Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Reference text Holiday
Rúbia Salgado, 2012
She was sitting in the hotel’s breakfast room. A hotel in Stuttgart close to the Künstlerhaus where the exhibition and program of events were taking place. In 2004. She was sitting there and the other woman walked in. Both invited by the organizers. Just the two of them in the room, in memory at least, but perhaps others, too. How they got talking she can’t remember. An otherwise impossible complicity floated in the space. Strands of conversation alonged each other.  They told each other the why and how of their being there. One was looking at anthropophagy, the theme of the exhibition “Entre Pindorama. Contemporary Brazilian Art and the Adaptation of Anthropophagic Strategies”, from the perspective of a migrant women’s organization. The other had been invited to Europe as a singer. Alongside and connected with the show’s accompanying program, a performance at the Ladyfest in Stuttgart. And in other places.
Tati Quebra Barraco, who was sitting in the hotel’s breakfast room, is a funkeira. Black singer, resident of one of Rio de Janeiro’s many favelas, well known member of a generation of musicians who launched and continue to develop the funk carioca movement, funk from Rio de Janeiro.  I, Rúbia Salgado, have never been to a baile funk, listen to funk rarely, and most often through a filter of observation. A listening marked by distanced thoughtfulness. Not because I moved to the north, but above all because of my position within the fabric of Brazilian society.
A spectrum of contrasting statements and opinions and judgments: Funk is crude, some say, it offends the sensibilities of certain sectors of society, because it’s sexist and glorifies violence. Others see it as a political narrative that uses speech acts to produce meaning, performing and re-signifying identities and social norms. Quotations and re-signification of social and linguistics norms: gender, race, and sexuality. Funk as a space for intervention. As a space of articulation for Black subjects from the periphery at the centre. Vulnerabilities and resistances. The discrimination and criminalization of funk are said to be based on racial and class prejudice. Funk as something inscribed into the historical process of violent persecution and defamation of cultural and social movements by Black groups.
As a musical genre and social movement, funk is said to be an appropriation and transformation of hip hop. 1980s hip hop, Miami bass. Funk carioca and anthrophagy. Tati Quebra Barraco invited to Europe as an anthropophage. In Brazil’s (art and literary) history since modernism, anthrophagy as a strategy in dealing with the continuity of colonial power. But by white artists, authors, intellectuals. An aesthetic and cultural position that distorts and critically assimilates cultural values that have been and continue to be transplanted to Brazil. Also a position that emphasizes the elements and cultural values that were repressed by the process of colonialization. Anthropophagy: eating human beings. On account of their admirable qualities. To take possession of the object of one’s admiration. Tati Quebra Barraco invited to Europe as an anthropophage.
Funk as an anthropophagic appropriation of musical movements from the United States. But of Black music from the United States. The question of the appropriateness of transferring this concept to funk merely noted in the margin at this point.
Tati Quebra Barraco invited to Europe as a feminist. Funk initially male-dominated, then the rise of the funkeiras. Black women who in a controversial public debate in Brazil are variously granted or denied the attribute “feminist”. When Tati Quebra Barraco was invited to Europe, there was a flurry of outraged voices in the Brazilian media: she is no legitimate representative of “Brazilian culture,” they said, and no feminist either. Or a fake feminist. Other voices defended funk “as culture” and portrayed the singer as belonging to a neo-feminist movement.
I was looking for an approach to the song Strange Fruit. Uneasily accompanied throughout by a questioning of the appropriateness of this public utterance. Me, the person writing this text. Plunged into contradiction on account of the position from which my thinking and seeing and speaking and listening are structured. Not Black. Not a funkeira. But also not part of the majority. Not part of white society. Not privileged in that way. I was looking for an approach that would not (totally) erase this unease and contradiction. Months passed. Conversations. Thinking. Research. Then a text by Angela Davis.  White men, managers and/or club owners, claim that Billie Holiday didn’t grasp the political dimension of the lyric, only realizing thanks to their suggestions and explanations, only then including the song in her repertoire. Being “not educated enough”, the white men said, she was unable to understand the relevance of the lyric.
Billie Holiday herself tells a different story. In her autobiography she mentions a meeting with the song’s author, Lewis Allen (alias Abel Meeropol), at Café Society, when she encountered the text for the first time. She reports her motivation for singing the song. Associations with the violence of racism, the violence that took her father’s life. She wanted to call her autobiography Bitter Crop (the last two words of the song). The title Lady Sings the Blues was chosen by the publisher because it was considered more likely to sell.  The counter-narrative to disqualification. Disapproval. Self-promotion and consolidation of powerful positions. No surprise. Racism and sexism. No surprise either in the branding of Tati Quebra Barraco—and all other funkeiras—as not feminist. Or in the dismissal of her work within the sphere of cultural politics. The emphasis on the lack of a formal/bourgeois/hegemonic educational biography as a bar to conscious political action. Not educated, hence not capable of thinking or acting politically. In the context of racist, sexist, classist societies.
