Note from BW of Brazil: Does anyone dare call it a conspiracy? In the past three years or so there has been an enormous increase in Brazilians who see fit to dress themselves up in blackface to portray, make fun of or represent black Brazilians. We recently saw two white guys in the northeast region of the country take it even a step further. Besides painting their faces black, they also posed holding huge, fake black penises in a supposed representation of black men and took first place in a Carnaval costume contest. So here’s my thing.
I’ve done a lot of research on so called conspiracy theories and what I’ve concluded is that there comes a point in which there is enough evidence to cease calling a particular incident a conspiracy theory and label it as a conspiracy. Now I’m not claiming that this recent surge in the usage of blackface should even be considered a conspiracy theory at this point, but I would like to call attention to just how many times we’ve dealt with this topic just since 2012. Everyday Brazilians as well as famous Brazilians suddenly seem to have an urge to don blackface, be photographed wearing it and then sharing it on social networks. Conspiracy or not, something strange is going on here!
Singer Daniela Mercury may have officially closed the 2017 Carnaval season with a performance on Sunday in downtown São Paulo, but she opened up a whole new controversy with what she decided to wear in one of her performances last week in Salvador, Bahia. Below is simply the latest incident in an apparent Brazilian obsession with blackface.
People are criticizing the ‘blackface’ that Daniela Mercury used at the Salvador’s Carnival
Bahian singer appeared in trio with darkened skin and afro wig.
By Amauri Terto
One of the main struggles fought by the Movimento Negro (black movement) is against the reproduction of racist stereotypes. In this context, the use of the blackface is considered an extremely offensive gesture.
The makeup technique emerged in the performing arts in the 16th century, gained popularity in the 19th century and fell into disuse in the second half of the 20th century – due to the birth of the black civil rights movement in the US.
Through blackface, white artists colored their faces with charcoal to imitate blacks. In addition to reducing the figure of the black to something always of a caricature, the practice removed people with truly black skin from leading roles in the arts.
The maintenance of racism through this technique has gained intense debate in Brazil in the last years, after its adhesion in different popular contexts.
To cite a few examples, Globo TV host Ana Maria Braga opened space for blackface in her program, the theater company Os Fofos Encenam tried to take to the stage of Itaú Cultural, in São Paulo, and actor Paulo Gustavo used it on TV.
This debate did not stop Daniela Mercury from using this technique during Carnival.
After questioning intolerance against homosexual couples promoting a symbolic marriage with her partner Malu Verçosa and talking about female empowerment on another day; Monday, February 27th, she appeared in her trio in Salvador, dressed in what she called the Deusa de Ébano (Goddess of Ebony).
With visibly darker skin and a curly wig in a black power hairstyle, the singer said through her Instagram that the costume was also a tribute to the singer Elza Soares: “Dia de Empoderamento Negro” (Black Empowerment Day) she wrote in the caption of a photo.
In the trio, the singer from Bahia was accompanied by Vovô, founder of the group Ilê Aiyê and one of the greatest defenders of black culture in Brazil, actor Luis Miranda and the actor couple Lázaro Ramos and Taís Araújo, who are featured on the current cover of Veja magazine.
Despite the singer’s support in the struggle for racial equality in Brazil and her personal activism for LGBT rights, she didn’t escape criticism on social networks.
On Twitter, activists stressed that wearing blackface annuls any homage to a black woman.
Stephanie Ribeiro @RibSte
The discourse has also has also affected our friends. This is blackface and doesn’t pay homage to black women. Http://fb.me/8WUnoX8m4
Lz Prm Chs @ lui7z
I AM NOT BELIEVING THAT DANIELA MERCURY IS SENDING A BLACKFACE TO THE TOP OF THE TRIOOOOO https://twitter.com/_nelsoncezar/status/836410183983194114 …
Pestle 42 @jeszz__
Mercilessness, the clueless Daniela mercury on top of the trio with a black power wig and all darkened up..-daniela-defends-empowerment-black-in-ba.html …
(͡ ° ͡ ͡ °) @_nelsoncezar
Shame on Daniela Mercury speaking of black empowerment wearing black face and afro wig. With Tais, Lázaro and Luiz Miranda on the bloco.
