“Because of being white, Elvis occupied the place of the blacks”: Singer Negra Li embroiled in controversy after statements about Elvis Presley – Apologizes, but what did she say wrong?
By Marques Travae
Last week singer Negra Li found herself embroiled in controversy after appearing on the popular Jovem Pan radio program. The singer recently released her latest CD Raízes and as is the standard, she wanted to bring some media attention to her latest release. Well, she did get some publicity but probably not in the manner that she was expecting.
The last news item I published about the singer and sometimes actress was her appearance on the SBT-TV series Z4 in which she expressed her disappointment that she was the only black person featured in the production. Her speaking out on that situation as well as other attitudes she has assumed are signals of the change in the way in which she carries herself as a black woman and artist. Her appearance on Jovem Pan was apparently another example of the positions she is taking on issues involving race.
The topic that led to the controversy was the question of cultural appropriation, a hotly debated topic in Brazil over the past few years, which led Li to voicing her opinions of the American icon Elvis Presley, the man dubbed the “King of Rock n’ Roll”. Things began to heat up when Li expressed her opinion that because Presley was white, he had “occupied the space of many talented blacks.”
“Let’s introduce this white guy with a black voice and rhythm,” Li said about the attitude of the American music industry in introducing Presley to music fans. Drawing on her analysis of this period in American music, Li further stated that, at that time, in a legally segregated America, “many blacks had their albums released without their faces on the cover.”
When asked if Presley’s popularity brought white music fans closer to the black artists who originated the styles that Presley imitated, she responded that “they hardly got used to it” and that Presley had created a feeling of “why are we going to get blacks if we have Elvis Presley?”
At this point, I didn’t see anything controversial about what Negra Li had said. The music industry has long had the idea that if people liked music by black artists, if they could find white artists doing that same style or at least something similar, they would make a fortune. From Elvis and Pat Boone, to the Backstreet Boys and Eminem in the US, to Noel Rosa, Carmen Miranda, Daniela Mercury and Claudia Leitte in Brazil, white artists have long taken in the influences of black artists while attaining gold, platinum and multi-platinum status along the way. There’s nothing new about this. In the minds of many, white artists don’t even necessarily have to be as good as a black artist to gain more prominence. Speaking on the situation in Brazil, in an interview, Bahian musician Letieres Leite stated that if Afro-Brazilian singer Margareth Menezes were white, the popular white singer of Bahian Axé music Daniela Mercury wouldn’t exist.
Black rockers such as Little Richard and Chuck Berry were, as Richard himself continuously reminded us, the true architects of Rock n’ Roll, but it was Elvis who was given the title of the “King of Rock n’ Roll”. Both Richard and Berry were adored by millions of white fans, but they were still black men, which would put a limit on their status in the world of music. We would later see how limiting a role race would play on popularity and sales as groups such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and others went on to sell tens of millions of records by either covering, outright stealing or slightly altering original versions of songs by black Blues artists. We certainly didn’t see the names of these bluesman being mentioned in the same breath as the artists who imitated their styles and they certainly didn’t earn the fame and fortune of their white musical offspring.
The discussion of Elvis during the interview provoked Li to take on the issue of cultural appropriation as a whole, saying it was “sad when you see little things” such as the criticism of a white woman wearing a turban that became a hot topic a nearly two years ago. Within circles of black consciousness, many black Brazilian had adapted wearing a turban in affirmation of their black identities and some took offense at seeing a young white woman wearing one. But for Li, the issue is much bigger than one little incident that made headlines and then mentioned a controversial fashion show a few years back:
“The struggle against cultural appropriation is very broad, it’s not this little thing of the white woman walking around in a turban. In fact, we speak, for example, of an afro (African-oriented) collection runway with white models. Ownership is when the opportunity is taken away from us. There’s a lack of space.”
On fashion runways of São Paulo and Rio, still today, black models continue to make up a miniscule total of all models, so imagine the shock these same models must have felt seeing a fashion show with Africa as its theme but even then, white women still being the center of attraction.
Negra Li’s discussion of Elvis would open up a broader conversation on racial inequality in Brazilian society. Similar to black American Blues musicians, black Brazilian Samba musicians also often ended up dying in poverty even though their songs contributed heavily to Brazilian culture. Although recent policies such as affirmative action have helped tens of thousands of black Brazilians ascend from poverty into the ranks of the middle class, as Brazil has maintained its black population on the bottom of the social ladder for centuries, these recent changes are still too small to change the overall race-based structure of the society.
