Note from BBT: Today, February 21, 2021, marks the 56th anniversary of the murder of one the greatest anti-racist activists of all-time, Malcolm X. I am very much a person that connects to important historical dates and dates of birthdays of people I have a connection with or people who have inspired me for one reason or another. These figures and events can be things from history in general, black history or birthdays of all sorts of people. For example, I know that basketball icon Michael Jordan turned 58 just a few days ago. Another NBA star, Charles Barkley’s birthday was yesterday and my first hero, Julius “Dr.J” Erving’s birthday is tomorrow.
We know that just a few days ago, the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. was celebrated on January 15th, and Afro-Brazilian activist/intellectual Lélia Gonzalez would have turned 86 on February 1st. On March 14th, we will celebrate the birthdays of Afro-Brazilian activist Abdias do Nascimento and writer Carolina de Jesus as well as the third year of the assassination ofm Rio de Janeiro city councilwoman, Marielle Franco.
The words, thoughts and speeches of Malcolm X were instrumental in the raising of black consciousness in a whole generation of Afro-Brazilians. Every year on Afro-Brazilian oriented social networks, I see posts that recognize the birth and death of Malcolm X. This year it was the same. Waking up this morning, I hadn’t even had time to think of what today’s date was, but soon after connecting to a few of my social network profiles, I began to see photos of Malcolm popping up and people expressing his importance in their lives and reminding me what today was.
It is also quite clear that Malcolm X was aware of the black population in Brazil. I’ve read at least two speeches given by Malcolm in which he mentioned Brazil’s black population. As a matter of fact, it was his speech given in my hometown of Detroit, Michigan, on February 14, 1965, exactly one week before his death, that Malcolm mentioned Brazil’s African descendants. In that speech, Malcolm acknowledged that, at the time, Brazil had “two-thirds what we call colored, or nonwhite”. In Rochester, New York, two days later, he mentioned this again, saying, “two-thirds of the people in Brazil are dark-skinned people, the same as you and I. They are people of African origin, African ancestry — African background.”
Even though Brazil for decades promoted itself as a ‘racial democracy’, many black rappers in Brazil found similarities in Malcolm’s speeches about how African-Americans and Afro-Brazilians were treated and, through their lyrics, they spread the legacy of Malcolm’s words and helped present them to millions of Afro-Brazilians who may have never been exposed to him otherwise. Through these rappers, the legacy of Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and others live on. I see this almost every day, and in a song released last August, we were reminded of this once again.
Malcolm X’s ‘dangerous mind’ helped shape Brazilian rap in the 1990s
By Juca Guimarães and Anderson Hebreu
A black activist, murdered in 1965, inspired a talented generation of Brazilian rappers; a re-reading of “Voz Ativa”, Racionais MC’s song that quotes the activist, was released by rappers Dexter, Coruja BC1, Djonga, KL Jay and DJ Will
A captivating leader, a great speaker and a man with a dangerous mind were some of the characteristics attributed to the activist Malcolm X in the reports and recordings made by the FBI, the United States federal investigation agency. Beyond the concern he provoked in the American government during the tensions of the struggle for civil rights, the activist’s active voice reverberated in the anger and indignation of young blacks around the planet for decades.
In Brazil, the rap groups formed in the late 1980s and early 1990s were strongly influenced by the speeches of Malcolm X, who was assassinated in early 1965, at the age of 39, during a lecture and in front of his wife and daughters.
Malcolm was blunt when talking about police violence and racism. His speech had immediate identification with the reality of young black Brazilians. “Every case of police brutality against a black person follows the same pattern. They attack you, put you upside down. Then they take you to court and accuse you of aggression. What kind of democracy is this?” said the activist, in one of the many speeches.
The rappers Dexter, Mano Brown, DJ KL Jay, among other names of Brazilian rap, were influenced by Malcolm X’s ideas related to the valorization of black culture and self-esteem of black people. The artists followed his teachings of searching for knowledge.
“I pray that you grow intellectually, so that you can understand the problems of the world and where you fit in that world,” Malcolm X recommended.
In 1992, the group Racionais MC’s released the EP Siga o Seu Caminho, meaning ‘Follow Your Path’, with the song “Voz Ativa” (Active Voice), which nominally quotes Malcolm X and relates the main problems of structural racism at the time. “We need a popular credited leader like Malcolm X, in other times, it was in America. One who is black to the bone. One of our own. And who will rebuild our pride that has been made into wreckage,” says the lyrics written by one Mano Brown, at the age of 22.
