Black Brazilian Music and The Emergence of Black Aesthetics
Note from BW of Brazil: It’s amazing the changes I’ve witnessed with the population of black Brazilian women just since starting this blog back in November of 2011. Since the blog’s debut, I think I provided numerous examples of the “place” that Brazilian society reserves for black women. In the collective mind of Brazil, the black woman still belongs in the kitchen, doing cleaning services, in the bedroom or leading a Carnaval progression. By and large, black women of Brazil today continue to occupy jobs of low social status and prestige that require little education.
To be real, I have to acknowledge that things haven’t drastically changed in a period of almost eight years, but there have been some significant changes. These changes haven’t been widespread enough that the society as a whole has stopped seeing black women in this manner, but in a decade and a half, we DO see more black women in positions that seemed impossible just two decades ago. Today, we see black women who are multi-millionaires, we see black women, well…a black woman who is CEO of a top 500 company. We see black women who are scientists, judges and Classical Music conductors, doctors, dentists and entrepreneurs.
Another one of the areas that I am happy to see progress being made is the area of popular music. I’m not saying that Brazil has few black female singers because, as I’ve built up quite a collection of Brazilian music over the years, I can say there are plenty of them. But when I look through my vinyl collection of Brazilian albums, I find that most black female singers fall into the category of samba. This is not to disrespect samba. This genre continues to be the most important culturally and most influential of all of the country’s music genres.
Tune into Carnaval in Rio or São Paulo, you will hear plenty of samba. Go to any cookout or bar/club in many parts of Brazil where everyday people are gathered and you’re sure to see a few cavaquinhos, acoustic guitars and percussion instruments pop up and soon the musicians leading the crowd in a number of well-known songs that probably every Brazilian knows by heart. I’m sure singer Alcione is quite proud because, following the request of one of her most famous songs, “Não Deixe o Samba Morrer”, Brazilians have NOT let the samba die.
The list of black female samba singers isn’t short. But when we change the topic to what is considered MPB, the more lucrative market of Brazilian Popular Music, and the list of A-list black female singers begins to diminish drastically. What I wrote seven years ago, one year after the death of one of America’s biggest-selling singers, still remains true today: Brazil continues to obstruct the rise of a black female pop superstar. And this is clearly not due a lack of talent. As I showed in my article on Brazil’s music industry last week, very few black artists make it onto the list of biggest-selling, best paid singers, duos or groups.
But as the years started passing by after 2011, I started noticing something. A number of black female singers outside of the samba genre were beginning to attract attention with their CDs, shows and videos. And along with their music, many of these singers were bringing a specifically black aesthetic and black politics in their songs, visuals and albums. We could say that “música negra” has always existed in Brazil, but it has always sort of been co-opted and appropriated by the society at large and, more often than not, labeled as simply “Brazilian”, which is the case of samba.
With the rise of a number of politically/racially conscious singers, as well as rappers, we are witnessing the emergence of a true “Música Preta Brasileira”, or Black Brazilian Music. And these artists are slowly carving out their own niche within the genre of Música Popular Brasileira. The abbreviation for both is MPB, but these artists are putting the nation on notice that they demand the right to represent both “B’s”: black and Brazilian. Today, they are beginning to attract the recognition they deserve.
Last year I attended a musical that perfectly captures this movement. The musical devoted to the life and career of one of the only black women to attain mainstream success in the music industry. The singer whose name the musical borrowed: Elza. Elza Soares, the fiery vocalist that the BBC named the singer of the millennium. The performance of this musical can be seen as something of a watershed moment for black Brazilian singers. Dedicated to the “Brazilian Tina Turner” that paved the way for them, the musical took the sambas that Elza was famous for, gave them sparkling new musical arrangements and declared that the “dark meat was no longer the cheapest on the market”.
The musical consistently sold out auditoriums where it was featured for consecutive weeks and soon began to get awards for its production. Just last month, Larissa Luz, who took top billing for musical, was awarded a Bibi Ferreira award for best actress in a musical. The Prêmio Bibi Ferreira (Bibi Ferreira Award) is the most important award honoring Brazilian musical theater productions. The Elza Soares musical also won awards in the categories of “best direction”,“best text” and “best arrangement”. Musician Letieres Leitte, like Luz, is from the northeastern state of Bahia.
