Note from BBT: The roles of the arts and social media cannot be underestimated in the rise of Afro-Brazilian identity politics, particularly in the 21st century. In my analysis of the shift in racial identity among Brazilians of African descent, I see a number of outlets, genres and artists that have been instrumental in this evolution. In no particular order, just a few of these influential entities have been social networks such as, first, the now defunct Orkut, Facebook, YouTube and increasingly Instagram.
Although I could say that Brazilian Hip Hop as a whole has also been a huge influence on the rise of black identity, I don’t think I would be an exagerration to say that the hip hop quartet Racionais MCs have been perhaps as important as the genre of Brazilian Hip Hop itself. It would be impossible to cite the thousands of Brazilians who have credited the rise in their racial consciousness to the legendary rap act.
Other important developments have included the yearly Feira Preta cultural event in São Paulo, the black womens’ movement, online black media and Raça Brasil magazine, which actually debuted in the mid 1990s. The appearance of these events, movements, media and social networks have opened space for numerous new cultural artists and have led the black population to recognizing itself and attaining a greater understanding of blackness separate from the disparaging manner in which Brazilian society has labeled its black citizens.
Today, artists such the young woman featured in today’s piece, Afreekassia, have been able to find themselves and carve out their own spaces that may not have been possible just a few decades ago.
‘I learned to use art to create safe spaces for black women’
Afreekassia, in a statement to Ed Rodrigues
“The world makes many of us think we are not worthy of dreaming. I was privileged to have a fertile childhood that allowed me to be a very creative and dreamy child. What I am today is my childhood dream: an adult black woman, well-groomed, involved in artistic projects, and admired by many. I am Afreekassia. I am a DJ, singer, PR person, visual artist, and model.
I believe that a person can only be something they can see. So I work so that many other black women can see themselves thriving and dream of a positive future for themselves.
Overcoming trauma through art
I started my involvement with art in 2016 as a DJ at a street party in Santos, my hometown. At that time, I was recovering from a traumatic phase in my life. Although I had a good childhood, in my adolescence I experienced humiliating situations at school and college.
I had a professor in college who said in front of the whole class that I was ugly and that’s why I wore accessories to get attention. We argued, and after that day he claimed to the faculty that I was failing due to absences, which was not true. This situation affected my emotional and psychological state a lot, mainly because I was going through a transition phase.
It was hard to believe that my life and my dreams were valuable when the world was telling me otherwise. It was through art that I began to heal from these experiences.
Career in music
My work as a DJ helped me rebuild my identity and self-esteem. Music plays a very important role in my life because it is one of the main forms of expression for black people and holds important information about our identity, culture, and history.
When I started my career, I developed a musical research of black female rap, R&B, funk, and dancehall singers, which I named Punanny Sound System.
It was from this research that I started to have contact with other black women and began to understand that my experiences, glories, and confrontations were not my private issues, but collective issues. Researching about black women artists from different times and territories helped me to discover who I am.
During my childhood and adolescence, I didn’t have contact with many black women, except for the women in my family. Having attended private educational institutions and mostly white spaces distanced me from people like me and generated a big gap in my identity building process.
‘I wanted to feel welcomed and valued’
As I became more and more involved in art and reaffirmed myself, I increasingly felt the need to be around women like me. I wanted to feel welcomed and valued, and so I created a project called Portal Umoja.
The project was founded in 2017 as a collective and was inspired by Umoja Uaso, a matriarchal village in northern Kenya that was created by Rebeca Lolosoli to protect other women from female oppression. Umoja in Swaihili means union, and this is the main goal of my project. With this work, I want to rescue our sense of community and build safe spaces so that we no longer feel alone.
I have made a commitment to work steadfastly with Portal Umoja to help women like me. I received many “no’s” and many people abandoned the project during its development.
I found myself alone, but I didn’t give up. I believed that my mission was great and that was my motivation. I went in search of resources and in 2019 I was granted the support of the Prince Claus Fund, a Dutch NGO.
I was able to hold a circuit of events called Culto that went around three different states and brought together more than 60 young black women. The cults had no religious content. The real goal was to build a safe and comfortable space for young black women to think together about their identities. Dynamics and conversations were held that made the participants open up and share pains and glories about their lives.
This experience brought me intangible rewards. I was able to travel, know other realities, connect with young people like me, share my experiences, and learn a lot.
With the success of the project, I was invited to attend the 2019 Prince Claus Fund awards ceremony in Amsterdam. I stood alongside members of the Dutch royal family and intellectuals from around the world.
Throughout my life, I have had many other achievements: I have released two singles that have over 100,000 plays on Spotify, participated in two editorials for ‘Vogue’ magazine, and collaborated on a project for the Museum of Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora (MoCADA – NY).
I believe that for a 24 year old black woman living in Brazil, my life trajectory is a lot for what society expects from me and little for what my potential achieves.
I am very grateful to have had the support of my family and to have been able to dream in my childhood because this is what allowed me to get this far. My wish for the future is to see more and more black women dreaming and being able to achieve.
I have total confidence and certainty that we are capable of being and doing anything. Our only flaw is being too big for a small world.” Afreekassia, 24, is a DJ, singer, public relations, visual artist and model and lives in Santos, São Paulo.