Note from Black Brazil Today: The image is still fresh in my mind. The first time I ever saw Bahian singer Margareth Menezes was in the Car City record store located in St. Clair Shores, Michigan. I had just immersed myself in my new fascination, black people in Brazil and combined with my love of music, it was inevitable that I would begin to explore Brazilian music.
It was the first years of the 2000s and I had become familiar with most of the Brazilian Popular Music artists, the few that managed to earn some recognition in the United States. If you know the names, only one name would be necessary for know who I’m talking about. If not, just enter the following names in a google search and you’ll know who they are: Jobim, Caetano, Gil, Bethânia, Buarque, Milton, Ben.
At that point, I wanted to increase my awareness of artists outside of this small group of artists. That particular day, I spent a few minutes in Car City’s World Music section, and in the Brazil tab of the Latin American music section, I came across an album featuring a black woman wearing braids, singing into a microphone. The album also had the name ‘Menezes’ highlighted in green with a Brazilian flag. ‘Margareth Menezes? Who is this?’, I thought to myself, holding the album in my hands.
I ended up buying the album and adding it to the beginnings of my newly forming Brazilian music collection. The title of that album was Elegibô, which was a mixture of songs from Menezes first two albums released in Brazil. this album was meant to introduce her to an international audience and had the input of Talking Heads musician David Byrne who was becoming a champion of promoting World Music to American music fans.
In an era dominated by CDs, Elegibô, was the second Brazilian vinyl album I had purchased after Jorge Ben’s 1978 album, A Banda Do Zé Pretinho, which I also purchased at Car City Records. Needless to say, I was anxious to know what type of sound Menezes was bringing. With my first listen, and subsequent exposure to more music from the region, I understood that the percussion heavy, Samba-Reggae sound was reflective of what was going on with Bahian popular music. the grooves are a common thread that one can note in the music of Ilê Aiyê, Olodum, Timbalada and many others.
As it turns out, the Elegibô album brought Menezes global fame before her music even caught on in the rest of Brazil outside of Bahia. Reaching and staying at the number one spot on Billboard Magazine’s World Music chart, Margareth was also a success as an opening act for Byrne on his Rei Momo tour.
The thirty years of her career has seen numerous hits. In 2001, she released the album Afropopbrasileiro, produced by internationally recognized singer-musician Carlinhos Brown and featuring singers Ivete Sangalo and Daniela Mercury. The album featured one of her biggest hits, “Dandalunda”, written by Brown. Since appearing on the music scene, in her career, Menezes has released 11 studio albums, 5 live albums and a number of DVDS, but even wth 30 years of success, many have pondered why Menezes hasn’t managed to reached the same level of success of fellow Bahian singers Sangalo and Mercury. Both Sangalo and Mercury are white women.
In recent years, Menezes has been quite vocal about racial politics in Brazil, stating that Brazil is a racist, backward society and that its music industry has provided privileges for white artists, a claim that others have agreed with (see here and here). These days, Menezes is starring in a new sitcom that debuted on the new streaming platform, Wolo TV. But she continues to speak out on blatant and subtle issues of racism that she has experienced, including the way Brazil deals with religions of African origin. These are a few of the topics that she discussed in a recent interview.
With a career spanning 34 years, Margareth Menezes talks about racism in Axé music and says she only sings what moves her
By Nathália Geraldo
“Ivete, why isn’t Margareth Menezes as big as you are?”. The question came from actress Taís Araújo in a live chat with singer Ivete Sangalo at the beginning of the pandemic, in which the two talked about the little black representation in different spaces in the country. “It’s absurd. It’s a totally intentional determination,” Ivete replied, hinting that the racial issue is also present in axé music.
For Margareth, 58, precursor of the musical movement and one of the main artists in the country, it is structural racism that causes her not to have the same commercial appeal and visibility as her colleagues Ivete, Daniela Mercury, and Claudia Leitte. “It’s described in the system itself, right? Let’s not omit the individual talents, surely they have something special to be artists,” she says in a video call from her home in Salvador (BA).
In February, while some of these singers had already secured sponsorships to do live performances in the period that, if it weren’t for the pandemic, would be Carnival in the streets, Margareth had not secured support. It was only on Ash Wednesday that Maga, as the people who have called her since she was a little girl, signed a partnership with the Multishow channel to present “Baile da Maga”.
Bahia is a place of much structural racism, very much so, in the Carnival blocos, of the big businessmen. Those in the axé music industry are all white and have always privileged this place, unfortunately. So, even the big afro carnival blocos here, Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, have difficulties getting sponsorship. It’s as if they had no value. But the music that is successful, that has the esthetics of Bahia, is the music brought by the black people here.
In her 34-year career Margareth has toured internationally 23 times and has been nominated for four Grammys. In 2004, she was called the “Brazilian Aretha Franklin” by the Los Angeles Times – she, however, prefers to revere the artists who made her “understand” her place in the world, like singers Angela Maria, Clara Nunes and actress-singer Zezé Motta.
Today, with so many years on the road, she says she has one rule: she only sings what touches her heart. “With a career of 34 years, I have this seal; which doesn’t mean a limitation. But if it doesn’t touch my heart, it’s hard for me to repeat it.”
