“Left-wing political parties distance themselves from periphery communities.”
– Geysson Santos, Black Brazilian activist, member of the Bocado Forte hip-hop collective and social science university student.
In recent times, the progressive left in Brazil has taken quite a beating. Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016. Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was imprisoned in 2018. The Workers’ Party? Stigmatized beyond repair or, at the very least, irreparable during Brazil’s second-round presidential election by salacious corporate media. In the end, a shoo-in presidency was all but assured for Jair Bolsonaro, root cause of the #EleNao (#NotHim) campaign. A man who garnered frantic, if not imprudent, calls that fascism had breached the horizon.
Unfathomable is it that a country with a majority Black and Brown populace would cast enough ballots, vote blank or abstain altogether faced with such incessant truculence against their community? The candidate in question, now president-elect, among his collection of racial forays, mouthed that descendants of quilombos “aren’t even worthy of procreation.” Quilombos are communities organized by formerly enslaved Africans who fled the racist, colonial grip of the Portuguese and the Dutch.
Just two months prior to the election, seated at the bottom of the well of the Roda Viva TV set, he told interviewers, “Truth be told, history records that the Portuguese never set foot in Africa … Black people themselves handed over slaves.” Weeks have passed since the unlikely. Months passed since the triumph of lawfare, putting Lula, the most popular president in Brazil’s history, in the slammer. Years passed since the shameless desecration of the Workers’ Party by the machinations of those who own the media. Bolsonaro has been elected President of Brazil and left-wing pundits continue scrambling to explain what in the world happened.
In the current polarized tug-of-war mouthing left-this, right-that, vote fascist candidate or vote pro-democracy — dare the imagination recall a single day when Brazil’s storied history, 500+ years and counting, held the status of democracy — voices ruminating as outliers wither away. The binaries at work haven’t picked up their signals. Nonetheless, their voices, their tireless militancy and labor are no less important.
Brazil Elections: A View From the World of Hip-Hop
Geysson Santos | Source: YouTube.com/GeyssonSantos
“My first critical views about society were fostered through hip-hop. It’s inevitable to escape because we who grow up in periphery communities listen to rap. We listen to Racionais (Mcs), MV Bill … and we’re presented with another perspective of the world,” said Geysson Santos, a Black Brazilian activist, member of the Bocado Forte hip-hop collective and social science university student.
Santos’ interview was just getting underway on the podcast Hip-Hop Sem Maquiagem (Hip-Hop Without Makeup). Taking aim at recent debates championed by left-wing and progressive political movements in Brazil, he reminded that such issues were commonplace in the burgeoning hip-hop scene almost 30 years back.
“For example, current debates about drug decriminalization policies were already being discussed within the rap community in the 1990s and at that time, it wasn’t a left-wing agenda. Back then, the rap community also addressed matters such as demobilizing or demilitarizing the military police, but this issue has only recently become a left-wing agenda.”
Fire lit, Geysson emphasized that “rap posited itself as the vanguard of periphery communities.” He added, “We’ve always played a fundamental role in politicizing our people. The role that the left purports to do falls short because they distance themselves from the periphery.”
The longtime rap activist and social science university student pointed out that traditional left-wing political parties establish themselves via formal structures. These structures include, primarily, university student movements, which, be they right or left, remain dominated and controlled by Brazil’s white, privileged minority. Another formal structure giving birth to left-wing political parties are workers’ unions, their directorial makeup, more often than not, mirroring that of student movements.
As a matter of natural habit or unconscious routine, Geysson concluded that because of their demographic composition, traditional left-wing and progressive political parties, through systematic exclusion, inherently distance themselves from the very communities they propose to save. In his words, these political parties “Don’t reflect our image and our day-to-day militancy.”
“I believe vices exist. Political party bureaucracy is an addiction. And it’s difficult for us, those from periphery communities, to take active roles in them … This is a reality in Alagoas (state), but I believe it to be the case nationwide — the way Brazil’s left was formed, even the foundation of Brazil itself, established through extreme racism and bureaucracy. So, it becomes a battleground within the left-wing and progressive camps just to discuss issues involving our youth, the genocide perpetrated against our Black youth. Why? Our agendas aren’t integral to their central talks. They end up confusing our issues with postmodernism or reformists agendas, impeding us from having a serious, centralized discussion. As a result, other structures are organized. Those are the Black movement, the hip-hop movement, because within this realm, we’re able to discuss our concerns maturely.”
