Note from BW of Brazil: Today we present to you the third piece approaching the question of why black Brazil has never produced artists equal to certain black American artists or have failed to present bold protests in the same manner as black Americans. The first in this series questioned why Afro-Brazilians never take controversial stands such as the call for a boycott of the 2016 Oscars ceremony over the lack of nominations of black actors. The second in this series asked why there is there no Afro-Brazilian equivalent of superstar singer Beyoncé and the protest topic was touched upon again after the diva’s February Super Bowl performance.
The third piece in this series approaches the legend of the African-American singer Nina Simone, who story will be hitting the big screen soon. We won’t even touch upon the controversy that has been brewing over the casting of actress Zoe Saldana as Simone as that would deserve an entirely different post. No, simply approaching the meaning of an artist such as Simone and the political stances that were as much part of her career as her music is enough to bring yet another compelling analysis of the differences in racial history in Brazil and the United States.
Why has Brazilian music never had a combative black artist such as Nina Simone?
By Marcos Sacramento
Música Popular Brasileira (MPB or Brazilian popular music) is rich in protest songs and artists who have used art as activism, but no artist can be compared to Nina Simone in this regard.
The singer, whose biographical documentary competed for an Oscar and whose history has just become a movie starring Zoe Saldana, embraced the struggle for civil rights of blacks in the United States and paid dearly for her choice. Because of her militancy, she suffered boycotts of the music industry that prevented her from attaining a more prestigious career.
An accomplished pianist, owner of a powerful voice and a talented songwriter, Simone could have spent a career singing about lost loves, but she preferred more risky and furious ways as the song “Mississippi Goddamn” where she tells the southern state to “puta que o pariu” (go back to the whore that birthed you/f*ck off)
The protest song was composed in a few hours, amid the uprisings against the deaths of four girls in an attack of the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Alabama.
“I chose to reflect the times and the situations in which I find myself. That to me, is my duty, and at this crucial time in our lives when everything is so desperate, when everyday is matter of survival, I don’t think you can help but be involved..(…) So I don’t think you have a choice. How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” asks Simone in one of the scenes of the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone.
The questioning, made about forty years ago and under the troubled social atmosphere of the United States of that time, is still valid today, including in Brazil.
Here, endemic ills such as racism, social inequality and urban violence produce far less angst in the arts than they should.
So much so that there is no mainstream artist, a genius from the artistic point of view and commercially successful, whose activism can be compared to Nina Simone.
Many talented people sang the wounds of slavery, exalted stories of black people despised by school textbooks and denounced the various incarnations of racism, but no one practiced the militancy with the same intensity with which she made music.
The impression is that there is a secure line, a limit to be obeyed when one enters the harvest of social activism, where criticism happens, without disturbing the establishment.
It was precisely this line that Nina Simone exceeded, paying a high price from both a professional and personal point of view.
Some Brazilian names, in principle, have their work marked by strong social questions, such as rappers Racionais MCs and Emicida. Elza Soares addressed violence against women in her latest album, A Mulher do Fim do Mundo (The Woman of the End of the World), and is on this team.
But these artists, although consecrated, speak to a very specific audience, accustomed to political activism. In the end, they end up preaching to converts.
The silence, which can even be interpreted as a form of accommodation not only happens in relation to the struggle for racial equality.
In the Mariana disaster, the masters of MPB were very discreet in the criticisms of the Samarco mining company, responsible for the dam that broke leaving a trail of mud, pollution and destruction.
The fight for the rights of homosexuals did not have combative spokesmen in the first ranks of MPB, despite the large presence of gays among the medallions of the artistic world. Many only assumed this when they met far away from the spotlight of fame.
The one who has a possible explanation for the reasons for the ineptitude of the Brazilian artistic class when it comes to the fighting against racism and other social problems is Nina Simone herself.
“I wouldn’t change being a part of the civil rights movement, I wouldn’t change that….But some songs that I sang, I would have changed because they hurt my career,” Simone said in one of the interviews of the documentary of about her life.
