José Carlos Capinam was a fundamental influence in the movement known as Tropicalia. He not only inspired the top figures Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil with his poetry, but with his philosophical/ideological views as well. He has also written lyrics for such composers as Edu Lobo, Paulinho da Viola, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Torquato Neto, Macalé, and Fagner.
At 15, he was already writing his first verses. In 1960, he went to Salvador for a college education and discovered an interest in theater. He then became acquainted with Caetano, Gil, and other people who would be the musical group from the Teatro Vila Velha in Salvador, BA. In Salvador, Capinam was enrolled in the law and theater colleges, along with his participation in the Centro Popular de Cultura, CPC, a meeting point for those interested in popular culture. Requested by his friends to write his play Bumba-meu-Boi, with music by Tom Zé, they locked him in a room until he finished the work. After rehearsals, which usually lasted until midnight, they all went to the Praça Castro Alves' bars, where they met with artists and intellectuals such as the fundamental moviemaker Gláuber Rocha. On March 31, 1964, the day when Brazil suffered a military coup, all people connected with cultural popular roots were at risk. Capinam got away from his home town with two other actors from the CPC. After a short period hidden there, he preferred to move alone to São Paulo, a large city where he could be inconspicuous. There he worked for a major publicity agency, where he met the then jingle composer Geraldo Vandré, who would go on to be an important composer/songwriter. Helped by the CPC bonds, he became acquainted with renowned actor Gianfrancesco Guarnieri and also famous playwrite Augusto Boal from the Teatro de Arena, who introduced him to the theatrical scenery of São Paulo. This way, he came to know several of his expressive associates, one of which was Edu Lobo. In 1965, "Ladainha," composed together with Gilberto Gil, was the first recorded song by Capinam. Interpreted by Nara Leão, it was included on the B-side of Chico Buarque's debut single, A Banda, which had won TV Record's 1966 Festival de Música Popular Brasileira. Also in 1965, he composed, together with Caetano Veloso, the soundtrack for Geraldo Sarno's movie Viramundo. Also composed with Gilberto Gil, the song "Viramundo" was included on Gil's first record. In 1966, he inscribed his song (with Paulinho da Viola) "Canção para Maria" for TV Record's II FMPB (Brazilian Popular Music Festival), being classified in third place. With Edu Lobo as partner, he won first place in the next year's FMPB with "Ponteio." Also with Lobo, he composed "Cirandeiro," included on the LP Edu e Bethânia (Elenco, 1967) and "Corrida de Jangada" and "Rosinha," both recorded in the Philips LP Edu Lobo that same year.
Caetano's 1968 LP Caetano Veloso (Philips) had Capinam's "Clarisse" (with Caetano) and "Soy Loco por ti, América" (with Gil and Torquato Neto). This latter song provoked intense polemic, being a danceable fusion of mambo, rumba, and Cumbia with some of the lyrics in Spanish. The song was a tribute to the guerrilla fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara, written as soon as his death was noticed. It brought attacks from several sides: conservatives criticized its political substance and xenophobic listeners complained about the use of the Spanish language. On the other side, "Clarisse" almost wasn't included on the album, as Caetano thought it was too conservative and would spoil the album's concept. He wanted to include "Dora" instead, a song by Dorival Caymmi which had his son Dori (considered by Caetano as the best follower of João Gilberto's) as Caetano's accompanist. They even worked on it at the studio, but Caymmi wasn't into it for some reason and kept forgetting the changes. Eventually, they abandoned the session and Caetano decided to include "Clarisse" instead. Gil's Tropicália ou Panis et Circensis (Philips 1968) had Capinam's "Miserere Nobis" (with Gil). In 1969, Capinam wrote with Jards Macalé the song "Gotham City," included at TV Globo's IV FIC (International Song Festival). Also with Macalé, he composed "Farinha do Desprezo," "78 Rotações," and "Movimento dos Barcos," all included on Macalé's LP Jards Macalé (Philips 1972). In that year, he composed with Paulinho da Viola "Coração Imprudente" and "Orgulho," recorded by Paulinho for Odeon on the LP Dança da Solidão. He wrote with Fagner "Como se Fosse," included on Fagner's LP Manera, Fru-Fru, Manera (Philips 1973). In 1996, he released the poetry book Uma Canção de Amor às Árvores Desesperadas in Salvador.