Video producers filling the gap of black representation in the media; YouTube Black Brasil event at Google building in São Paulo features two popular content producers
By Marques Travae
I’ve been keeping up with the manner in which black Brazilians have using the online video sharing platform YouTube to address the under-representation of black voices, faces and perspectives in the mainstream media for a few years. And a number of these YouTubers have managed to grow quite an audience speaking on a range of issues that are important to Black Brazil. Issues such as making a transition from straightening hair to wearing natural hair, reviewing hair care and makeup products, to discussions of racism, cultural appropriation, black identity, how to survive with an increased police presence and many more topics.
These YouTubers, many of whom I’ve featured here on this blog, must be making some noise as some of them gathered on November 22 in the Google building in São Paulo to participate in the YouTube Black Brasil event. It was an event most definitely worth discussing as one would not expect to find a room full of black people in a discussion about the creation of media content. Especially in São Paulo.
What we’re witnessing nowadays is a true shift among a significant portion of the comunidade negra (black community) in terms of places where black people are expected to be and those places where a parcel of the population believes they are “out of place”. In the past, black Brazilians sort of passively accepted this idea, but these days they are demanding the opportunity to have access to the same places that their whiter-skinned counterparts have always had. Nátaly Neri, one of the participants in the forum expressed the idea that “the black population, especially the Brazilian woman, dreams very little”.
Neri is originally from the city of Assis, located in the state of São Paulo, about 270 miles from the capital city. She has run the YouTube channel Afros e Afins for a number of years and recently was chosen and awarded funding to capture the sentiments of average people on the theme of being black in Brazil. The research and work of the project became a documentary entitled Negritudes Brasileiras, loosely meaning Brazilian forms of blackness. Explaining the approach to the documentary, Nátaly says:
“Identities are not fixed, they change according to social class and geographic locations. You’re black in Brazil, you’re black outside of Brazil. In blackness you are black all over the world and you will suffer racism.”
This may not sound like anything revolutionary for other black populations around the world, but coming to assume a black identity for millions of Brazilians has been a process in development. It must be remembered that Brazilian elites and its very government developed specific propaganda since the 1930s to undermine black identity by convincing non-whites that they were simply Brazilians and that other distinctions didn’t matter. In recent years we’ve seen increases in the number of Brazilians who have moved away from identifying themselves with ambiguous color-coded terms in order to adapt specifically black identities. Nátaly discusses some of these identities in development on her YouTube channel. And with the desire to receive this information and participate in discussions on such topics, YouTube has seen an explosion in the number of channels that black and would be black Brazilians can turn to.
“I think the black community on YouTube has grown dramatically in the last three, four years, and it’s a boom in which I didn’t see an equal and it only tends to grow,” says Nery on the expansion of channels such as hers. Nátaly was one of the first black Brazilian women YouTubers to use the platform to speak specifically of pertinent issues in the black community, especially those concerning black women, which makes sense considering her background in the social sciences world. Of course, YouTube is still not quite powerful enough and with around 70 million Brazilians not having internet access, it doesn’t have the reach to challenge the power of mainstream media vehicles such as the television, but I can personally attest to the fact that in the past five years or so, I have watched far more material on YouTube than I have on television. At least with YouTube, if people are in search of information and conversation of certain issues there are people available who are speaking of such issues that are important to black and would be black people. And many of these people have a connection with their audience that television programs such Jornal Nacional, Domingo Spectacular or Brasil Urgente clearly don’t, besides the fact that YouTubers also look like their followers, which also covers the question of representation. With such a small percentage of black women hosting news programs, talk shows, etc., women such as Neri have the potential to fill this void.
Also at the Google building on November 22 was Murilo Araújo, the creator of the Muro Pequeno channel. Araújo uses the platform to be able to spark conversation with the LGBT community. Araújo understands the role that he plays and feels his YouTube channel providers his followers with a safe space for discussions that they may not be comfortable having in other places. For Araújo, those who don’t want to deal issues with concerning race, they’re going to have to get used to it: “We need to have devices to find safety and comfort somewhere, because if the racist thinks he’s going to shut us up, I’m sorry, he’s not going to,” he declares.
The popularity of these YouTubers can be traced directly to their daring to expose their lives and experiences with the whole world. The Muro Pequeno channel already passed the 100 thousand subscriber mark and for good reason. He’s bringing pertinent issues that people want to discuss: “Look, this here has to do with colorism, this here has to do with the loneliness of black fags, here it’s about being passed over,” he explains.
In Brazil today, there are more 205 million people, about 54% of which don’t identify themselves as white, but even this being the case, rarely can one turn on the television and get explanations opinions and discussion in clear, concise terms. The beauty of YouTube is that, unlike television, with just the typing of a few keywords, you can find videos in which people are talking about EXACTLY what you want to know. And Murilo has plenty that he wants to talk about. “I’m going crazy to start a series of videos on the channel explaining basic concepts of what racism is,” he says. But racism isn’t the only topic. Some of the topics he discusses on his channel are some of the very issues this blog has addressed since 2011. And the timing is perfect because now is the time that so many black Brazilians are searching for such information that explains Brazil and their place in it. Topics and people that have been ignored for too long.
“It’s people who are in this process, who are beginning to see themselves, understanding that these issues are relevant and are occupying the platform to talk more about themselves. I think this thing of having a mirror to identify with has a lot to do with the debate of representation,” he opines.
For the creator of Muro Pequeno, nowadays, Afro-Brazilians are using a diverse mixture of outlets to finally attain the representation that has long been denied to them. It’s a sort of mini-revolution that I’ve also noticed in recent years.
“I think it’s a demand that is increasingly present in black production, but not just on YouTube, in independent black music, independent black theater – and on YouTube, that movement is happening.”
With a public that has been literally starving to see people who look like them in the media, it was inevitable that once YouTube caught on, people would emerge to fill these gaps. And often times it can be a sort of “love at first sight” as many of the content makers have themselves gone through the same processes of identity and being to recognize how a racist system functions after years of the both the denial of their identities as well as the existence of racism itself. But even as the demand is there, black Brazilian YouTubers are still often surprised at just how many people they are reaching.
“I never imagined it and it’s surreal. It’s not something I’m comfortable with, I’m accustomed to saying, ‘wow, that’s incredible.’ No, it’s something that I wake up to and I say, ‘damn, why is this happening? Because I never expected it,’” said Nátaly.
With this in mind, Nery can see the possibility of reaching the number of subscribers that only white YouTubers could reach: “Today it is possible because there are people who want to listen, there are people who want to talk and we have the platform that is increasingly supporting our projects,” she concludes.
As many who take to YouTube just to vent, share their opinions or share their lives with others, three years ago, Murilo just wanted to capture events in his life, such as that on the university campus. He had no idea that he would gain such a following and reputation for just sharing his life and thoughts but with this popularity he would like that others can achieve a certain power in the same manner.
“It takes time, it’s difficult, but it comes. Look what we’re doing here, you know? So, let’s follow the train because it’s all ours,” he concludes.