Note from BW of Brazil: Last week throughout Brazil there were various television reports, magazines and newspapers devoted to the 50th year anniversary of a Military Dictatorship that would last 21 years (1964-1985), an era defined by many as Brazil’s darkest era. It was actually in this period that a new generation of Afro-Brazilian activists would form organizations devoted to black rights, the Movimento Negro Unificado, which publicly announced its presence in 1978 in São Paulo. But four years before the official beginning of the Movimento Negro, black groups from the south of country like the Grupo Palmares (that was instrumental in pushing for the November 20th National Day of Black Consciousness) to the northeast in Bahia (where Ilê Aiye fought against black exclusion in a black majority state) were attracting the attention of military officials with their displays of militancy and black pride. In an interview below, Ilê Aiye’s leader remembers his organization’s beginnings and what it was like representing black rights during an oppressive Military Dictatorship that officially promoted the country as a “racial democracy.”
Vovô of Ilê speaks about resistance to the dictatorship
by Gabriela de Almeida
The dictatorship suffocated Brazil in the mid-1970s, when a group decided to fight the situation imposed by the military government. Apolônio de Jesus and Antonio Carlos dos Santos, better known as Vovô of Ilê Aiye, joined a group of friends, in the Bahian neighborhood of Liberdade, to confront racism with the first bloco afro of Brazil, Ilê Aiyê. In an interview with Correio, Vovô of Ilê, current director-president of the Carnival group and one of the pioneers of soul music in the country, in the times of Black Bahia, speaks of the repression suffered by the bloco during the regime of the generals.
When and how did the bloco Ilê Aiyê come about?
Ilê was created in 1974 by me and the late Apolônio (de Jesus). We wanted to fight racism in Carnival, here in Liberdade (the largest black neighborhood in the city). Before, blacks only came out in Carnival carrying the figurines and we decided to create a bloco in which only blacks would participate. It was a very strong era of the dictatorship in Brazil. Any type of movement and you were already branded as a Communist. And it was no different with us: we were persecuted by the police. People thought that we wanted to take power. Difficult times. Many people didn’t want to come out in the bloco, the families did not come out because of fear. We could only come out with 100 people in the first year. We had no instruments, nothing. Until the third year of the bloco we paraded under police surveillance.
How was the situation to be monitored by the police? Were there cases there were more police than members in the bloco?
Those trucks full of soldiers turned their backs on each other, even joined us, but there never was more police than people in the bloco. In the first year, Ilê came out with 100 people. Then, we put out about 400, and starting from the third year, we didn’t come out with less than a thousand people.
What types of repression did Ilê experience during the dictatorship?
This last November 20 was a very important day here in Salvador. A major Bahian newspaper did a special section on black consciousness and Ilê Aiyê, Filhos de Gandhy and several representatives of the Movimento Negro (black movement) were there and they did a parade in the report. In the past, this same paper was the vehicle that most berated us. They called Ilê a racist bloco, of a discordant tone. It treated us very harshly and today it has a special section on black consciousness. The press was very nasty and hard on Ilê and this was pronounced. But we got over it. After blocos afros appeared in Bahia, like Melô do banzo, Olodum, Muzenza and in (the states of) Pernambuco, Maranhão and Rio de Janeiro they emerged.
Were the members persecuted?
No. The names most targeted were the principal directors, myself and Apolônio. We wanted to put out the name of the bloco as Poder Negro (Black Power) and we were advised not to do this. Coming to blows in fact never happened.
Who advised you not to put out the name of Poder Negro?
The president of the federation of Carnival clubs, the late Arquimedes Silva, he was retired from the Navy and advised us. At the time, a friend of ours from the federal police also advised us.
What changed about Ilê Aiyê after the dictatorship?
Actually, not much has changed. Bahia is a very racist land. Ilê stood out, and maintains itself today, 39 years later like a stubbornness that faith maintains. It is our stubbornness in a land where everything is favorable for white people. Sponsorship, government money is only for Axé artists.
How do you see the current situation of racism in Brazil?
I don’t know if is improving, but the discussion is increasingly open. Brazil presents itself as a country of a black majority, but in the delegations you only see white, it even looks as if it were a European country. In positions of command nobody has the courage to place a black. But nobody is racist, right? Everyone assumes that the country is racist, but nobody is. In posts of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd echelon there are no blacks. You don’t see a party appoint a black to the Presidency, as it was with Obama in the US. Something needs to change. The social columns only have whites. If people were chosen for their competence and not by skin color, Brazil would have another face.
Source: Correio Braziliense