Iarema Soares @iaremasoares
2017 and whites still wearing peruca Black Power (afro wig). Hide yourself, Daniela Mercury https://twitter.com/g1/status/836409338814136322 …
On Facebook, other people also disapproved of Daniela’s costume.
Isis Carolina Vergilio: Daniela Mercury in an “afro” wig only proves that branquitude (whiteness) has no limits.
Jessica Ipólito – February 28 at 10:33 am ·
“Daniela Mercury tried but failed. On top of her trio, dragging a crowd in Salvador in Barra (where she gathers the trios and more commercial camarotes (VIP cabin area) of the carnival circuit), she took to the street the theme “empoderamento negro” (black empowerment), which in reality only served to “empower” white women and men calling themselves black. In a black wig, a tan that left her pretty orange, she still screamed (in two days of the trio) that “she’s black yes!”. Pay attention to how much this discourse and this position, in the middle of the carnival of Salvador, serves to reaffirm that our historical struggle is of no use as a black population, because there will always be a white person very well located on the scene, to misappropriate what belongs to us. In instagram she publishes that she was paying homage to (singer) Elza Soares. I can’t find valid a homage where you “dress up” in black and come out saying that you are. How many Elza songs did she sing? Did you mention the artist’s life trajectory? Did you mention the 2 nominations for the Latin Grammy?! I don’t believe she had done this. The important thing in this carnival is to re-update the concept of black face, to allow more white people to go around saying they’re black while practicing their daily racism. That’s what she managed to do. This does not surprise me, nor does it shut me up.”
“We spend the whole year saying how much whiteness doesn’t affect us, it doesn’t make use of its privileges and saying to our colleagues even in an impeccable guidance: “you so crazy”, when possible, of course. So, a person with national and international visibility utilizes precisely this “visibility” to show that: we are such suckers. Daniela Mercury can be what you wish people, but her having put on makeup and an afro wig only makes me understand that some white people want to get a cookie at any cost and this is not fair! It’s not fair because mainly in Carnaval, we still see a crowd in the street “dressed up as nega maluca” (crazy black women character) and hot blood, right. Going up on a trio and screaming that you are black, serious, is a lot of audacity! It’s proof that whiteness has no limits and still it’s a great lack of respect with our history. I cheer in order that Lazaro and Tais Araujo had seen this great embarrassment at the time and they had nothing to do. I’m praying! I exchange that old saying of the blindest to: ‘THE WORST WHITE IS THE ONE THAT DOESN’T WANT TO UNDERSTAND!'”
Many comments on social networks denounced that the ‘caricature’, instead of exalting, dehumanizes the black person, who can’t be treated as a carnival costume. In addition, the case sparked the debate on cultural appropriation, since black artists and the blocos afros (Afro blocks) themselves are elements that are deprecated on the music scene, even during Carnival. It’s enough to observe the place occupied by the black singers in the revelry and the difficulties of the entities of African matrix to parade.
“Unnecessary blackface. Why didn’t she invite the honoree to participate? Why didn’t she get a person who is black to represent Elza? From the moment she “dressed up” as Elza she took the space of the Elza herself in the homage. I recognize the work of Daniela Mercury, but one mistake does not justify the other, that’s what I think. No one paints themselves with to honor a white man,” wrote Jucy Bruno, who follows the Candomblé religion and is daughter of the late master of Capoeira Canjiquinha (Washington Bruno da Silva, 1925 – 1994).
