Alexandre Pires’ "Kong" and the Bamboozled image of blackness
Amazing! Absolutely amazing! I admit that when I first saw this video a few weeks ago, a lot of things came to mind but I decided not to blog about it immediately. I wanted to chill and see what was gon’ happen. Well, before I proceed, let me fill you in on what I’m talking about. Sometime around February 7th or 8th, I received a message about this video that was causing a stir in the black Brazilian community. It seems that singer Alexandre Pires thought it would be cool for him and a couple of other famous black Brazilian men to dress up in gorilla suits for his song, appropriately titled, “Kong”. The synopsis of the video is pretty simple. There’s a beach house where a group of women are relaxing, dancing and enjoying a sunny day when a group of “gorillas” invade the area causing a bit of a ruckus. But to be sure, these are not real gorillas, but men, Pires and company dressed as gorillas. The beat starts and the party begins as Pires, without his gorilla suit, leads a group of women in song and dance to his latest Pagoderhythm. After watching this video and thinking of the image of Pires, all I could think about was Spike Lee’s 1999 film Bamboozled, his statement about how black American entertainment and Hip Hop had gotten so ridiculous in its content and imagery that it had become a throwback to the racist minstrel shows of the first half of the 20th century. Before I get into that, I know that most non-Brazilians are not familiar with this song, this type of music or any of the famous men in the video, so let me give a little background.
Spike Lee’s 1999 film Bamboozled
Pagodeis the type of music that Pires is known for singing. It’s an offshoot of the famous Brazilian rhythm known as Samba and usually features a cavaquinho, a guitar and light, punchy horn arrangements. Although I am a fan of pure Samba, or Samba de Raiz, and the various styles of Samba that sprung up from the original, I detest Pagode. The best way I can explain the difference for those not familiar with it is, say, the difference between the heavy duty ‘70s Funk of James Brown or P-Funk and the ‘90s Pop/R&B sound of LA & Babyface productions of the 1990s. In the case of Pagode and the LA and Babyface productions, one can detect the connection to the original, but it’s been stripped down to sound more commercial.
Alexandre Pires started off in a ‘90s Pagode group called Só Pra Contrariar and would eventually go solo. When I first started getting into Brazilian music, I wanted to be able to separate the good stuff from the garbage. A friend of mine hipped me to Pires and told me that I could add his music to the garbage pile. She detested everything about Pires, his music and the silly dances he was known for. Whether you are a fan of Pires’ music or not, he has garnered a string of commercial hits, has sung in Portuguese and Spanish, and has built a steady career on his brand of Pagode and Romantic Samba. Also appearing in the “Kong” video are the rapper Mr. Catra and the latest in a long line of superstar Brazilian soccer players, Neymar. Mr. Catra (Wagner Domingues Costa) is a rapper known for his style of Funk Carioca rap, a type of Hip Hop in Rio de Janeiro somewhat akin to the Miami Bass sound of the 1990s. Neymar (Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior) is a high-scoring forward for the Santos soccer team as well as the Brazilian national team. He is one of the highest paid soccer stars in Brazil today and he the cornerstone of a new trend of high-powered Brazilian soccer stars who are choosing to stay home and play in Brazil rather than playing overseas in the European leagues. I became aware of Neymar because of three things. The first was when Brazilian fans expressed their disappointment that Neymar wasn’t chosen to play for the Brazilian national team in the 2010 World Cup. It turns out that the team could have used him as they were eliminated before reaching the semi-finals, losing to the Netherlands.
But it was my second and third introductions to Neymar that piqued my interest, at least from a sociological perspective. The second time I heard about Neymar was on April 26th of 2010 when he did an interview with Sonia Racy of the O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper. The rising star spoke of what kind of car he wanted to buy and what type of women he liked among other things. When Racy asked him if he had ever experienced racism in his life, Neymar replied:
“Nunca. Nem dentro e nem fora de campo. Até porque eu não sou preto, né”
(“Never. Neither on or off the field. Really because I’m not black, right?”)
