Claudia Leitte Carnaval campaign ad
Earlier this year in February during Carnaval season, BW of Brazil published a short article entitled, “The dominance of the European aesthetic in Bahia’s media” which hinted at the racial politics and exclusion that is on display every year in the Brazilian state most associated with African ancestry and culture. A few months before our article, another white/near white singer released her new promotional campaign using Africa as the focal point. The artist’s name was Claudia Leitte, and according to her campaign, “Africa with all its beauty and magic” and the “strong connections that African roots has with Bahia” inspired her to make the continent her 2012 Carnaval theme. The other thing that caught my eye was the woman’s European in combination with her nickname: “Nega Loura”. In Brazilian Portuguese, nega is another way of saying negra, meaning black woman, and loura is another way of spelling loira, meaning blond, thus meaning blond black woman.
Continuing with the Brazilian promotional method of marketing white women to appropriate black culture, here was yet another non-black woman, continuing the tradition of singers Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo, staking claim to a popular genre of Afro-Brazilian music, Axé, making it her own and on top of all that, calling herself a negra. A slap in the face considering all of the great black female singers who are actually from Bahia (Leitte is not) and who will never achieve the mainstream promotion and success of their whiter counterpart.
I was also a little bothered by Mercury’s 1996 album cover for her CD Feijão com arroz. Meaning beans and rice, a popular Brazilian dish, Mercury poses embraced with a very dark-skinned woman whose back is facing the camera.
|Mercury’s 1996 CD Feijão com arroz|
To make a comparison for the basis of this article, I’m sure most of us are familiar with how race-based musical and cultural appropriation works. For years in the 1980s and 90s, Rock and Roll pioneer Little Richard would go on award shows as an award presenter and go on a tirade about how the music industry never “gave (him) nothing!” I can imagine that there were probably a lot of people watching him both on TV and in the audience of whatever award show he upstaged thinking, “Will somebody take this old guy away so we can get on with the show?” Well, the truth is, as everybody should know by now, Little Richard was telling the truth. Back in his day, the 1950s, when he was creating some of hardest-driving R&B (which would become Rock and Roll) of the day and introducing audiences to his wild man style and electrifying voice, white parents didn’t like the idea of this insidious, sexually-driven, black music infiltrating the world of their white picket fences and influencing their “proper”, “well-raised”, children of “high morals” and good, “middle class white values.”
As the executive secretary of the Alabama White Citizens Council put it: “The obscenity and vulgarity of the Rock and Roll music is obviously a means by which the white man and his children can be driven to the level of the nigger.”
|Berry, Little Richard, Pat Boone, Elvis|
Well, those white kids loved that “nigger music.” Soon after, major record labels started picking up on this sound that was being popularized by African-Americans like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and others. It wasn’t long before white artists such as Pat Boone, Bill Haley, the Beatles and the soon to be crowned “King of Rock and Roll” Elvis Presley started making cover versions of these black artists’ songs or making their own music in a similar vein.
What Little Richard was screaming about from that time on was the fact that the white artists had jumped on the R&B bandwagon, re-did the songs, often outsold the original recordings by the black artists and made more money with a style that many whites were adamantly opposed to. We would see the same appropriation decades later with Hip Hop, another Black Music art form that the record industry turned its nose up at. Again, the music was labeled garbage, “nigger music” that would never last, “too black” and basically “ghetto” even though people weren’t using that term at the time. From Elvis and Pat Boone in Rock and Roll to the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice and Eminem in Hip Hop, the formula continues to work. Black Music, white appropriation, huge sales. There are also a lot of old-time black artists who died penniless along the way while the white artists got the glory, fame and riches.
|Vanilla Ice, Eminem, Beastie Boys|
The situation is the same in Brazil. The northeastern state of Bahia and its largest and capital city, Salvador, are considered the African heart of Brazil due to its 70% and 80% (state and city) population of African descent and its vibrant maintenance of African-oriented culture. Some say that if one never makes a trip to Africa, Salvador, Bahia, is the next best thing. In terms of politics though, Salvador and Bahia have much in common with South Africa: a large black majority that is ruled by the white minority that rule the businesses and government. Salvador was the first Brazilian capital city and a major port of entry for African slaves starting in the 16th century. While Salvador is considered the “Roma Negra (Black Rome)” and the center of the country’s African culture, the city has only had one black mayor, Evaldo Brito, for 8 months between 1978 and 1979, and he was appointed by the governor during Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship.
Culturally, Salvador is known for its African and Afro-Brazilian traditions such as the martial art of Capoeira, culinary arts and cuisine and the religion of the Candomblé. The region also has a rich history of music. Dorival Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Maria Bethânia are just a few of the famous baiano (or baiana, meaning a person from Bahia) musicians who have contributed greatly to the landscape of Brazilian Popular Music. If you ever get into Brazilian music, you are sure to come across these names sooner or later.
Before proceeding, we must also introduce a few terms that will be used throughout this article.
1) Trio Elétrico is a kind of truck or float equipped with a high power sound system and a music group on the roof, playing for a crowd. It was created in Bahia specifically for Carnival and it is now used in similar events in other districts and countries
2) A bloco is a street band or group that is the main popular expression in Carnival of Bahia and Pernambuco in Brazil. These demonstrations are mixed under the term “street carnival”, a term that still includes the bandstands and parades in the streets and happen during a period of about two months (beginning before and finishing after Carnival).
3) Blocos afros are blocos that utilize aspects of African culture in its rhythms and lyrics, using a percussive group in front of the Trio Elétrico and wearing outfits whose themes and colors establish a cultural connection with Africa. The first bloco afro was Ilê Aiyê established in 1974 as response to the exclusion of blacks during Salvador’s Carnaval.
