Note from BW of Brazil: Gotta give props to Spike Lee. When I first heard that he was planning to record a documentary about Brazil’s rise to the world stage, I was a little concerned that he would only approach the nation as an exotic Latin American country most known for beautiful women, beaches and great soccer, as it is typically presented in many media presentations. But then again, being a fan of Spike Lee’s work, how could I really have thought in this manner. I will acknowledge that despite the fact that there are those who have problems with some of his films, Lee’s body of work represents a piece of African-American life, history and culture in ways that are rarely revealed in mainstream media.
Lee’s films have approached the lives of black icons such as Malcolm X, the disaster of Hurricane Katrina (When the Levees Broke, 2006), tragedy (4 Little Girls, 1997) and racial issues (Do the Right Thing, 1989 and Jungle Fever, 1991). Never afraid to make statements about issues that perhaps others in the entertainment business will remain silent on, Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled took the satirical approach to expose the level of mockery and buffoonery in the current state of black American-oriented entertainment. Bamboozled, while not a commercial success, is one of Lee’s most powerful films and has been used as a reference on this blog to show how this critique can also be applied in Brazil.
With Lee’s track record, in reality, it should come as no surprise that he would approach perhaps Brazil’s most important Hip Hop groups in the history of the genre, the Racionais MCs. In 1989, one of the strongest anthems to represent a “Spike Lee Joint “was the song “Fight the Power” by the New York-based rap group that is most associated with black consciousness and militancy, Public Enemy. Racionais MCs, for those who don’t know, are cut from this same mold. Biting social commentary, memorizing beats, and run ins with the police are but a few of the similarities between Racionais MCs and Public Enemy and one could also add NWA as a another point of reference. Perhaps not coincidentally, Racionais MCs opened for Public Enemy in their 1990 ad 1991 concerts in the Ibirapuera Stadium in São Paulo. In fact, due to the political nature of Racionais’s lyrics, Lee himself referred to the group at the “Brazilian Public Enemy”.
So what is it about the Racionais MCs that would draw such a comparison? Well, in a Brazil that is often in denial in terms of its social and racial problems, Racionais MCs “spit in the face of the white racist”, as Lourenço Cardoso put it. Like PE, Racionais is the voice of the voiceless, a denouncement of social conditions that the mainstream media likes to distort and the “CNN of the ghetto” as PE’s Chuck D himself said in reference to Hip Hop. For those not familiar with the group, I would argue that the role of Racionais in the area of black identity and consciousness lifting in Brazil is pound for pound more important to black Brazilians than Public Enemy was for black Americans. Here’s why.
The so-called “conscious rappers” of the late 1980s/early 1990s in the US (PE, X-Clan, Tupac Shakur, Boogie Down Productions) were but a natural extension of the widely known historical struggle of the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements in the United States. The slain rapper Tupac Shakur was actually the son of a Black Panther. The aforementioned rappers and others carried on a tradition of black militancy that harkened back to the days of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panthers and many others. Out of that struggle also came various Black Studies and Black History programs in some colleges throughout the United States as well as widely read books and magazines and even radio programs dedicated to the concerns of the black community in that country.
No such thing movement on a widespread level occurred in Brazil. This is not to say that it didn’t exist. As featured in a previous post here, the post-Abolition Afro-Brazilian struggle on somewhat of a popular scale dates back to the late 1920s and early 1930s with the Frente Negra Brasileira (FNB or Black Brazilian Front), through the 1940s TEN organization (Teatro Experimental Negro or Black Experimental Theatre) and re-organized in 1978 to the present under the Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU or Unified Black Movement), a collective of hundreds of organizations dedicated to black culture and equal rights in terms of race in Brazilian society. The difference here is that although the FNB, TEN and MNU have all made valuable contributions toward the struggle for racial equality, none of these organizations were allowed to attain a widespread popularity and appeal on par with their American counterparts. So while the contributions of militants such José Correia Leite (1900-1989) and Abdias do Nascimento (1914-2011) have a definitive place in the history of the global black struggle (Nascimento was cited by the 2,000 page Africana Encyclopedia (1999 Basic Civitas Books) as the “most complete black intellectual of the 20th century”), because of Brazil’s highly effective means of denying racism while simultaneously practicing it, most black Brazilians have never heard of either of these great men. It is usually the United States to which many Brazilians to this day will point the finger as the “true racist country” even in the face of a long track record of racism in their own country.
As such, with their lyrics and approach to social issues, blackness and racism, the Racionais MCs can arguably be defined as revolutionaries of the struggle for black consciousness in Brazil. This year the group celebrated 25 years in the music business and as evidence of their influence (beyond CD sales) it is noteworthy to point out that it’s still relatively common to hear many black Brazilians speak of how they attained racial consciousness through the lyrics of Racionais MCs songs. Later, we will explore a few the group’s most important songs but for now, check out Spike Lee’s meeting with the group.
