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Emicida, a rapper on a mission to recover Brazil's black history

Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
·4 min read

When the black Brazilian rapper Emicida imagines his country’s whitewashed history, he sees a textbook missing a succession of key pages.

In his songs and on stage, the São Paulo-born musician tries to correct that skewed telling, remembering the lives and times of black Brazilian academics, artists and activists in the hope of changing Brazil’s future.

“If we’d been told about this story and these [black] contributions at school, we’d have a radically different sense of who we are – and this would have produced a far better society than the one we’ve got today,” the 35-year-old artist said, quoting the famous saying that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Emicida, real name Leandro Roque de Oliveira, has been making music for more than a decade, recording three albums and building a reputation as one of Brazil’s top hip-hop MCs. In the past 12 months he has also emerged as one of the country’s most influential cultural figures.

His new documentary, AmarElo, which was released on Netflix last month, has received rave reviews for its shocking but inspirational depiction of the decades-old struggle against racist violence and inequality in a country still wrestling with the pernicious legacy of slavery.

“What Emicida is doing is tremendous and heroic,” music journalist Pedro Antunes enthused in his review, calling AmarElo an antidote to “centuries of amnesia and racial whitening”.

Antunes said the film – which elevates inadequately celebrated black figures from Brazilian history including the intellectual Lélia Gonzalez, the dramatist Abdias do Nascimento and the 18th-century architect Tebas – needed showing “in every classroom in the land”.

Emicida said he had understood his mission to promote Brazil’s sidelined black past in 2015, while visiting Angola’s national museum of slavery during his first trip to Africa. There, in a 17th-century oceanfront chapel, he saw a font where enslaved Africans were “convinced they had no souls” and baptised before boarding ships bound for countries such as Brazil, then the world’s biggest importer of slaves.

“I asked myself about the moments in my life when I felt I didn’t have a soul either; how I spent a good chunk of my life suspended in this gloom where I felt I wasn’t worthy of being considered intelligent, or strong, or important, or handsome, or any of these positive attributes that are part of the human experience,” he said during an interview from his home in northern São Paulo.

“The idea that those [black] bodies still have no soul is still very much alive in many people’s consciousness,” the rapper said, pointing to relentless police violence against young black Brazilians and Covid’s disproportionate impact on poor, black Brazilians. He called Brazil “a country where black lives matter less”.

Related: 'Enormous disparities': coronavirus death rates expose Brazil's deep racial inequalities

“This process of desalmação [‘de-souling’], of removing these people’s souls, is the reason black people occupy the top spots in all of our worst rankings, when we talk about the prison population, or the number of murders, or this situation where the state feels absolutely free to kill [black] people without any restraint.”

Emicida said Brazil, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, had suffered “an unofficial system of apartheid” well before the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who has faced repeated accusations of racism against black and indigenous people. But he feared that Brazil’s pro-gun president – whom he has called a “worm” – might be the first chapter of a rollback of hard-fought civil rights.

Brazilian politics “was going down a very dangerous path”, the rapper warned. “The way I see it, if we aren’t careful, there’s a big chance of someone like Bolsonaro being just the tip of the iceberg – and we have to talk about this.”

Emicida claimed that Bolsonaro’s hostility to culture was driven by his desire to limit this kind of free, fact-based debate that would expose him as a fraud.

“He knows culture creates a space for reflection – and someone who feeds on chaos is obviously going to feel complete hatred for anything that creates this kind of space. Because if you had a healthy debate, someone like him would never hold the office he does.”