4) Baiano/baiana: Person or something from or having to do with the state of Bahia
5) Subúrbio: Meaning suburb but being the complete opposite of the meaning of its English translation “suburb” as used in the US. While the English term suburb as used in the US conjures up images of middle class lifestyles, the terms “subúrbio” and “peripheria” (periphery) as used in Brazilian Portuguese, are in some ways reminiscent of the images associated with the term “ghetto”, meaning a location outside of the central area of a city, the favela(slum/shantytown) an area inhabited by the poor and excluded from society. In the social imagination, it also conjures up images of various stereotypes, danger, against the grain lifestyles and drug trafficking.
“For you to have a hit song the song had to go to the Axé banda to make it, get played on the radio, so that people know that that song was from a bloco afro. But the radio did not divulge that the music was by the bloco (afro), it disclosed that the music was by band “such and such” and didn’t even mention the name of the songwriter” (Santos 2004)
Thus, the blocos afros and its artists, considered the most visible black-mixed race form of expression and mobilization, grounded in the values of African ancestry, motivated to establish a rejection of the cultural patterns of the Europeanized dominant caste of baiano society were passed over by industry capital, consumption and the trio blocos, entities of entertainment without any political nature or ethnic connotation (Guerreiro, 2000, cited in Santos 2004).
Incorporating music from the repertoire of blocos afrosto the trio elétrico bands gave greater visibility to the percussive rhythms born in the ghettos. From this fusion, middle and upper class consumers that originally ignored the music of the blocos afros were reached by the sounds of the subúrbio, without, however, there being any more intimate intersections between these two social universes (Santos 2004).
A successful generation of artists, led by artists such Sarajane and Luís Caldas would initiate the practice of replacing poor, black icons from the periferiawith musicians of “boa aparência (good appearance, code term for white)” like Netinho, Daniela Mercury, Ricardo Chaves, Durval Lélys, Bell Marques, and Ivete Sangalo whose social class and light complexion seem to have worked as one of the selection criteria of the music industry (Santos 2004).
|Top: Ricardo Chaves, Durval Lélys – Bottom: Bell Marques, Netinho|
The duality that exists in baiano society didn’t allow the acceptance of musical rhythms and culture of African descendants. In a similar manner, in contemporary baianidade (Bahia-ness): While the white groups were in show biz, recording albums, touring, becoming part of programming playlists of radio stations, black groups were invisible in the media and on the outskirts of the music world (Guerreiro, 2000, cited in Santos 2004).
Analyzing the results of the profiles described by participants one can observe that the Axé music as much in (another northeastern city) Recife as in Salvador was little associated with the groups of its origin, the black-mixed race people from the periphery. It seems that the expansion of the baianomodel of Carnival for other states and the success of middle-class artists on the music scene, usually white, like Ivete Sangalo and Daniela Mercury, contributed to the “de-ghetto-ization” of Axé music and made the integration of the music to other social contexts possible (Santos 2004).
In the format of Axé Music, the songs of black groups make up the music of the albums by trio elétrico bands and solo singers like Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo, who go on to sell millions of records, while the blocos afros remain on the margins of this success, not to mention that the projection of black singers for solo careers have been unsuccessful in the course of these 25 years of Axé music. This in turn leads some Afro groups to go through a process of assimilation of the white aesthetics of trio elétrico bands, capturing a rhythm that blends the beat of African percussion and electronic instruments of the trio, in order to meet market demands (Pereira 2010).
On the flip side, in the past 25 years there have been a number of white singers who gained major media visibility besides the Mercury, Sangalo and Leitte. A few of those names include Sarajane, Márcia Freire, Emanuelle Araújo, Aline Rosa and Gilmelândia. While black singers like Abobened and Márcia Short have found success, neither of them have been able to establish solid space on the Carnaval circuit (Uzel 2012). This would also apply to other black baianas such as Virginia Rodrigues, Will Carvalho, Mariene de Castro and Márcia Short among others and those who aren’t considered Axé singers but record Afro-Baiano music.
Top: Mariene de Castro, Márcia Short
Bottom: Virginia Rodrigues, Will Carvalho and Abobened
Margaret Menezes has been the one exception after having been featured on international tours promoted by pop star David Byrne in the first half of the 1990s, also earning the attention of Salvador’s gay community, playing summer concert series and heading up the Os Mascarados Carnaval bloco. Even still in the case of Menezes, in the field of mass-marketed cultural productions, she has never had the national media attention equal to that of Sangalo, Leitte or Mercury (Uzel 2012), “a white artist authorized by her public to identify herself with black cultural genres” (Liv Sovik, 2009 cited in Uzel 2012).
“It’s clear that an artist that’s willing to be a part of the cultural industry grind don’t always have the capacity to adapt themselves to market demands. Many singers, white or non-white, will fail in this attempt for lack of business structure, talent, charisma and/or competence to administrate a career. But it is evident that this same industry, when it wants to invest in a trio elétrico singer, is accustomed to appreciating a stereotyped model of a star that doesn’t privilege black singers” (Uzel 2012).
Paulafreitas, Ayêska. “Música de rua de Salvador: preparando a cena para a axé music” in I ENECULT, Anais, CD ROM, Salvador: UFBA, 2004. Santos, Marcos Joel de Melo. Estereótipos, preconceitos, axé-music e pagode. EDUFBA/PALLAS, 2004. Guerreiro, Goli. A trama dos tambores – A música afro-pop de Salvador. São Paulo: 34, 2000. Pereira, Ianá Souza. “Axé-Axé: O megafenômeno baiano.” Revista África e africanidades. Rio de Janeiro: Year 2, No. 8, February, 2010 Uzel, Marcos. Guerreiras do Cabaré: A mulher negra no espetáculo do Bando de Teatro Olodum. Salvador: EDUFBA, 2012