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Oppression and Resistance in

Jamaican Reggae and

Afro-Brazilian Music

A Comparative Study of Race in Music and Culture

Michael R. Dávila

Cultural expression frequently serves as a lens to the conditions, historical and contemporary, of a society. Film, music, and literature often serve as an extension of oral traditions and can provide us not only with a glimpse into history but can also share with us the cultural impact of the past and give us a greater understanding of the present. In the countries of Brazil and Jamaica with similar histories of oppression, from slavery, to genocide, to crushing poverty and systemic racism, it is not surprising to see a similarity in the heightened consciousness in their music. Through analysis of the histories of Brazil and Jamaica, from slavery to the institutionalized systems of oppression, one can understand how such seemingly different musical traditions frequently share a common theme, resistance.

"…a good part of the attraction of reggae music to its metropolitan audience is the anger and protest of the lyrics. We obviously face a contradiction between the message of urban poverty and protest which reggae conveys and that of pleasure and relaxation inherent in our holiday product.

In short, when we promote reggae music we are promoting an aspect of Jamaican culture which is bound to draw attention to some of the harsher circumstances of our lives."

-- Jamaica Tourist Board Memorandum, October 10, 1975 (Davis and Simon, 1977, p. 1)

Jamaican reggae is music of protest that carries an angry message of poverty. Listeners worldwide often simply enjoy the swaying upbeats and melodies of reggae while giving little thought to the importance of the lyrics or the ‘harsh circumstances’ that have given birth to the music. Similarly, the music of Brazil has been neglected. Musical prejudices commonly lead to the association of subtle rhythms and light, casual melodies with bland music and not profound expression (Byrne, 1989, p. 2-3). However, the music of both cultures caries with them strong traditions of resistance. They both pay homage to their leaders and mythic figures and work to carry on in their tradition of resistance.

The Maroon States

In contrast to the thirteen colonies which were to become the United States of America, which were colonized by settlers seeking a new life in the West, the majority of the new world colonies were established to be financial ventures based on the exploitation and exportation of natural resources and the running of massive plantations. In Brazil, there was no effort to settle the land in the same sense as in North American. While the northern settlers brought wives, few women traveled to Brazil. To support their efforts, the colonial population of Brazil was augmented through the mestiçagem (miscegenation) with indigenous women. The Portuguese essentially monopolized the slave trade, bringing approximately three and a half million African slaves to Brazil through the Middle Passage, six times the number to arrive in the United States and the single largest slave contingent in the New World (Stam, 1997, p. 4, 26, 44). Both the Brazilian and Jamaican colonies developed into commercial territories built on slave labor.

However, Jamaica is a rough island, "the stone the builder refused." The difficult geography and dense forests thwarted the efforts of the imperial powers to tame the island. The wild hill country was a beckoning sanctuary for the enslaved Africans working on the plantations. The Spaniards, fleeing from English conquest of the island in 1655, sailed from the island, leaving their slaves behind. Rather than idly await a new master, the slaves sought freedom in the hills. These escaped slaves became the Maroons of Jamaica (Barrett, 1988, p. 30).

Under the leadership of Juan de Bolas, the Jamaican Maroons engaged in skirmishes with the British in defending their territory. The colonial powers saw the Maroons as an obstacle to the profitable running of the island; not only were the Maroons impeding the expansion of the colony, their freedom enticed slaves to flee the plantations to join their brethren in the hills. After eight years of hostile cohabitation of the island, the British courted Juan de Bolas, offering him peace and a military title. The Maroons, however, did not trust the British offer and slaughtered their leader (Barrett, 1988, p. 31).

The Maroon guerilla war with the British continued for another seventy-five years. During this period, the Maroons grew in number with the steady exodus of "irrepressible spirits" within the Coromantee slaves. An Ashanti family rose out of the new Maroons to become prominent leaders. Cudjoe and Quaco became political and military leaders of the Maroons. Meanwhile, another group of Maroons from the east side of the island became organized under the mythical Nanny (of whom it is said that her broad hips were capable of knocking over whole lines of British troops). These legendary figures led decades of brutal campaigns against the British. It was truly a guerilla war, resorting to sudden and swift attacks and cunning ambushes. The Maroons provided a consistent rebellion that eventually drew the British to the bargaining table to sue for peace again in 1738.

After decades of hostility, the war-weary British and Maroons eventually agreed to a treaty, signed March 1, 1738. While the treaty guaranteed peace and granted land to the Maroons, it came at a great price to the burgeoning movement of resistance. The treaty subjugated the Maroons, turning them into an unpaid army for the colonial power. Following the signing of the treaty, the Maroons served in this role, suppressing the slave population from which they came (Barrett, 1988, p. 36).

Brazil, like Jamaica, represented a geographical challenge to the imperial colonists. Even to this day, a majority of the country remains ‘untamed’ and over 90% of the population lives strictly along the coastline. Sometime before 1606, escaped slaves made their way from the plantations of Alagoas and Pernambuco and fled to the interior, seeking sanctuary in the forested coastal mountains. The runaway slaves established a quilombo (maroon state) in a region that came to be known as ‘Palmares’ (Anderson, 1996, p. 550-1).

