Transformation of Black Music into White Music: Brazilian edition
Note from BBT: The piece I present today is yet another part of another topic I’ve discussed from time to time on this blog. The music industry’s habit of whitening music that has black roots. Millions of people know the story when the topic is American music, but what about what’s happened in Brazil? Well, if we consider the overall history of black Brazilians and mix this with what we already know about the appropriation of black American music, you can kind of figure about what happened and in reality continues to happen to this day.
I’m often a little stuck between wanting to support up and coming black artists and rejecting them and questioning the images they promote. For the years this blog was called “Black Women of Brazil”, I read and posted countless articles written by mostly black Brazilian women who called for an ending of the sexualized images of black women that were presented in Brazil’s media, be it through television series and novelas, films, advertising, Carnaval or any other genre. With this in mind, I find myself questioning how it is some of us can criticize the hypersexualization of black women in the media, but then at the same time, remain silent when we see the images of singers like IZA showing off her “assets” in many of her promo photos.
Is this the only way available for black music to be promoted to the masses? It’s like, in order to be accepted, we must in some way, agree to assume the imagery that the dominant society already has about black people. We have examples of this everywhere. Little Richard once delcared himself the “Architect of Rock n’ Roll” and complained about how the American music industry robbed him of his recognition, royalties and place in music history. On the other hand, Little Richard’s music had obvious sexual overtones to it, so much so that, in order to secure airplay, he had to clean up the lyrics of his breakout hit “Tutti Fruitti”.
In Brazil, we find some of the very same stereotypes about black sexuality. Afro-Brazilian scholars make it clear that they reject the sexualization of the black community, but then in 1990s and onward, funk music coming out of the favelas were almost like pornography set to music. Today, certain aspects of funk music are being consumed by the Brazilian masses even as a percentage of society still describes the music as “trash”. At what point does what starts off as black music become consumable by the white masses? At what point is it not even considered black music anymore? We’ve seen this happen with Blues, Rock n’ Roll, Hip Hop, Samba, and now we see the same thing happening with the appropriation and commercialization of Brazilian funk.
Is there always a problem with the artists promote a certain image or alter the sound of the original style in an attempt to reach the masses? I’m by no means a purist when it comes to music and I often get hype when I hear certain mixtures and innovations of genres. Is it fair to call this “selling out”? Again, I’m torn on the issue, but at the same time, in the process, I can see the same transition patterns that made Rock n’ Roll “American Music” and Bossa Nova “Brazilian Music” (a mixture of black Jazz and black Samba) while conveniently covering up the black elements of the styles. In terms of Rock n’ Roll, this story is pretty well-known, but in a future article, I will be discussing how this same story can be applied to Brazilian Bossa Nova. But for now….
The Transformation of Black Music into White Music
By Emanuela Nogueira
Throughout history, black culture has been appropriated, stolen, destroyed by whites. Not even black music escaped this process.
Jazz, a musical rhythm created in the United States from the mixture of songs that African slaves played – mainly blues – with some popular rhythms in Europe. The genre was born in bars and brothels. It was a rhythm known to be black until the appearance of the band Original Dixieland Jazz Band, which popularized the Jazz nomenclature and was responsible for introducing instruments such as the piano, trombone and clarinet, starting the whitening of jazz, which became of taste of the elite around 1920 and became successful worldwide, while moving further and further away from its roots. Although the musical genre has been elitizado e embranquecido (elitist and whitened), the biggest names in the rhythm are still black artists. It is now considered an elite rhythm and is no longer as successful as it used to be on the peripheries of the US.
Like Jazz, Samba originated in the old drumming that the slaves brought to Brazil. The drumming had the character of a religious celebration for African peoples trafficked to Brazilian lands. In the 19th century, with Rio de Janeiro having been established as the capital of Brazil, blacks from various states, mainly from Bahia, emigrated to Rio and took their traditions with them. In bars, African batuque was mixed with rhythms such as polka and maxixe and in this scenario, the first rodas de samba (samba circles) emerged.