Unlike Billie Holiday, who speaks of her conscious choice of the song and of a position of political resistance, Tati Quebra Barraco does not comment on her attitude to feminism, anti-racism, and other political struggles. Unless she is explicitly asked. Then she usually answers: If the public thinks she’s a feminist, then so be it. Or her texts and performances are interpreted in this way. A subject position distinct from the white bourgeois subject of western feminism, who therefore cannot refer to herself as a feminist. Or want to. According to some feminist theorists. Tati Quebra Barraco re-signifies the position of women in the heterosexual and racist context; she appropriates the construction of women as objects and transforms the supposed object into a subject of enunciation; she speaks as a subject of her desire. Using the vocabulary that represents and constitutes the oppression of women as a strategy of resistance. Using the vocabulary that describes Black people as “ugly,” in line with a notion of beauty defined along racist lines, and shifting the meaning by an inversion of power relations. As in the song Sou feia, mas tô na moda (“I’m ugly, but I’m trendy“): “Não tenho cabelo liso, não sou gostosa, mas tô comendo seu marido.“ (“My hair’s not straight, I’m not sexy, but I’m fucking your husband.“)
Unease and contradictions: writing about this as a white queer feminist. Equated with the white faces of the academics appearing between baile funk scenes in documentary films, explaining the movement, analyzing it. Naming the contradictions. The unease still there. But that was the challenge in the contradiction.
And nevertheless, a further step. Looking from abroad, I find things out: Funk is expanding its boundaries and talking about heterosexist violence and violence against transsexuals. Valesca Popozuda, also a famous funkeira from Rio de Janeiro, looks for a transsexual dancer for her group Gaiola das Popozudas. But: Valesca is white. The chosen dancer is also white. A lesbian funk group is formed. But: in Brasilia rather than Rio, its members all white students. Heavily inspired by funk carioca, two queer artists form the band Solange, Tô Aberta! (Solange, I’m open!). But: both are white. Not from Rio de Janeiro and not from favelas.
Solange, Tô Aberta!—the intention to render hegemonic discourses and behavior and norms visible, to contradict them, to deconstruct them. An apologia for transvestism. Counter-narratives, counter-positions to the dogmas of the Catholic church. To binarity. To heteronormativity. Advocating the legalization of abortion. Supporting the Black movement. The LGBT movement. Support and solidarity for women and all subjects silenced by society.
They explain their choice of funk as their musical basis by referring to the way it allows them to speak about various themes, in a simple way, directly, ironically, and above all to the discomfort of the great majority. “Eu sei que eu tenho o que seu marido gosta, carinha de boneca e uma piroca bem grossa.” (“I know I’ve got what your husband likes: a doll’s face and a nice big cock.”): Appearance by Solange, Tô Aberta! at the queer Transgenialer CSD festival, Berlin 2011. Invited to Berlin as a queer funk band.
Last scene: Christopher Street Day (CSD) parade, Rio de Janeiro 2011. During one of my stays in the city. The clear majority of the hundreds of thousands of participants are Black. Most of them seemingly from impoverished sections of society. Consulted the media, exchanged views with friends: the white queer middle class does not attend. Fear of violence. We don’t mix is the (often unspoken) explanation. A society structured along classist and racist lines.
The parade. Funk from the loudspeakers, voices singing along, memories of the conversation with Tati Quebra Barraco. Of Solange, Tô Aberta!. The songs. The contradictions. The violence and the curves, the paths, the interruptions and shifts, the strategies and the processes of politicization in the production of popular culture. The movements, the addressing and making visible of violence. Strange Fruit: “[…] a song that was able to awaken from their apolitical slumber vast numbers of people from diverse racial backgrounds.“ (Angela Davis) A song and the discomfort, the unsettling. Vulnerability and resistance. Strange Fruit and Billie Holiday. The lyric written by a white Jewish man. Appropriated by a Black singer and made into a symbol of protest and struggle against violence against Black people. Appropriation, transformation, shifting. Poetry becoming poetry and struggle.
Rúbia Salgado works in adult education, on cultural projects, and as a writer in self-organized contexts.
Edited by: Sabine Rohlf & Jo Schmeiser
Translation from the German: Nicholas Grindell
This text was published (in German) on January 25, 2013, in the international art magazine springerin.
1) This is a neologism created by making a verb out of the adverb “along”. My texts often include neologisms as a sign or result of my utilization of the hegemonic language. [Translator’s note: “the German language as hegemonic language” in the original, but equally applicable to English.]
2) Translator’s note: Portuguese terms are set in italics in this text, including funk, to set it apart from the more common usage in English to refer to a different kind of music.
3) Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, New York 1998
4) Billie Holiday, with William Dufty, Lady Sings the Blues, New York 1956 / 1984