"[T]he most apparent significance of Palmares to African history is that an African political system could be transferred to a different content; that it could come to govern not only individuals from a variety of ethnic groups from Africa, but also those born in Brazil, pitch black or almost white, latinized or close to Amerindian roots; and that it could endure for almost a full century against two European powers, Holland and Portugal." (Kent, 1965, p. 163)

Not only was Palmares capable of surviving the ongoing invasions of Holland and Portugal, but it was able to experience a period of prosperity throughout which the Palmarinos lived with dignity and harmony. Palmares served as an early model for a utopian republic (Stam, 1997, p. 41) based on ‘fraternal equality’ (Freitas, 1982, p. 210). The story of Palmares even lead historian Oliveira Martins to state, "Of all of the historical examples of slave protest, Palmares is the most beautiful, the most heroic. It is a black Troy, and its story is an Iliad" (Freitas, 1982, p. 64). The history of the quilombo has become a romantic tale of a society that many modern Brazilians seek to restore.

The mocambos (maroon settlements or towns, from Kimbundu mukambo, ‘hide-out’) of Palmares were initially established by a trickle of runaway slaves. However, the area soon became home to increasing number of slave refugees from the Dutch invasion of northeastern Brazil in the 1630s. During the Dutch occupation, there were several efforts to probe into Palmares, none with any notable success. However, during the brief reign of the Dutch, the Portuguese presented a greater threat that eventually led to the expulsion of the Dutch from Pernambuco in 1654. Nevertheless, several of the Dutch incursions provide an early glimpse into the development of Palmares. During the Blaer-Reijmbach expedition of 1645 the area was dominated by at least one large mocambo. This mocambo was a settlement of 220 buildings including four smithies and a council house. The whole settlement was fortified by double palisade with a spike-lined trough and was inhabited by approximately 1,500 Palmarinos (Anderson, 1996, p. 551-2).

This early quilombo was also home to several other smaller settlements throughout the region. Palmares, aside from being militantly defensive, was also productive. During the twenty-seven years of internecine peace following expulsion of the Dutch, the Palmarinos traded with their Portuguese neighbors, frequently trading foodstuffs and crafts for arms and ammunition. Trade was so extensive that many of the colonials of the region opposed war with the Palmarinos, preferring the idea of granting sovereignty to Palmares in order to bring peace (Anderson, 1996, p. 552).

Palmares provided sanctuary for any of the refugees or outcasts of the colony, openly welcoming natives, mestiços, renegade whites, Jews, Muslims and heretics. Most critical to the Governor was the sanctuary provided for runaway slaves, a constant lure for the forced labor of the plantations. As well, Palmares served as an obstacle to the further expansion of the Portuguese colony and was a challenge to the white, European supremacy of the territory (Stam, 1997, p. 42-1). In response, the Portuguese waged continued military campaigns from the mid-1670s until the final conquest of Palmares in 1694 (Anderson, 1996, p. 552-3, 563).

At its peak, the population of Palmares was estimated to be roughly 20,000 strong (Stam, 1997, p. 41); a Brazilian quilombo based on the Angolan kilombo. Kilombo was originally a male military society in Angola. During the seventeenth century, Angola was in constant military turmoil. The coast was occupied by the Portuguese and dominated by slave trade, while neighboring African nation-states were constantly putting military pressure on the area through numerous invasions. The diverse people of central Angola came together under the name ‘Imbangala’ and formed a lineageless society in order to integrate the numerous cultures. In order to cope with the constant military conflict and political upheaval of the region, the Imbangala instituted kilombo, which they found to be a unifying social paradigm for a people under constant military alert. Amongst the burgeoning population of Palmares, there were numerous descendants of Angolan slaves and possibly recent arrivals of the Imbangala, leading to their naming of the region Angola Janga, ‘Little Angola’ (Anderson, 1996, p. 558-9).

The Portuguese launched their campaign for the destruction of the quilombo with an invasion led by militia captain Fernão Carrilho. Carrilho’s campaign of 1676-7, while devastating, also provides one of the few recorded primary accounts of the region. At the time of the invasion, Palmares was dominated by several mocambos including Zambi, Acotierene, Tabocas, Dambrabanga, Subupira, the royal compound of Macaco, Osenda, Amaro and Andalaquituche. Macaco was home to the Palmarino king, Ganga-Zumba, ‘Great Lord’. The whole compound was fortified, surrounded by a palisade with embrasures, a perimeter of iron caltrops and pitfalls and was comprised of more than 1,500 houses. As well, the compound had a chapel, complete with statues of the baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Saint Blaise. While overtly a Christian structured, the Palmarinos practiced a syncretism of Christian and African beliefs. The capital of Palmares, however, was not the training ground for their warriors. The town of Subupira, under the governance of Zona, Ganga-Zumba’s brother, was the staging ground for assaults against the Portuguese. This mocambo of over 800 houses, much like the capital, was fortified with wood and stone as well as a perimeter of caltrops and pitfalls (Anderson, 1996, p. 553-5).