“My mother ripped the strings of my guitar so I could dedicate myself to school”
The oldest of five siblings, she says she asked her mother for a guitar when she was three years old, because she saw her uncles and maternal grandfather playing and grew up following sambões, serestas, and religious parties that rocked the streets of the Boa Viagem neighborhood in Salvador. But it was only at the age of 15, when she was already singing in the choir of the Congregação Mariana da Boa Viagem, that the artist got the instrument from her mother, Dona Diva.
The guitar was so much her partner that it made her forget her studies: she repeated the school year twice. Dona Diva had to rip the guitar strings so that Margareth could dedicate her attention to her school books. Despite the episode, which she laughs about, it was her mother, who died in 2018, who encouraged Maga the most for art. Her father, Adelicio, who died in 2009, also had his share of influence: it was he who bought a little record player for the family to listen to artists such as Clara Nunes, Alcione, Martinho da Vila, Luiz Gonzaga, Marinês, Dicró, Moreira da Silva, and Trio Nordestino every day.
At school, Maga also started doing theater. “Until then, I was studying to do law. But, you know nothing innocent,” she jokes. “And it was good because it was natural, I didn’t sing with the ambition of being a singer. Then it was done. It was already set.” And she went to work in the amateur theater of the capital of Bahia.
In 1987, she made her debut in music and recorded “Faraó – Divindade do Egito”, a song that for 34 years has been one of the anthems of Brazilian Carnaval and which earned her her first contract with a recording company.
– “Why can one sing about God, Jesus, and not talk about Xangô?”
Margareth is a spiritualist, but the references in her songs to candomblé symbols and rituals evidence a broader perception of spirituality. “I have an ecumenical thing in my way of being.” For her, where there is positivity and the heart is welcomed, there is belief – which has also been her support during the pandemic.
I believe in this spiritual force of Jesus and I also believe in the spiritual forces of nature, of the orixás. Where I feel good, there is help for me.
For extolling African beliefs, however, she says that she has already suffered discrimination. “Once I went to sing on TV and I was wearing a blouse with an orixá on the front. And they didn’t show it, they only showed my face. And there was another situation in which I couldn’t sing the song ‘Elegibô’ [a reference to a Nigerian city]. And this is a very big mix in the minds of these people, because songs with this theme are also culture,” she says.
“How many songs don’t say ‘Oh, my God in heaven’, ‘Oh, my Jesus Christ’, ‘Our Lady, pray for us’? Why can’t they talk about Xangô? Thank God, that doesn’t stop people from singing.”
Even though she is followed on Instagram by more than 300,000 people, Margareth doesn’t like to expose her private life on social networks. And she says that if there are demands about her arrival at 60, motherhood, relationships – subjects that are often a reason for pressure on women – she is not willing to fulfill other people’s expectations.
“I’m not going to provide satisfaction for things that I don’t think I should,” she says. For example, the fact that she doesn’t have children. She says she has already tried to get pregnant and is now trying to decide whether adoption is still among her plans. “Being a mother is a special thing, I love children, but in my case it was different and I didn’t turn it into a burden for my life.”
Being a black woman in the country where beauty has European standards, aimed at whites, is no longer something that puts her in a situation of suffering, she says. For this, she bets on the reaffirmation of her ancestry, her color, and her features.
”I seek the dignity of my origin. When I think that my family comes from the remnants of enslaved people and that I am a survivor, this strengthens me. I have already suffered discrimination, there were things that put me down, today, not anymore.”
She is happy that younger black women of the current generation are empowering themselves by, for example, changing their hair – “curly, little curls, big curls”- and talking more openly about black feminism. “I arrived in the wrong generation; I identify a lot with this generation’s way.”
Luedji Luna, singer
“She is a great reference for me as a singer, composer, a complete artist. And I believe that she is also for other black singers. I was able to sing with her at Carnaval and there I had one of the greatest lessons of my career, when I saw how she dominates the trio and the audience. Long live Margareth Menezes, one of the greatest we have!
Gaby Amarantos, singer
“Even being a singer from Pará, I have always consumed axé, which I love. She is the royal queen, for her representativeness in a style that is black in this country. And she impacts me and crosses me with her genius, because she is a singer and composer. She is a powerhouse on stage and has the strength of the ancestors when she sings. I’m grateful to have her as a representative!”
Elisa Lucinda, poet-actress
“She is an explosion, a shock and has a poetic heart. Whenever I am in front of Margareth, it seems that I am in front of a tribe, a people, a revolution. She is never alone. I have already seen her this close in a concert and it seemed that there was an entire Olodum group accompanying her, but it was only her with her ancestral strength.”
– “I don’t believe that Carnaval 2022 will be in the street and I will never vote for Bolsonaro”
Critical of the way the Federal Government has been dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, Margareth doesn’t think Carnival 2022 will be in the streets because she doesn’t know if the entire population will be vaccinated by then. “Our work is direct with the public, it is in the agglomeration that art works. To have Carnaval, the vaccination effort would need to be much bigger, and we are not seeing this. In the United States, when the president changed, they started having more than 1 million people vaccinated per day. Here, there is a lack of thinking in the sense of collectivity”, she says.
The singer, who openly supported Dilma Rousseff‘s (PT) candidacy for the Presidency of the Republic, says that in the next elections she will vote for the candidate who is against current President Jair Bolsonaro.
“I will never vote for someone who propagates the death of the Brazilian people, the dismantling of education, the disrespect for science. That’s not my team,” he says. “How can a country where we see many people start to starve while a portion of people get even richer? Agribusiness is booming and the people are going hungry. This is a shame.”