Issue 1 : Fall 2010

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  • Derek Pardue

    Who is Derek Pardue?

    Derek Pardue is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and International Area Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written the seminal work on Brazilian hip hop, More...

Globalize This!?: A Place for Brazilian Rap in “Afro-Beat”

As one navigates from “Pandora music” to youtube to Hollywood soundtracks, there is no denying the influence of rap music and hip hop culture. And, as is quite evident to any geographical traveler, such influence has made its mark on urban social landscapes around the world. One might say the same thing about “Afro-Beat” – a genre of music made popular during the boom of world beat and “world music,” which has affected not only pop cultural circles in the continents of Africa and Europe but also the lives of white boys in western North Carolina (see Toubab Krewe, literally at a show or their myspace site). The following is a reflection on the potentially shared contours of two global music-identity circuits: rap/hip hop and afro beat. I use Brazilian rap as a provocative case of crossover. Let me begin with a memory shard about genre. Back in the late 1980s I had the opportunity to see Gil Scott Heron perform. Along with the Last Poets, Gil Scott Heron in the early 70s produced what is now considered proto-rap music in the U.S. On two occasions Heron told a story on stage about the categorization of music – his music.

… Heron was in a record store, just perusing the vinyl, when he came upon a couple of his own recordings. Hmm, as he took a step back, he saw the plastic divider marking the row as “Miscellaneous.”

Returning to real time on stage, Heron laughed it off – “I don’t fit into their system of rock, jazz, R&B, funk, black, white, brown music.” Gil Scott Heron poked fun at the marketing system of the popular music industry as he introduced one of his well-known songs “Is that Jazz?” (1982).

Music, similar to any other commodity, is organized into markets. These are classifications based on assumed commonalities in structure (musical elements or content) and consumption practices. The rate of exchange is influenced by the degree to which consumers perceive a strong and reasonable alignment between the market category (jazz, blues, rock, country, rap, world beat) and sound (instrumentation, timbre, vocal style, lyrical content). One consistent market trope has been race. As the vignette told by Gil Scott Heron demonstrates, market connections are social practices that are sometimes ambiguous and even contested. This brief essay is about the precarious, or at least “strange,” position Brazilian rap holds in the current category of “Afro-Beat.”

It may seem passé to discuss “race musics.” While it certainly existed in the U.S. as one of those “plastic dividers” in local record stores, the label itself disappeared decades ago. In fact, “race musics” have not disappeared as marketing categories of economic and cultural capital at all, but rather have been reterritorialized. In a very real sense, “race musics” are an example of what in corporate language is referred to as “citizen brandship” or “brand loyalty”. But, of course, this process is not simply an administrative strategy and policy, but also one of consumer selection and social group identification. Even some recent US scholars have tried to take back the phrase “race music” in order to capture an early 20th century, local, “black press” connotation of the word, akin to the idea of the “race man” (W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche and so on). If “AfroBeat” articulates some sort of “black sound,” then what counts as “black” or “afro” and by extension, what are the operating logics of inclusion and exclusion?

Brazilian Blackitude: “What have you done, brother?”

Bossa nova legend Tom Jobim enjoyed bragging that “Brazil is not for beginners.” Indeed, Brazil does not fit comfortably within conventional stories of Latin America, European imaginations, or African diasporas. On the one hand, it might seem clear cut that due to the black African descent of so many Brazilians, in general, and rappers, in particular, Brazilian hip hop certainly belongs to “afro” music. However, despite a long history of what many outsiders interpreted as “Afro” or “black” cultural production, including music, dance, dress, food, language, it is only recently that Brazilians might use a racial term to describe such cultural stuff. For the most part, Brazilian artists pride themselves on being part of a local, modernist tradition of antropofagia, first codified by Oswald de Andrade in 1928 and later popularized by Caetano Veloso in the late 60s. Antropofagia is a cannibalism that entails consuming otherness (foreign ideas, forms, etc.) and digesting it in indigenous ways and vomiting out something new to be exported as distinctly Brazilian not Latin. From different but related perspectives, prominent Brazilian sociologists and literary critics such as Roberto Schwarcz and Heloísa Buarque de Hollanda have characterized Brazilian identities as “out of place” and “porous.” The trope of mixture is central to Brazilian national sentiment; consequently, “música black,” a dance-oriented genre influenced by US soul and funk and the basis of Brazilian hip hop with its apparent imitative practices, has provoked incessant scorn and ridicule.

One might move on from here and detail the peculiar Brazilian ideologies of “racial democracy” as a way of ameliorating racial tension, demarcating local or national identity, celebrating cultural difference, or distracting citizens from their empirical position of disenfranchisement (depending on one’s political perspective). I’d like to focus on a different but related part of this process of musical identity formation. Namely, blackness, in this case, is a cultural achievement; “black music” or “afro beat” is sociologically more interesting if one entertains the concept of music as a practice not simply an aesthetic product. It is this spirit that is captured in Brazilianist Christopher Dunn’s discussion of the late 1970s and early 1980s movement of blackitude baiana, a re-Africanization of carnival performances in the Northeastern city of Salvador in the state of Bahia.

