The continuous white appropriation of northeastern Afro-Brazilian Axé music

Claudia Leitte Carnaval campaign ad

Earlier this year in February during Carnaval season, BW of Brazil published a short article entitled, “The dominance of the European aesthetic in Bahia’s media” which hinted at the racial politics and exclusion that is on display every year in the Brazilian state most associated with African ancestry and culture. A few months before our article, another white/near white singer released her new promotional campaign using Africa as the focal point. The artist’s name was Claudia Leitte, and according to her campaign, “Africa with all its beauty and magic” and the “strong connections that African roots has with Bahia” inspired her to make the continent her 2012 Carnaval theme. The other thing that caught my eye was the woman’s European in combination with her nickname: “Nega Loura”. In Brazilian Portuguese, nega is another way of saying negra, meaning black woman, and loura is another way of spelling loira, meaning blond, thus meaning blond black woman.

Cover for Claudia Leitte CD NegaLora

Continuing with the Brazilian promotional method of marketing white women to appropriate black culture, here was yet another non-black woman, continuing the tradition of singers Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo, staking claim to a popular genre of Afro-Brazilian music, Axé, making it her own and on top of all that, calling herself a negra. A slap in the face considering all of the great black female singers who are actually from Bahia (Leitte is not) and who will never achieve the mainstream promotion and success of their whiter counterpart.


Online rejection of Leitte ad: “This generic type (of music). Dismissed!”
 
I wasn’t only one who was a little perturbed by this newest culture bandit. Roque Peixoto wrote that Leitte, was “resuscitating the ‘myth of racial democracy’ that was so responsible for the depths of subtle and veiled racism in Brazil.” He would add Leitte’s name as the latest in a line of “usurpers of our Afro-Bahian identity” which include the aforementioned Mercury and Sangalo. Leitte calling herself a nega loura continues a tradition of appropriation similar to a line in one of Mercury’s songs where she sings that “a cor dessa cidade sou eu (I am the color of this city)” although the vast majority of people in Bahia are much darker than she.
 
Singers Ivete Sangalo and Daniela Mercury
 

I was also a little bothered by Mercury’s 1996 album cover for her CD Feijão com arroz. Meaning beans and rice, a popular Brazilian dish, Mercury poses embraced with a very dark-skinned woman whose back is facing the camera.

 
Mercury’s 1996 CD Feijão com arroz
Symbolically, the photo seems to say many things: 1) black & white blend well together as long as the white part is prominently featured while the black remains faceless. 2) She embraces black culture as long as the whiter figure is highlighted. 3) As we’re all equal, my voice can speak for yours. 4) The Brazilian ideal of embranquecimento or whitening where whiteness is the face of the country while the African ancestry fades into the background, and 5) White cultural appropriation that exploits the black origin of the art form while the black origin remains nameless and faceless. This last point will become very clear in the article below. It also illustrates why we wrote that the there could never be a black Brazilian female singer who will rise to the status of a Whitney Houston

To make a comparison for the basis of this article, I’m sure most of us are familiar with how race-based musical and cultural appropriation works. For years in the 1980s and 90s, Rock and Roll pioneer Little Richard would go on award shows as an award presenter and go on a tirade about how the music industry never “gave (him) nothing!”  I can imagine that there were probably a lot of people watching him both on TV and in the audience of whatever award show he upstaged thinking, “Will somebody take this old guy away so we can get on with the show?” Well, the truth is, as everybody should know by now, Little Richard was telling the truth. Back in his day, the 1950s, when he was creating some of hardest-driving R&B (which would become Rock and Roll) of the day and introducing audiences to his wild man style and electrifying voice, white parents didn’t like the idea of this insidious, sexually-driven, black music infiltrating the world of their white picket fences and influencing their “proper”, “well-raised”, children of “high morals” and good, “middle class white values.”

As the executive secretary of the Alabama White Citizens Council put it: “The obscenity and vulgarity of the Rock and Roll music is obviously a means by which the white man and his children can be driven to the level of the nigger.”

 

Berry, Little Richard, Pat Boone, Elvis 

Well, those white kids loved that “nigger music.” Soon after, major record labels started picking up on this sound that was being popularized by African-Americans like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and others. It wasn’t long before white artists such as Pat Boone, Bill Haley, the Beatles and the soon to be crowned “King of Rock and Roll” Elvis Presley started making cover versions of these black artists’ songs or making their own music in a similar vein.

