Note from BW of Brazil: Today we re-visit an issue that should always be considered in the context of racist, Eurocentric, multi-racial societies: cultural appropriation. It was a topic covered on this blog in 2012 in a piece about music and media exposure in the Brazilian state most associated with black culture, Bahia. It was also covered in a píece a few weeks ago. It’s also significant in the context of last year’s controversy surrounding American pop singer Miley Cyrus’ performance of twerk dancing, a style originating in African-American communities. The main section of today’s piece centers around signs that Brazilian funk and rap styles, largely associated with lower-class Afro-Brazilian youth, are being appropriated by largely white middle and upper classes that have a reputation for excluding and demeaning the very existence of the aforementioned population.
But as in the US, mainstream appropriation of black styles has a history in Brazil as well, with the earliest, most well known example being popular singer Carmen Miranda, who was Brazil’s most popular “export” between the 1930s and 1950s. Miranda would become the country’s cultural “ambassador” to the exterior and built quite a career for herself in music and later cinema as well. But what those outside of Brazil were most likely not aware of was the Afro-Brazilian roots of Miranda’s presentation. Miranda, a very white Portuguese woman who moved with her parents to Rio de Janeiro as a baby, would gain fame singing Samba, a style created by descendants of African slaves in Brazil, all the while performing in glamorous, over the top imitations of the clothing and jewelry worn by black baiana women that she was accustomed to seeing selling their delicacies in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
Miranda popularized Afro-Brazilian cultural styles with an international audience while conveniently covering up their black origins. This was particularly blatant when considering the very white-skinned Miranda singing one of her hits, “O Que É que a Baiana Tem?” (What is it that the Bahian woman has?). In this sense, Miranda was similar to Dezi Arnaz, a 1950s singer/actor who would use the same tactics in relation to Cuba. Speaking of the two, Alberto Sandoval-Sánchez writes:
“Both Miranda and Arnaz are Caucasians who simulate blackness. Their performances of blackness speak for the African demographic component of both countries, but, in both musical acts, the African is made invisible. The African is un-representable because the racist dominant culture has not opened a space of or for African self-representation. There is no room for the subjugated and the subaltern to speak, to perform and to re-present himself. Instead, two successful entertainers who are white have taken African culture and have appropriated their own re-presentation. Miranda and Arnaz have turned African culture into a performance and an impersonation of the other with their staging of blackness as simulacra. In this sense, their performances function in accordance with given relations of cultural hegemony, social power, and racialized/racist practices at home and abroad. This means that the Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban are left out, silenced and relegated to the margin. As a result, a black physical body marked by race has no “authentic” representation or voice in the socio-cultural arena. Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian representations are acceptable as long as the performers perform blackness – that is, put at the forefront the performance of blackface.”
Last year, Miranda’s famous appropriation of Afro-Brazilian culture in which she simultaneously put its originators in the background was remembered in the February issue of Vogue Brasil magazine. In the photo layout entitled “Carmen Miranda Re-Loaded”, the Dutch model Mirte Maas re-created Miranda’s look while the black Brazilians in the photos are noticeably cast in the background almost appearing to be simultaneously entertaining, protecting and even serving her (the first photo of the layout is featured at the top of the page and the others below). Although the models Suzana and Suzane Massena are very well-dressed in the photos, the stern looks on their faces suggest that their presence is not necessarily that of enjoyment. In the photo at the top of the page, the women are entertained by members of the Bahian cultural group Olodum, again, with the clear focus of the photo being the white model. Of course, the image can be interpreted in a number of ways, but lest we not forget that in Brazil’s media, black women have always appeared in the background, in a position of service or pampering white women.
Against this historic and current background, we present Mara Gomes’ analysis of what appears to be yet another sign of white appropriation of a black art form. This piece originally appeared on the Blogueiras Negras blog.
Is being black in style?
by Mara Gomes
We need to talk about appropriation of culture.
It happened with rock, with jazz and with samba, it’s now slowly happening with pagode (1), funk and rap. It seems like it’s a natural path of black culture, it seems common that we watch what is produced by ours, be in some “silent” and sneaky way, appropriated by the most favored (white, middle and upper classes) and transformed into something whitened, folkloric and away from its roots. The appropriation of culture is an issue that should be taken seriously, but it’s still not. Yet just pay attention when something really “big” happens, i.e. a blackface here, a mockery there here or a show of black artist to a completely white and wealthy public, but it shouldn’t be like this. The offense must not only be taken seriously when it is direct, it should also be taken seriously when it is indirect, when trying to be invisible.