Black women’s movement activist Suely Souza Santos was also blunt in her criticisms of the singer’s attitude: “I don’t think that to honor Elza Soares she would need to caricature herself as a black woman. Yes, it’s a caricature, yes (…) This is an affront. It is true that culture is not unique to a group as long as its matrix is respected and enjoys its benefits. Blocos afros always have to beg for government support to parade at Carnival. It’s a fact that the figure of Daniela Mercury emerged in the Axé (music genre) that was led by black artists like Margareth Menezes, and that in their vast majority live in a constant battle to survive in the artistic and Carnival world. That is cultural appropriation indeed.”
In an interview with writer James Martins, published on the site Bahia.ba, maestro Letieres Leite, from Orkestra Rumpilezz, spoke about the racism in the choices made by the Bahian music industry. “If Margareth (Menezes) was white there would be no Daniela Mercury. Daniela Mercury stepped into the space Margaret had raised. Margareth lifted the ball when she was in the lead, they pushed her, and put Daniela in her place to lead. I was here at the time and I saw it,” says the musician.
The singer from Bahia was also criticized on the Instagram. One of her followers wrote:
“Queen, you need a more attentive advisor, my love. Many failures in discourse. You are a voice that echoes loudly in our Brazil, representing our black and LGBT movements. Please be more careful. Listen to more black women. At the end of your presentation in the trio, you go home, take off the black wig and become another privileged white woman. So be careful. A big kiss. Much light.”
In another comment, they pointed out:
“You can honor the black without putting on a wig and without painting your skin for example! Our hair is not an object. We have been fighting for the end of this for some time.”
Daniela Mercury answered the critics in an interview for the site Bahia Notícias:
“Eu so preta de pele branca (I am a black woman with white skin) because the culture of my city is Afro-Brazilian and that is what I love. I’m Michael Jackson in reverse, adoro ser negra (I love being black), my music is black, my empowerment is black.
According to the site, the singer also said that she learned to sing in Yoruba at the age of eight and that “even Benin has appropriated Bahian culture”.
“Lots of people who do not like being what they are and I love being black and Bahian. I’m a white-skinned black woman and so what.”
Note from BW of Brazil: So what do I say about this latest ridiculous incident of the usage of blackface with a justification that wasn’t already said above? It’s just as absurd as all of the other cases. In my view, in the past few years there’s been a sufficient amount of protests and denouncements for people to know that blackface is a big no-no. It never ceases to amaze me how white artists can take advantage of all of the privileges that white skin brings them, never acknowledge, earn money off of black culture, never admit to having this privilege and then proclaim things like “we are all equal”. In this case, Mercury took it a step further by claiming that she is in fact a black woman in white skin. Really not surprising from an artist who once sang “a cor dessa cidade sou eu”, or ‘I am the color of this city’, very strange indeed considering the city she spoke of was Salvador, Bahia, one of Brazil’s blackest cities. The same applied to Ivete Sangalo singing about “A minha pele d ébano” (my skin of ebony) or “Sou a cor da Bahia” (I am the color of Bahia). Or Claudia Leitte calling herself a “negra loira”, or the ‘blond black woman’. I covered this phenomenon of white-skinned (or off white, if you prefer) women singing music with black roots and earning far more notoriety than black artists themselves back in 2012. As well as the fact that Brazil’s music industry seems to have an unwritten rule that black female artists cannot be allowed to climb to the top of Pop Music circles.
Mercury’s stunt is irritating to say the least as she must certainly know that her skin color is as or more important than her talent in terms of commercial success. And being black is not something that one can just spray on one day like a costume and then return to whiteness whenever you want to. The fact is, calling this costume a “Deusa de Ébano” (Goddess of Ebony) is a slap in the face of every black woman who has ever competed in the annual Ilê Aiyê-sponsored Ebony Goddess contest because even in Black Bahia, Bahian officials also choose to promote the European standard of beauty over the African descendant population that is clearly the true “color of Bahia”.