What Little Richard was screaming about from that time on was the fact that the white artists had jumped on the R&B bandwagon, re-did the songs, often outsold the original recordings by the black artists and made more money with a style that many whites were adamantly opposed to. We would see the same appropriation decades later with Hip Hop, another Black Music art form that the record industry turned its nose up at. Again, the music was labeled garbage, “nigger music” that would never last, “too black” and basically “ghetto” even though people weren’t using that term at the time. From Elvis and Pat Boone in Rock and Roll to the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice and Eminem in Hip Hop, the formula continues to work. Black Music, white appropriation, huge sales. There are also a lot of old-time black artists who died penniless along the way while the white artists got the glory, fame and riches.


Vanilla Ice, Eminem, Beastie Boys

The situation is the same in Brazil. The northeastern state of Bahia and its largest and capital city, Salvador, are considered the African heart of Brazil due to its 70% and 80% (state and city) population of African descent and its vibrant maintenance of African-oriented culture. Some say that if one never makes a trip to Africa, Salvador, Bahia, is the next best thing. In terms of politics though, Salvador and Bahia have much in common with South Africa: a large black majority that is ruled by the white minority that rule the businesses and government. Salvador was the first Brazilian capital city and a major port of entry for African slaves starting in the 16th century. While Salvador is considered the “Roma Negra (Black Rome)” and the center of the country’s African culture, the city has only had one black mayor, Evaldo Brito, for 8 months between 1978 and 1979, and he was appointed by the governor during Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship.

Culturally, Salvador is known for its African and Afro-Brazilian traditions such as the martial art of Capoeira, culinary arts and cuisine and the religion of the Candomblé. The region also has a rich history of music. Dorival Caymmi, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa, Maria Bethânia are just a few of the famous baiano (or baiana, meaning a person from Bahia) musicians who have contributed greatly to the landscape of Brazilian Popular Music. If you ever get into Brazilian music, you are sure to come across these names sooner or later.

Before proceeding, we must also introduce a few terms that will be used throughout this article.

1)      Trio Elétrico is a kind of truck or float equipped with a high power sound system and a music group on the roof, playing for a crowd. It was created in Bahia specifically for Carnival and it is now used in similar events in other districts and countries

Trio Elétrico

2)   A bloco is a street band or group that is the main popular expression in Carnival of Bahia and Pernambuco in Brazil. These demonstrations are mixed under the term “street carnival”, a term that still includes the bandstands and parades in the streets and happen during a period of about two months (beginning before and finishing after Carnival).

3)   Blocos afros are blocos that utilize aspects of African culture in its rhythms and lyrics, using a percussive group in front of the Trio Elétrico and wearing outfits whose themes and colors establish a cultural connection with Africa. The first bloco afro was Ilê Aiyê established in 1974 as response to the exclusion of blacks during Salvador’s Carnaval.


Blocos afros

4)    Baiano/baiana: Person or something from or having to do with the state of Bahia

5)  Subúrbio: Meaning suburb but being the complete opposite of the meaning of its English translation “suburb” as used in the US. While the English term suburb as used in the US conjures up images of middle class lifestyles, the terms “subúrbio” and “peripheria” (periphery) as used in Brazilian Portuguese, are in some ways reminiscent of the images associated with the term “ghetto”, meaning a location outside of the central area of a city, the favela(slum/shantytown) an area inhabited by the poor and excluded from society. In the social imagination, it also conjures up images of various stereotypes, danger, against the grain lifestyles and drug trafficking.

 

“For you to have a hit song the song had to go to the Axé banda to make it, get played on the radio, so that people know that that song was from a bloco afro. But the radio did not divulge that the music was by the bloco (afro), it disclosed that the music was by band “such and such” and didn’t even mention the name of the songwriter” (Santos 2004)

Thus, the blocos afros and its artists, considered the most visible black-mixed race form of expression and mobilization, grounded in the values ​​of African ancestry, motivated to establish a rejection of the cultural patterns of the Europeanized dominant caste of baiano society were passed over by industry capital, consumption and the trio blocos, entities of entertainment without any political nature or ethnic connotation (Guerreiro, 2000, cited in Santos 2004).

Incorporating music from the repertoire of blocos afrosto the trio elétrico bands gave greater visibility to the percussive rhythms born in the ghettos. From this fusion, middle and upper class consumers that originally ignored the music of the blocos afros were reached by the sounds of the subúrbio, without, however, there being any more intimate intersections between these two social universes (Santos 2004).

A successful generation of artists, led by artists such Sarajane and Luís Caldas would initiate the practice of replacing poor, black icons from the periferiawith musicians of “boa aparência (good appearance, code term for white)” like Netinho, Daniela Mercury, Ricardo Chaves, Durval Lélys, Bell Marques, and Ivete Sangalo whose social class and light complexion seem to have worked as one of the selection criteria of the music industry (Santos 2004).

