In this interview, Husslington Post correspondent, Amil Cook, goes in depth with journal/scholar/activist Daniela Gomes about her fight against racism in Brazil. This is the first installment in what we hope will become a series of interviews by Amil. Please leave comments below.
How influential is Hip-Hop and African American culture in Brazil?
For a long time Afro Brazilians didn’t have access to information about the black leaders in our history. The myth of the racial democracy created an important issue in our country, where a lighter skin person didn’t consider him/herself as black. So for many years for mixed people in Brazil to be black was a shame. In some cases this still happens. So after a long time we were without any understanding about black consciousness but during the 1970s some cultural and political movements started to be inspired by Afro American movements and heroes such as: the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and others. And Hip Hop is a part of this because of its cultural influence.
What is racial democracy for those who may not be familiar with this term?
Racial democracy was a theory created in the early 1900s. The main creator was Gilberto Freyre, who used to affirm that Brazilian society was totally different from other countries because it was a racially mixed country and as a mixed country there wasn’t racism here. He taught that we should value our three races [indigenous (native), African and European] that formed our society because it made us better, made our slavery less painful and things like that. It is important to explain that before Freyre the theory that used to be adopted in Brazil, was the ‘whitening theory’, it was used to affirm that if we started to mix the country we could clean our race and it was believed that in little time black people would be extinct in Brazil. The main thinker of this theory was Nina Rodrigues, a doctor who used to see the black population as a shame. Gilberto Freyre was Rodrigues’ student, and “improved” Rodrigues’ racist theories when he decided to hide the racial issue in Brazil. These two theories are fundamental to understand racial thought in Brazil. The first one [Rodrigues], made Brazilians believe that if they are mixed they aren’t black and the second one [Freyre] made them believe that we are special because we are mixed; there isn’t racism in our country so we don’t need to fight against it. And although the black struggle in my country never stopped, ideas like that made our mission harder.
What is WAPI? How long have you been involved with WAPI or the Hip Hop movement in Brazil? What trends are you seeing within the Hip Hop movement?
WAPI means Word and Pictures and was a project involving Hip Hop created in Kenya and was brought to Brazil by a rapper named Panikinho, an important figure in the underground Hip Hop movement here. I wasn’t too involved in the event, but the main idea of the event was to mix different kind of arts that represent African and Afro Brazilian culture, as Hip Hop manifestations, dance, hair stylists, poetry, and others. I was selected to participate in the campaign “Eu Africanizo São Paulo”, it basically translates to I Africanize São Paulo, the theme of the event, on the Internet ‘cause of my work as an activist in my country.
I don’t know if I can say that I’m involved with the Hip Hop movement in Brazil, I’m not a rapper, singer, DJ, or a B-girl. I’m a fan of Hip Hop who decided to research Hip Hop’s influence in black peoples’ lives. What I can certainly affirm is the importance of Hip Hop in my personal life. It was Hip Hop which helped me when I was a teenager to understand that my ancestors made me a black woman, even if I have a light skin, that the issues that I was dealing in my life, like living in a ghetto community, and everything related with this, was also related with my condition as a black person as an African descendant, so in my life Hip Hop was a defining moment.
You recently attended a concert with the legendary rap group Public Enemy and other Hip-Hop groups and performers from the U.S. What was the response of the Afro Brazilian community to this concert?
The event was amazing but we have some issues involving it that are important to discuss. First, we are observing an impairment of Hip Hop in Brazil. As happened in the U.S., the media became interested in the movement early in 2000 and Hip Hop lost a lot of its protest intention. The new generation of black teenagers aren’t so interested in Brazilian Hip Hop, including poor kids. Those who like black music, prefer American Hip Hop or not so intense music, with less protests and more fun. And most of them don’t like traditional Hip Hop, they are more involved with Carioca Funk music. Despite this, groups as Public Enemy, Naughty by Nature and Wu-Tang Clan are still idols for older people who are fans of Hip Hop in Brazil, so for this group of Hip Hop fans a concert like this is really exciting. The big issue here is, usually the prices of the tickets for an event like this that are not accessible for the black community. One day of this event cost around R$150 for the cheaper ticket, what is around US$250. A Black person in Brazil usually doesn’t have US$700 to spend on things like this. And this is the normal cost for international concerts in my country so usually black people aren’t there and when they go they are really far from the stage. So it is more usual to see white people in concerts like this. But I can’t deny that as one of the few blacks who could go to the event it was a fantastic experience.