I also find it laughable that she would try to make us believe that she somehow supports black empowerment for the simple fact that Bahia in general, and especially during Carnaval, is one of the most blaring examples of apartheid in Brazil. Both Salvador, the capital city of the state of Bahia, and the state are regions in which masses of black people have been forever governed by a small white elite and that white elite has made sure to crown Mercury as one of its cultural representatives. It is the very lack of black empowerment that allows Mercury to reign as Bahian music royalty for much of her 30 plus year career.
It is also quite laughable due to the fact that she used a type of makeup that is generally associated with making a mockery of black people. Mercury can claim that she stands for black empowerment because she knows power elites in Bahia will NEVER allow that to happen but by making such a statement she may be able to fool some of the people into believing that she stands in solidarity with them. Question: How can Mercury truly stand for black empowerment when her very career is based on a lack of black empowerment? The gesture also reminds me of the last mayoral election when the current mayor, the grandson of an infamous political strongman who ruled Bahia with an iron fist for decades, suddenly defined himself as a pardo, meaning brown, an obvious ploy to present himself as “one of the people”.
I wonder how long Mercury would proclaim herself black if her sponsors began to suddenly take her at her word and decided they didn’t want to pour millions into the promotion of her career. I bet it wouldn’t be long before she proclaimed everything a joke and exalted her Italian-Portuguese background. Mercury in reality is the perfect representative of Brazil’s long-running myth of racial democracy. She can get rich singing black songs, represent a black region, don an afro and blackface and proclaim herself ‘black’ all the while never seeing a black artist who may in fact be more talented than her ever get the same opportunities because of this very color that Ms. Mercury claims she loves so much. Let’s face a few facts Ms. Mercury. Empowering the black population will take much more dedication that pretending to be black for a few hours. Or does she subscribe to the other peculiar methods that Brazilians choose to “fight racism”? Like when all of those famous Brazilians took photos holding bananas after the infamous incident of racism on the futebol field. Or when long-time blond TV host Xuxa put on a t-shirt to symbolize her stance against racism.
Can we just keep it real? Putting on an afro and smearing makeup on your face to imitate black skin is not an homage to Elza Soares; it is an homage to racism!
My other question on this matter involves Vovô of Ilê Aiyê, and actor couple Taís Araújo and husband Lázaro Ramos taking a photo with Mercury in this costume. OK, so maybe it is just a photo, but was there something more going on here? Should we interpret them posing for this photo as them co-signing on this madness? All three are important figures in black representation and consciousness so I would like to believe that perhaps they saw it simply as a photo, even knowing the history of blackface. In the case of Taís Araújo and Lázaro Ramos I wonder if they may have felt uncomfortable but didn’t want to make waves over the situation. After all, when you’re black and have made a name for yourself at Brazil’s top TV network, Rede Globo, a bastion of white supremacy, surely there exists a line in a sand that they cannot cross if they wish to remain employed at the station.
This is the catch 22 when we want so badly to see people who look like us succeeding in the media.
Yes, they are allowed to shine, earn fame and fortune, but they must always remember that they are still employees working on the plantation. I can only guess what was going through the minds of Taís and Lázaro as they posed for that photo. Did they not want to make a spectacle of this? Were they just thinking that this wasn’t a good look for Daniela? Were they thinking that there was no use in refusing to take a photo with Mercury dressed in that manner when their employer, Globo, has featured a number of persons wearing blackface in their television productions? I like what this acting couple represents for black Brazilians but at the same time their being part of the Brazilian media’s most powerful company also shows the lack of power that Afro-Brazilians as a whole have. And if they want to continue having success with this network, they can’t really rock the boat (for examples, see here, here and here).
In conclusion, the Daniela Mercury stunt is just the latest in the sad state of black representation in a Brazil that continues to show its black population that it wishes it didn’t exist. They’ve consistently shown this with the goal of racial mixture eventually leading to black annihilation, the ongoing genocide of black youth, and black exclusion/under-representation in the media. The white princess’s usage of blackface during Carnaval is ultimately a symbol of the Brazilian dream: appropriating and consuming blackness and being able to wake up the next day and be white.