The quilombo of Palmares was well-fortified Maroon state of fiercely capable and determined people. Through guerilla warfare and military vigilance, the Palmarinos were able to withstand the direct Portuguese onslaught for over a decade. However, in 1678, the battle-wounded and war-weary chief Ganga-Zumba, accepted the terms of peace offered by the governor of Pernambuco. These terms of peace granted the sovereignty of the Palmarinos in exchange for the return of fugitive slaves and relocation from Palmares to the Cucaú Valley, closer to the scrutiny of the governor (Anderson, 1996, p. 563).

However, the treaty signed by Ganga-Zumba did not bring peace to the Palmarinos. A faction led by ‘Captain Zumbi’ and other rebels opposed relocation from Palmares. In 1680, Ganga-Zumba was killed in a palace revolt led by Zumbi. Ganga-Zumba’s death came by poison, either from Zumbi or his faction or by the African practice of sanctioned regicide, the grave penalty for weakness or abuse of power. Zumbi reunited the Palmarinos under his authority and immediately prepared for a new war against the Portuguese (Anderson, 1996, p. 563).

The Portuguese responded to the breaking of the treaty with the enlistment of ‘Bush Captain’ Domingos Jorge Velho. Velho and his irregulars joined the Portuguese militia force raised in the Northeast to prepare for a new assault on Palmares in 1692. The initial thrust was rejected and a new expeditionary force, augmented with new troops, was gathered in Porto Calvo in late 1693. This force eventually reached the capital of Macaco in early 1694 and laid siege to the royal compound for 22 days. On February 5th, 1694 the Palmarinos abandoned the fortifications of the mocambo, either to attack from the rear or flee through a break in the line of attackers. The battle over the next two days lead to the death of over 500 and the capture of another 500 Palmarinos (Anderson, 1996, p. 563-4). At the end of the battle, only women and children remained, many of whom chose to starve themselves to death rather than return to slavery (Stam, 1997, p. 43).

Zumbi escaped death at the battle in Macaco and continued to harass the Portuguese for over a year. However, late in 1695, one of his aides revealed his location to the Portuguese. Zumbi and his band of rebels were killed in the resulting ambush on November 20th, 1695. His body was taken to Porto Calvo for identification and his head later sent to Recife, the capital of Pernambuco. In Recife, the head of the "black Spartacus" was publicly displayed until it decomposed as proof against the claims of Zumbi’s immortality (Anderson, 1996, p. 564; Stam, 1997, p.43).

Refugees from Palmares continued their resistance, despite the death of their leader. Another quilombo was formed in Paraibe, called Cumbe. Cumbe successfully repelled numerous attacks before eventually being destroyed in 1731. Resistance in the area continued until 1797, almost two centuries after the refugee settlement of Palmares (Stam, 1997, p. 43). The region, even in the 20th century, has been an area of sporadic resistance, including several rebellious insurgencies during the totalitarian military regime of the 1960s and ‘70s.

To this day, Zumbi, the last leader of the quilombo of Palmares, is popularly regarded as a national hero. The day of Zumbis’s death, November 20th, is a national holiday, celebrated with numerous commemorative festivals. Initially called Zumbi Day, the holiday was rebaptized "National Black Consciousness Day" in 1978. In 1995, on the tercentenary of Zumbi’s death, or popularly recognized as the tercentenary of his immortality, carnaval chose to celebrate the mythic leader of Palmares. As well, numerous other events, including President Fernando Henrique Cardoso speaking in the Municipal Hall in União dos Palmares, the Congresso Continental dos Povos Negros das Américas in São Paulo, and the Movimento Negro Unificado’s march of Brasília (Anderson, 1996, p. 545-7), underscored the cultural importance of Zumbi. There is even a movement proposing that the commemoration of the end of slavery on May 13, 1888 (the day Princess Isabel signed the Lei Áurea, the Golden Law, enacting the emancipation) be replaced with the celebration of National Black Consciousness Day (Stam, 1997, p. 44).

The quilombos of Brazil are national symbols of black resistance. Half a million descendants of the Palmarinos were ceded land in Palmares by the quilombo clause of the recent Constitution. The clause has long been supported by contemporary musical groups from Bahia, including Olodum and Ilê Aiyê, with lyrics such as:

Quilombo, here we are

My only debt is to the quilombo

My only debt is to Zumbi

Additionally, black activist Paulinho da Viola founded a black consciousness carnaval group, the Quilombo Samba School (Stam, 1997, p. 44). Palmares was even the focus of major feature-fiction films, Ganga Zumba (1963) and Quilombo (1984), and a recent TV miniseries, Zumbi, O Rei dos Palmares (Zumbi: King of Palmares) (Stam, 1997, p. 41). Modern cinema and music have shown that the spirit of the quilombos and their leaders lives on in the hearts of much of Brazil.

