“Samba is politics”: the fight for the future of Brazil invades its dancefloors | Brazil

The beer-soaked samba session was coming to an end and, as usual, the crowd was preparing to vent their spleen.

As the drummers of one of Rio’s top samba bands pounded their tamborins and tantãs, revelers raised their glasses and let out cathartic cheers demanding the impeachment of a president they despised. “Fora Bolsonaro!” mocked the sweat-drenched crowd. “Bolsonaro out!”

The explosion of dancefloor dissent was nothing new for Renascença Clube, a historic association in northern Rio that has been a potent symbol of black pride and resistance since it was founded by black Brazilians in 1951. In recent years – As public anger against far-right President Jair Bolsonaro intensified – Renascença’s weekly Samba do Trabalhador (Workers’ Samba), hootenanny, hosted metronomic displays of anti-government rage.

Yet last week’s protest prompted an unusual and incendiary reaction from the club’s management that outraged the samba world and exposed the rancorous political fissure that opened up in Brazilian society during the three years in power of Bolsonaro.

In the aftermath of the January 24 broadcast, a statement signed by Renascença president Alexandre Luiz Xavier Alves appeared on his social media accounts, stating that the club’s statutes prohibited “any form of partisan demonstration”.

The statement appalled sambistas and progressive fans alike – with many blaming it on pressure from Bolsonarista board members trying to silence critics of their embattled leader. “He who accepts evil without protesting against it truly cooperates with it,” wrote a furious music lover on the club’s Facebook page, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.

Many have seen the club’s perceived loyalty to Bolsonaro – which has a long history of hostility towards Afro-Brazilian and indigenous peoples and culture – as a betrayal of its 70-year history as a cauldron of black resistance.

“Here is a club that was created to welcome people who are excluded from society – a club that was born to fight an oppressor – taking the side of the oppressor. It just doesn’t make sense,” said Gabriel Cavalcante, a cavaquinho player and singer who is one of nine members of Samba do Trabalhador.

Gabriel Cavalcante, 35, cavaquinho player and singer of Rio’s Samba do Trabalhador. Photography: Francisco Proner/Agence Vu’ for The Guardian

The musicians responded to the club’s press release, declaring themselves “tireless devotees of freedom of expression”.

“I felt furious — we all did,” Cavalcante said, describing how samba emerged in early 20th-century Rio as a deeply politicized form of expression for marginalized black Brazilians who had only escaped recently enslaved. “There is no samba without politics – samba is politics.”

Cavalcante quoted a line from Candeia, a legendary 20th century sambista, to explain the role of the genre as an outlet for protest and pain: “Samba is sorrow, it suffers, it is the flight from my misfortunes.

The outcry forced Renascença leaders to back down. They deleted their controversial statement and released a second, insisting the ‘politically neutral’ club was not responsible for any political protests from artists or the public.

President Alves claimed the first statement was issued in error after pressure from conservative members who accused him of “complicity” in the attacks on Bolsonaro.

Alves said club rules meant he couldn’t say whether he backed Bolsonaro or his leftist rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who looks set to win this year’s election. However, he insisted that Renascença was open to politicians of all stripes and opposed censorship. If the audience wanted to pillory the president at next week’s show, it was their democratic right: “We’ll be there to hear the voice of the people.”

Four days later, on Monday afternoon, security had been tightened as people flocked to the club’s rectangular patio to send a message of defiance to Bolsonaro and the board.

Their outfits suggested little affection for Brazil’s right-wing leader. A spectator wore a T-shirt bearing the initials of the Zapatista National Liberation Army of Mexico; another a cap honoring Brazil’s landless workers’ movement. A third sported a red jersey with the slogan “Make Brazil 2002 again” – a reference to the year of Lula’s historic first election.

A spectator jersey refers to the year of Lula's first election.
A spectator jersey refers to the year of Lula’s first election. Photography: Francisco Proner/Agence Vu’ for The Guardian

The band members also joined the demo, donning T-shirts with kaleidoscopic portraits of Lula and the phrase, “They’ll never stop the arrival of spring.”

As his group warmed up, Moacyr Luz, the famous sambista who leads the Samba do Trabalhador, said he wanted to get rid of a president who had destroyed Brazil’s international reputation and undermined black culture. “Brazil can’t take it anymore,” complained Luz after a late afternoon Aperol spritz. “Bolsonaro humiliates Brazil.”

Moacyr Luz, 63, one of Brazil's most famous sambistas, at the Renascença Clube.
Moacyr Luz, 63, one of Brazil’s most famous sambistas, at the Renascença Clube. Photography: Francisco Proner/Agence Vu’ for The Guardian

Two hours later, after the band played a succession of politically charged sambas, the first cries of “Fora Bolsonaro!” erupted, followed by shouts of support for Lula: “Olê, Olê, Olê, Olá, Lula, Lulaaaa! A group of Bolsonarist counter-protesters attempted to retaliate by shouting anti-Lula slurs, but were quickly drowned out.

Night fell, cups emptied, bodies swirled and a white Fora Bolsonaro flag was unfurled before the show reached its climax: an emotionally charged rendition of Apesar De Você (Despite You) – a dictatorship-era anthem that predicts an outburst of public rejoicing after the fall of military rule. “Despite you, tomorrow will be another day,” chanted the audience as several disgruntled bolsonarists stared at the floor.

More than 50 years after writing this song, Luz expressed optimism that Brazil was approaching a similar moment of euphoria. “We must not retreat,” said the sambista. “All this discomfort is because they know their days are numbered.”

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