Brazil’s hip-hop movement, at present, doesn’t come with its fair share of contradictions. Big money, or the illusion of such, has entered the fray, launching cameo appearances and one-hit careers dubious in message as they are lavish in portraying women, luxury cars and jewelry. One group from the state of Pernambuco even recorded a pro-Bolsonaro music video during the presidential campaign. Nevertheless, ask anyone. The popular consensus in Brazil upholds hip-hop’s historical trajectory in the South American behemoth. The genre has and continues to dominate the airwaves across the country. It is, as it always has been, an incubator for social change and force of the Black conscious movement, community pride and affirmation.
Geysson’s voice is just one of many. Alloyed by the ongoing struggle African descendants have waged against European colonialism and chattel slavery, their newfound iterations and legacies, hip-hop’s contribution in Brazil should not be underestimated. Defending the homeland against the U.S. war of aggression, the Vietnamese sang: “When my country will be at peace, I shall go visit, old mothers will climb mountains, to look for their children’s bones … When my country will be at peace, my friend’s graves, will have tender grass grown over … When my country will be at peace, I shall go visit, a bridge collapsed by mines.
The Zimbabwean guerrilla war against the racist white minority government of what was then Rhodesia, named after White British settler Cecil Rhodes, was accompanied by revolutionary songs called Chimurenga music. In the 1970s, the African National Congress choir sang, “Shoot, Kill the Boers.” Boers are the minority white population holding the Indigenous Black people of South Africa hostage under Apartheid. More recently, former South African President Jacob Zuma and the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, Julius Malema, have song in tune, “Shoot, Kill the Boers,” at political rallies. In Brazil, polyglot funk singer and rapper Mr. Catra, hailing from the Borel favela, released a song titled “Dog,” addressing police corruption in Rio de Janeiro. He’s since been charged with “inciting crime.”
Challenges Facing the Brazilian Left
Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (L) with Fernando Haddad (R) during a Workers’ Party rally. | Source: Con La Gente Noticias
Remember: Dilma was impeached; Lula was imprisoned. The establishment left may have naively believed neither feat, much less both, was remotely possible. However, the burden of losing four consecutive presidential elections had roiled Brazil’s elite white minority beyond reason. While lawfare was employed to send Lula to jail, the left resorted to fear-mongering and, what could be argued, their own white savior complex to discredit Bolsonaro. To them, the presidency was a zero-sum game, as if the Black masses, the majority populace, hadn’t seen worse men and worse times.
At least Lula emerged from the throngs of abject poverty, drought and disease in Brazil’s underserved northeast region. He attended school up until fifth grade, would get on TV and, as president, and shed tears when speaking of his late wife, Maria de Lourdes da Silva, and their unborn first child. He would take to the podium at national events and call Brazil’s white elite a bunch of “ignoramus fools” or another day say that the global economic crisis was occasioned by “blue-eyed white folks” or confess his initial reluctance to join the steelworkers union, preferring to either go home and watch soap operas or play football with friends.
When Lula spoke, periphery communities didn’t just listen to his words. They felt him in heart and soul. They still do. No more aft than he, they pushed forward together in 2002 to elect a fifth-grade-educated steelworker president. Cognizant of his political trajectory, he smacked the table before the judge awarding his presidential credentials and literally fell into his embrace. His raspy vocals crackling under the weight of trying to hold back tears, he said, “If anyone in Brazil doubted that a metal lathe worker would emerge from a factory plant and ascend to the presidency of the Republic, I, in 2002, proved them wrong. And I, who on so many occasions was accused of not having a university degree, earn, as my very first diploma, my country’s presidential republic diploma.”
Lula’s requirements were exacting. The narrowest of lines had been drawn from the depths of economic deprivation to the pomp of the Planalto Palace, the president’s official workplace. Reneging on Brazil meant turning his attention to the negated. Hence, Lula’s embarkation was firmly rooted in policies geared toward the masses. Social programs established during his two presidential terms (from 2003 to 2011) lifted millions from historical poverty. The country was taken off the U.N. World Hunger Map. The Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance) program started just two years into his presidency, provided monthly allowances to guarantee basic needs of impoverished families, such as food, hygiene and transportation. If it weren’t different dates, not so much different times, the Lula of today would sprout from cluttered periphery communities, birthplace of Brazil’s hip-hop movement.