Sewing the Seeds of Systemic Subjugation

Rarely in the New World did emancipation bring peace and prosperity for all blacks. The white plutocracy was loath to give moral and fiscal equality to people who had once been their slaves. In Jamaica, the abolition of slavery in 1834 threw the island into turmoil, while the Imperial Government aspired to incorporate freed slaves into the colony with an apprentice system, the Planters resented the orders from England and the slaves desired to simply work their provision grounds and enjoy their new found freedom (Barrett, 1988, p. 51).

The emancipation of the slaves in Jamaica ceded no land to the blacks. Essentially overnight, the slaves were homeless and jobless, given the choice to either return to the plantations and work for substandard wages or to fend for themselves as best as they saw fit. Of the 400,000 slaves freed, only 30,000 returned to the plantations to work and a handful integrating into the marketplaces in the towns and cities. The remaining 370,000 became destitute, turning to foraging for their meals. Unemployment became the subject of debate, frequently attributed to the mismanagement of the island’s economy by the government. A pointed letter sent by Edward Underhill in 1865 to England’s Secretary of the State for the Colonies addressed the dire situation on the island:

I shall say nothing of the course taken by the Jamaica Legislature; of their abortive immigration bills; of their unjust taxation of the coloured population; of their refusal of just tribunals; of their denial of political rights to the emancipated Negroes.

Underhill saw that the continuing paradigm of monoculture plantations was an underlying root cause of the economic and, accordingly, the social strife impacting the island (Barrett, 1988, p. 56-7). Underhill also saw that under the leadership of Governor Eyre, the island would continue to be economically depressed and the blacks socially oppressed. These factors, he believed, would ultimately lead to conflict unless the course of governance was changed (Barrett, 1988, p. 57).

The conditions on the island did eventually precipitate conflict, bringing attention both to the plight of the blacks and the heavy-handed tactics of the governor. On October 7th, 1865, a small army of two hundred men led by Paul Bogle marched on Morant Bay. More a demonstration than an assault, Bogle and his men only ‘roughed up’ a few police officers and the group eventually dissipated back to their homes in the hills. Three days later, Bogle and his army struck the town of Morant Bay, killing eighteen, including a prominent plantation owner. The army marched on, taking the town of Bath on the 12th. However, Governor Eyre was making preparations for confronting Bogle’s rebellion and declared martial law the following day. As well, the Maroons, abiding by their treaty, joined Governor Eyre’s forces against Bogle and his men. The courts of martial law, under Eyre’s direction, proceeded to accuse, convict, and execute citizens believed to be possible obstructions to the government. The militia, fifteen hundred strong, bolstered by the Maroons and the executions of the martial courts crushed the rebellion with the killing of close to a thousand people and the razing of over a thousand cottages while there were no recorded deaths of soldiers or militia men outside of the initial eighteen at Morant Bay (Barrett, 1998, p. 61-3).

While the Morant Bay rebellion ended with a crushing blow against Bogle and his supporters, it brought to attention the powder keg situation that the island’s socioeconomic situation and political oligarchy presented. Planters and politicians were ever fearful of another uprising. The aftershocks of the rebellion precipitated the declaration of Crown Colony status only months later (Barrett, 1988, p. 63).

The Morant Bay rebellion brought about the end (or at least, significant curtailing) of overt hostilities between whites and blacks on the island. This gave way to an institutionalized oppression of the population through socioeconomic exploitation. During Jamaica’s Crown Colony era from 1865 to 1962, the few local industries of the island, from cane to bauxite, were exploited to strip the resources of the island and never return the wealth generated. The labor force of Jamaica recognized the exploitation, leading to rage tempered with the "consciousness of nationality" preached by Black leaders such as Marcus Garvey. The result was violent labor uprisings in Westmoreland, Kingston and Spanish Town in 1938. The loss of life from the clash between the laborers and the armed police response drew the attention of the imperial government. The report of labor uprisings in the Crown Colony led to the development of a new constitution directed towards the eventual self-governance of the island (Barrett, 1988, p. 63-5).

The racism found in North America, including Jamaica and the United States, is a binary form, frequently pitting non-whites against whites or an unsympathetic government. In contrast, Brazil has developed a racial hegemony based on a spectrum of racial climes and lateral conflict amongst non-whites. Perpetuated since the practice mestiçagem in the initial colonization of Brazil, racial hegemony supplanted scientific racism, becoming the devious paradigm for oppressing a near racial majority.

The first wave of mestiçagem in the New World colony of Brazil may have come about by necessity, in response to the comparatively small numbers of European women, but it did also bring about a means by which the Europeans could diffuse the tension of their intended ethnic supremacy. Mestiçagem combined with the native practice of cunhadismo, the incorporation of strangers into a community by providing wives, generated the mass of the colonial population. The resultant mamelucos, the racially mixed descendants of the union of Europeans and natives, became an ambivalent intermediate between the Europeans and the natives. The colonists took advantage of the mamelucos facility with native customs and the environment and utilized them as expeditionary forces to expand the Lusitanian-dominated territories. However, this put them at a mutual conflict with the natives from which they descended. While sometimes the mamelucos allied with the indigenous populations, they frequently allied with the whites. Ultimately, the mamelucos, victims of "cultural disjunction", spread their ambivalence throughout Brazil. They were often torn between their allegiances to their indigenous counterparts, whom they frequently scorned, and their allegiances to the white Europeans, who despised them. In a sense, the mamelucos were the first victims of the "ideology of whitening" (Stam, 1997, p. 3-5).

