Words by: Kate Hutchinson
QUINTA DO ANJO, Portugal — Across the River Tagus from central Lisbon, at a venue surrounded by fruit warehouses and storage units, one of Portugal’s most exciting dance music producers was deep in concentration behind the decks. She was not banging out electronic beats at a sold-out club, however. A crowd jostled around a buffet table. In the corner stood a tiered cake. And the producer’s mother was busy pouring glasses of sparkling melon wine and showing guests family photographs on her phone.
It was unusual to see the music producer, Nídia Borges, 21, in this setting, playing wedding D.J. for a cousin, but this afternoon was the only time she had to meet before setting off on tour across the United States. Ms. Borges is known onstage as “Nídia,” though she used to call herself “Nídia Minaj” in tribute to her favorite rapper, Nicki Minaj. She dropped the last name because, she said later in an interview, “Today I have my own identity. I’m not going to imitate something that someone has done already.”
Indeed, Ms. Borges’s uniquely hectic music has caught the ear of the global dance floor. Her debut album, “Nídia é Má, Nídia é Fudida” (“Nídia Is Bad, Nídia Is Dope”), was named in Rolling Stone’s 20 best electronic albums of 2017, and she was called on by Fever Ray to contribute some off-kilter drums to the Swedish artist’s latest record, “Plunge.” Nowadays, it’s easier to catch Ms. Borges at a European music festival — such as Sónar in Barcelona, Spain, where she plays on Thursday — than on her home turf.
Nídia behind the decks at her cousin’s wedding party. Nowadays, she’s more likely to be found playing major European music festivals.CreditDaniel Rodrigues for The New York Times
Ms. Borges’s music brings together a host of genres from across Portuguese-speaking Africa, including kizomba, funaná, tarraxinha and the popular electro bounce of kuduro. At the wedding disco, the playlist was heavy on traditional sounds for an older audience. But for her own productions, Ms. Borges mixes these childhood influences with polyrhythms, frantic beats, air horns and elements of genres like trance, European techno, Afro-house and American R&B. Her drums thwack like a bucking bronco. The result is as dizzying as it is danceable.
“Calm music is for couples,” said Ms. Borges, whose mother is from Guinea-Bissau and whose father comes from Cape Verde. “Here, it has to be like an explosion in your face.” She said this confrontational sound was partly a result of a Portuguese music industry that had ignored the African diaspora. “When something comes out of the ghetto, it can’t come softly,” she added. “It has to have strength.”
There are hundreds of producers making experimental dance music of this kind. Many, with family backgrounds in former Portuguese colonies like Angola, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe, can be found in the housing projects around the Lisbon area. Each producer has a distinct take on the African-Portuguese sound, and it is constantly mutating from neighborhood to neighborhood. As a result, it doesn’t have a fixed name, but it is often referred to in Portuguese simply as “batida,” or “beats”.
The undisputed guiding force behind the sound and the scene, however, is the Lisbon record label Príncipe. Since 2013, through its releases and a monthly club night in the city, Príncipe has provided a platform for African-Portuguese artists and taken them to the world stage. Previously, the artists had “less opportunity to play in clubs in the middle of town,” Rita Maia, a Portuguese D.J. and broadcaster, said. The African diaspora in and around Lisbon is culturally and geographically segregated, she said, and the Principe label acts as “the bridge.”
Ms. Borges is the label’s first breakout star — and its only female artist. She started posting tracks on SoundCloud at age 15 after swapping samples with other D.J.s on messaging platforms and learning music production software by watching YouTube tutorials. Marlon Silva, considered one of the founding fathers of batida (he performs as D.J. Marfox and was Príncipe’s first talent scout), found Ms. Borges on Facebook and signed her to the label in 2015. She had moved with her mother to Bordeaux, France, in 2011, and Ms. Borges said that, at the time, she had been making music for “fun and pleasure.”
In France, Ms. Borges said, she would skip classes to play shows: Her teachers were powerless. (“They’re not my parents, they can’t keep me at home,” she said.) That combative attitude offers one explanation for why she never felt daunted by trying to break into a male-dominated scene.
Noite Príncipe, held at the Musicbox club in Lisbon, is the leading party for the batida sound.CreditDaniel Rodrigues for The New York Times
People “think I’m going to sing, they never think that I’m a D.J.,” Ms. Borges said, but, she added, “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
Her music is agitated, but in person she’s relaxed — almost to the point of being unreadable. Her unwillingness to show vulnerability “comes from our African community, because we suffer racism,” she said. When someone sees you are shy, she continued, “They will bully you like in school. You have to be tough.”
The Vale da Amoreira district, where Ms. Borges grew up, is notable for its high proportion of housing projects, though Ms. Borges’s family home is privately owned. A year ago, she moved back from Bordeaux to the apartment where she spent her childhood. In one room, she has built a music studio with stretches of foam soundproofing clinging to the walls. Becoming a D.J. changed her life, she said, because she was able to buy music equipment and a car, things that were out of reach to most young people in the neighborhood.
Nídia in the Vale da Amoreira neighborhood where she grew up. Last year, she moved back to the apartment where she spent her childhood.CreditDaniel Rodrigues for The New York Times
One night last month at Noite Príncipe, the monthly party dedicated to the batida sound, the main room filled up gradually up with expats and tourists, hipsters and clubbers. First to play were R.S. Produções, two D.J.s who looked no older than 17; it was the first time they had played at a venue in the center of Lisbon, they said later in an interview.
Backstage, Mr. Silva — D.J. Marfox — explained that batida was “the identity of the ghettos.” He said Noite Príncipe was “the first night where 100 percent of the music is made in Portugal by African descendants.” Ms. Borges’s music, he added, has a “very particular sound,” and there was “a certain firmness in what she does.”
João Branko of the Portuguese band Buraka Som Sistema, said in an email that it was the contrast between harshness and light that made Ms. Borges’s music so compelling. “The most striking sonic differences for me,” he said, “are the softer, nonobvious musical textures that she fuses with the more aggressive, and — most of the time — more creative, rhythm patterns.” He summed up her sound as “spiky and dissonant,” adding that her breakthrough was just the start of wider recognition. “It feels like the beginning,” he said. “Lisbon’s club culture has hacked the music industry, and there’s no turning back.”
But Ms. Borges was reluctant about leading the charge. While she would be gratified if her sound galvanized the next generation of local D.J.s, she “doesn’t want to be an example,” she said.
“Marfox was the one who started it all, and he opened doors,” Ms. Borges said. “Maybe we will open doors for others to come after us, too.”