Performing “afro” has never been an issue in Salvador or in Bahia. This early center of the Atlantic slave trade and first Brazilian federal capital has a long history of “afro” customs. It is the “black”, as opposed to cultura afro, that was different. What was and continues to be salient about this music is the action-based demands of blackness as not something relegated to the archives of tradition preserved in luddite rituals of handicraft, but the dynamic fashioning of blackness and Africanity as youth-based, tech saavy, and locally relevant.

In a gesture to Frantz Fanon and the more culturally oriented negritude authors, the Afro-Brazilian poet Solano Trindade once asked of his reader, “what have you done, brother?” Put simply, the term “negritude” is best translated as “becoming black.” For its part, the samba-reggaes and bloco afros of blackitude baiana, filled with sounds, images and body movement squarely within the global popular imagination of “afro,” expertly performed by local and “authentic” groups such as Ilê Aiyê and Olodum, have been a relatively easy sell for “afro beat”. But, what about music that is as much about a reorientation of people’s attitudes of self, a “becoming,” but lacks the generally accepted sonorous symbols of “afro”?

Rap Music

Unlike funk, soul and samba, Brazilian rap music began in the periferia of São Paulo. Periferia refers to (sub)urban places and ideologies of marginality, which have been central to Brazilian modernization and urbanization. São Paulo DJs, sound crews, and dancehall managers began to expand the baile black or “black” dance parties to include a small section for local rappers, sometimes referred to as tagarelas (babblers, yappers). It is from these competitions during the late 1980s that emerged legendary Brazilian rappers such as Racionais MCs.

Younger rappers often connect themselves to baile blacks by stating “estamos dando continuidade” (we are giving continuity). Despite the fact that música black and baile blacks have become part of a nostalgia circuit among bourgeois youth in São Paulo, “conscious” rappers maintain their claim to this tradition as theirs and “black.” Pivotal activists such as King Nino Brown, Nelsão Triunfo, Marcelinho Back Spin, and Thaíde consistently organize events bringing together the older generation of the soul and funk movement from Rio and São Paulo and the current generation of periferia teenagers to show that hip hop is part of this continuidade (continuity). There is a history.

The Marginalia of “Race Music”

At this point, we can begin to imagine the challenges Brazilian rappers face in their efforts to be counted as producers of “black music” or even “afro beat,” especially given the long tradition of globally recognized “afro” musics in places such as Salvador. Are hip hoppers in São Paulo and their music less “black” or less “afro”? Another way to ask this question, and what interests me, is how do people, who are interested in linking musical practices to black identities, create alternative global hybrids of “race musics”?

This is where the hip hop technique of pastiche and the general strategy of borrowing among popular culture performers are helpful in our assessment of Brazilian rap. By the mid-90s Brazilian hip hoppers expanded their performance of negritude. They systematically incorporated the term “black” as well as quilombo, a term referring to the self-liberated African-Indigenous communities dating back to the beginning of the Portuguese participation in the African slave trade. For the first time local hip hoppers brought into dialogue the black discourses of James Brown with Jorge Ben as well as Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation with Zumbi, the historic leader of the Palmares quilombo at the end of the 17th century. Some rappers even experimented with the sound of the berimbau, the distinct instrument of the Afro-Brazilian dance/martial art form of capoeira. For example, legendary hip hoppers Thaíde and DJ Hum juxtaposed the sounds of the berimbau with the a sample of brass instruments from James Brown’s band the JBs in their 1996 song “Afro-Brasileiro.” In another song on the same recording Thaíde gives homage to the great baile black (“black” dance party) sound crews.

The mid-1990s represented a time of intense “consciousness.” This fervor was not simply a result of hip hoppers becoming more “informed.” This was a period of marked advancement of political groups such as the MNU (United Black Movement) and their productive relationships with local posses in the São Paulo periferia. Hip hop posses (neighborhood hip hop cultural organizations) negotiated with governmental agencies to fund projects and open up public spaces for not only performances but also Yoruba language classes, “citizenship workshops,” vocational courses and eventually hip hop skill courses as a type of “alternative education.”

