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White Rapper/Black Beats: Discovering a Race Problem in the Music of Gabriel o Pensador

From: Latin American Music Review
Volume 23, Number 2, Fall/Winter 2002
pp. 159-178 | 10.1353/lat.2002.0017

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Latin American Music Review 23.2 (2002) 159-178



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White 1 Rapper/Black Beats:
Discovering a Race Problem in the Music of Gabriel o Pensador 2

Ben Bollig


The contemporary black identity's process is, indeed, a form of social movement, but culture represents, as the black militants say, "the fighting arm of the blacks."

(Agier 1995, 255)

Introduction

From its roots in the West African griot tradition, slave call-and-response songs, soul, gospel, and disco music, through interactions at the cutting edge of technology, rap music has gained huge commercial and popular success world-wide. Rap, the combination of rhythmically delivered rhymes ("MC-ing") with variously adapted pre-recorded sounds ("DJ-ing") has risen from the Bronx ghetto to become a symbol of Black protest and economic power and has been adopted in many countries globally as a method of cultural expression. 3 Rap music represents one element of a larger movement, hip hop, which consists of graffiti, break dancing (a mechanical and precise dance style to accompany rap music), b-style (the appropriate clothing and "attitude"), DJ-ing, MC-ing and beat-box (vocal imitation of percussive sounds), among others. Although essentially an Afro-American form, rap's commercial success demonstrates a penetration into White middle- and upper-class sectors of society, both inside and outside of the United States, and its hybrid and neologous form has benefited from the influence of White and Hispanic artists and entrepreneurs. Thus, rap becomes an intriguing subject of study for those with an interest in race, racial oppression and its resistance. Furthermore, the case of a White, middle-class rap artist highlighting problems of racism [End Page 159] within the complex socio-political environment of urban Brazil provides a fascinating case study for examining the appropriation and use of modes of cultural expression.

Race Relations and Black Identity in Brazil: Exclusion/Inclusion, Denunciation/Denial

In Brazil any Negro or mulatto who shows himself fit is without question given the place to which his abilities entitle him. (Theodore Roosevelt, cited in Wood and Carvalho 1988, 135)
There are additional costs of being non-white in Brazil. (Ibid. 151)

In order to assess the work of a White artist performing a Black musical style, an overview of the racial situation in Brazil becomes immediately necessary. Whereas a study of race and ethnicity in the United States furnishes numerous examples of over-arching political movements, direct action and effective protest, Brazil provides fewer instances of such organized and focused activity, despite clear evidence of the discrimination Blacks suffer. Although earlier theories concerning the cordial and egalitarian nature of race relations in Brazil have now largely been discredited in academic circles or the quality press, there persists in Brazil a popular belief in the absence of prejudice. Those fighting racism in Brazil have struggled with apathy, official negation of discrimination, and the problem of non-Whites refusing to recognize their apparent phenotype, alongside the inclusive and powerful nature of racial discrimination in Brazil.

The view expressed above by Theodore Roosevelt perhaps represents a fair reflection of large sections of popular Brazilian thought in the post-slavery era. Gilberto Freyre's Casa grande e senzala (1938) presented an innovative portrait of race in Brazil. He argued that Brazilian society was more racially mixed than other multi-racial nations, partly due to the high level of interracial social and sexual contact during the slavery period. Thus "modern" (i.e., the 1930s and 1940s) race relations were more cordial and paternal than elsewhere. 4 Freyre therefore forwarded the idea of Brazil as a "racial democracy," where skills counted above race. Inequalities were class- rather than race-based and would disappear as Brazil moved further away from the slavery period. While Freyre promoted a degree of pride in Brazil's racial mixture, his works were easily subsumed into an official doctrine of branqueamento ("whitening"), which encouraged European immigration and the "fading out" of the Black race (see Skidmore 1993; Agier 1995). Throughout the post-slavery period there existed both an overt...