The site dedicated to Brazilian women of African descent
With the recent passing of pop music superstar Whitney Houston, radio stations have been playing Houston’s hits around the clock, as is customary when a well-known artist dies. Today, I heard some of Whitney’s greatest hits, songs I hadn’t heard in a while. When I heard the song “I Have Nothing”, I marveled at Whitney’s emotional intensity and vocal range, a voice that had become only a shadow of itself in recent years. A few things came to mind as I listened to her vocals and the music production with its searing strings and orchestral horn arrangements. First, I remembered the night of the Soul Train Music Awards sometime in the late 80s or early 90s when Whitney was booed after being introduced to the audience. It seems that after Whitney’s first two or three albums, black folks deemed her music “too white.” Her songs were more Barbara Streisand than Aretha Franklin and folks wanted her to know it. Whitney Houston’s music again brought to the fore the question of “what is black music”? Is it specifically Soul, Gospel and Hip Hop? Or is it any style of music that is sung by black artists?
Whitney came along in an era of American pop music when artists like Michael Jackson and Prince had only a few years earlier began to break down the segregated walls of American radio and music television. For those who don’t remember the days before MJ’s videos were given prime time TV specials, there was a time when black artists were banned from MTV’s playlist. The excuse? MTV was for Rock music, and Rock, i.e. white, audiences, and since black artists didn’t make Rock music, they received no airplay. I remember funkster Rick James mounting a challenge to MTV and labeling them racist for not airing his videos and that of other black artists. Eventually, songs by MJ and Prince were added to the playlist making them the first black artists to appear on the 24-hour music channel. So why did Mike and Prince succeed where Rick James had failed? Well, Mike and Prince recorded for two huge record labels, CBS and Warner Bros. respectively, that threatened to pull the music videos of its other artists (white artists, no doubt) if they didn’t play the videos of the Gloved One and the Purple One. Motown Records, the black record label for whom Rick James recorded, could not make a similar threat.
It was only a few yearsafter the breakthroughs of Thriller and Purple Rain that a 22-year old Houston would walk through the doors of pop radio that MJ and Prince had cracked open. But in order for this to happen, some sacrifices had to be made. Clive Davis, the music mogul that had guided the careers of countless artists, saw Whitney as the “black girl next door” that could become a pop princess, but to successfully market Houston to the masses, he had to tone down her Gospel inflected vocals. Stories would surface many years later that had Davis ordering Houston and her producers re-do songs if they sounded “too black.”Again, in order to reach the masses, her sound had to be more Streisand than Franklin. The formula worked and Whitney went on to sell more 170 million albums throughout her career.
Now while it is true that Whitney’s albums were definitely short on gritty Soul and R&B, it is also true that there was no black voice in mainstream American music making these types of songs and selling millions of records in the meantime. True,much of Houston’s music was lightweight fluff and carried music arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place on a Musak channel or Barry Manilow concert, but Whitney represented yet another signal that black folks were “movin’ on up” as the Jeffersons theme song would say. Well, at least some black folks. The point here is that Whitney at least had the opportunity to make this type of music and climb to levels of success that only a decade earlier may not have seemed possible for a black artist. I didn’t necessarily care for all of Whitney’smusic but I accepted the necessity of someone having the opportunity to record it. Some of music’s greatest black singers and musicians stepped outside of the boundaries of “culturally accepted blackness”, stretched the boundaries of music and/or found huge success doing so. Let’s imagine some of the works of Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix and the aforementioned Prince. Whether you love their music or you just ain’t feelin’ it, their contributions to music cannot be underestimated. No, Whitney Houston was not Mary J. Blige. But if you want Mary J. Blige, the range of Black Music is such that you can choose one or the other or both. Whitney’s soaring vocals and appearance in the movie The Bodyguard took her to heights that Marian Anderson was not allowed to achieve.
Also consider Houston’s achievements in comparison to the situation of black Brazilian singers.
Whether Brazil likes to admit it or not, it is a highly segregated society. Not so much residentially, but in the upper echelons of society. If you do a little research, you will discover that Brazil’s government, institutions of higher learning, media and many other areas are overwhelmingly white; this in a country of 200 million that recently declared itself majority non-white. Although many Brazilians are quick to point to the United States as the real racist country, the fact is, even with the clear under representation of African-Americans in many realms of American society, the existence of black Americans in the highest echelons of business,politics, medicine, law and education far outnumbers the numbers of their Afro-Brazilian counterparts. The music industry is but another example of Brazil’s “dictatorship of whiteness.”