In 1997 with the unexpected success of Racionais MCs’ recording Sobrevivendo no Inferno (Surviving in Hell), the hip hop landscape, especially with regard to rap music, changed significantly. Mano Brown, the enigmatic front man, became a periferia idol in part because he focused his stories on the extreme locality of shantytowns. He honed his narrative skills to depict the marginal or delinquent. In addition, with the decline of posse and NGO influence, the majority of the São Paulo hip hop community began to figure race as ultimately secondary to socio-geographical realities of the periferia. To some extent, periferia and the marginal have always been significant in hip hop, but during these years the shantytown report of violence and poverty became the unshakable paradigm of hip hop narratives. Hip hoppers explained negritude as part of the banal nightmare that is “reality” and replaced a focus on Afro-centricity with brief qualifiers of discrimination, thus depicting blackness as a mere side effect of the sistema (“system”). The dominant faction within São Paulo hip hop has since used a “culture of violence” frame to make themselves and their concerns visible.

Since 2000, an organized but diverse alternative to the “marginal” rap has emerged. Brazilian hip hoppers have created what they call “positive” rap and hip hop to offer a “solution” to all the problems that “marginal” rappers have rightfully described. One particularly powerful sub-genre within “positive” hip-hop is rap evangélico, whose practitioners have recuperated a negritude activism and have combined it with a universalist but essentially Christian spirituality. Rather than nostalgia for James Brown, the non-Christian domain of candomblé, or even the overtly “African” cluster of capoeira and the berimbau, these “positive” hip hoppers express negritude in a reworking of the sounds of R&B and gospel – a presumably logical point of musical contact between God and Afro-Brazilians. In addition, rappers such as Professor Pablo and Lito Atalaia as well as Apocalipse 16, presently the most well-known of the evangelical rap groups, incorporate explicit sounds and images of computer and internet technology into their hip hop commodities.

A Way out of Here

Can Brazilian hip hop join forces with afro beat? If desired, the answer seems to lie in the spatiality of global circuits. Here is the rub. The greatest power of Brazilian “marginal” hip hop is its extreme locality. Mano Brown is the prophet of the hood; he is an expert of fine detail. Such detail is particularly Brazilian, a matrix of class and race with a concentration of the former over the latter, at least in the popular imagination. For their part, the new “positive” as well as old school “negritude” rappers come off as biters, irrelevant imitators whose sporadic success leaves a bad taste in the mouth of prideful Brazilians.

There is an alternative. [In fact, there are many styles and hip hop perspectives I have elided for the sake of this particular argument]. From the same Southside neighborhood as Mano Brown hails the group Z’Africa Brasil. The “Z” is for Zumbi, the leader of the Palmares quilombo, a settlement of self-liberated Africans and Indigenous people, as mentioned above. Zumbi died in battle on Nov. 20, 1695. This date of November 20 has now become the de facto date of Afro-Brazilian pride. What is interesting about Z’Africa Brasil is their assertion in many of their songs that the modern day quilombo is the periferia. And, in this way, they creatively explain the race-class conundrum by provocatively unifying the rural and the urban as well as resistance history and improvised urban housing. Moreover, Z’Africa Brasil members have been instrumental in linking “afro” to the main hip hop institutions in Brazil, namely Zulu Nation Brasil and the Hip Hop Culture House (Casa de Cultura Hip Hop). On a linguistic, aesthetic level, Z’Africa Brasil embodies the notion that negritude requires an act of becoming. For example, in the song “Tem Cor Age” (2006), the lead rapper Gaspar, who is not of African descent and a periferia resident (as millions of other Brazilians are), plays with the phrase from the song’s title. If taken as three words, the phrase implies that if one is of color, one should act. If taken as two words, “tem coragem,” the implication is that the protagonists of the song, indeed, have courage.


Throughout the current decade, the legendary U.S. rappers and hip hop activists KRS-1 and Chuck D independently have toured university campuses with a message that hip hop is eclectic and inclusive in practice but, for better or worse, part of black tradition. Activist academics such as Raquel Rivera (2003) have insisted that we remember that hip hop was born an Afro-Latin thing. Latinidad has always been part of the story. For their part, Brazilian hip hoppers select and connect to a set of musical traditions as empowering sound-identity vehicles, yet they often find themselves on the defensive in debates of identity, aesthetics and markets.

In this short essay, I have shown how such practices of articulation change over time as social, political and historical events influence hip hoppers’ views. In addition, the rise of rap stars and their agendas become stylistic and discursive paradigms for the hip hop community at large.

I return to my initial comments that music is meaningful only when considered as “sound in use.” In the case of Brazilian rap, I believe that the one durable legacy of negritude as articulated by hip hoppers has been periferia youth’s ability to strongly associate terms of blackness with social critique. Hip hoppers use “black” literally as a radical “attitude” instead of an empirical litmus test. This, in my opinion, is a fundamental part of a productive Afro-centric perspective and a positive practice of consumption in relation to contemporary forms of cosmopolitan “race music” markets, such as “afro beat.” The potential joining of Brazilian hip hop and afro beat is not a hermetic seal of commercial labeling but rather a provocative push to challenge mainstream notions of globalization, music and identity.

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