The biggest problem with the appropriation of culture is that it, like any racist mechanism, is intended to exclude blacks from spaces, give a new shape to their identity, limit their ways of expressing themselves, creating a new, more accessible and more marketable culture. This mechanism makes the job of replacing, in a bizarre and direct way, the black for the white, a white that will get to do exactly what the black does, but with the bonus of color that is more acceptable and that makes everything more beautiful. So, always with the purpose of commercializing, the appropriation of culture facilitates the passage through the media, the commercialization of culture gets easier, capital flows peacefully.
In this way, it excludes and makes blacks from the favela (slum) invisible making this process increasingly ingenious and that happens behind the scenes, in an undercover racist fashion of appraisal. Sometimes we black people are deceived by this, as such ownership has many faces. To darken this a little I’ll make use of a brief example: we can think of the arrival of Elvis Presley in American music. Ignoring the whole question of the artist and his talent, we don’t need to give much effort to realize that there is a whole market logic behind the emergence of this icon. The way he danced, the way he sang, was a style completely influenced by black culture and black artists, artists that obviously caused great fervor at the time such as Little Richard and Chubby Checker, among others.
Whites uncomfortable with the talent that blacks had and the effect that it caused on the youth of that time they decided to create an icon of their own that could drown out all this fervor that black music caused. It worked well, so today they call Elvis the king of rock-and-roll ignoring all the black history that existed before him and this is, undoubtedly, appropriation of culture followed by the dissemination of a whitened history.
But let’s talk a little about what’s happening now, specifically in the Brazilian music scene. The greatest example of appropriation of culture can be observed in some funk parties that happen inside the favelas (slums) today directed only toward the white elite with tickets costing R$150 (US$68) or more (2). The funk that was seen by the media as a culture that’s worth nothing, now attracts the middle class in large numbers to the point of stepping out of their comfortable and well located homes to invade the periferia (poor, outskirt communities). On the other hand, we also see some renowned artists like Seu Jorge, who recently played a show at a party called VIP, where the elites gathered to watch the Brazil and Mexico World Cup game. The tickets cost up to R$1,000 (US$450) and the only black in place was the artist. Another case is the artist Crioulo, who did a show just for Globo TV artists where the value of the tickets verged on R$200 (US$90).
Hence the question arises: are blacks only in fashion when they become a product? The rapper Criolo doesn’t represent national rap in the favela and it’s rare that people know his work. But his discourse, songs, and entire repertoire are constructed upon everyday life in the favela and empowerment of black people. The same thing happens with Seu Jorge. Why can’t the black favelado (favela resident) watch their shows and why does that message not reach this particular group? Why is the music that they produce become consumption only for the white middle class?
Much of this white middle class that invades the favela and makes appearances at concerts of black artists thinks blacks are very nice to hang out with, “have black friends”, but only when that black serves some purpose, when he is “useful”. When they think they can make use of the art that a black produces, when this black is a piece of entertainment and also when they can enjoy their hard work – the oldest way of exploitation – because after all, doormen, drivers and maids are always on standby to help with anything that is needed.
The issue is that listening to Criolo, Seu Jorge, wearing dreads, a turban, going to a funk dance in the favela, all of these things don’t make anyone less racist and we need to open our eyes to it. We are submerged in this whole process. Our role as black men and women is to try our best to respect our root culture, spread the love to our race, include ourselves and create afro-centered spaces, join forces and embrace each other. This is the only weapon, this is the only way to fight this system that tries to crush us every day.
We need above all to realize that racism is still ingrained within those movements that say “o preto está na moda” (the black is in style). Just because the white middle class like what blacks produce does not mean it likes to hang out with blacks in their everyday spaces, that it doesn’t practice racism every day with its porter, with its maid. A timely question is this: why is the black not in fashion when it comes to the extermination of black youth? Why is it not fashionable when our unemployment, inmate, homeless and underemployed statistics are higher? Because of this, the appropriation of culture is not beautiful, it doesn’t please me, it’s not a compliment, it’s a racist process that unfortunately we still don’t realize fully. However we need to, we need to talk much more about this.
1. A style of samba originating in Rio de Janeiro in late 70s/early 80s based in the traditions of samba circles held in backyard parties.
2. As the Revista Donna website points out, “in Rio de Janeiro, the cheapest ticket to a baile funk (funk dance) in the notorious Rocinha Favela costs R$150 (US$68) – those who live in the community couldn’t afford to buy them. Promoted and patronized by Rio’s elite, the Bailed a Favorita attracts bigwigs and celebrities from around the country. Some come to the city by jet, rub elbows the whole night in the favela at the entrance of the hill and only return home the next day.