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Brazilian Black Pride Activists Use Music in Anti-Discrimination Fight - 2002-07-29


In Brazil, a growing black pride movement closely associated with hip-hop music seeks to end racial inequalities. Even though blacks or Afro-descendants make up about half the country's population, they are almost completely absent in most universities, big business, government and the media. Activists are trying to change this.

M.V. Bill comes from one of Rio's poorest slums, favelas. He calls for Brazil's Afro-descendants to take their destiny in their own hands.

Sociologist Julio Cesar Tavares says M.V. Bill's concerts in Rio de Janeiro are the start of a political movement.

"You attract people with the music, that is the point. Music is the most important thing, but we are not talking about music by itself," he said. "It is black music. It is communitarian music. It is music made by excluded people, people who are not in the mainstream media so only this aspect makes this process of making music much more political, it is already political. Once you put black people in a very important theater in downtown Rio, you are doing politics, because that is not usual to have 200 people, black people together, talking about music in a mainstream theater."

Mr. Tavares was a black student activist during the 1970s when Brazil was a dictatorship. Now, he says, black activists are much more community-based and self-reliant.

In the song Wrong Attitude, M.V. Bill calls for people in the slums to unite and rid their neighborhoods of corrupt police, build their own schools, and stop killing each other.

Luis Carlos Ga, who is closely associated with M.V. Bill, sells hip-hop tee-shirts and caps. He is part of a group of activists trying to create a blacks-only political party, called Power to the Majority. He says racism in Brazil may be the worst in the world.

"All institutions are racist here," he said. "The Congress, the executive power, the judicial branch - everything is based on racial inequality that is detrimental to blacks. This is the country that has the most effective racism in the world. We have no black middle class because the racism prevents it."

Jurema Werneck, the head of a Rio-based NGO to empower black women, agrees.

She says non-blacks stay silent about racial inequalities and do not do anything to change it.

However, according to federal prosecutor Joaquim Barbosa Gomes, who says racism prevented him from becoming a diplomat, it is too early for a black leader to emerge on Brazil's political scene.

"We are not mature enough to have such a leader," he said. "We do not have this racial identification that allows some leaders to be elected to Congress, there is no such thing in Brazil like a racial vote, people do not vote for someone only because he is black. The identification between the black population and some so-called leaders is still very weak, you know we are beginning to have racial consciousness, racial identification, but it is still very weak."

The government last year admitted the concept of Brazil as a so-called "racial democracy" was a myth and not reality.

Outgoing President Fernando Henrique Cardoso commemorated the 114th anniversary of the end of slavery in Brazil in May. He initiated a system of quotas to increase the numbers of blacks among federal employees and in some public universities.

Many black activists say this is just a small change, but a step in the right direction.

For Mr. Ga, his goal is to create a political party that will advance the cause of blacks.

"This is a project that will take 20 to 40 years," he said. "We are in no hurry. We know it is something very difficult, but it is our project. It is our utopia. We can not live without utopia and this one is ours so we will go for it."

Activists warn, however, that with worsening problems linked to drugs and violence, the mix of poverty and black dissatisfaction in big-city slums could lead to an explosive situation.

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