The African slaves were also victims of ethnic division. The slave dealers of Brazil frequently bestowed arbitrary ethnic labels to groups of imported slaves. The slave owners would maintain these ethnic distinctions hoping to promote rivalries between the so-called African "nations" as a means to prevent slave resistance. Ethnic division amongst non-whites in Brazils continued on another level: between Creoles and Africans. The constitution of the 19th century permitted the naturalization of Brazilian-born slaves as second-class citizens while Africans were not given similar opportunities. This is an indicator of the greater social value given to Creoles over Africans by the free Brazilians. Unlike Jamaica, where blacks and mulattos fought side by side in rebellions, Brazilian rebellions were often segregated, as in the 1837 Sabinada Rebellion where only Creole slaves were permitted to fight. As a result of this racial caste system, animosity grew between the Creoles and the Africans. While the Creole-African rivalry did not overstep family ties, it was still powerful enough to impede uprising, to the benefit of the planters (Kraay, 1998, p. 12-13).

Following emancipation, Brazilians were left searching for a new paradigm of European supremacy to replace slavery. While many politicians and thinkers proposed scientific racism, with binary segregation, Brazil inevitably returned to mestiçagem. Scholars saw the amalgamation of race through the process of whitening to be the solution for issues of race in Brazil (Kraay, 1998, p. 16). Within the new racial spectrum pardos (people of mixed race) typically receive a higher social status than pretos (descendants of Africans). The abandonment of formal racial discrimination gave a handful of pardos the opportunity to rise into the social elite by rejecting their racial identity. Rarely do the handfuls of upper-class mulattos identify themselves as anything other than white, having utilized the "mulatto escape hatch." Many modern historians see these individuals as "tormented figures forced to deny or reject their racial identity to participate in white upper-class society." With the ascension of a handful of non-whites into the predominantly white upper class, Brazilian aristocrats are able to maintain that their country is a "racial democracy" (Kraay, 1998, p. 18).

The Modern Socio-Economic Stage

Despite more than a century of self-determinism, both Brazil and Jamaica maintain conditions of social and economic disparity. Both countries are still dominated by an aristocratic white upper class intent on maintaining their prosperity with little concern for the predominantly non-white poor. Slums and shantytowns encircle the metropolises of Jamaica and Brazil. For many the color of their skin assures their place in society and for a great many non-whites, a place in the lower echelons. The condition of the non-whites in Brazil and Jamaica is summed up by Bongo Sylly’s comment to author Stephen Davis: "You should not say that Jamaica is full of happy folks or fookery like that. Write it out that we’re in pain here. Ras clot! Write it out that we are in prison and we want to go home" (Davis and Simon, 1977, p. 60). Jamaica and Brazil have established façades of happiness and pleasure to support their tourist industries while sweeping the overwhelming poverty and despair under the rug.

The efforts of the Jamaican government since independence have had a slim impact on the plight of the lower class. Fiscal reform, while having curbed inflation and stabilized the exchange rate, has failed to compensate for the collapse of the bauxite industry in the 1970s. In 1992, 32.4% of the country lived below the poverty line and the economy was continuing on its downward spiral. The growth of the gross domestic product decreased from 1.5% in 1992 to 0.5% and the GDP posted a 1.4% decrease in 1996 and a subsequent 2% decrease in 1998. The country is also plagued with a US$1.1 billion trade deficit and a US$1.39 billion government spending deficit, further complicated with high interest rates (CIA, 1999). The end product of the floundering Jamaican economy is the increase of the urban poor, a population either unemployed or underpaid. The economic situation in Jamaica is exemplified in Trench Town, a shantytown built in a system of municipal trenches, and best characterized by the quality of life illustrated in The Harder They Come.

The economic situation for non-whites in Brazil is similarly desperate. In 1987, the median salary for whites was two and a half times that of blacks. The World Bank eventually declared the economic disparity "the most unequal distribution of income in the world" (Stam, 1997, p. 46-7). Furthermore, the economy as a whole was failing. In 1994, inflation soared to over 1,000%, devastating the meager savings of the lower and middle class (CIA, 1999). While the upper class was able to maintain wealth in hard foreign currency, the majority of the population was bankrupted by the loss of value of their money. The Plano Real, instituted in mid-1994, did eventually bring inflation under control, dropping it to 2% in 1998. However, the shockwaves of the Russian debt default threw Brazil into another economic decline leading to 50% interest rate hikes. In two months, US$30 billion of capital left Brazil spearheading a trend of global economic withdrawal.

However, the plight of Brazil is not solely economic. Brazilian non-whites are also the victims of racial hegemony, perpetuated by deep-seated social inequalities, racial dissolution, and police violence. Brazilian culture is a paradox in which some Afro-Brazilian traditions become national symbols, such as carnaval, and others become the targets of violent eradication campaigns, such as candomblé and capoeira. While a select few fight for racial identity and pride, most ascribe to the ideology of whitening. As the issues of racism in Brazil are complex and often subtle, those who work to affect change are hampered by general ignorance and apathy from the majority of the population.

