Whitewashing Brazilian Hip Hop: Do white rappers have a responsibility to recognize “the struggle” and the privileges their skin color brings?
By Marques Travae
A few weeks back, an article on this blog addressed the issue of the difference there is for black and white rappers to make it financially in Brazil’s rap game. When we look at these differences that go on behind the scenes, we have to wonder why it is that it seems that black rappers have to struggle a lot longer for the dedication to their art to pay off. This question of the black rapper struggling to survive in the industry is especially pertinent when we consider that Hip Hop in Brazil, as in the United States, is historically connected to the struggle blacks have in attaining equality in a racist society that has long excluded them. Rap groups and artists such as Racionais MCs, Sabotage, MV Bill, DMN and RZO developed reputations for educating black youth about the realities of being black in Brazil. This responsibility of bringing a certain consciousness to the black masses continues today in artists such as Rincon Sapiência, who freely accepts this commitment. According to Rincon, “The work of rap has been well done all over the world, with years of relevancy in the music market, not only rap but also música preta (black music) in general.”
So then what happens when white artists start moving into the territory of Hip Hop and taking the music into a more pop direction that makes the genre become more accessible to social classes that have once seen the sound as a thing “of the blacks” or music “of the poor” or marginals of society? White rappers, many coming from more privileged social classes, more often don’t have this connection with “the struggle”. And further, often don’t have a struggle attaining success and being able to support themselves in the genre. Is this a case of “stealing” a place that should be and was once held down by black artists? Singer Negra Li recently provoked controversy when she made this point about “The King” of Rock n’ Roll, Elvis Presley.
The issue of cultural appropriation and whites finding more success in art forms created by blacks can also be applied to Brazil. In a recent edition of the Lollapalooza Brasil concert, three rap artists were featured on the bill: Haikaiss, G-Eazy and Criolo. Of the three, only Crioulo is black. Again, similar to the situation in the US, middle-class whites in Brazil have always been consumers of Hip Hop, but they have also been making strides in the creation of the music. The number of followers on the YouTube channels of white rappers compared to that of black rappers is yet another example of the identity politics I wrote about in the Negra Li/Elvis Presley article. Based on identity politics, whites are more likely to support artists who look like them. In Brazil, it’s no different.
Going beyond the actual production of Hip Hop, Rincon Sapiência points out a problem when middle-class whites, having completely different social backgrounds than the black originators of the art form, enter the game.
“Whites come from a privileged social class, do not have certain engagements. Sometimes they end up bringing a reading that is not hip-hop. White people don’t have a preparation, a knowledge to enter into the culture. It’s the same thing as me wanting to teach kung fu.”
The aforementioned white rap acts Haikaiss and Costa Gold have been successful in bringing more whites into the ranks of fans of Hip Hop but without recognizing the struggle of black Brazilians in social structure as a whole as well as within the music industry trying to make a living on a black art form. “When there is a demand on the racial issue, few of them have the good sense to give in and recognize privileges,” said Rincon.
Further elaborating on his perspective, Rincon acknowledges that white rappers aren’t lacking in skills, but in typical Brazilian fashion, few will admit the privileges that white skin brings in helping them attain a certain level of success that is often elusive and more times than not, takes much longer for black artists to achieve.
“They are competent, yes, that can’t be denied, but the privilege of being white and middle class in Brazil makes them reach things much more easily. I’m an example of this. At 31 years old and releasing my first album. It was not that break for me to be in college with my parents paying the bill and turning and saying ‘I’m going to drop out of college to rap.’ Believing in the work I was professionalizing myself gradually and overcoming obstacles,” he explained.
In essence what we see are the privileges that whiteness brings in the society as a whole continuing into the world of Hip Hop, a space where one would think black artists would have an advantage. But in the same manner that two people with the same credentials applying for a job can either advance or be left behind simply based on skin color, the same factors can come into play when the time comes to break down the profits, popularity and exposure in Hip Hop.
Now, I’m not saying that Brazilian Hip Hop will become completely whitewashed, but I am saying that the pattern is unmistakable. In the 1930s and 1940s, Samba was considered music of lowlife malandros, a “coisa do negro” (black thing), but seeing an opportunity to promote a national culture, Brazil’s elites commercialized it and made it a uniting symbol of Brazilian culture. In the mid to late 1950s, largely white, middle class musicians from Rio, took the Brazilian Samba and mixed it with American Jazz, two black art forms, and created Bossa Nova, a more sophisticated sound for middle class and foreign consumption. In the 90s, Funk Carioca began to emerge in the mostly black favelas of Rio de Janeiro it was dismissed as trash, vulgar, violent and in fact, “not even music”. Today, upper-middle class neighborhoods partake in the funk in ritzy clubs frequented mostly by whites that charge prices that mostly exclude black favela residents who come from the same regions where this music originated.
In the 1940s, Samba musicians faced often times violent repression by government authorities. In the 1990s, rappers were associated with criminal elements of the society. In 2017, there was a bill introduced that would actually criminalize the funk. But it seems that as whites get more and more involved in these genres, the sounds become more “acceptable”.
Is rap music in Brazil going in this same direction?
Well, consider the words of veteran singer/songwriter Fernanda Abreu commenting on her introducing elements of funk into her repertoire:
“It’s necessary that a middle-class white come to legitimize the manifestation of the favela. My role was this, the white girl who came to say that this is cool, just as Chico Buarque did with the samba.”
Really? Well, it seems that the old adage remains true. The more things change, the more they stay the same.