Christopher Dunn from Tulane University spoke on the Afro-Brazilian youth counterculture in the 1970s and what soul music meant for black pride in Rio de Janeiro.
PROVO, Utah (February 18, 2015)— In a groundbreaking study of 1970s students in Rio de Janeiro, historian J. Michael Turner found a fascinating difference emerge in students over the course of several years. In 1971 at the onset of his research, students who were either part of the black middle class or aspired to join it identified with what Turner called “white cultural norms.” These students generally avoided cultural manifestations associated with anything black or African, as it seemed to be related to the working class or poor people.
“These students considered sartorial and bodily markers of black pride, such as Afro hairstyles, dashikis and head wraps to be unattractive and even demeaning,” said Christopher Dunn, associate professor of Brazilian literature and cultural studies at Tulane University, of Turner’s research. “They subscribed to the idea, then widespread in Brazilian society, that their country was largely free of racism. Incidents of prejudice and discrimination, they argued, were motivated by class not race. The students that he interviewed compared Brazil favorably to the United States.”
But when Turner returned to Rio de Janeiro in 1976, just five years later, he noted a dramatic transformation in the attitudes among Afro-Brazilian students. “They now talked about ‘black consciousness,’” said Dunn. “They denounced racial democracy as an insidious ideology and identified with the struggles of black people in the U.S. and postcolonial Africa.”
Turner observed men and women with large Afros, even as the hairstyle began to wane in its popularity in the United States. According to Dunn, soul music – which had been part of the Brazilian landscape since the late 1960s – had become the focal point for a mass cultural movement among Afro-Brazilian youth. “They gathered on weekends across Rio’s working class,” said Dunn, “to dance to records by the likes of James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson 5.”
Soul culture quickly spread to other major cities, but it mainly took off in Rio.
Dunn’s study of the soul movement in Brazil is one chapter of a book he’s writing on 1960s and ’70s youth counterculture and the ways in which urban, middle-class youth began to rethink cultural politics in Brazil.
The Afro-Brazilian culture which facilitated the black soul movement in Rio de Janeiro is known as “Black Rio.” “They actually used the term ‘black’ to signify specifically this kind of cosmopolitan, urban culture that had its origins in the soul-culture of the United States in the 1960s and ’70s,” Dunn said.
In 1976, Rio’s soul music scene achieved prominence and heightened notoriety due to a series of press reports. Dunn specifically noted a long article by Lena Frias, a journalist for the Jornal do Brasil, who wrote as exposéin which she described a hidden, “parallel city with its own culture.” She coined the term “Black Rio.”
Frias, who’s article subtitle asserted that the soul movement imported the pride of being black in Brazil, considered the Black Rio movement and the attitudes it inspired as foreign and inauthentic. According to Dunn, many saw it that way: it was a passing fad, an imported trend, something that wasn’t authentic.
Many journalists similarly claimed that the soul movement emerged out of pressure from “the American regime,” and Dunn remarked that for conservative critics, soul music was an unwanted intrusion into the cultural realm. “Many were concerned that it promoted U.S. black militancy that could have a destabilizing effect on Brazilian society.” But, on the other hand, “left-wing observers criticized the movements for its commercialism, its obsession with style and its apparent disinterest in political mobilization.”
As rock and roll was becoming more acceptable in the ’60s and ’70s, developing a mass following of middle-class youth wearing blue jeans and revering Mick Jagger, Afro-Brazilians fought for their own crowd.
Dunn quoted one Afro-Brazilian opinion of the time: “Why must blacks from the north side accept whites from the south side telling them what is authentic and proper to black Brazilians?”
As the Black Rio movement developed, many denounced the unique burden of representation assigned to blacks as the “guardians of deep Brazilian culture,” as represented by music and dance genres such as samba or certain religious practices. In the Afro-Brazilian culture of the north side, many were asking: “why do blacks have to be the last strong hold of nationality and Brazilian musical purity?” In Black Rio a distinct community of ethnic pride was already flowering.
—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian ’15)