Since Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil in January 2019, culture, already affected by a long-standing economic crisis, has paid a heavy price. Clipping the wings of the Ministry of Culture, slashing subsidies, cutting budgets and sabotaging the Rouanet Law, which made corporate cultural funding tax-exempt, are the key measures introduced by his government. Deeply impacted by this scorched earth policy, how has music reacted?
Under the military dictatorship (1964-1985), MPB (Brazilian pop music) was a weapon of resistance and those who wielded it best (Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, to name but a few) are now taking a stand against the powers that be as citizens, but are no longer devoting their art to it. “They gave a lot in their time, it’s now up to the young people to take over”, says Chico César, in his 50s, who is trying to unite an opposition movement among musicians.
But the times are not in step. Traditionally progressive, the MPB community today mirrors the left-wing parties whose various factions are unable to come together. Acauam de Oliveira, who has a PhD on rap, explains: “While under the dictatorship television gave visibility to artists and allowed ideas to circulate despite censorship, nowadays music is broadcast through social media. Musicians are losing their importance to YouTubers, who are now influencers. And paradoxically they’re pro-Bolsonaro. It’s not just them: the “forró safado” (forró pig) scene in the Nordeste and “música sertaneja” (Brazilian country music) in the south east and central west also support the president.”
“And yet”, Acauam de Oliveira adds : “the music industry is more committed than ever. But not where you’d expect it to be. Despite the no holds barred criticism aimed at Bolsonaro during Carnival by the samba schools, heavily penalised by the cuts in subsidies, the protests aren’t targeted at the president or the political regime, but at specific social problems: racism, sexism, poverty, unemployment, homophobia, violence, ecology… The struggle is pragmatic rather than ideological”. So, the protests have changed register. As well as sides.
In the 1970s, protest music came from middle-class university students, who were undoubtedly harshly persecuted by censorship, but did not suffer from the societal problems they denounced – racism, machismo, poverty, capitalism, conservativism… These young activists were speaking on behalf of the victims. Since the 1980s, it is the victims who have been speaking. From working-class backgrounds, they refocus the debate at the level of their own experience, speaking in no apparent order on different fronts and each according to their own temperament.
Things are angry in the outskirts of São Paulo – the equivalent of Paris’s banlieue – where the rebellious, serious, brutal and impetuous rap spearheaded by Emcida denounces racism, violence and misery, in short, daily life in the “neighbourhoods”.
There’s more laughter in the black music scene in Bahia, which led a similar fight in the joyful spirit of the 1970s, when the slogan “Black is beautiful” had awoken the black conscience. In the continuity of Afro-Brazilian groups that emerged at the time, the younger generation continues to positively impact black identity by fighting against the racism and misery that affects their community. The interference of feminism in this kind of music is a sign of the times.
A general trend across a country in which the struggle waged by women, joined by the LGBTQI community, represented in particular by the drag queen Pabllo Vittar, occupies an important place on the new music scene. Beyond the incredible 90-year-old samba singer Elza Soares, whose latest album Mulher do Fim do Mundo [Woman of the End of the World] holds the torch of feminism high, this is expressed powerfully (and very vigorously) in the funk that has taken the country’s major cities by storm.
Traditionally macho and pleasure-seeking, it has been gradually cannibalised by girls who’ve made it a standard bearer for both vindictive and hedonic feminism. With harsh words, provocative looks and suggestive dance routines in which their buttocks take the lead, the funk girls appropriate the paradigms of sexist pornography to assert their right to take control of their bodies and claim their independence. This so-called “música de putaria” (whore music) is far from outstanding either in the quality of its melodies or the refinement of its lyrics, but it makes many girls aware of the seriousness of the situation in the country and begins introducing “protesto” into their “putaria”. It may not improve the standard of the lyrics, but the funk girls do shake up people’s thinking.
But while there is subversion, contestation and demands in these areas of music, the production is seriously lacking in creativity. And a lockdown that seems endless to everyone is not going to fix that. With the internet having reshuffled the cards and multinationals being unable to negotiate the crisis, MPB is collapsing while social networks propel rap, funk, country and forró artists into the limelight, creating superstars and the wealth that goes with it. “We were worried the lockdown would ruin the market for music, but musicians on social media have earned a huge amount of money”, says Alceu Valença, a survivor of the decimated MPB, which, according to the music critic Hugo Suckman “is now only musicians selling their instruments, giving music lessons remotely and planning to retrain”.
What is left then is what was there before Bolsonaro, something Brazilians will never forget: a century of music of undeniable richness that, in desperation, musicians are trying to revive in concerts here, there and everywhere. Imaginations are no longer used to write music, but to invent ways of sharing it. Actions that are not at all political, but allow them to survive psychologically. “In Brazil at the moment”, says Luiz Fernando Vianna, “with a government that wants people to die, staying alive is an act of civil disobedience”. Remembering that Brazilian music has resisted three dictatorships and plenty of incompetent governments, Hugo Suckman reassures us that: “The music industry is dying, but not music”. That is immortal.
Thank you to: Acauam de Oliveira – Alceu Valença - Chico César – Luiz Fernando Vianna and Hugo Suckman – Carlos Sandroni – Carlos Sion.