From Black Pride to Favela Pride
Interview with Ann-Marie Nicholson, Communications Manager of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, 31 May 2013.
Ann-Marie Nicholson: — Why do you think black American soul music and the Black Power Movement in the U.S. had the impact it had with Afro-Brasilian musicians?
Carlos Palombini: — The soul-inspired sense of black pride among Brazilian musicians was liberating with respect to the history and the historiography of samba, which had disciplined their lives through the ideology of subaltern integration. By “history” I mean the ways samba has been made permissible, profitable, acceptable, the ways it has been polished to transpose class barriers, to the point of becoming one of the most elaborate figures of national unity, if not the most elaborate one. With “historiography” I refer to the contributions those who produce these narratives have made to such order of things by formulating or restating a mythical history that dilutes potentially threatening aspects of the class/culture struggle. The soul aesthetics embodied freedom at a time when fundamental rights were being systematically replaced by truculent bourgeois righteousness, and because all classes were subjected to such truculence, that embodiment was widely legible.
Ann-Marie Nicholson: — How did música soul help to define that generation of not just musicians but also the people? What would you identify as some positive takeaways from that movement?
Carlos Palombini: — In the first half of the decade, black musicians who paraded their blackness onstage — unwittingly perhaps, for the benefit of a regime that wished to project images of unbridled creativity — had their careers and lives shattered: Toni Tornado, Erlon Chaves, Wilson Simonal. Throughout the seventies, well-established white artists of all stripes went black without serious consequences: Elis Regina, Marcos Valle, Roberto Carlos, Caetano Veloso, to mention but a few. Black musicians whose Africanism sounded less threatening boosted darker overtones: Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil. The 1970s brought to the fore funk-inflected instrumental combos not unlike those which, unacknowledged by history, had been blending Afro-Brazilian and African-American traditions for decades: Dom Salvador e Abolição, União Black, Banda Black Rio. A generation of singers-songwriters wrote, sang and recorded Brazilian soul: Hyldon, Cassiano, Bebeto,1 Carlos Dafé, Tim Maia. Perhaps more importantly, young people from the favelas and lower working-class neighborhoods and suburbs of Rio started gathering by the thousands to dance to the sounds of African-American rhythm-and-blues played by DJs, thus paving the way for the rise of funk carioca and today’s favela pride.
As Bryan McCann states with hindsight: “the rarities of the soul heyday, the most curious offshoots of a curious phenomenon — works like Tim Maia’s Racional — are sought after and treasured as the keys to understanding a different Brazil, one whose contours and mysteries were barely glimpsed before it disappeared.”2
Ann-Marie Nicholson: — Why did so many find música soul threatening?
Carlos Palombini: — The ideology of racial miscegenation had been in place since the 1930s, to the extent that statements of blackness — and of North-American blackness in particular — were deemed un-Brazilian. Because it challenged such deep-rooted ideas, the Black Rio movement was perceived as bringing into the country a racism we had thus far been exempt from, and as threatening Brazilian identity with a spuriously North-American by-product of the “culture industry”. Moreover, it all happened under a regime that relied on US foreign policy as much as on nationalistic rhetoric — to boot, at a time when such policy was bound to change and such rhetoric was bound to become untenable due to the rise of the globalized world market.
Ann-Marie Nicholson: — I think hip-hop comes the closest to soul music as far as its global reach, especially in Brasil. Do you think the same race consciousness exists today with hip-hop?
Carlos Palombini: — When talking about “Brazilian hip-hop” we need to bear in mind that the term “hip-hop” has a very restricted sense in this country. In general terms, only those raps that portray the so-called “reality of life” in the under-urbanized peripheries, and besides do so from the point of view of someone who tells what is what, qualify as hip-hop (hereafter in italics, to distinguish it from North-American usage). Funk carioca is as legitimate an offspring of African-American hip-hop as Brazilian hip-hop, if not a more legitimate one, at least to the extent that its history is better (though not sufficiently) documented. Performative, plurivocal, amoral and humorous, however imbued with Catholicism, the meaning of funk carioca cannot be fully grasped outside the context of those favela bailes where most academics are not willing to venture.
The idea of “race” in Brazil is linked less to ancestry than to skin tone and economic power, and although it’s true that it will be always difficult for darker hues of brown to pass as “white”, less dark ones will be “black” or “white” according to address, attire, means of transportation etc. Without minimizing Brazilian racism, the fight against it has been taken up not only by black organizations but also by the central government, to some extent due to international pressure. Although issues of race are present in the verbal and performative discourses of both hip-hop and funk carioca, they tend to appear in the guise of discrimination against the favelado, or shantytown dweller. This discrimination has reached levels of violence such as few people endured under the dictatorship. They include generalized police lethality, unconstitutional legislation against bailes funk, coercion, ritual execution of rappers by police squads, torture, kidnap of citizens by soldiers who sell them to rival groups, illegal evictions, removal of the word “favela” from Google maps, and even deployment of the army against shantytown dwellers. We have thus reached a hitherto unimaginable situation: the president who was herself tortured by the armed forces now leads them against the most vulnerable citizens, among which the vast majority of funkeiros (Brazilian funksters) and hip-hoppers is included. Worse yet, because such policies are widely popular, they will keep on the rise in the run-up to elections unless international pressure mounts.
1 Bebeto’s name has been left out of the literature but is alive among his fans, as reminds me the composer Thiago dos Santos, to whom I am indebted.
2 Bryan McCann, “Black Pau: Uncovering the History of Brazilian Soul”, Journal of Popular Music Studies, 14, 2002, 35.
PHOTO: Setting up the sound system, Equipe Chatubão Digital, Campo da Ordem, Vila Cruzeiro, Complexo da Penha, Rio de Janeiro, Friday, 2 April 2010. © Vincent Rosenblatt / Agência Olhares