Actor-songwriter Seu Jorge (left) doesn’t hit the stage with an agenda, but intelligent lyrics and a surfeit of charisma have made him one of Brazil’s most important voices. T+L gets his take on music with a message.

Q. Do you see yourself as a kind of cultural ambassador for Brazil?

A. It’s happened by default. I grew up in one of the Rio favelas, and I sometimes sing about the plight of the people there. The favelas are not places anybody should live, and the more people outside of Brazil who are aware of this, the better.

Q. What’s something about Brazil you think audiences aren’t aware of but should be?

A. There are many distinct cultures in Brazil: native South American, European, black Africans who came from slavery. The music-culture part is a melting pot, but you can’t stereotype a Brazilian person.

Q. Which Brazilian musicians would you like to get more people to listen to?

A. When I was growing up, Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascimento, and Caetano Veloso were relevant but were aimed at the intelligentsia. We listened to João Nogueira—and the "King" of the favelas, Zeca Pagodinho. He played samba, which makes your worries disappear; it really lifts your heart.

Q. What are two things someone visiting Brazil must do?

A. In São Paulo, see the Cathedral. In Rio, see the Christ the Redeemer statue—and have a caipirinha on the sand! I always tell people visiting Brazil for the first time, "Shut your eyes and take in the smell." It gets your senses stirring.