Note from BW of Brazil: On Friday, February 15, 15 finalists competed for the yearly crown of the Deusa do Ébano (Ebony Goddess) of the legendary bloco afro Ilê Aiyê. The event was hosted in the Senzala do Barro Preto, the bloco’s headquarters in the Liberdade district of Salvador, Bahia. This year represented for the 40th anniversary of the Deusa do Ébano contest that is a celebration of the African aesthetic in a country whose standard of beauty continues to be that of European-looking woman. 2019 also represents 45 years of the legendary bloco afro, Ilê Aiyê, responsible for not only the contest, but also the struggle for black pride in Brazil’s blackest state, Bahia. Competing for this year’s crown were the 15 finalists Juciara Silva, 37, Jucineide Ferreira, 33, Gleiciele Teixeira, 21, Ivana Paixão, 26, Lari Martins, 30, Larissa Valéria, Rafaela Rosa, 23, Gleiciele Oliveira, 21, Caroline Xavier, 20, Daniele Nobre, 33, Elza Bastos, 24, Nana Sarah, 31, Amanda Ribeiro, 18, Bianca Souza, 23, and Lumena Aleluia, 27.
This year, besides the 15 finalists, three former winners of the Deusa do Ébano crown were also present, Sueli Conce (1999), Gerusa Menezes (1998) and current Deusa, Jéssica Nascimento, the winner in 2018. The theme of this year’s event was Afrofuturismo, or Afrofuturism and also featured legendary artists of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB), Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, as well as singer Daniela Mercury, who has been the most well-known artist of Bahian Axé Music for over two decades. Mercury is also an artist whose participation I question. For years, the singer has been accused of cultural appropriation, with Bahian rhythms and styles being represented a white woman. With the whole controversy of the singer’s latest song and music video, “Pantera Negra Deusa”, meaning ‘black panther goddess’, I question why a group such as Ilê Aiyê would co-sign on her appearance as well as participate in the controversial song and video. I’m quite sure that Mercury is one of the white artists of which Guia Negro writes below “will not gain space in this text.” As I said, I DO wonder what goes on behind the scenes that leads to a group like Ilê Aiyê affiliating themselves with such an artist, but as the purpose of this text is to shine the spotlight on 15 women and one winner that represent the black woman, the focus will remain on them.
Black Beauty: the night we are all ebony goddesses
By Guia Negro
Night of the exaltation of the mulher preta (black woman). There is recognition, self-esteem, beauty, identity, but above all a political act. This is the night of Beleza Negra (Black Beauty), when the bloco afro Ilê Aiyê, the first in Brazil, elects its deusa do ébano (ebony goddess), the queen of their carnival. The creation of the bloco in 1974 was a political act, since only blacks could enter, against the other blocks that in a veiled way did not accept people of cor preta (black color).
In its 40th edition, which took place on Saturday the 16th, the night of black beauty is far from being a Miss contest. The competition is based on Afrocentric notions of beauty, in counterpoint to the current standards of beauty in Brazil. The winner is the one who dances and best represents the Afro-Brazilian culture. It is a gala night not only on the stage, but for the audience that fills up Senzala do Barro Preto, the headquarters of Ilê in Curuzu, a periphery neighborhood of Salvador, Bahia.
Because of the event, the famous and steep slope of Curuzu was taken over by pretos bonitos (beautiful blacks). Each one in their elegant outfit, with their shine, their cowry shells and accessories, hair up, blacks, turbans and African prints. From the ticket salesman to the TV crew producer, who will be just behind the scenes, everyone is beautiful here. The feeling before the night begins is a mixture of happiness and nervousness. There was much to come, to see, to understand and to share.
The contest moves the neighborhood. The bars are full. In the business next to the Senzala do Barro Preto, besides beer, beans are also served. From the windows, houses are stacked on uneven grounds. Some lights are off, but many wait awaken on one of the busiest days in the neighborhood of the most beautiful of the beautiful blocos.