The issues of race in Brazil often go unseen or are misread. In the 1950s, the self-proclaimed "racial democracy" of Brazil was hailed as so successful that the United Nations sponsored research on "race relations" to ascertain how Brazil escaped the overt racial tensions that plagued much of the world. The apparent socio-economic disparity was attributed to class, despite significant correlations between class and race (Kraay, 1998, p. 18). Kim D. Butler notes that Brazilian racism is not so much an overt effort against blacks but against black culture, giving way to both the cultural and phenotypic whitening of Brazil (Kraay, 1998, p. 20).

Candomblé, the popular and widespread Afro-Brazilian religion that is prominent in the Brazilian state of Bahia (often viewed as the black heart of Brazil), has been a persecuted practice for centuries. Candomblé practitioners were frequently the targets of police violence in unofficial eradication campaigns. For a period of time into the 1930s, candomblé grew despite waning pressure. Politicians in Bahia eventually turned to candomblé leaders as electoral brokers. However, the violent rise to power of Getúlio Vargas and the proclamation of his Estado Novo dictatorship brought an end to the fleeting period of tolerance towards Afro-Brazilian culture. Scholars studying candomblé were exiled for complacency towards to the Afro-Brazilian ‘communist’ threat and police violence was back on the rise (Kraay 1998, p. 21-2, 57).

It was not until the end of the dictatorship in 1945 that the Afro-Brazilian cultural organization could recommence. In 1949, candomblé re-emerged from obscurity with the formation of the afoxé (Carnival society) Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi) which brought the rhythms and sounds of candomblé back to the masses. The 1970s saw the emergence of Brazil’s first modern black movement, spearheaded by the Movimento Negro Unificado Contra a Discriminação Racial (Unified Black Movement against Racial Discrimination, abbreviated to Movimento Negro Unificado or MNU) in 1978. The first bloco afro (Afro-centric Carnival society) Ilê Aiyê, founded in 1974, brought the message of black pride to the streets during festivities (Kraay, 1998, p. 22). While it was initially criticized as racist, as many other Afro-Brazilian organizations have been, Ilê Aiyê has become a fundamental component of Carnival. As well, the society has also started social and educational programs in the poor and predominantly black neighborhood where it is based. Other societies like Olodum have followed in the tradition of Ilê Aiyê, drawing attention to the poverty in the slums and working to affect change in their communities and the nation as a whole.

The system of oppression not only sought to deprive Afro-Brazilians of their culture but to deprive them of economic, social and political power. Illiteracy runs rampant, accounting for 40% of non-whites, twice the rate of whites. Only 1% of blacks identify themselves as patrãos (bosses/owners) while 79% of whites identify themselves as such. As well, non-whites filled only a dozen of the 559 parliamentary seats, many of which did not support black causes (Stam, 1997, p. 51-2). The general absence black representation in the upper echelons of society and government sets a standard of white superiority in Brazil.

Despite the constant reiteration of the racial democracy, skin color invariably dictates your social status. In "High Tech Violence", Disciplina Urbana sings that the police:

Go up into the favelas

Invade your home

Without shame

And the treatment you receive

Will depend on the color of your skin.

However, while the violence committed by the police and paramilitary is frequently against blacks and mulattos, those who commit the violence may also be people of color. The lack of clarity in the violence permits it to be dismissed as class based and not a part of the system of racial oppression (Stam, 1997, p. 54-5).

In the system of direct and inferential racism, the popularity of black pride is suppressed. Many choose to follow the apparent route of self-whitening in order to maintain or improve their social condition. A recent survey showed that nearly half of all blacks agree with the statement that a "good black is the black with a white soul." As Michael Hanchard said, "Racial hegemony has effectively neutralized racial identification among non-whites" (Stam, 1997, p. 48). The continued miseducation of the population cements the precepts of racial hegemony in Brazilian society.

The system of racism is so extensive that it, as Carlos Hasenbalg stated, "permeates every stage of the life cycle of blacks and mestiços. It is in the family, the first socializing unit; it is in the schools…it is in the labor market, in police violence. It affects all of daily life." If "the white man’s greatest crime was to make the black man hate himself," as Malcom X proclaims, it was done so in Brazil through the pervasive institutionalization of racism. This system of oppression has convinced almost half of polled Brazilian blacks that "blacks are only good at music and sports" (Stam, 1997, p. 48-50). Through racial hegemony, Brazilian society has diffused the overt tension of binary racism while maintaining black inferiority as the ad hoc standard.

The Music of Jamaica and Brazil

The music profession is one of the few in Jamaica and Brazil in which a person can become popular and financially successful without sacrificing cultural identity. As such, it seems that an underground culture percolates through society rising to popularity, telling a story that otherwise goes unheard. Reggae brings the harsh message of the streets and the slums out of obscurity in a stark contrast to the calypso that typically assails the tourists. As well, Afro-Brazilian music, often subtle, brings a similar message to the masses.