The star, who is also known for his Mohawk hairstyle, also acknowledged that he straightened his hair every 20 days because his hair is a little on the nappy side. After his comments, blogs and online discussions were abuzz after the headline was posted of Neymar saying that he wasn’t black, because, most likely, many Brazilians considered Neymar to be just that. The star’s comments were simply another in a long line of famous or everyday Brazilians of his color who didn’t consider themselves to be black, like fellow superstar Ronaldo, who in 2008 went even further and proclaimed himself white. But as I have written in several posts on the blog, the question of race in Brazil continues to be tricky. While millions of persons of every shade are beginning to see themselves as black, or at least afrodescendente (African descendant), there are still millions that see themselves as simply being of the “Brazilian race.” In the case of Neymar, there are a few things to consider. First, Neymar said he wasn’t preto, which means black. But in Brazil, one can use two terms that mean black: either preto or negro. The meaning of the terms depends on the user’s understanding. As I have written previously, according to the criteria of the Movimento Negro, the term preto means the actual color black while the term negro applies to persons who see themselves as being part of an ethnicity of African descendants. But, to be clear, there are people of every shade of brown that may use the terms interchangeably. For some people, the term preto only applies to black people who are extremely dark-skinned. Since Neymar’s skin is a lighter shade of brown, maybe this is what he meant. Maybe he sees himself as being pardo (brown) or mulato, both which would classify him as black according to how the Brazilian census is done. But, again, there are those who see pardo and mulato as being completely separate from black.
Neymar in action
The third incident involving Neymar that caught my attention was almost exactly one year later, March 27, 2011. The Brazilian national team was playing a friendly match against Scotland in England’s Emirates Stadium, a game that the Brazilians won by a score of 2-0. Neymar had a great game, scoring Brazil’s two goals himself. But another incident that happened in the game seemed to have garnered more attention than Neymar’s performance. The first decade of the 21st century was marred by incidents of European fans jeering and chanting racist taunts and other actions against soccer players of African descent. Fans have called black players all sorts of racially charged names, made monkey chants and thrown bananas in the direction of black players. In the Scotland/Brazil match, a banana also ended up on the field and Neymar felt it was throw in his direction. Neymar went on to say that he felt good because he scored two goals but also that “They were jeering me a lot, even when I was about to kick the penalty. The entire stadium was jeering. This atmosphere of racism is totally sad.”(1) The Scottish team vehemently denied that any of its fans acted in a racist manner and proclaimed that they don’t tolerate such behavior. A team official went on to say that the banana was thrown on the field from an area of the stadium where Brazilian fans were sitting and that the jeers were because the Brazilian star had feigned an injury during the match (2). A German teenager who was sitting in the area of the Brazilian fans later admitted to throwing the banana on the field (3). Although all of this was already enough to become a big deal in the press reports of the match, there was another point that struck me during the whole ordeal. Considering Neymar’s comments from the previous year that he wasn’t black, I found it ironic and even strange that he would turn around and proclaim himself to be a victim of racism. After all, according to the racist stereotype, black people are the ones that look like monkeys and since Neymar didn’t see himself as black, how could he have assumed himself to be a victim of a racist taunt? It’s difficult to say exactly without knowing how he identifies himself. As I wrote earlier, maybe he doesn’t necessarily see himself as black as in the color preto but he still recognizes himself as being a person of color. Maybe he knows that people see him in this way. Who knows.
Alexandre Pires in 2003 appearance at the White House with George W. Bush
In regards to Alexandre Pires, I highlight an incident in the fall of 2003, when Pires was chosen to appear and perform in the White House in DC in commemoration of Hispanic History Month. Performing the classic Tom Jobim song Garota de Ipanema with a guitar, Pires became overwhelmed with emotion when meeting the then American president George W. Bush and began to cry. Now, not to say there’s anything wrong with crying; it’s a natural human emotion. But in meeting Bush, a man that most black folks didn’t particularly care for? Of course, Pires being Brazilian put him in a totally different cultural context in which anti-Bush sentiments would not have necessarily applied to him. But at the same time, with the election of Lula da Silva in 2002, Bush had labeled the new Brazilian president as being one-third of Latin America’s new axis of evil along with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Fidel Castro in Cuba. Of course I can’t speak for Pires and I have no idea what emotion he may have been feeling at that moment but it certainly smacked of the subservient ex-slave bowing to his beloved master. I also find it interesting that in 2007, Mr. Catra accused three military police officers of assault and of calling him a monkey at a club called the Cat Walk in the Barra area of Rio de Janeiro.