The show begins with Ilê’s drums trembling inside the audience and opening the way to the flags of the bloco. This drumming is the vital energy that puts the audience in the mood of the night. “Lá vem os negros do Ilê”, (Here come the blacks from Ilê), says one of the songs. Another says, “Negra poderosa do Ilê” (powerful black woman of Ilê). All that is beautiful is to be shown.” The hall is filled with a festival of colors, but the gold, red, white and black, the blocos colors dominate. The tribute to the orixá Exu is made by the actor Fábio Santana and accompanied by dancers. One of them comes running bald across the stage, stealing the scene.
From São Paulo, Bia Ferreira presents her rap that went viral on the internet. “Black is not a pittance, we reign like Zumbi and Dandara. Quotas are not a pittance. The black people came to revolutionize,” she shouted, drawing screams from the audience. The goddesses of previous years dance to a song that says “que negra é essa (what black woman is this). “Essa negra é o Ilê” (This black woman is Ilê). “Mundo negro quer dizer Ilê Aiyê” (black world means Ilê Aiyê).”
Taís Carvalho, 38, who won the contest in 2002, says she is an active goddess. “There are four moments of my life that I will never forget: the birth of my son, my initiation into candomblé, when I was elected deusa do ébano (ebony goddess) and the carnival of that year,” she says. Taís remembers that every year a new goddess is elected, but that each one passes to another the mantle and not the crown. “So we all continue goddesses and take that forward,” she says.
The daughter of Jimmy Cliff, the singer and actress Nabiyah Be – appearing in the cast of the film Black Panther – participated with the song “Ser Mulher” (To Be a Woman), also chosen to pay homage to its composer, the young singer Roy (former lead singer of the band O Círculo), who died last January.
Ilê is so engaging that the show doesn’t just happen on the stage for the public to see. Even behind the scenes people dance and sing the songs. Lyrics and choreographies are on the tip of the tongue, in the hands that move, on the hips that gyrate.
This year’s Ilê theme is “que bloco é esse?” (what bloco is this?) in celebration of the 45 years of the bloco and one of its main hymns, which during the party was sung by Lazzo Matumbi, one of the greatest Bahian interpreters alive. Each candidate has a special outfit, props and pose the theme in a different way. In common, hair to the top, big earrings, gold, red, cowry shells and straw. But each one brings a special element, represents a queen, a story, a bloco moment or a different symbology.
During the presentations, chopped gold papers explode over the candidates and banners with their names and faces rising up in the audience. Each one comes with her fans. Lumena Aleluia brought Marielle Franco (Rio’s councilwoman killed in 2018) in a banner highlighting the political tone of the party. She lit up the stage and thrilled the audience with her homage. It was strange Lumena not having been among the three finalists.
When Carla Dandara, 25, entered the stage, her mother Sandra Nascimento, 55, began to cry compulsively. “For me, she is already the goddess. She is my goddess. She’s my pride, my friend. She always helped me,” she said with tears in her eyes after her daughter’s performance. Carla was calm. She was the first of the candidates to get ready. “It’s a mixture of feelings. I came representing a queen from Nigeria,” he said, with a spear in hand.
Despite the desire to see her daughter as champion, Sandra also cheered for Daniele Nobre. “She is competing for the eighth year. She has a lot of tenacity. I wanted her to win.” From the neighborhood of Bonocó, Daniele entered with moicano (mohawk hair) spiraling, with small LED lights and cowry shells and a contagious smile. A goddess painter, she won over the audience with her dance.
There was no other, she became champion and showed that resilience is really the word of order of this block. “I never thought about quitting. I stopped last year to prepare better. I came back thinking that I wanted it to be different and the Orixás enlightened me. I was able to improve my dance, come with clothes and hair that won over the jury. Now it’s (the time) to represent this beauty and empower other girls,” she says.