In 2020, Dexter invited rappers Djonga and Coruja to re-record the song, which gained relevance in a moment of high visibility of the anti-racist agenda and against police violence. The beat of the 2020 version is a re-recording by DJ KL Jay in partnership with DJ Will.
“I went through situations of racism every day and in every choice I went through in life. Rap brought me something different in life. It brought hope and fueled dreams,” says Dexter.
Dexter is a good friend of Mano Brown and the group and invited two rappers of the new generation of Rap to make this re-reading of a classic rap song from São Paulo from the 90s. Mano Brown participates in the recording of the clip, which was shot at Favela da Felicidade, Jardim São Luiz, in the south zone of São Paulo. The sound beat was constructed by Kl Jay and his son DJ Will.
Dexter who is a rap milian, more than 20 years under his belt with 5 albums and 2 Dvds; speaks of the honor and love in re-recording this classic:
“I’m very much for the love in things. To re-record the best group in the country, the best lyricist too. I couldn’t do this alone. I worry a lot about the future, with what is happening with what came from the periphery and is ours. This aroused my interest in rescuing something from the past that could talk to people about the responsibility of being and doing,” says Dexter.
The song “Voz Ativa”, originally released in 1992, addresses issues such as racism, police violence, the black movement and black youth.
“This song portrays everything that happened in 1992 and is now happening again. But in fact, it has always happened, too,” explains Dexter.
The 2020 version of the song brings something really cool for Brazilian rap with the union of generations. Djonga and Coruja, members of the new version of rap, were not born when the Racionais MCs first released the track. Both, however, were deeply influenced by it.
“It was a great joy and also a sorrow. If we were talking about it [racism] just to revisit the work in a totally artistic way, fine. We are singing it because it is a song we like and it touched our hearts. But everything that’s in the lyrics is still happening, and that’s what makes us sad,” affirms Djonga.
Rapper Coruja emphasizes the importance of the dialogue between generations in rap, and the power of these encounters to inspire new lyrics. “I appreciate the opportunity to be able to record a classic, to be called by my teachers. Anything I say won’t be enough to express what they represent in my life. Dexter and Brown have written very beautiful pages in rap history. They were pages that I read a lot. Whenever I go to write something, I try to look at those pages that inspired me,” says Coruja.
“Voz Ativa” was written in 1992 under the influence of the black struggle for survival, a very striking and recurring theme in the group’s lyrics. Malcolm X, quoted in the lyrics, was the inspiration for the writing of this sound.
“I was reading Malcolm X’s texts at that time and I identified a lot with what he wrote. The lyrics are me talking to him in the book, saying that here in Brazil things were the same, but that now the black man had an active voice and was willing to fight,” says Mano Brown, author of the lyrics and rapper of the Racionais MC’s.
At the same time, the lead rapper of the Racionais MC’s had made contact with the MNU (Movimento Negro Unificado or Unified Black Movement), a political group organized against racism since 1978. “It was the meeting of generations. It was already that institutionalized racism that we have today. There were people who defended that there was no racism, that this was the country of miscegenation, of the cordiality of the races. In this climate, I made the song,” remembers Brown.
The will to re-record the song, and make the clip, was driven by the recent anti-racist demonstrations around the world, especially in Brazil and the US, when black people like João Pedro Mattos and George Floyd were murdered by military police officers. The lyrics are one of Racionais MC’s most critical of racism and exaltation of black resistance.
“Since the creation of the penal code in 1890, in Brazil everything was divided between the bourgeoisie and the poor, which were the blacks. And it never changed. The song “Voz Ativa” is our look at the life of black people in the country,” comments KL Jay.
The DJ kept in his memory the atmosphere in the studio at the time of the recording of the song almost 30 years ago. “I remember the recording in 1992. We had no resources, no equipment. There were no technicians specialized in rap as we have today. We arrived at the studio with the ideas. It was about opening the forest. We spent six to seven hours recording,” recalls Kl Jay.
Directed by João Wainer, Mailson Soares, and Ricardo Souza, the videoclip recalls the atmosphere of the American rap audiovisual productions of the 1990s with a creative edition of cuts and effects, repeating the mixture of a classic and modern aesthetic.
The new version of “Voz Ativa” will be released on August 21st, accompanied by a videoclip shot in Favela da Felicidade, in the South Zone of São Paulo.