In the end what commands is money. If the cause implies closed doors and canceled contracts, it’s better to stay far away from it, even if the safe is filled for decades.
Note from BW of Brazil: Well, in fact, the question raised by this article has already been touched upon in a number of posts on this blog as many people around the world have a similar curiosity about the differences and similarities in terms of racism and racial relations in the United States and Brazil. And after studying the racial history of both countries, answers to this question become very clear. For starters, let’s consider something early 20th century American president wrote after having visited Brazil. We featured this passage in a previous post but its worth repeating in the context of today’s topic. Theodore Roosevelt visited Brazil and in a subsequent 1914 article he wrote about that trip. According to Roosevelt, he was told the following by one observer:
“Of course the presence of the Negro is the real problem, and a very serious problem, both in your country, the United States, and in mine, Brazil. Slavery was an intolerable method of solving the problem, and had to be abolished. But the problem itself remained, in the presence of the Negro…Now comes the necessity to devise some method of dealing with it. You of the United States are keeping the blacks as an entirely separate element and you are not treating them in way that fosters their self-respect. They will remain a menacing element in your civilization, permanent, and perhaps even after a while a growing element. With us the question tends to disappear, because the blacks themselves tend to disappear and become absorbed…” (Skidmore, 1974)
The person that shared this opinion with Roosevelt was obviously speaking of Brazil’s process of miscegenation with the expressed objective of the black population eventually disappearing due to interbreeding with whiter partners. We also know that in the 1920s Brazilian authorities did everything they could to assure that black Brazilians didn’t have too much contact with black Americans who they deemed far too militant and whose influence could derail the process of whitening by awakening the Afro-Brazilian population (that they deemed as ‘docile’) to the realities of race and thus lead to militant activism. In the 1970s we saw this rejection of black American influence in Brazil rear its head once again when black Brazilians began organizing huge dances where black American Soul and Funk music was played. When we look at the differences between the two societies, we can see how would be nearly impossible for such an outspoken artist such as Nina Simone to arise.
Here it is 2016 and Afro-Brazilians themselves are pointing out these differences. In a recent article, one writer called out black Brazilians he knew who were critical of comedian Chris Rock’s comments/jokes on race at the recent Oscar ceremony. Another writer told us why no black Brazilian actor will ever boycott the nation’s top TV network Rede Globo. Although socially-accepted racial segregation did in fact exist in some parts of Brazil, the lack of legally sanctioned segregation and a promotion of miscegenation indoctrinated generations of black Brazilians into believing that the way to success was through associations/success with the white population along with the whitening of one’s offspring through miscegenation. Still today, if one were to judge Afro-Brazilian militancy by the mating choices its elite classes makes one could argue that this pursuit of whiteness is still very strong in Afro-Brazilian social circles.
Add to this the strangle hold that a powerful network such as Globo TV has on careers in the media and we also realize that very few Afro-Brazilians would be willing to speak out on controversial topics and risk losing their meal tickets. In comparison, when looking at the evidence, we find clues that much of the black American rights movements of the mid 50s to the early 70s were manufactured and engineered by powerful non-black forces and clearly many of these forces made these movements not only visible in the media but possible. On the other hand, the slightest hint of small scale Afro-Brazilian militancy has been stifled time and again whether this meant forcing key activists into exile, spying on activist groups or stifling black parties and their organizers, mass black Brazilian movements simply haven’t been allowed to develop. Considering the fact that its difficult for any Afro-Brazilian woman to even attain superstar status in Brazilian Popular Music, I would argue that achieving success is difficult enough without taking controversial stances on racism that most Brazilians continue to deny in the first place. With all of these factors in the mix, Brazil has made sure that a Brazilian Nina Simone could never exist.
Source: DCM, Skidmore, Thomas. Black Into White: Race and Nationality in Brazilian Thought. Oxford University Press, 1974.