So then, what does Blackness in Brazil look like?

With the increased attention on Brazil since the Cup started, I’ve noticed non-Brazilians trying to figure out what exactly is going on with Brazilian racial politics. I’ll tell you it’s not an easy task. It’s taken me months to grasp even an idea of what’s going on with race while learning the culture, the language, and the layout of my new city. A mixed raced person myself, one who is often taken as Brazilian on the streets (until I open my mouth), I’ve eventually come to understand the national myth of a singular Brazilian identity made up of different races from around the entire world. But if we outsiders look at Neymar Jr. and seem him as black, and he really is a disappearing donkey, than what does blackness in Brazil look like? Well it may look something like this:

This scene, that looks like it could take place in any U.S. city, is Baile Charme. The above video takes place in Madureira, a neighborhood with an historical Afro-Brazilian community in Rio’s North Zone, and the epicenter of the Baile Charme movement. The coordinated dances to smooth American R&B tunes seemed out of place when I first saw them in Rio. But after understanding that this North American expression of blackness was one of the few places for black-identifying people in the city to congregate, I realized that such a movement was actually somewhat of a political statement. The mission statement of the Baile Black Bom party at Pedra do Sal explicitly states that they, “are a Baile Black who’s purpose is to valorize black culture through music, literature, and afro-entrepreneurship.”

Granted, Samba is ostensibly Afro-Brazilian, and many of its stars are black Brazilians. However, with the help of the Estado Novo, it was fully appropriated by white Brazilians and became a symbol of a multi-racial Brazilian-ness. Funk music came out of a very similar Baile Black scene in Rio, but after co-option by drug dealers, and the focus on lyrics that depict sex and violence, an explicit blackness has been weened out of a genre that now represents the multi-racial favelas. So, what often results is that expressions of blackness happen through the appropriation of foreign cultures, which can’t be appropriated as Brazilian by the greater population. Jamaican and the U.S. cultures, with strong histories of black empowerment movements become a convenient way to channel this identity.

To see the roots of the scene, check out my favorite scene from the movie Cidade de Deus, which takes place during a Baile Black/Old School Funk Party in that neighborhood:

In the states, the coordinated line dance style, isn’t as has hip as twerking today. But it, does still have its space in U.S. culture. Two of the biggest line dances of the last decade, and staples of the black Midwestern and Southern family reunion/wedding scene were the Cupid Shuffle, and the Cha Cha Slide. Of course the black fraternities on U.S. College campuses are the most fervent defenders (and innovators) of the tradition:

And in Oakland, the spiritual home of the hyphy movement (if Vallejo was its creative epicenter), a new hybrid twerk-step dance called Yiken has emerged (apparently merging with moves from the Gas Pedal.) Many of the moves are R-rated, what I initially called hyphy daggering, but this group of ladies really shows the creative side of the dance, and the energy of a place like the Town:

So there you go. It may not sort out all us outsiders’ understanding of racial identity in Brazil, but for me the connections are enough to satisfy — and even understand my place in my new home.

This post first appeared in modified form on Dutty Artz.

Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.