Larissa understood the importance of both the musical as well as the award. On her victory, via her Instagram, speech, the artist wrote: “The consequence of exposing good work done by a black body is that black bodies believe in themselves.”
Also, via her social network profile, Luz gave thanks and emphasized that her victory served as a reference for other black men and black women. She also pointed out that winning awards are not essential, but that they do contribute to the process of expansion, occupation and advancement of black people towards significant achievements.
“When we talk about representativeness, we talk about the direct impact on our community of having our works recognized and valued in notorious spaces”, she continued. As she was limited to only 30 seconds to deliver her ‘thank you’s’ during the ceremony, it seems Larissa wanted to complete her thoughts online. She even made a historical connection of the time restraints with the reality of the experiences of black women in Brazil, stating: “I started by saying ‘don’t interrupt me’ because I thought of so many black women silenced during so many years of history.”
And, of course, she gave a huge thank you to the woman who was the center of the musical. To Elza Soares, Larissa said:
“Thank you to each one who looks with good eyes at a scene like this and hopes from the bottom of their souls that we will be many in these spaces and thanks especially to Elza Soares for existing, bravely resisting, for being this inspiration, for being a yes for us every day…Your story is overwhelming, it’s denunciation, it’s victory, it’s a punch and affection… it welcomes and wakes up, shakes up, touches something deep and makes us feel sure that on the planet of hunger that we inhabit, God is a woman! Onwards! Asé!”
Deus é Mulher, meaning “God is a woman”, is the name of Elza’s critically acclaimed 33rd album, released in 2018. A very fitting title indeed. Below, discover just a few more black goddesses of the new black Brazilian music.
The female singers of Black Brazilian Music
By Renan Guerra
When you think of Brazilian singers, black women have always been a minority, but this scenario is expanding with some great innovations.
When it comes to MPB, Brazil is always linked to the epithet of “the country of female singers”, a buzzword that talks a lot about a complex relationship in which women were always the voice for male composers. Rita Lee and Joyce were for a long time some of the rare female composers, with time and other names (Marina Lima, Marisa Monte, Adriana Calcanhotto) the composers became more present, so much so that in the generation that comes from the 2000s, we already see a good plurality of voices composing.
From another perspective, when it comes to “country of female singers”, what names come to mind? Elis Regina, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, Clara Nunes, among others, almost all white. The only black name that really emerges linked to these is that of Elza Soares, a fundamental figure for Brazilian music in different decades and that has been a strong inspiration for the new generations.
After Elza, you have to start remembering who are the other black singers of our MPB: Elizeth Cardoso, Clementina de Jesus, Alcione, Carmen Silva, Leci Brandão, Dona Ivone Lara, Sandra de Sá (the artist responsible for coining the term Música Preta Brasileira, meaning Black Brazilian Music, a re-appropriation of the acronym MPB, Música Popular Brasileira or Popular Brazilian Music), Paula Lima, Cátia de França, Margareth Menezes, Daúde, Virginia Rodrigues, among others. Some very famous names and others that many may not know or at best vaguely remember.
Commonly, black singers have always been associated with samba, so much so that many might have said of the above, “Leci Brandão and Dona Ivone Lara are sambistas, not MPB singers”, as if sambista was not so refined as to be MPB. In our history, countless black singers have always been relegated to this most popular, niche scenario, as something always lesser and not so exquisite to enter the MPB pantheon.
In this link between black women and samba, one factor comes to mind: the first woman to sell more than 100,000 records in Brazil was Clara Nunes, a white woman and samba singer. Clara is one of the great images of samba and black Brazilian culture and that says a lot about the always veiled racism of our country. Clara’s talent and genius are undeniable, but how many black artists have done/do related work/influenced by her same universe and have never had greater commercial success? The current work of Marienne de Castro and Teresa Cristina, for example, could have an even larger audience across the country, with great commercial appeal.
Note from BW of Brazil: I interrupt your reading on this post to make a quick interjection. The racial classification of legendary singer Clara Nunes (1943-1983) is reminiscent of the current controversy over how funk singer Anitta is identified today. Nunes was one of the first Brazilian singers that I really got into. I managed to find all of her albums on vinyl and later purchased a box set that featured all of her albums remastered on a multi-CD collection. I won’t deny that I have read articles and dissertations in which Nunes is defined as both white and black.
