“In Spite of You”: The Musical Legacy of Rebellion in Brazil

By Brynna Boyer

In 1913, the city of Paris was buzzing in anticipation for modernist composer Igor Stravinsky’s debut of his new ballet, The Rite of Spring. However, not more than two hours later the Théâtre de Champs-Elysées erupted in riot, pouring out into the streets of Paris. Why? It was, afterall, just a ballet. But, to the audience, it was not such an innocuous performance. The music of the work wildly diverged from any musical tradition which came before it. It shocked the audience into some primordial reflex and riot ensued- so intense were the emotions inspired by the music.

As Stravinksy- and the city of Paris- witnessed, music is a potent medium for revolution. Seemingly harmless in its dissemination, it is capable of inspiring intense feeling and from these passions, action. Cut to late-20th century Brazil, a severely authoritarian dictatorship suppressed free expression and opinions differing from the regime. Music was once again being used to inspire dissent, this time fighting against the repressive establishment.

When one thinks of the bossa nova it is often soft and demure, perhaps even romantic. A guitar accompanied by a pizzicato bass, syncopated percussion, and a smooth crooner singing of sweet love- hardly revolutionary. And indeed, that was most of its legacy. It is a musical style developed in the late 1950s and it takes much inspiration from samba (itself a triumph in mobilising the marginalised classes in Brazil). However, contrary to the afro-poor roots of samba, bossa nova spoke to the comfort and complacency of the Brazilian middle class.

Before bossa nova, the middle class had discouraged the development of musical talent in their children because it was believed that music would inspire a degenerate, bohemian life of alcohol and self-destruction fuelled by artistic ambitions. The popularity of bossa nova was such, however, that everyone wanted to be a musician and thus, the creative constraint was finally overcome in a wave of youthful opposition- a bourgeois social revolution was born.

Bossa nova was a music of optimism, indicative of the political sentiments of the time; it was a manifestation of the national confidence under President Juscelino Kubitschek, who had taken office in Brazil in 1956. However, this period of complacency, along with its reactionary music, was brought to a halt in 1964 with the beginning of the military dictatorship in Brazil, which ruled the country until 1985. Established by a coup d’état, this new regime jailed and exiled multitudes of people who posed a threat to their power- people who opposed them overtly as well as people who defied the ideology of the regime by simply living an unconventional lifestyle.

A government established through chaos is almost always one which imposes the strictest laws and has the littlest of leniencies towards freedoms, as they do not want to further encourage the chaos which birthed it. Therefore, political opposition, freedom of speech and expression, and any other form of perceived political or cultural subordination was swiftly diminished during this period. The regime censored all forms of media and tortured and exiled dissidents. In the first few months after the coup, thousands of people were detained, while thousands of others were removed from their civil service or university positions. In the following decades 434 people were either killed or confirmed missing and more than 20,000 were tortured for daring to oppose totalitarianism.

Those oppressed and persecuted included many contemporary artists in Brazil. Obviously, circumstances did not favour creativity, yet music continued to flourish under such extreme rule as musicians remained defiant of the authoritarian regime. In the following decades, the bourgeois musical revolution that was bossa nova evolved into a more potent revolution of music: a genre much more political in its revolution than its predecessor, which is to be expected when considering the world into which it was born.

The scope of Brazilian musicians during the Sixties and Seventies broadened, and new groups of players soon emerged, some classified as belonging to the MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) movement. Musicians with an MPB label varied so much in orientation that it is impossible to group them together in a single category. Some were relatively loyal to the influence of bossa nova while others, like Tropicália, were more experimental. All used music as a medium of rebellion against the repressive regime. Had it not been for bossa nova and the musical confidence that it created within the culture, this new era may never have been.

To circumvent the governmental restrictions, the Tropicália movement hid political messages in shrouds of metaphor and allusion. Yet, despite all the code which had been used to circumvent government censorship during the early dictatorship, the regime began to identify Tropicália as a threat.