Top: Ricardo Chaves, Durval Lélys – Bottom: Bell Marques, Netinho 

The duality that exists in baiano society didn’t allow the acceptance of musical rhythms and culture of African descendants. In a similar manner, in contemporary baianidade (Bahia-ness): While the white groups were in show biz, recording albums, touring, becoming part of programming playlists of radio stations, black groups were invisible in the media and on the outskirts of the music world (Guerreiro, 2000, cited in Santos 2004).

Analyzing the results of the profiles described by participants one can observe that the Axé music as much in (another northeastern city) Recife as in Salvador was little associated with the groups of its origin, the black-mixed race people from the periphery. It seems that the expansion of the baianomodel of Carnival for other states and the success of middle-class artists on the music scene, usually white, like Ivete Sangalo and Daniela Mercury, contributed to the “de-ghetto-ization” of Axé music and made the integration of the music to other social contexts possible (Santos 2004).

In the format of Axé Music, the songs of black groups make up the music of the albums by trio elétrico bands and solo singers like Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo, who go on to sell millions of records, while the blocos afros remain on the margins of this success, not to mention that the projection of black singers for solo careers have been unsuccessful in the course of these 25 years of Axé music. This in turn leads some Afro groups to go through a process of assimilation of the white aesthetics of trio elétrico bands, capturing a rhythm that blends the beat of African percussion and electronic instruments of the trio, in order to meet market demands (Pereira 2010).


Top row: Aline Rosa, Emanuelle Araújo, Gilmelândia
Bottom row: Márcia Freire, Sarajane, Viviane Tripodi

On the flip side, in the past 25 years there have been a number of white singers who gained major media visibility besides the Mercury, Sangalo and Leitte. A few of those names include Sarajane, Márcia Freire, Emanuelle Araújo, Aline Rosa and Gilmelândia. While black singers like Abobened and Márcia Short have found success, neither of them have been able to establish solid space on the Carnaval circuit (Uzel 2012). This would also apply to other black baianas such as Virginia Rodrigues, Will Carvalho, Mariene de Castro and Márcia Short among others and those who aren’t considered Axé singers but record Afro-Baiano music.

 

Top: Mariene de Castro, Márcia Short
Bottom: Virginia Rodrigues, Will Carvalho and Abobened

Margaret Menezes has been the one exception after having been featured on international tours promoted by pop star David Byrne in the first half of the 1990s, also earning the attention of Salvador’s gay community, playing summer concert series and heading up the Os Mascarados Carnaval bloco. Even still in the case of Menezes, in the field of mass-marketed cultural productions, she has never had the national media attention equal to that of Sangalo, Leitte or Mercury (Uzel 2012), “a white artist authorized by her public to identify herself with black cultural genres” (Liv Sovik, 2009 cited in Uzel 2012).

 
Margareth Menezes
Writing on the topic, Marcos Uzel points out:
 

“It’s clear that an artist that’s willing to be a part of the cultural industry grind don’t always have the capacity to adapt themselves to market demands. Many singers, white or non-white, will fail in this attempt for lack of business structure, talent, charisma and/or competence to administrate a career. But it is evident that this same industry, when it wants to invest in a trio elétrico singer, is accustomed to appreciating a stereotyped model of a star that doesn’t privilege black singers” (Uzel 2012).

Sources

Paulafreitas, Ayêska. “Música de rua de Salvador: preparando a cena para a axé music” in I ENECULT, Anais, CD ROM, Salvador: UFBA, 2004. Santos, Marcos Joel de Melo. Estereótipos, preconceitos, axé-music e pagode. EDUFBA/PALLAS, 2004. Guerreiro, Goli. A trama dos tambores – A música afro-pop de Salvador. São Paulo: 34, 2000. Pereira, Ianá Souza. “Axé-Axé: O megafenômeno baiano.” Revista África e africanidades. Rio de Janeiro: Year 2, No. 8, February, 2010 Uzel, Marcos. Guerreiras do Cabaré: A mulher negra no espetáculo do Bando de Teatro Olodum. Salvador: EDUFBA, 2012

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21 Comments

  1. It is funny, the UK does it with Jamaica, and the mimicry of Black music in asia is humongous. I think the problem is a matter of economic power.But, the Black community doesnt own enough record labels, distributors, or media outlets to dictate a change without allowance. So, I would say the problem is a matter of internal control. In the USA , right now, many Black people consider Bluegrass music, banjo music, to be white. My point is, Black Americans from Brazil must educate in their families about Black culture. You must internally educate, not schools, but in the home. if you dont , one day, Black folk will think that axe and samba is white. It sounds crazy but it can happen

  2. I agree with you totally damn right it will happen, it happened with Rock Music in the US, people don;t realise that was orignally black music.White people are always looking for the great white hope, someone who looks like them, doing black music or a sport which is dominated by black people then they go out and support them, because they feel they can relate better with them, they don't feel this is racist, until a black person does the same thing like supoort the Williams sisters at tennis because they are black.Another double standard from white people.

