her first tracks were covers of songs, including songs by Cazuza, Renato Russo, Rita Lee, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Nando Reis, Riachão, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Beatles, John Lennon, and Nirvana. For many fans, her performances were the highlight of her career. With her deep voice and charismatic presence she quickly became a household name and her career was on a steep upwards progression.
It was during her rise to fame that she became pregnant, though the father of the child was a married man who died before the boy was born. By the time the baby was born Eller had found Maria Eugenia, a woman she trusted to be her partner raise her son alongside her. The two were married in 1990 and were together for thirteen years.
Her career was in no way hindered by her child, and she continued growing as an artist and in recognition. In the course of 5 months during 2001, she played 95 shows. That same year, she also made a DVD and played on MTV.
But the workload got to be too much for her according to her manager. On December 29 Eller suffered three cardiac arrests and died in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro. Those initial concerns focused on a drug addiction she had previously received treatment for, the autopsy showed no drugs or alcohol in her system. Though her early death at the age of 39 brought on suspicion, it seems to have been from natural causes.
Her wife Maria was given custody of their son as was Eller's preference, and Eller was honoured by many other artists and publications after her death.
Though Eller’s career was cut short, her memory is widely held. In her son, who has also grown up to be quite the musician. In her fans who have compared her to the great Cazuza, another queer Brazilian artist who died of AIDS before Eller really entered popularity, and like her was controversial. Though she gained her reputation from sometimes exposing her breasts to the audience during a performance, much of Cazuza’s came from the visible effects AIDS had on his body. Queer people, both from Brazil and not, can find inspiration in her success and her confidence.
One such effect strikes quite literally close to home, in a transgender Edmontonian singer who began using the name Cássia in honour of the Brazilian singer saying:
“She really campaigned for LGBT rights down there. Very fierce strong woman, I think she died some years ago. I read her story and was looking for a name that just suited me I guess. You just don’t hear it a lot. I liked the musical legacy it had. I needed something different than my birth name.”
It sometimes happens, that the impact of a life is much longer than the life itself, and while there is no way to know how well she will be remembered as time passes and history books are written, we know she'll be remembered in some small ways. By the people who loved her music and still think about her every time a song plays. By the queer people who saw her, both within Brazil and outside of it. And it was the first time they had seen someone who might just be like them and realized that someone could be like them. They could be happy, and successful, and in love, and loved, something that not all queer people are taught is possible.
If we didn’t grow up with her music, or maybe have just discovered it, or only are interested in her story, the impact will, of course, be different. But that does not mean it will be less.
Her art was without a doubt a huge part of her identity, especially her public identity, but it is not all that remains of her. Because when you create, it is not just your creations that remain after you’re gone, it is the people that love them, and you. So in the end, it comes to the simple fact that the whole of a person is not the sum of their parts, and the impact of a life can be much stronger and wider than anyone could have ever expected.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Barteldes, Ernest. “Bye-bye, Bad Girl!” Brazzil. Jan 2002.
“Cassia Eller, 39; Brazilian Rock Singer Known for Brash Style.” Los Angeles Times. 1 Jan 2002.
“Cassia Hardy Found a New Perspective With Her New Identity.” Noisey. Vice.
Gdula, Steve. “Queen of the Carnaval: Lesbian Brazilian Rocker Cassia Eller Dies Just as Her Career Was Really Taking Off.” The Advocate. 2 Mar 2002.
Pinto, César Braga. “Brazilian Songs Out of the Closet.” Brazil-USA News. BMV Digital. 2002.
“Son of Cássia Eller Shudders Audience When Singing Mother’s Song in Rio Presentation.” Extra. Infoglobo. 6 Nov 2015.
“The 100 Greatest Voices of Brazilian Music.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone Brasil. October 2012.