Now, with him in prison, comes the establishment-polished left. Not the bedrock of resistance to the vengeful white state and its gangster, criminal history, which is as vast as it is lethal and present. Lilia Schwarcz, professor of anthropology at the University of Sao Paulo and editor of the Dicionário da Escravidão e Liberdade (Dictionary of Slavery and Freedom), said “slavery took root in Brazil in all forms.”
She went on to say that “people often believe that only large landowners possessed enslaved people. Not true. I want to underscore, once again, it’s (slavery) not just inheritance, we’ve taken action, substantially, in recreating racism in Brazil.” She maintained that the seed for this recreation was planted soon after slavery was abolished. One and a half years later, when the Brazilian Republic was established, the original national anthem had a verse with the lyrics: “We don’t even believe that slaves previously existed in our noble country.” It was a process of national amnesia.
Race & Revolution in the Americas: A Historical Context
Art depicting a typical quilombo in Brazil. | Source: R. Vicenzo
Unquestionably, Black and Brown people, if their social conditions were compared to any other federal administration in Brazil’s history, fared significantly better during Lula and Dilma’s presidencies. That said, acknowledgement must also be conferred to the fact that the historical bedrock of resistance to the status quo emerged out of the debauchery occasioned against Black and Brown people in this continental-sized country. A country that had been compartmentalized, crafted and choreographed by European greed, regardless if it transpired during colonial or post-colonial periods. Historical vacuums don’t exist. Therefore, any and all attempts to prove Brazil is not unredeemable from its heartache past weighs against the struggle for freedom, self-determination and the building of a better society.
That history also recalls that social inclusion into the Brazilian state, particularly taking into account historically oppressed people, is by no means a zero-sum game. As if to say a complete rupture of the status quo, a total reset in the affairs of the oppressed and the oppressor, could only serve as some fast track back to chaos, cannibalism and blunt nakedness, lesser the white man’s gift of language and religion. You know the story.
But in Haiti, that rupture morphed from regional revolts against chattel slavery to the “Night of Fury.” Thirteen years of war against Napoleon Bonaparte’s unbeatable France, including Spain and Britain along the way, resulted in the first modern African-descendant republic in the Western Hemisphere. The new government, under the direction of revolutionary leader Jean Jacques Dessalines, decreed welcome to enslaved Africans and Indigenous people anywhere in the world. Freedom and citizenship awaited their arrival. This tectonic shift, par excellence, is so often overlooked as a fountainhead of freedom and justice, as it does not entertain a white savior complex. This model must be revisited, time and again, as the precursor to any and all declarations of freedom and independence in this hemisphere.
Schwarcz recalled that the Haitian Revolution garnered such repercussion in Brazil that it was given its very own epithet, “esse haitismo” (“that Haitianism”), used to characterize a Black person unruly to the standards and expectations of white law and society.
In Colombia and other Spanish colonies, communities of free, independent African peoples were called “palenques” or “cimarrones.” In the English-speaking Caribbean and United States, they were called “maroons.” However, none of these community-nations reached the apogee of the Haitian Revolution. Similar to and longer lasting than the palenques, cimarrones and maroons are the multitude of quilombos spread across Brazil.
Chattel slavery in Brazil was no fluke. It was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to legally abolish it. The story goes that Princess Isabel, the redeemer, Imperial Princess of Brazil, fell distraught over the plight of the monarchy’s enslaved Africans. To bring an end to the inhumane practice, she signed the Lei Aurea (Aurea Law) on May 13, 1888. Per historical record, as if at the snap of one’s finger, from sunup to sundown, without a dime of recompense or national reconciliation, the Black masses across Brazil were magically freed.
Andre Rebouças, a popular Black abolitionist from the state of Bahia, insisted, as a fundamental precept to guarantee their newfound freedom, that land be redistributed equitably to the formerly enslaved. He also advocated for universal education. Popular demands of this stripe were met by Ruy Barbosa, Brazil’s former Minister of Finance (1889 – 1891) who made sure to eradicate slavery’s scourging paper trail, ordering all state documents related to the practice incinerated.
But, as the Haitian axiom goes, “the axe forgets but not the tree.” Neither would the quilombos, nor devotees of the African-based religion of Candomblé (Yoruba), or capoeira martial artists and messages conveyed in the conga rhythms and so forth.