Entrepreneur and secretary, Daniele is 30 years old, lives in the Bonocó neighborhood and is the daughter of ossain in the candomblé. She brought a painting with mother Hilda, idealizer of the bloco, in the center with a dove; Antônio Carlos Santos, known as Vovô, Ilê’s; and Dete Lima, costume designer and director of the block. Ilê’s success made its directors become a kind of black royal family, respected and worshipped in the neighborhood. In addition to those present in the picture include Arany Trindade, who is Secretary of Culture of the State of Bahia, Hildelice Santos, current mãe de santo (priestess) of the Ilê Axé Jitolu terreiro, and Vivaldo Benvindo.
The host of the contest in 2019 was the producer Val Benvindo, Vivaldo’s daughter. “I grew up in that contest. I remember being small looking at these queens, wearing dazzling clothes. It made me never want to straighten my hair, be white, or hide my religion. I grew up in the midst of powerful black women, like Arany, Hildelice, Dete. I always wanted to be a deusa do ébano, but I’m from the family and I couldn’t, so I went into production,” she contextualizes.
Val believes that having a story that blends in with that of tje contest has made her a woman who knows what she wants. “For a large part of the população preta (black population) this is not so and that includes men. The contest has fulfilled its role of increasing this appreciation,” she says. On the stage, Val also recalled another historical fact that occurred at the same time as the contest: for the first time, a black woman presented Jornal Nacional, of Rede Globo TV, the most watched TV journal in Brazil. Maria Júlio Coutinho, responsible for presenting the weather forecast in the news broadcast took over the bench replacing the regular on Saturday the 16th.
Professor Hélio Santos, president of the Baobá Diversity Institute, recalled in a video screened during the contest that this resistance is the Ilê brand and carries a particular kind of knowledge. “It is a model of beauty, of self-esteem, of unity. Without any stone, Ilê made the greatest revolution in this country, which is not political but cultural, “he points out.
The president of the bloco, Antônio Carlos dos Santos, Vovô of the Ilê, recalls that every year there is a difficulty to leave at the carnival. “Entrepreneurs need to rethink the distribution of funds. That will only change when we blacks take over. Organizations such as Ilê Aiyê will need to behave like political parties, to stop having such meager support and to continue this construction of turning that city into the real ‘Black Rome’.”
Gilberto Gil sings his great successes dressed in shorts, leather sandals and a fun shirt with a fruit print. In an interview with the Guia Negro, Gil affirms that the party represents a spontaneous and legitimate manifestation of the Bahian social segment. “Brazil, in spite of slavery, of the actual lack of abolition, which has yet to be completed, has absorbed much of the contribution of the various Africans. Brazil is today, outside of Nigeria, the largest black population in the world. This is the bright side of this presence of the Negro, although all this is subject to a certain commitment, resistance, “he says.
The singer who was Minister of Culture recalls that the difficulties that the slaves passed, to a certain extent, remained in their heirs. “They did not find sufficient and appropriate inclusion in Brazil. And there is the prejudice that is a feeling that still blurs this black presence in Brazil. The resistance is there, in everything, in the song … If you compare with the post-slavery times, everything that happened in the 20th century, on the one hand you have advances that have been achieved, on the other hand there is still a difficulty, “he says.
Bahia, Gil points out, has always been a pole of resistance that also includes the carnival of Salvador. “This is in the Afro block, the candomblé and all that it means. This feeling of trust in love, solidarity and friendship, which Candomblé defends very strongly, is one of the most important forms of resistance in Brazil,” he says.
In these final lines, it is necessary to record that the performance and possible controversies related to the white singers that appeared during the night of the black beauty will not gain space in this text. As well as the Bahia lawyer, journalist and patron of Brazilian abolition, relegated to his father who sold him as a slave to oblivion, I thought that this was the best way to protest the fact that the main attractions were white singers, taking advantage of the black culture, but little recognizing their privileges and are willing to be in the fight against structural racism. Racism that was the motto of the birth of Ilê, which gives strength to the block and that gives so much importance to this night of appreciation of black beauty. An event that is much more than one night. It makes everyone leave there feeling also a little ebony gods. And we are!
Source: Carta Capital