Even in its name, the samba is black: “One of the possible origins of the name, according to Nei Lopes, would be the Quioco ethnic group, in which samba means to ride, to play, to have fun like a kid. There are those who say it comes from Bantu semba, as the meaning of navel or heart. It seemed to apply to Angola’s wedding dances characterized by umbigada, in a kind of fertility ritual. In Bahia, the samba de roda modality appears, in which men play and only women dance, one at a time. There are other, less rigid versions, in which a couple occupies the center of the circle. (ALVITO, Marcos. Samba. In: Revista de história da Biblioteca Nacional. Year 9. no. 97. October, 2013. p 80).”
Unlike jazz, samba was not completely stolen by the elite. Because it had in his essence the improvisation, the naturalness of the verses that appeared in a circle, the simple instruments and the clear presence of the drumming, it didn’t please white ears so much. Rather than appropriating definitively, in the mid-twentieth century, a fusion of Samba, Jazz and a bit of classical music emerged in Rio’s musical environment.
Called Bossa Nova, the genre is a kind of “refinement” of the rhythms mentioned above made by young, white middle-class people who were looking for other ways to play samba. Bossa is a “softer” rhythm than samba, with very little presence of African drumming and the incorporation of instruments such as the piano and guitar. Because it is a rhythm that had already emerged in the middle class, it didn’t take long to be successful among the Brazilian elite and to gain fame outside of the country.
The Brazilian music scene in the second half of the twentieth century was very fertile, so right after the creation of Bossa Nova, MPB (Brazilian Popular Music) emerged in its form used up to today. MPB’s roots are not new and come from the same time as the emergence of Samba, still in the Brazilian colonial period, with African rhythms like the lundu and some of European origin like the Portuguese modinha. Hundreds of years later, after the emergence of the second generation of Bossa Nova, which wanted to reincorporate into the music traces of Samba eliminated by the first generation, young artists, many university students, made an even greater mix of rhythms that resulted in the first official MPB songs.
MPB emerged in the midst of a clear intention to return Bossa to its roots and had a social character. It was marginalized for being a symbol of resistance during the military dictatorship and it was only at the end of the hard years that the artists persecuted and exiled had the opportunity to become great. Over the years, elements of other rhythms such as American soul, funk, rock, reggae and rap were incorporated into MPB, which from the beginning was a heterogeneous rhythm, with a strong connection to black culture.
A popular rhythm, played frequently on radio stations in the country until the 70s, MPB started to distance itself from the people with the creation of television, the international fame of some of its great names and the emergence of new rhythms that became popular on radio, such as the sertanejo. Currently, the rhythm is, like jazz, seen as white music. Tickets for concerts are expensive, the biggest faces attributed to the rhythm are white – even though Gilberto Gil, Djavan and Milton Nascimento were fundamental to the emergence of MPB, the images we see most are those of Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque.
Just as the black rhythms mentioned above were whitened in the US and Brazil, funk carioca followed the same path. Initially marked by the presence of striking beats (with strong influence of the American Miami bass) and lyrics that represent the reality of the Brazilian favela, after the 2000s New Funk incorporated eroticized lyrics to the rhythm. Funk was – and still is – marginalized, as it was with samba and MPB in the last century due to the resistance and denunciation of its lyrics and, currently, because it is considered a vulgar rhythm and associated with drug trafficking. The marginalization of funk still happens today. In June of 2017, a proposal that aimed to criminalize the genre once came to the fore in the national congress, but was rejected.
The new generation of funk, represented by artists such as Valesca, Ludmilla, MC Kevinho and, especially, Anitta, is already moving away from the original funk beats and incorporating even more elements from other genres. The embranquecimento (whitening) of funk process is clear in the changes that the rhythm has undergone since 2016 and in the videos that are increasingly distant from the favela scene and show mansions, luxury cars and expensive parties.
With the release of the song “Vai Malandra“, Anitta made funk very distant from what she did at the beginning of her career, with a slower beat and a singing in a low, almost whispered tone, reminiscent of the samba adaptation process, transformed into bossa, to satisfy the taste of the elite. The clip, despite showing a favela atmosphere, seems more like a way to attract the attention of the international market, portraying the image that gringos have of Brazil – half-naked, hypersexualized women, hypersexualized black men, a “sloppy” look, women as mere male appreciation objects – mixed with a smoothed out funk.
The main problem of cultural appropriation is the erasure of the identity of symbols from African culture in order to adapt them to the taste of whiteness. The commercialization and whitening process of funk has already started. It’s a matter of time before it becomes the next rhythm of black music to “become” white music.