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Música Soul: The Soundtrack of the Black Power Movement in Brazil

13 Jun

by Ann-Marie Nicholson, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

“If we had said ‘Negro power’ nobody would get scared. Everybody would support it. If we said power for colored people, everybody would be for that, but it is the word ‘black’ that bothers people in this country, and that’s their problem, not mine.” —Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) at UC Berkeley, 1966

James Brown released “I’m Black and I’m Proud” during the height of the Black Power Movement in the United States in 1968. Brown’s in-your-face approach to racial pride resonated in the U.S. ghettos as well as the slums abroad. Many black people, all around the world, embraced the Black Power soundtrack and consciousness. Working-class black cariocas (residents of Rio) of Zona Norte began using the English phrases “Black Power,” “brother” and “black is beautiful.” They played African-American soul records at their bailes (dances) and incorporated the lyrics and sounds into their music.

Tim Maia, the godfather of música soul, spent five years in the United States. He came to know the sounds of black America intimately. When he returned to Brazil in 1964, Maia incorporated the soul and funk influences into his songs. By the 1970s, other Brazilian musicians, such as Banda Black Rio, Cassiano, Gerson King Combo, Jorge Ben Jor and Gilberto Gil, began making soul records. DJs started throwing soul-only parties. Thisnova (new) music spoke to an experience—both universal and unique at the same time. The time period was known as “Black Rio” instead of the Portuguese equivalents: negro or preto. Organizations, such as Instituto de Pesquisa e Cultura Negra and Associação Cultural do Negro, met regularly to discuss racial politics and inequality. By the end of the ’70s, funk and disco would take over where soul left off, but it was the latter that helped to shape a generation of artists around a universal black identity.

This signaled a break from the national Brazilian identity and the adoption of a revolutionary one—albeit via the African-American musical and cultural experience. This shift worried the military government, the secret police, the left and the right, and surprisingly many black journalists. The rejection of samba and the acceptance of a foreign music, style and vernacular were antithetical to the unifying image that Brazil projected. Or as Carlos Palombini, a Professor of Musicology at Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and a Fellow of the National Research Council, explains:

The soul-inspired sense of black pride among Brazilian musicians was liberating with respect to the history and the historiography of samba, which had disciplined their lives through the ideology of subaltern integration. By ‘history’ I mean the ways samba has been made permissible, profitable, acceptable, the ways it has been polished to transpose class barriers, to the point of becoming one of the most—if not the most—elaborate figure of national unity.
It didn’t matter that the residents of Zona Sul—white—were adapting and mimicking the rock sounds of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Palombini states that: “In the first half of the decade, black musicians who paraded their blackness onstage—unwittingly perhaps, for the benefit of a regime that wished to project images of unbridled creativity—had their careers and lives shattered. [While] well-established white artists, of all stripes, went black without serious consequences.”

Brazil was the last nation in the new world to abolish slavery, finally doing so in 1888. It passed the Afonso Arinos law in 1951, making racial discrimination a crime. However, racism didn’t disappear. Segregation and discrimination were common in Brazil, but many said it was class instead of race since the symbols of national identity (samba and feijoada) came from Afro-Brazilian culture. Brazil had convinced itself—and its people—that it did not have a race problem.

In her essay, “When Rio Was Black: Soul Music, National Culture, and the Politics of Racial Comparison in 1970s Brazil,” Paulina Alberto notes that:

Being black was culturally and politically different from being preto or pardo, the terms historically used to designate darker- or lighter-complexioned Brazilians of color; it was different, too, from negro, the word that many politically active people of color had adopted since the first decades of the century to designate a proudly unified racial group.To be “black and proud” was both new and liberating. Carmichael took the word black—which the dominant race used as a pejorative—and made it endearing and liberating. It found its way not only to Brazil, but also across the Atlantic into the music and consciousness of young black people who did not speak English and had not witnessed the Civil Rights Movement up close and personal. Although identifying as black has lost the impact it once had here in the United States, it still resonates with those in other countries. Today, the young “noirs” of France refer to themselves as “black”—40 plus years after Stokely Carmichael delivered his groundbreaking speech at Berkeley.

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