Racionais MC’s participate in Spike Lee documentary
The master of black cinema interviewed Racionais MC’s for his film Go Brazil Go.
Last Thursday, filmmaker Spike Lee was back in Brazil to record more scenes for his documentary. The most famous black filmmaker in the world met the four most dangerous blacks in Brazil, that’s right, I speak of the Racionais MC’s.
Mano Brown, Edi Rock, Ice Blue and DJ KL Jay exchanged an idea with Spike Lee in a great full interview lasting for about an hour. The group talked about its history, about racism in Brazil and how the Racionais raised the self esteem of black people. Among various ideas exchanged, the members were also asked about musical influences, what they listen to. 2Pac was cited as one of the most important influences for the group. (Note: Check one of the songs below featuring the vocals of 2pac)
Go Brazil Go is a documentary about Brazil, highlighting the growing political and economic ascension of the country in the international arena, with a focus on social and racial issues. The director seeks to answer what happened to make Brazil into a superpower.
The documentary has being recorded since 2012 and should be finalized before the World Cup (in June), and Lee is racing against the clock to release the film in May at the Cannes Film Festival.
Among the personalities interviewed by the filmmaker are President Dilma Rousseff, former Presidents Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, musician and former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil, musicians Jorge Ben Jor and Chico Buarque, rapper Crioulo, and soccer legend Pelé as well as the top current star, Neymar.
Shelton Jackson Lee, better known as Spike Lee, is an American filmmaker, writer, producer and actor. His stand-out films include Malcolm X (1992) and Do the Right Thing (1989, released as Faça a coisa certa in Brazil). He Is also a recognized documentary maker and teaches cinema at the University of New York. He is considered by the specialized media as a controversial director.
Note from BW of Brazil: The social commentary offered by the Racionais MCs was and remains relevant in Brazil today. Death squad/extermination groups, often composed of Military Police, racism, black exclusion and stereotypes/exclusion of the slum/periphery population are all consistent topics here at BW of Brazil. And it is not only in their lyrics where the group makes their opinions and influences known. In a number of interviews, the group, Mano Brown in particular, has spoken about the influence of activists such as Malcolm X (1925-1965) and Carlos Marighella (1911-1969) in their social/racial consciousness. In “Voz Ativa”, one of the lines the song goes, “We need a leader of popular credit/like Malcolm X in other times was in America/being black to the bone/one of ours.” Brown confirmed that it was the consciousness of race as preached by Malcolm X that made him understand things around him. Carlos Marighella was an Afro-Brazilian revolutionary and a principal organizer of armed Brazilian struggle against the Military Dictatorship which took hold of the country in 1964 and lasted for 21 years. In 2011, Brown mentioned how Marighella reminded him of Malcolm X, Public Enemy and the Racionais MCs and that “much of what we sing about in rap probably comes from him.” Like Marighella, Brown is a mixture of black and Italian ancestry with roots in the northeastern state of Bahia. In 2012, Racionais MCs recorded the song, “Mil Faces de um Homem Leal (A Thousand Faces of a Loyal Man)”, the theme song of the 2012 documentary Marighella.
Below are few of their well-known songs…
Mil Faces De Um Homem Leal
The theme song to the 2012 documentary about the Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella who was assassinated by Military Police on November 4, 1969.
Fim de semana no parque
This song from 1993 that shook up Brazilian society as it pointed out the reality of those who live in the slums/favelas. As the mainstream society continued to try to cover up the experiences of society’s outcasts, Racionais denounced this reality and offering a harsh criticism of the society as a whole. The lyrics speak of drugs, murder and poverty, all of which are issues that affect the population of the periferia (periphery). This is a song that is consistently mentioned by many Brazilians, particularly blacks, as something that they immediately identified with. For many, the hard lyrics were a water shed moment in their awakening into consciousness.
In this seven minute classic, Edy Rock and Mano Brown make a critical reflection about the success that the group has managed to achieve over the years in a country like Brazil in which black Brazilians, in this case from the slums of São Paulo, are targets if socioeconomic exclusion.
Racistas otários (nos deixem em paz)
Here the group takes aim at “racist suckers”.
Racistas otários (nos deixem em paz)/Racist suckers leave us alone….
Os sociólogos preferem ser imparciais/E dizem ser financeiro o nosso dilemma/Mas se analizarmos bem mais você descobre/Que negro e branco pobre se parecem/Mas não são iguais
The sociologists prefer to be impartial/and say the financial is our dilemma/But if we analize better you will discover/that poor black and poor white seem the same/but they are not equal
Racionais Mcs – Panico na zona sul 1990
The lyrics here address the issue of extermination groups led by Military Police that terrorized the south zone and the ABC region of greater São Paulo in the 1980s.
Racionais Mc’s feat 2Pac – Fim de Semana no Parque [HD VIDEO OFFICIAL]