Jamaican roots reggae, in its purest form, free of the ‘slack’ that is frequently found on the airwaves, documents the struggles of the impoverished commoner. There is the constant fight against oppression, joblessness, hunger, and the lack of opportunity on the island. It is a music that shares the tales of the suffering in the ghettos, repatriation to Africa, worship of Haile Selassie as a deity, and the pressures of living with the shackles of slavery in Babylon (Barrow and Dalton, 1997, p. 129). Roots is best exemplified by Bob Marley, the late musical prophet of the Rastafarians. "Crazy Baldheads" spoke of the continued oppression of the blacks in Jamaica; once exploited as slaves, they are now exploited as free men. Songs like "Exodus" carry the message of Africanism and repatriation of Ethiopia as the final solution.

Recently, many dancehall artists are returning to roots traditions. While slack is still common, many musicians see their position as an opportunity to vocalize the resistance to the oppression in the neighborhoods they come from. Buju Banton’s "Til I’m Laid to Rest" perhaps best summarizes the plight of the Jamaican Rastafarian:

'Til I'm laid to rest

Yes, always be depressed

There's no living in the West

So, I know the East is the best

Lord, the propaganda them spread

Tongues will haffi confess

Oh, I'm in bondage living is a mess

And I've got to rise up alleviate the stress

No longer will I expose my weakness

He who seek knowledge begins with humbleness

Work 7 to 7 yet me still penniless

All the food upon my table Massa God Bless

Holler fi the needy and shelterless

Ethiopia awaits all prince and princess

Buju Banton preaches rising up against the economic despair of Jamaica, against the exploitation of the poor, and ultimately expatriation as the final solution.

Even in the United States, reggae coupled with Rastafarianism has taken root and begun to bear fruit. Artists like the dub-stylist Dr. Israel and the products of Lloyd Barnes temper the traditions of their Jamaican counterparts with their own inner-city experiences. Dr. Israel shares the strife of inner-city Philadelphia in "Armigideon Time":

I said enough of people can’t get no supper tonight

I said enough of people can’t get no justice tonight

But they’ll remember to praise Jah-hoviah

In this iration,

This armigideon time

All over Israel and we can’t get no supper tonight

All over Israel and we can’t get no justice tonight

As the battle

Waging harder

Jah will guide-I

To armigideon time

Dr. Israel’s song is one of many that draw attention to the poverty of the inner cities, the predominantly non-white slums in which people exist as second-class citizens.

Much of Brazil’s recent popular music also carries a similar message of black resistance. However, Afro-Brazilian music is often dismissed as bland or tame because of the subtle and light sound. Those who make this mistake dismiss a music that was deemed dangerous enough by the military regime of the 1960s and ‘70s to warrant the exiling of several popular artists like Gilberto Gil and Caetono Veloso (Byrne, 1989, p. 3-4, Lindsay, 1989, p. 6). Frequently musicians had to resort to double and triple entendre in order to stay out of the political prisons (Lindsay, 1989, p. 6) while still delivering their messages of African pride and resistance.

Afro-Brazilian music, whether pop music or traditional, is a modern celebration of the black identity and culture. Long repressed, only in the recent decades has it been able to benefit from a renaissance of popularity that enables the masses to enjoy its aesthetics and message. Bloco afro groups such as Olodum have gained global popularity, not only playing large venues worldwide but also being featured on releases by other popular artists (such as Olodum appearances on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints and Michael Jackson’s His-story). Many Brazilian artists now benefit from a global musical community in which they can interact with their counterparts from other countries. The Noite disc of the CSNZ double-disc set from Chico Science e Nação Zumbi, featuring remixes by Mario C of the Beastie Boys, David Byrne of the Talking Heads, the Mad Professor, and Goldie, is a project that underscores the blossoming of Afro-Brazilian music from obscurity to global popularity.

The recently enjoyed freedom of musical expression that Brazil is experiencing is essential. As the issues of racial hegemony and systemic racism are otherwise confined to scholarly debate, music is the only forum that serves to inform and unite the masses. Accordingly, many musicians have accepted the moral mandate, as in Reggae, to use their positions to promote African pride and to draw attention to the appalling conditions of the favelas and slums.

The Salvador (the capital of Bahia) based samba school, Olodum, follows in the tradition of Ilê Aiyê both in music and social reform. Enjoying global popularity, they take their message of urban poverty and strife to Europe, Africa and North America, playing large venues such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in France and small venues including the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont. Their anthem against the system of racism and oppression in Brazil, "Desabofo Olodum", details their experiences as a black consciousness group:

Ragga, ragga, ragga Oloddum

It's time to think

Of a way to bring down

The discrimination that

Reigns here

The wall of dishonesty

Will no longer bear fruit

The people are not stupid

They are beginning to protest

The union movement

Fights against

Those who serve themselves

And enrich their profits

The ghettos of the periphery

Each day worsen

The prices that we pay

Each day rise

I love my country

But I'm ashamed of the system

Retrograde politicians

Are its greatest problem

(I've been) Three times in Europe

My song echoing

And resolutely

I continue my protest

I'm going to fight, and I'm going to win

And I'm going to return to your love

The song describes the birth of black consciousness as a political movement in Brazil. It is a call to action, motivating others to join in their fight against the discrimination that has become commonplace.