We can’t deny that blacks and browns have made advances in recent years, but overall, it’s still basically the rule to see Brazilians of a more European appearance being the vast majority consuming products and frequenting places that signal middle-class status. Li experienced this first hand being cast in the Z4 TV series but also in everyday situations:
“It’s hard not to say (something). It’s not easy to go to a restaurant and only see black people serving. It’s not easy to never be seen by a black doctor or dentist. I said, afterwards, that I found it an absurdity that of blacks it was only me there. I kept counting on my fingers.”
With the rise of social networking in the past decade, sites such as Facebook and previously Orkut, which had a huge following in Brazil, are/were hotbeds for discussions of controversial topics such as race, particularly in Brazil, where the topic was generally pushed under the carpet as people tended to pretend the issue didn’t exist.
While countless people have made names for themselves expressing provocative ideas on social networking sites, Li has avoided putting herself out there on such themes. But it seems that with so many people in the artistic world making bold statements on the realities of race in Brazil, through her new album and attitude, the singer felt the time had come for her make her feelings known in a more uncompromising manner. And nowadays with Afro-Brazilians counting more influential people within their ranks, it seems the singer has more confidence to speak out.
“I think we have always been resistance, thank God, I have sought in these people [minorities] an alliance. It’s very good that there are people who fight, it gives me strength and hope, it’s just a scream, we are well supported, there are black lawyers, educated, who help us to know our rights.”
The issue of cultural appropriation also brings out another point that should be acknowledged.
Under a system of racism/white supremacy, whites will always get more attention for a certain style that they didn’t create. It puts them in a position in which they could play a role in acknowledging the racial inequalities that allow them to find much more success simply doing something that another person without such privileges did first. Little Richard himself was actually thankful for Elvis Presley finding success with a black art form because, even if he could never attain the same position of an Elvis, Presley’s success still created opportunities for the man born Richard Penniman. In interviews, Penniman is quoted as saying:
“Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let Black music through. He opened the door for Black music…I thank the Lord for sending Elvis to open that door so I could walk down the road.” (see note one)
In the same vain, Negra Li sees non-blacks as having the possibility of improving the situation:
“It is always important in the fight that other people who are not suffering fight together. When [we, blacks] we speak, it’s mimimi (whining), but if you [host Paula] who is white talk about it, it will help. It’s not enough not to be racist, you have to be anti-racist.”
Although I understand this type of thinking, I don’t necessarily agree. In the world we live in, people who have advantages are not likely to voluntarily give up those advantages so that groups with fewer or no privileges may ascend. In my view, the situation of black people worldwide can only improve after there is an acceptance and recognition that, ultimately, other groups will look out for their own, and until blacks collectively begin to think in the same manner, we will continue to keep asking other groups for help, employment, opportunities, etc. And we must adapt this attitude uncompromisingly. Other groups do it, why shouldn’t blacks? Unfortunately, in the case of Negra Li, after her interview, the public started blasting her on her views of Elvis and her stance soon gave way to backpedaling to put out the fire that began the blaze after she initiated the spark.
Shortly after catching word of how social media and public didn’t take kindly to her comments, Li spent quite a bit of time apologizing. First, she took to social networks and wrote:
“People, you’re right! I didn’t know how to express myself, I got confused. It was not my intention to diminish his work. I’m sorry! Cultural appropriation also exalts and makes expand, in the case of Elvis mainly because he always made it clear that what he did the blacks did a long time ago, that is, he always gave the credit, yes! Elvis deserves respect. A unique talent. I was unhappy with the comments, and I didn’t really mean it, I misused the words. I wanted to have talked about the feeling of when there is a weight and two measures. When they asked the question I scrambled it, mixed it up and couldn’t pass on my reasoning. Sad.”
Then came more messages as she attempted to soften the situation:
“To whom it may concern, whom I offended, to whom I have disappointed, I sincerely apologize. I will continue to portray myself whenever I have opportunity on this subject! And whoever cursed me, demeaned my talent, etc., from what I said. I understand the revolt and I will not hold any hurt feelings. Thank you for your attention.”
And still more…
“He didn’t steal anything, he didn’t conceal anything. I wanted to talk about the segregationist industry, but I didn’t. I didn’t mean to belittle him.”
And finally, to assure she didn’t mean to disgrace “The King” and rile up Presley’s Brazilian fans, the singer born Liliane de Carvalho issued a note of clarification:
Note of Clarification
- I think the most important thing at the first moment is to realize when we make mistakes and to portray ourselves, to be humble to assume and reflect that the words spoken cannot be modified, even more so at the moment in which we live, since they are eternalized on the internet,
- But I have the conviction that attitudes can be changed and that there is no shame in demonstrating these changes.