Do you think young Afro Brazilians identify with Hip Hop music and culture more than white Brazilians?
Certainly. Although as I had said before our kids aren’t so interested in Hip Hop as they used to be in the past, it still connects more with black people than with white folks. Of course the media made Hip Hop an accessible thing, and a lot of white guys like it, but it still talks about a kind of life that they can’t understand. It is really funny to be in a concert for a group like Racionais MC’s for example, the most famous Hip Hop group in Brazil, their songs are really intense, they talk against racism and they really talk about white rich boys and at the same time that they are singing about this, they are there repeating the sentence as if it weren’t about them. It’s crazy.
Talk a little about the state of racism in Brazil.
Racism in Brazil is a thing really hard to deal with. We are used to saying that is like a tick that everybody knows exists but nobody can see it. As I said before we first were raised by the whitening theory, after by the racial democracy theory, it was only in the 1950’s with the UNESCO Project, some sociologists, especially Florestan Fernandes started to talk about racism as an issue that Brazil should fix. But most Brazilians including Afro Brazilians, still think that there isn’t racism here. One of the most important things that keep things this way is because racism here is totally hidden, so people usually have a black friend, usually date a black person, like black culture like samba or religious things, or have a black idol like a soccer player, so when we talk about racism people usually have created a barrier that prevents them from seeing it as a problem in our country. Since 1988 racism became a crime in our country, but racists actions are still happening, every single day we receive information about a new case of racism, but nobody is going to jail ‘cause of this. Our State is still anti-black but nobody does anything, our people are still living in poverty, but people prefer to see it as a social issue. When we talk about affirmative action like racial quotas, they get upset as if we were trying to take something from them, so it is really hard to talk about racism in Brazil, especially in an Afro American conception. But I can’t deny that we have had some wins in these past few years.
Are you sensing that Afro Brazilians are asserting themselves more?
In some ways, yes. Nowadays our census affirms that we have 53.7 % black population in Brazil and this is really important because if the census says that it is because people declared themselves as black during the interviews. But daily it is still hard to see people asserting themselves as black, trying to fight against the racism, and talking about blackness. Especially in the middle of ordinary people they are still ashamed of being black.
You have studied race in both the US and Brazil. How important is the connection, contact, and interaction between African Americans and Afro Brazilians?
In my opinion it isn’t only about African Americans and Afro Brazilians, but about the Diaspora in general. I think we are connected for invisible links that remind us of our ancestors in Africa. We were spread by slavery but our souls are still connected in inexplicable ways and it is possible to see it in our culture, food, religiosity, body expressions, and many other perspectives. We also need to deal with the same issues like violence, segregation, poverty, etc. So I think we have a lot to learn from each other. In our country most of us still see African Americans as an example of a successful black society, and are inspired by your movies, TV shows, artists, and also by your history. Even nowadays I know that what TV shows represent isn’t necessarily true to all of the black community in America, I still believe these examples are important. I also know that some black people in America are interested to know more about Afro Brazilian culture. Some of them try to connect with me to learn more and to try to come here to see it and it is always a pleasure to be helpful.
Where do you see the Afro Brazilian and African American connection going in the next five to ten years?
I think this relationship has everything that is necessary to grow up, because there is a mutual interest in this. But one thing that is important in my opinion is the respect. Before coming to Brazil, African Americans need to realize that we are people with a similar history but in a different context. Most of them have a really sincere wish to help us and they try to teach us how to apply here a kind of American model of dealing with racism, but unfortunately it doesn’t work, because Brazil has it own particular way to do things. I think that to make this connection work for both people we need to be open to learn and to teach at the same time, in a real exchange experience.