Musicians also attempt to address the ideology of whitening by promoting black pride and identity. Fernando, from Disciplina Urbana, makes the extreme (by Brazilian standards) argument that Brazilians of mixed race should simply consider themselves "black" (Stam, 1997, p. 46). The current of black pride often runs strong at the surface or can be subtle, as in Caetono Veloso’s "O Leãozniho" (The Lion) or in his praise of Ilê Aiyê in "Um Canto de Afoxé Para O Bloco Do Ilê" (A Song of Afoxé For The Bloco Ilê). Musicians also frequently give praise to the national symbols of freedom and resistance, Zumbi and the quilombos. Chico Science e Nação Zumbi (Chico Science and Zumbi Nation) frequently sing both of Zumbi and Palmares as well as the current fight against poverty in the favelas. Gilberto Gil also sings of Palmares in "Quilombo, O El Dorado Negro:"

Once there was a black El Dorado in Brazil

There it was like a shaft of sunlight that liberty released

It was there, reflecting the divine light from the holy fire of Olorum

And there it relived the utopia of one for all and all for one

Quilombo — everyone built it, it took all the zeal of the saints

Quilombo — all of the waters of all of their tears irrigated it

Quilombo — all fell, loving and fighting

Quilombo — even today all of us still want so much.

Gilberto Gil’s song underscores the ultimate goal of bringing the multiracial utopia of Palmares back to modern Brazil.

Music is a powerful medium that transcends many of the barriers of society, including illiteracy and poverty. It gives a voice to people that frequently would go unheard or ignored. It is so powerful that totalitarian military regimes have worked to confine and suppress it. Musicians have become ad hoc political leaders weaving manifestos and history lessons into rhythms and melodies for both enjoyment and education. Reggae and Afro-Brazilian music, drawing from the vast experiences of their collective diaspora, have become a voice of resistance to institutions of oppression in power for centuries. Led by the irrepressible spirits of Marcus Garvey and Zumbi, these artists are a musical quilombo fighting for their utopia, their Zion.

Appendix A: Approximate Area of Palmares Control


Source: Political Map of Brazil — Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection

Area of Palmares (Anderson, 546)


Appendix B: Accompanying Music CD


  1. Redemption Song — Bob Marley and the Wailers
  2. The Harder They Come — Jimmy Cliff
  3. Get Up Stand Up — Bob Marley and the Wailers
  4. You Can Get It If You Really Want — Jimmy Cliff
  5. Revolution — Toots and the Maytals
  6. Armagideon Time — Dr. Israel
  7. Til I’m Laid To Rest — Buju Banton
  8. I Shot the Sheriff — Bob Marley and the Wailers
  9. Life In The Ghetto — Dr. Israel
  10. Many Rivers to Cross — Jimmy Cliff
  11. Hills and Valleys — Buju Banton
  12. Revolution — Dr. Israel
  13. Coco Dub (Afrociberdelia) — Chico Science e Nação Zumbi, Remix: Mad Professor
  14. Amor De Muito — Chico Science e Nação Zumbi, Remix: Mario Caldato
  15. Quilombo, o el Dorado Negro — Gilberto Gil
  16. O Leãozinho — Caetono Veloso
  17. Um Canto de Afoxé Para O Bloco do Ilê Aiyê — Caetono Veloso
  18. Zumbi Rei — Olodum
  19. Maculelê — Nazare Pereira
  20. Calice — Chico Buarque feat. Milton Nascimento

Works Cited

  1. Anderson, Robert Nelson, ‘The Quilombo of Palmares: A New Overview of a Maroon State in Seventeenth-Century Brazil’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 28 (1996), p545-66
  2. Barrett, Leonard E., Sr., The Rastafarians, (Boston, Beacon Press, 1988)
  3. Barrow, Steve and Dalton, Peter, Reggae: The Rough Guide, (London, Rough Guides Ltd., 1997)
  4. Byrne, David, Beleza Tropical, (Sire Records, 1989)
  5. Davis, Stephen and Simon, Peter, Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica, (1977)
  6. Freitas, Décio, Palmares: a Guerra Dos Escravos, 5th ed. (Rio de Janeiro, 1982)
  7. Kent, R. K., ‘Palmares: An African State in Brazil’, Journal of African History, vol. 6 (1965), p161-75
  8. Kraay, Hendrik, Afro-Brazilian Culture and Politics: Bahia, 1790s to 1990s, (M. E. Sharp, Inc., 1998)
  9. Lindsay, Arto, Beleza Tropical, (Sire Records, 1989)
  10. Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection,, April 4, 2000,, April, 2000
  11. Stam, Robert, Tropical Multiculturalism: A Comparative History of Race In Brazilian Cinema and Culture, (Duke University Press, 1997)
  12. The World Factbook 1999, Central Intelligence Agency, January, 1999,, April, 2000