- As an artist I know of the importance of Elvis for the history of music and, clearly understand the value of his career, the greatness of his talent and the way he revolutionized American popular music.
- But when we talk about historical moments, we cannot just describe them on the most beautiful side, we must also remember that it was a time of racial segregation in the United States, even Elvis himself was often criticized for dancing sensuously, as blacks did in their encounters. When I referred to him, I wanted to talk about the thinking of the American recording industry,
- It paved the way for a profound change, gave the young people the freedom to seek his musical references and to reach great names of black music of the time like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino, among others.
- When I say black music or white music here, it is because they were classified as such in that period.
- I thank you for all the comments, whether positive or negative, that make me reflect and have the desire of each day being better.
Personally, after reading Li’s comments, I didn’t find anything that was disrespectful of Presley. All of the points she made were true. Presley’s position as “The King” DID allow him to occupy the space of many talented blacks who America would never allow to reach such status. The record industry has long sought to earn more money producing white acts that can imitate blacks, and who can deny that some of the same people who adored Elvis may not have connected with folks like Bo Diddley, Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Willie Dixon simply because of skin color, especially in the 1950s and 60s. Why do we have such a problem being honest about this?
I want to re-iterate that I didn’t take any issues with Negra Li’s commentary on Elvis because I saw nothing disrespectful, demeaning or even not true about what she said. I remember as a child being a fan of Elvis and the Beatles and then growing up and identifying with mostly black artists of the R&B, Soul and Funk genres. It would be years later still that I would begin to understand the racial situation of the eras in which artists such as Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, etc. were earning millions through their records and concerts. And still more years passed by as I began to learn the truth about what goes on in a music industry that so many people dream of being a part of.
My research ultimately led me to re-visit the stories of the two biggest white acts of the 1950s and 1960s, the aforementioned Presley and the Beatles, and coming to some startling conclusions, most of which I won’t get into here. But I will say that after exploring what went on behind the scenes to Elvis Presley, I would say it’s something that would probably deter 99% of aspiring singers and musicians from ever wanting to enter the music industry.
In the same manner that I remember hearing the news of the death of music legends such as Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson and Prince, I also remember watching the 11 o’clock news with my parents in August of 1977, when it was reported that Presley had died. “The King’s” death, like that of so many other entertainment legends, was blamed on a drug overdose. But if you read what the music industry and particularly Elvis’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, put him through and then analyze the scene in which Elvis was found dead, you may come to a different conclusion about the reason for his death. I vividly remember a 1986 episode of the CBS-TV news journal 60 Minutes in which Little Richard was interviewed. The “Tutti Fruiti” singer spoke of an industry that had ripped off numerous black as well as white musicians. The story behind Elvis’s career is an excellent example of this.
Parker suckered Presley into a number of exploitative contracts in which Parker would receive around 50% of Presley’s earnings. The Presley/Parker relationship comes across in some ways as that between a master and a slave. Presley was cheated out royalties, forced to appear in films he in which he didn’t want to participate and didn’t receive payments for products being sold featuring his image. In the ‘70s he would appear in a long-term concert engagement in Las Vegas, a grueling performance commitment that he needed to continue just to maintain himself.
Presley had tried to fire his manager more than once but because of how Parker had concocted certain contracts, firing him would have put the artist in a far worse situation. One gets the feeling that Presley was also receiving death threats from powerful forces within the music industry, including from his manager who had all sorts of seedy underworld connections. As pressures continued to mount and perhaps feeling an imminent threat to his life, Presley would begin stockpiling an arsenal of guns.
Knowing what I know about the career and demise of Elvis as well as many other entertainers, I think Negra Li, even not having disrespected Elvis, would have done better to speak more of the ills of the music business rather than focusing specifically on Elvis. But on the other hand, being a singer herself, perhaps that would be a risky move.
I will conclude by simply saying, there was a time in which Elvis Presley had a lot of black fans who felt a certain genuineness in this Mississippi-born white man who interpreted black performance styles so well. Presley acknowledged his debt to black music and artists, but it was the industry that saw in him the possibility of making millions exploiting this unique talent. Ultimately, fans may have known him as “The King”, but behind the scenes, he was exploited, cheated and driven to an early death by an industry that treats its artists as property.
If Negra Li had explained this side of “The King”, I’m sure she opinions would have been different. After learning what went on behind scenes with Elvis, mine certainly was.
- Rodman, Gilbert B. Elvis After Elvis: The Posthumous Career of a Living Legend. Routledge, 2013.