Mr. Catra on the set “Kong”
Within this framework, allow me to analyze these guys in the context of the 1999 Spike Lee film Bamboozled. In the film, two black street performers, Manray and Womack, were made into entertainment superstars by performing their minstrel show throwback performances in blackface as their alter-egos Man-Tan and Sleep N’ Eat, respectively. They became all the rage by embodying all of the racist images and depictions of African-Americans that were accepted by American society in the late 19thand early 20th centuries. They played the role, got rich and famous and everything was cool, that is until one of them began to see the game. Womack started to understand that not only were they portraying two “real coons” onstage, they were also being “real coons” by allowing themselves to be portrayed in such a manner and thus re-enforcing these degrading images for masses of people. Womack finally woke up and quit the show, while his partner, Manray didn’t see the problem and carried on with the show. Manray couldn’t figure out why the Rev. Al Sharpton and lawyer Johnny Cochran were protesting the show outside of the studio. Later on in the movie, as reality started to set in, he would also become disgusted at how he had been played and how he had played himself and ended up quitting the show. Along the way, the show’s creator, Pierre de la Croix, another black man, was winning all sorts of awards for the monster (the show) he had created.
Scene from Bamboozled
So let me paint the picture. If I were to re-cast Bamboozledsubstituting the Brazilian guys, Neymar would be cast as Manray, in this case, a guy who said he’s never experienced racism in a country that has denied its racist tendencies for years and that didn’t even see himself as black. Hey, he’s rich, what’s the problem? Only later does he connect his identity with a racist incident. Alexandre Pires would be Pierre de la Croix. In one moment in Bamboozled, Lee uses the de la Croix character to take a jab at the actor Ving Rhames who had tearfully given his 1998 Golden Globe award to veteran white actor Jack Lemmon. Doing the same in the film, de la Croix thinks in his mind that if he could publicly honor a white man and thus come across as the “forever grateful negro”, he would guarantee himself consistent work forever.
Neymar and Pires in the video “Kong”
Again, I can’t say that Pires intentionally started crying in the presence of Bush, but in retrospect of his willingness to participate in the white supremacist image of black men as docile and monkey-like, this is a good fit. Mr. Catra would be Womack because, initially, he wasn’t at all amused by the stage name he was given or the vaudeville era clothing and blackface he would be required to wear onstage. Womack, like Mr. Catra, knew the racist connotations of the images he would portray but he chose to play the role anyway. I guess the LeBron James Vogue cover, coincidentally featuring another Brazilian, model Gisele Bündchen, just wasn’t enough.
LeBron James and Gisele Bündchen on the cover the April 2008 edition of Vogue magazine
The other connection to Bamboozled goes back to the “Kong” video in the sense that all three of these men, Pires, Neymar and Mr. Catra, must surely be aware of the racist association between black men and monkeys and gorillas. As I have written previously, the terms macaco/macaca (the masculine and feminine words for monkey in Portuguese) are two of the most popular racist insults used against Brazilians of African descent in contemporary Brazilian society. The portrayal and image of black men as monkeys or gorillas can be found all over the world, but like Man-Tan and Sleep N’ Eat in Bamboozled, Neymar, Pires and Mr. Catra had no problem with becoming living embodiments of these images for entertainment purposes right down to the monkey squeals heard in the beginning of the video. As of March 2nd, the “Kong” video had reached more than 3,800 dislikes on YouTube where the video debuted on January 27th. The video also led to outrage in the blog-o-sphere and the creation of an online petition to get the video removed from YouTube.
Pires leads a group of dancers in the video “Kong”
In an e-mail sent to Pires by an activist of the Movimento Negro’s state of Bahia branch, Guellwar Adun wrote the following:
“It is extremely reprehensible this video Kong that you call music. I do not know if you have a notion of what this association of the black man to a monkey has caused in our communities. Nor do I delude myself into being naive about this issue, but your contribution to legitimizing the animalization of our people, echoing and feeding the racist ridiculizations that we experience everyday certainly is as damaging as any racist act.”
Racism has dehumanized persons of African descent since at least the end of the 15thcentury and this deadly plague continues to be a dominant force that had been proven to affect the very health of persons who have to deal with it. Racism as it exists today is bad enough when it is practiced by non-black people, but as Lee points out in Bamboozled and Pires and company displayed in “Kong”, the fight against racism seems to be insurmountable when those who belong to the dehumanized group themselves willingly accept the roles that put their very humanity into question in the first place. As the character Huey would say in one episode of the Comedy Central cartoon, The Boondocks, you can’t blame that on the white man.
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Source: Black Women of Brazil