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Sunday, May 28, 2023
RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 18 2009 (IPS) - On stage, singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil highlighted Brazil’s “genetic and cultural” connection to “Mother Africa,” to applause from a predominantly light-skinned audience at a concert that black people generally could not afford – symbolic of the country’s “veiled racism” at an international festival organised to combat it.
The Back2Black festival presented a variety of prestigious black artists but, unfortunately, not to the descendants of African slaves who today are the majority of Brazil’s nearly 192 million people and who generally occupy the lowest socioeconomic strata. The cost of tickets, at between 34 and 45 dollars apiece (half-price for students and teachers), was prohibitive for most Afro-descendants.
The stars of the international festival in Rio de Janeiro were Gil, a former minister of culture (2003-2008) in the leftwing government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Youssou N’Dour of Senegal, introduced as “Africa’s greatest voice,” Brazilian rap artist MV Bill and the Banda Black Rio ensemble, among others.
African rhythms and their global influences were also represented by Angelique Kidjo, of Benin, Paulo Flores of Angola, and Mayra Andrade with the music of Cape Verde, while performers from the Americas included Brazilian samba performer Martinalia, Cuba’s Omara Portuondo, African American expressions from Los Angeles, and Brazilian singer-songwriters influenced by jazz, like Ed Motta from Rio de Janeiro.
According to its web site, “the aim of the Back2Black Festival is to promote encounters. Encounters between music and art, politics and film, dance and social conscience, literature and fashion, consumption and theatre, and of contemporary human beings with themselves.”
Different points of view on Africa itself and its influences were presented through imaginative choreography that staged amazing cultural diversity, with a kind of duel between Angolan kuduro dancers, Rio de Janeiro funk and krump, an urban street dance form from the vicinity of Los Angeles, in the United States, eliciting an enthusiastic response from the audience.
Not at school, and judging by the disproportionately low presence of Afro-descendants in the Back2Black audience, not at this festival either, despite its goal of reconnection to universal African roots.
Some people in the audience quietly commented on the irony, in spite of the good intentions of the festival organisers. “Where are the black people?” they muttered to each other, in a crowd that included many of Rio de Janeiro’s intellectuals, actors, activists, politicians and members of the business community.
Don’t you think that for a “Back2Black” event, the Afro-descendant public is rather under-represented in the audience? IPS asked black singer, rap musician, filmmaker and social activist MV Bill.
“That’s true,” he said with some embarrassment. “It’s certainly not the kind of audience that comes to my shows.
MV Bill attributed the lack of black faces among the festival audience to the “exorbitant” ticket prices, which barred the door to many people, particularly the poor.
“We Brazilians do not even know that ours is the largest African nation outside Africa – the largest, because we have the highest number of Afro-descendants outside Africa,” he said.
Raised in Cidade de Deus, the “favela” (shanty town) in the west of Rio de Janeiro portrayed in the film “City of God” by Fernando Meirelles, MV Bill reaches out to his neighbourhood’s impoverished, mainly black people in his own concerts, which are often free of charge, in a cultural form of social action of which he is one of the pioneers in Brazil.
According to Connie Lopes, head of Zoocom Eventos, the company that organised the festival, the event was not conceived of or produced as an “ethnic festival.”
“Back2Black seeks to highlight the importance of Africa in global terms,” Lopes said, in a press release that defined the festival as a gathering “to stimulate discussion and reflection on issues ranging from social and political development in Africa, to the future of the continent, by way of its progress expressed through the arts.”
“Our approach starts from the origins of human beings in that region in remote times, and arrives at the later political and multicultural fragmentation. Because once upon a time, we were all black,” said the organiser.
The Aug. 28-30 event was held at the old Leopoldina train station in Rio de Janeiro, transformed for the occasion into “a miniature Africa” by set designer Bia Lessa. The focus was on raising awareness of the role Africa has played in cultural dissemination, and exploring how it might recover that role in today’s world.
But this miniature Africa, said MV Bill, does not openly discuss the questions of race and racism; instead, it treats them “as if they were already resolved, when in fact they are not.”
Outside the festival venue such controversial issues seemed to take on a clearer meaning. A black couple who thought the event was free were disappointed when they were told the ticket prices. They turned around and left.
Murals with maps and cultural and historical information about Africa stood alongside moveable panels with illustrations of tribal cultures, and stalls sold Brazilian foods reflecting an African influence, like Bahian acarajé (shrimp-filled black-eyed pea fritters).
The only people who publicly expressed their views on the event and organised a protest were a group of teenagers who said they were “autonomous.” They roamed among the crowd, distributing flyers titled “Back to Darkness.”
The leaflets, printed on a shoestring budget, said the festival had “a white face” and “the true public, black people, the poor and those who live in the favelas, are on the outside,” no doubt “enjoying funk dancing for free.”
Letizia Catete, the leaflet’s author, told IPS that she and her group were barely able to scrape together the admission fee to get into the festival and carry out their protest.
“The shows are excellent and the debates are very interesting, but it’s too expensive and it’s not serving the greater purpose of spreading black culture and creating racial awareness, especially black consciousness among black people,” she complained.
“They want to take popular art and market it to an elite!” the teenager added with indignation.
Gil and MV Bill participated as speakers in the debates organised during the festival. Personalities from various backgrounds discussed Africa’s cultural influence and present problems, including Graça Machel, a former education minister of Mozambique, who is married to former South African president Nelson Mandela (1994-1999).
South African writer and painter Breyten Breytenback, a member of the anti-apartheid resistance movement, Irish human rights activist and musician Bob Geldof, the organiser of the Live Aid rock concerts to raise funds for Africa, and Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa were also present.
Julia Otero of Zoocom Eventos argued that the aim was not “to do something solely for black people or for white people.” “We wanted a cultural event where everyone is more than welcome,” she said.
She said the cost of admission was not intended to “exclude anyone,” but was decided upon as “a price that would make the event viable, and at the same time not too expensive.”
The festival was sponsored by heavyweight Brazilian companies like Petrobras, Oi Futuro and Vale do Rio Doce, the Ministry of Culture and the Culture Secretariat of the state government of Rio de Janeiro, and even the World Bank.
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