With the introduction of the Fifth Institutional Act in 1968, musicians and artists were victims to dramatic political harassment. That winter, as prophesised by artist Caetano Veloso in his song “Alegria Alegria” (published a year earlier), both he and fellow tropicalist Gilberto Gil were arrested and later forced into exile; their collaborators were arrested, tortured and some eventually were interned in mental institutions, while others (allegedly) committed pre-emptive suicide to spare themselves any further unjust persecution.

A musician and lyricist, Chico Buarque, who was from a socially prominent family, initially had a great deal of public support during the dictatorship. However, due to a shocking play of his (and an ensuing riot), he was effectively blacklisted by the government and Buarque exiled himself to Italy to control the damage. Later returning in 1970, Buarque found music as an agreeable medium for his dissatisfaction- effectively creating a throbbing thorn in the side of the dictatorship.

In 1970, Buarque released his thinly veiled protest single “Apesar de Você” (In spite of You).  This song was at first overlooked by the military censors, becoming an important anthem in the democratic movement. But, after a successful run selling over 100,000 copies, the single was eventually censored and removed from the market.

The lyrics in “Apesar de Você”, lightly disguised as the harangue of a spurned lover, expresses bitterness and projects revenge, with a promise that “tomorrow will be another day” (Amanhā há de der Outro dia). Once the initially-unaware authorities grasped the metaphors, violent proscription followed: records were confiscated and burned, and the unfortunate censor responsible for its approval was suitably punished.

So effective was Buarque’s music of protest, that, at one point in 1974, the dictatorship banned almost every song composed by him. However, despite the censors’ best efforts, the music and voice of revolution endured. Songs such as “Samba de Orly” and “Acorda amor” manifested Buarque’s lasting opposition to the military regime. To keep creating songs and disseminating a message of protest, he even created an alias, naming himself “Julinho da Adelaide”, complete with a fake life history and interviews to newspapers.

Despite the government’s best efforts, the earnest refrain of “Apesar de Você”, continued to be heard, as the public resonated with the song’s challenge to the oppression they were facing. The song was played at an election rally of the MDB [Brazilian Democratic Movement] in 1974, where the main banner boldly displayed Buarque’s oppositional refrain. In spite of the totalitarian dangerous dictatorship, in spite of the government’s threats, in spite of harassment, in spite of political bullying, apesar de tudo! – Buarque was still able to inspire people to revolution, to cause political change through his music, to carry on Brazil’s musical tradition of rebellion.

And this legacy still persists to this day. During the 2016 Rio Olympics, a group called Teto Preto released, “Gasolina”. Beautifully blunt, the song captured the social dissent Brazil was experiencing. A video released by the band featured one of its members writhing his half-naked body in front of a line of São Paulo’s Military Police in an intervention at a protest on Avenida Paulista.

A cultural battle had clearly begun. And, indeed, it was a battle in every sense of the word. There were police raids on theatre productions around the country, events were cancelled, and sponsorships were withdrawn. The ensuing polarisation was used by the Brazilian far right, as every protest for freedom of expression was painted as further evidence of encroaching “communist” intellectual degeneracy in Brazilian society.

Elsewhere, musicians such as Letrux, through their public demonstrations in opposition to Bolsonaro, suggest a united front of political and social protest across popular music. In the face of a government crusade against “progressive culture” not just reminiscent, but actively inspired by the repression of the former dictatorship, Brazil has not lost its legacy of using music as a medium to inspire change.

Perhaps it is music’s ability to speak to many people, or perhaps it’s presumed innocuity, which lends itself to such a potent legacy of revolution. Whatever it may be, from Stravinsky’s ballet to Tropicalia’s rebellious heyday, music has repeatedly been utilised as an impressive tool to fight against cultural and political repression. In the case of Brazil, what started as a bourgeois revolution in the 1950s has endured into the 21st century and has proven to be an effective way to give cry to an otherwise silent sentiment of discontent from an oppressed populace.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: Audio Snobbery

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