Quilombo de Quariterê was led by Tereza Benguela, popularly known at the time as Queen Tereza, after her husband, José Piolho, was physically eliminated by Brazilian soldiers in the 18th century. Located in Vale do Guaporé in the present-day state of Mato Grosso, the free territory, according to local documents of the time, was home to more than 100 people — approximately 79 Black people and 30 Indigenous people — and was organized around a political, economic and agricultural landlocked state within, yet wholly independent from, Brazil. Here, rice, corn, beans, cassava, banana and other staple food items were harvested. Cotton was grown and a series of looms were incorporated to produce textiles sold to other communities. The same applied to access comestible items. A defense system was employed to guarantee the integrity of their free territory, not that the proponents of the Peace of Westphalia, giving rise to the concept of national sovereignty, would ever recognize their rights. Such treaties sought an end only to the religious wars waged among Europeans in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Directed outwards upon the Black and Brown peoples of the world, all was, still is, fair game.
To be clear, public records from nearby Vila Bela da Santíssima Trindade municipality registered in 1770 that the Quilombo de Quariterê was “governed by a parliament, complete with a residence that served as a council (for Queen Tereza), of which deputies convened on scheduled days during the week. The Queen presided over that seated Black senate.” Quilombo de Quariterê, under the leadership of Queen Tereza, would last for two decades, until her capture and decapitation in 1770.
The most well-known quilombo, Quilombo dos Palmares, lasted almost the entirety of the 17th Century. Home to anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 people, it was known to have an organized, socio-political structure resembling socio-political structures in pre-colonial Africa. In 1678, the community-nation agreed to a peace treaty offered by former Governor Pedro de Almeida and the Kingdom of Portugal.
Albeit led by Black people, Quilombo dos Palmares was also home to Indigenous nations, Muslims, Jews and some outcast Portuguese residents were also there. They fended off consistent bushwhacking attacks by the Portuguese and Dutch for nearly a century before being destroyed in 1695. Even urban cities were not immune from the fight for freedom. In 1835, Black Muslims, primarily from the Nagô ethnic group who spoke Yoruba, rebelled in an event called the Malé Rebellion. Up to 600 insurgents — “jihadists,” as they may have been called — spread throughout the city of Salvador, attacking security forces. That Brazil, as colony, monarchy, state, whatever iteration it desires, has been fronted in quests to legitimize its cartography of violence. Per the words of Somali author Nuruddin Farah, it speaks volumes of the hundreds, if not thousands, of quilombos sprinkled across the country’s 26 states. Attacks against these regional community-nations were not uncommon and the exploitative conditions given their rise have gone nowhere.
Simmering beneath this legalized sadism has been decades-long exoduses of families who fled poverty, hunger and drought in Brazil’s north and northeastern regions. Settling mainly in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, their dreams of better opportunity turned to scouring society’s muck. The favelas and quebradas (ghettos) became home to the descendants of many of those displaced families. Over the years, they’ve come to neighbor affluent residential bubbles that, on one hand, loathe their presence, and, on the other, love the convenience of having a cheap labor source — nannies, maids, construction hands — a corner’s walk away.
How Brazil’s History Haunts the Present
Jair Bolsonaro. | Source: Folha de S.Paulo
The vortex linking past and present is not unknown to Brazilian authorities. That is, the periphery, better than any other social bloc, represents the bedrock of resistance to Brazil’s unrobed white state. This helps to explain the repeated attacks perpetrated against these communities by the police, army and right-wing militias, all claiming the fight against drugs and gangs as a wholesale pretext. Like Mano Brown, co-founder of Racionais MCs, responded when asked to describe Zumbi, the last leader of Quilombo dos Palmares: “He was a grain of sand. A legend … it’s just that the distance in time hinders. What would Zumbi be today? Someone sporting tribal clothes with a spear in hand, or a revolver? I don’t know.”
Venturing further, Irone Santiago, mother of Vitor Santiago Borges, who was left paraplegic after being rifle shot by a soldier during the military intervention in the Complexo da Maré favela in 2015, rallied, “With each passing day the number of mothers victim of this assassin, genocide State increases. We’re thirsty, starved for justice. We only want what’s been taken from us, the right to come and go as we please. I didn’t request the military in (Complexo da) Maré. They’re not here through my consent, my family’s consent, the consent of community residents … people must become outraged and pursue their rights. We can’t allow them to keep killing us.”