  3. you guys are sick! White appropriation of Axé music my ass! We are all Brazilians, we are not racist like you! If you are so racist go live in the US!

  4. Yankee? LMAO I'm from the UK, which supposedly isn't racist either. Racist? Do you even know what racism is? No one told you to come to the blog if you don't like it, go to a different one.

  5. Please, do you even know what racism is? It's not the US and sounds to me like it's worse. I've got serious questions for you because I don't live there. In schools do you learn about slavery in Brazil? how slavery built Brazil, about how white immigrants were brought to Brazil to whiten the country, Fact? what about Zumbi and the Quilombos and Zumbi and black heroes like Luis Gama? as well as European History. Why is it that blacks of Brazil are still at the bottom?Can you tell me why you feel Brazil isn't racist I'm really curious. I'll patiently await you answers.

  6. To Marc and Anonymous (whoever you are):I have read the following comments:"Shut up you Racist Yankee! You don't know ANYTHING about Brazil. Stay there in the US being a racist and stop mentioning Brazil.""Claudia Leite is not 100% white you ignorant yankees! She is mixed, she has Black blood! THIS IS NOT AMERICA! WE ARE NOT BLACK OR WHITE! RACIST BASTARDS!"Number one: If you continue to post aggressive comments on this blog, I will remove them. We have nothing against debate here, but aggressive, disrespectful comments WILL NOT BE TOLERATED!Number two: Please check the sources on ALL of our posts here. Often times people like to make comments of the "you Yankees", "you Americans", sort, but in fact, the VAST majority of material published on this blog comes from Brazilian sources of articles in Portuguese. They are direct translations in most cases. If you check the source/sources at the bottom of the page, you will see this. Number three: As far as Claudia Leitte is concerned, she does not strike me as 100% white, but this has never been the rule in Brazil. In Brazil, persons can be accepted as "socially white" even if they have African blood. No one can guarantee than Mercury, Sangalo or Leitte are purely European, but that's not the point. The point is that the more European looking women get all of the publicity for an art form that started in Salvador in non-white communities. Again, check the sources of the article at the bottom of the page. This ENTIRE ARTICLE was cited from Brazilian scholars and researchers.

  7. Gatas Negras – I just ran across this blog post here. What an awesome analysis of the expropriation of Black music in America vs. Brazil. our research is flawless and insightful! This is a "Kick-Ass" Blog! Big LOVE From Beautiful and Snowy Denver, Colorado

  8. I'm so glad you are talking about this. We need to talk about racism and bigotry in South and North America. As a black woman who plays capoeira in the USA, I've met so many Brazilians who don't want to "talk" about the racism in Brazil (even my own mestre denies his black ancestry when he is clearly mixed to a certain degree). Please keep up the good work…this is so very important to know and to process. Thnx

  9. Hi everybody. I'm french and when i read you, i think of all greats men or women who fight against racism and i'm afraid. Nobodys understand. We all are living on Earth. Some white men are poor racist people. I'm agree. But somme poor black men, somme yellow men, some red men, etc.are too. Now, we should stop to think that tere is a color of victim and another of hangman. Jazz is black music, and now, it's a human music. Reggae, axe are a black music. I don't think that bob write for black men. I'm sure he wrote for all the people. Daniela, Yvete e Claudia developp samba all over the world, and now. They give a message of hope, of happiness. If you like music and the message, help all those to give a hope message and keep cool.Obrigado a todos.Grande Abraços for all. 😉

  10. I was pretty pleased to discover this web site.
    I wanted to thank you for your time due to this fantastic read!!
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  11. Well, Bahia has the largest black community in Brazil. and THEY chose the white artists and also the white politicians. So white people are not the ones to blame. Stop playing the “white man guilty” game. Also, the slaves brought to Brazil, were brought by black slave owners too. And Zumbi dos Palmares had many slaves. Search and you will see it.