The snippets from two articles and a dissertation above are just three of countless references to Nunes as black. In the first, taken from the site Geledes, we read Nunes listed among a group of other black women samba singers such as Dona Ivonne Lara, Clementina de Jesus, Mariane Castro and Leci Brandão. In the second article, taken from a Brasil Post article, Nunes is defined as “lighted-skinned, but of black ancestry”. The third piece is taken from the dissertation Tem orixá no samba: Clara Nunes e a presença do candomblé e da umbanda na música popular brasileira by Rachel Rua Baptista Bakke, which also lists Nunes among a group of black women in the “recent musical market”.
Interestingly, on her recent visit to Brazil, well-known activist Angela Davis also listed Nunes as one of the “strong voices of black singers” along with Margareth Menezes and Elza Soares. It is also worth pointing out that in 2007 for the Month of Black Consciousness celebrations in São Paulo, Nunes was one of several Brazilian historical figures whose images were blown up into 16-foot banners and hung on various buildings. The campaign sought to remind people that, because many of these people had light skin, Brazil tended to whiten them in the memories of the people and, like a recent campaign devoted to arguably Brazil’s greatest writer, Machado de Assis, the campaign organizer’s wanted Brazilians to know that Clara Nunes was, in fact, a black woman. Now, let’s get back to the article…
Anyway, this discussion goes down to a more of a marketing scenario, of their insertion in the media, the investment of record companies in these singers, a whole historical panorama of relegating them to the niche categories. It is obvious that the commercial success of Clara Nunes, in addition to her magnanimous strength as an artist, comes from a strong, widespread dissemination, which managed, at the time, to put songs with strong Afro-religious content on the radio stations, for example.
Anyway, this analysis I do here is just to start a reflection on this past of black women in our popular music, but also to get a glimpse of the current scenario differently. Nowadays, we can consider that we have a more democratic scenario of music production, so we gain by seeing black women taking over its spaces as performers, composers and instrumentalists. And they are in samba and whatever genre they want to be in.
Mahmundi, for example, drinks from Rock influences and the 80s to generate catchy songs. Juçara Marçal, in turn, chooses the strangest paths and always drives us crazy, whether in Metá Metá or in her solo production. Luedji Luna released the great album, Um corpo no mundo, which brings different Afro rhythms in romantic songs and strong pop appeal. Xênia França, of the band Aláfia, has also launched a solo album that flirts with R&B. Different universes that can be inserted into the MPB tag, but also expand these possibilities.
In addition to MPB, funk, from the 2000s onwards, has created a wide vocal space for black women from the outskirts of Brazil’s biggest cities: Tati Quebra Barraco, Deize Tigrona, MC Carol, Ludmilla, Linn da Quebrada. Diverse singers, who speak popularly, either with radio songs or with proibidões (a genre in funk).
Rap is another space of breadth, since Negra Li emerged as a backing vocalist on RZO and Sabotage albums to the present day, when Karol Conká has become a national pop star. Flora Mattos, Tássia Reis, MC Soffia, Rimas & Melodias, different sounds and proposals that come from rap and go to other paths, such as the excellent Iza, one of the best of our current music, that mixes hip-hop, R&B and pop music in a very interesting way.
And the list goes on: Anelis Assumpção, Thalma de Freitas, Liniker, MC Tha, Ellen Oléria, Dona Onete, Gaby Amarantos, Preta Gil, Lei Di Dai, Larissa Luz, Candy Mel,… Anyway, the list has fortunately grown and we hope it will continue to do so, with artists flirting with MPB and with different genres, creating new scenarios.
Many of these singers, even today, continue their career on the margins, straight forward and with courage, seeking their place with a lot of hard work, so it’s important to listen to what they have to say. They are distinct, dissonant voices that don’t show a homogeneous and pasteurized cultura negra (black culture): they are multiple and distinct and bring their experiences and perspectives to the center. This is the richness of Música Preta Brasileira and we need to pay attention!
Courtesy of Escotilha website