In Brazil, black musicians and singers are expected to sing the country’s national style of music: the Samba. Samba is to Brazil what Jazz and Blues are to the US. And it was during the 20h century that the association between Afro-Brazilians and Samba was permanently embedded into the consciousness of the Brazilian people. But as one dreadlocked black teenager said to author Ricardo Santhiago at a seminar about blackness: “But everybody knows that we can do this well. What they don’t know is that we can go much further.” In the 20th century, the Brazilian music industry began to segregate itself into the music that was “of the blacks” and music that was “of the whites.” Thus, when you delve into archives of the Bossa Nova era, you will note that its singers and musicians were overwhelmingly white, while, if you’re fishing for Samba albums, you will see primarily black singers and groups. Bossa Nova and Brazilian Popular Music(MPB) artists will have more visibility, sell more records, earn more money and have more marketing potential overseas while Samba is often portrayed in a certain folklorist manner that doesn’t allow much in the way of musical creativity.
Music critic Nelson Motta noted that in the 1990s, singer Sandra de Sá was practically the only black female singer in the area of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB). If one speaks only of black female Samba singers, the list is long. Alcione, Dona Ivone Lara, Leci Brandão are only three of the countless black female sambistas* that come to mind. But whereas there are many popular Afro-Brazilian male singers(Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben and the late Tim Maia toname a few) of MPB, the same cannot be said of Afro-Brazilian women. In thepast 50 years there have been few to recognize: Angela Maria, Elizeth Cardoso, Alaide Costa, Carmen Costa, Elza Soares and Eliana Pittman are a few names of distinction. There was also the great Clara Nunes, a woman whose musical roots were a balancing act between Samba and MPB. In the Brazilian music industry, ifa black woman was a singer, it was almost automatic that she would be placed into the Samba category. The great actress/singer Zezé Motta gives an example of this in her book, Zezé Motta: Muito Prazer:
“Since the beginning, Warner (Bros.) wanted for me to sing Samba. But I didn’t want to be labeled a sambista. Nothing against sambistas, but I wanted to be free to sing music of various genres. And it was also a political attitude for perceiving that they wanted to pin this label on me because of the fact that I was black.”
In his book, Solistas Dissonantes – História (Oral) de Cantoras Negras, author Ricardo Santhiago interviewed 13 black Brazilian female singers that fought throughout their careers to sing the type of music they wanted to sing without being forced to sing a certain type of music simply because they were black. The 13 singers are Adyel Silva, Alaíde Costa, Arícia Mess, Áurea Martins, Eliana Pittman, Graça Cunha, Ivete Souza, Izzy Gordon, Leila Maria, Misty, Rosa Marya Colin, Virgínia Rosa and Zezé Motta. In this book of 294 pages, these women share a little about their lives, musical and personal, and reveal their struggles, frustrations, triumphs, joys and one could say bitterness about their journeys.
Most of the singers interviewed considered the great Elizeth Cardoso to be a pioneer in terms of not being boxed into a certain genre due to hidden racism. Alaíde Costa, now in her 70s, was one of the few black singers that was part of the 1950s/60s BossaNova phenomenon. Costa fought to do things her way but she paid dearly for her insistence:
João Pombo Barile: Isn’t it a little curious that starting with Daniela, going through Ivete Sangalo and up to Claudia Leitte, the so-called Axé music seems to have an obsession with white people. Why is it that all of the singers that are successful in the mass media are always white women?
Liv Sovik: It’s true. In the case of Carnaval in Salvador, we watch a modernization of racism, with the new technologies of televised transmission.….When a star is on the rise, the dominant aesthetic is the white woman placed into black culture.
Although Samba is a beautiful genre of music with many styles and sub genres, and it presents a legacy of Afro-Brazilians musicians, singers and songwriters, the placement of Afro-Brazilian female singers into strictly the Samba category represents a sort of racial/musical segregation. To understand what this means, simply imagine if Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston or even Beyonce would have been forced to sing only the Blues. To know Brazil, one must know the Samba but there are other genres of music that bring different flavors and emotions to interpretation. These 13 Brazilian women fought to have the right to interpret the full range of human emotion through song, be it through romantic ballads, Jazz standards, Bossa Nova or the music of another country.
Rosa Maria Colin diluted the resentment she felt due to racial prejudice she experienced both inside and outside of the music world. “Throughout my life, I have received many compliments. They say I’m a wonderful singer, but the opportunities I had as a singer didn’t reflect that. If the choice was between a black woman who sang well and a white woman who was beautiful but didn’t sing anything, the preference was for her,” she laments.
Source: Black Women of Brazil