  12. I`ve seen black singers all over the midia in Brazil. It`s not exactly like you picture. Can`t remember anyone from axe but still. In the samba, pagode, funk they are majority. Look, i`m not saying that racism doesn`t exist, i just think it happens both sides. By this days with all this mix we should not rotate ourselves,we are all just humans…

  13. What’s the point? Segregation? Because this site seems to encourage racial segregation. Who said that only blacks can play rap or jazz? And who said that only whites can play Bossa Nova or sing opera? The site conveys a lot of false information in many articles (this is serious and a crime) and pretends to be speaking against prejudice, but the site stimulating the not-mix of races. The Brazil is a country with many defects, but the only mentioned as a multicultural and multiracial example. I do not know what is the real purpose of this site, but the path is very wrong. Deserves to be denounced. I’m a brazilian black woman and i dont respect this website.

    • Hello,

      First of all, in speaking of cultural appropriation, the point is not whether whites do this or blacks do that; you COMPLETELY missed the point of the article.

      The problem is when one group uses something traditionally associated with another group and then proceeds to dominate it without paying due respect to its originators. In the case of Funk, Rap, Jazz, Samba or whatever, cultural appropriation enforces the history of racism and exclusion that is already a part of historic relations between blacks and whites. It is a complete act of disrespect to degrade a certain social group, exclude them from the media and denigrate their cultural performances but then steal these same cultural performances, exclude its makers and make profit off of it also. The issue is disrespect and the whitening of cultural performance. Again, you missed the point.

      Second, all of the articles on this website cites sources. There are articles in which books and articles are clearly cited. Please DO show an article where there is “false information”. You made the accusation, so please provide the evidence.

      Third, you have the right to disagree with whatever you choose. But simply because you disagree with something doesn’t mean you’re absolutely correct. Feel free to denounce whatever you wish. This blog doesn’t disrespect, degrade anyone or spread any type of hate. The opinions on this blog simply express views that are not always on par with what a great percentage of the population believes to be true. But simply because 95% of people believe something to be true and 5% believe the contrary to be true does NOT mean that the 95% is correct; it simply means they are part of the majority that believes something to be true.

      As far as crime, this is an absolutely absurd claim! ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that is not a physical science that has hard, provable facts can be debated, from the existence/non-existence of god, to McDonald’s qualifying as “food” or the positive/negative influence of Rede Globo. If you don’t accept the ideas of the blog, can’t prove there is “false information” or that a “crime” has been committed, feel free to visit another one because it would appear that this particular blog is not for you.

      On your last point, black women are also a very diverse group. ALL black women do NOT think exactly alike. If you don’t like or respect this website that is your right, life goes on!

      Thank you for your time!

  14. I can’t speak on Brazil, as I live in the USA, and won’t speak on appropriation, but the idea that black artists (I’ll use hip-hop as an example) are deprived of money by white consumers is not really accurate considering 70% of sales of hip-hop is from whites anyway, so without white consumers, black artists would be much worse off. And to say whites shouldn’t buy records of white artists of a certain genre because the orginators (if you can prove they orginated all the elements, which is really doubtful) were of a different color is odd, as if someone has an obligation to to buy something they prefer less (“yeah, I don’t really like Kendrick Lamar as much as Eminem but, I guess, since Kendrick is black I have to buy his record”).

    • Clearly dlj missed the point the author was making…I also agree with the author of the first post.

      I am black British but I’ve lived in Brazil for over a year, and I’m fluent Portuguese speaker. I’ve been all over Brazil including Salvador and lived in Rio and spent a lot of time in the ‘interior’ ‘oeste’.
      Racism in Brazil is an issue often mixed and white ppl adopt the notion “we are all the same colour doesn’t matter” and without going into the statistics you only have to look at the north east of Brazil dominated by blacks mostly, and the south where the population is mostly of European descent to see it does have an impact.

      Ivette Sangalo is known as the queen of Bahia, my own personal view point is the dominance of the whites in this African genre of music encompasses other factors such the European features (blonde hair & blue eyes) and those with these features are frequently considered to be most attractive by all Brazilians. The dominance of European looking people in the soap operas which are watched by over 90 % of the population and, black people in these soaps frequently in lower paid, low class roles. In addition to this white Brazilians with the sought after European features dominating the TV as a whole.

      I feel these reasons alongside many others exemplifies how black people are still not in the privileged majority, and despite the popularity of music of African origin in Brazil, white people stealthily are in control of this like many other things in Brazil.

      I’m not racist I have studied Brazil and have lived experience. In contrast could you see white Caribbean people dominating reggae and soca music in the same way? With the same advertisements as Leitte and Daniela Mercury, the Caribbean like in Salvador white people are the minority. I noted through living in Brazil that many black Brazilians and mixed people had an inferiority complex, and weren’t proud of their black features apart from the shape of their bodies. Therefore if you view white features as more attractive overall it’ll likely increase the popularity of the white artists even in the genres of music in Brazil of African origin.

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