SÃO PAULO, Brazil — It was a cherished ritual that Joyce Fernandes saved for the end of the shift of a job she despised.

After finishing tidying up every other room in one of the São Paulo apartments she cleaned, Ms. Fernandes took her sweet time dusting a bookshelf in the living room, where she inevitably got lost in a book.

She feared she would get a stern talking to when the apartment’s owner walked in one day in 2008 as she was devouring “Olga: Revolutionary and Martyr,” a biography of a German communist militant who spent years in Brazil before being executed by Nazi Germany.

Instead of a reprimand, the moment spurred a remarkable career transition for Ms. Fernandes, who is now among the highest-profile Black Brazilians, driving candid conversations about racism and inequality.

The employer, after hearing Ms. Fernandes talk about her passion for history, encouraged her to enroll in college. She did. She earned a degree in history in 2012, and has since developed a large following as an Instagram personality and a rapper, written a book about the lives of Brazilian maids and become a television host.

Her multifaceted career and rising profile sometimes feel like a mirage, she says, when she recalls how most of her early employers dismissed her aspirations.

“They always said there was no point in getting an education,” said Ms. Fernandes, whose stage name is Preta Rara, which means unique Black woman. “They said I was predestined to serve, just like my mother and my grandmother, and that I should be happy with what was already predestined.”

Preordained her future was not.

Ms. Fernandes, 35, remembers a cloistered childhood in

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