The establishment left and polished progressives did little except present a doomsday scenario in case Lula wasn’t re-elected president. His imprisonment since April 7, 2017 on corruption and money laundering accusations without a shred of evidence presented by prosecutors or judges, effectively barred from running as a candidate, are, without question, disastrous events. A 13.5-year social inclusion program, not to mention regional integration, more visionary grit than fanfare, Brazil’s inclusion in the so-called “Pink Tide,” is gone. Lula admitted it himself, saying that he’s an “innocent person who’s being judged to avoid his return (to office) to effectuate the best government in Brazil’s (history) … history is built over many years. I know that I’m going to go down in history as the president who did the most for social inclusion in this country.”
His success was reflective in every presidential electoral poll. A shoo-in, third-term president he was, if allowed to run. But now we have Bolsonaro — an admirer of Augusto Pinochet, who believed that the Chilean general should have “killed more.”
What Is to Be Done?
Afro-Brazilian women protest Bolsonaro’s election. | Source: Associated Press
While Brazil’s white state of affairs has resulted in a default presidential election, it mustn’t be neglected, much less forgotten, that even worse, much worse, has been countered. Never amorphous and shiftless through half a millennium of white state terrorism and its modern-day derivatives, African-descendants, the rainbow bloc of Indigenous nations, in ways almost unimaginable, not only resisted, but organized and developed, holding steadfast to their nations and ways of living for time immemorial.
Acknowledging this stewardship of resilience, it must also never be forgotten that they, nations within Brazil, are not conspicuous targets, confined to social inclusion programs. They are the fire, vanguard, agents and builders of free, democratic societies longstanding, their portents more than just encouraging, unfathomable to the modern-day western nation-state, even ideological polar opposites represented in socialist Cuba and neoliberal capitalist United States.
Fidel Castro spelled out during a speech delivered at the closing ceremony of the first International Congress on Culture and Development in June 1999 that European “colonial powers” are “responsible for centuries of exploitation, backwardness and poverty. He went on to ask, “Are we to resort to a racial interpretation of the reasons for the poverty of those African peoples when it is a known fact that, in that continent, various civilizations had attained remarkable progress at a time when in Berlin, Paris and many other places of civilized Europe there were only wandering tribes? A thousand years before, there already existed civilizations in Egypt, Ethiopia and other parts of Africa … What is the cause of this poverty if not the systems of colonialism, slavery, neocolonialism, capitalism and imperialism that reign during the past few centuries?”
Less than a week before the election, Mano Brown took to a Rio de Janeiro stage. Against his promise to never attend another political event, he had come to this rally in support of Fernando Haddad, the Workers’ Party substitute presidential candidate, to “represent me” — me, in the vernacular, the periphery voice that hasn’t fallen astray. In doing so, he grabbed the mic and said he was in no mood for the “festive gathering—blindness is what kills us, not fanaticism.”
Seated right behind Mano was Haddad and his wife, Ana Estela Haddad, and vice-president running mate, Manuela D’Avila of the Communist Party of Brazil; former left-wing presidential candidate Guilherme Boulos of the Socialism and Liberty Party; the former Minister of Foreign Affairs and former Defense Minister, Celso Amorim; Brazilian singers Chico Buarque and Caetano Veloso; liberation theology priest Leonardo Boff; and a host of other distinguished guests there to toe the party line. Mano’s verse, echoing the message conveyed by Geysson, was on cue for some, not for others.
“Speaking well of the PT (Workers’ Party) before a PT crowd is easy. There’s a whole bunch of people who aren’t here who have to be won over. If not, we’ll fall into the abyss … people here are messing up and now they’re gonna pay the price (pointing to the distinguished guests behind him). Because communication is the heart and soul of everything and if they’re not speaking the language of the people, they’re gonna lose fa sure, ya feel me.”
A flurry of boos poured in. Incredulous were they? Fearful of what was to come if they couldn’t mount a miraculous comeback in an already rigged election? Was it a last ditch effort at consensus, one that hip-hop’s finest would blindly acquiesce without voicing the concerns of the quebradas and favelas?
“If you let me talk it’ll be dope, but I’d just as well stop altogether. Fuck it.”