Samba and sensibility

"... makes me wonder if the Western gaze is really something people can get rid of."

Dear friends,

How do we know about places that are foreign to us? In the non-tabloid media, those of us outside of Brazil tend to know this country through outlets like The Guardian or perhaps The Washington Post or New York Times. We know them through correspondents from the UK and/or US, who are usually also male, usually white, and who are also active on social media in offering a window to Brazil for the Anglosphere.

While the industry is dominated by people of the same gender, race, and passport type; there’s going to be limits to what audiences outside the country being corresponded from can usefully learn about that place. And the chance of diverse, especially local, voices being overwritten is high.

An interview with Nicole Froio

This being the case, I became pumped to present an interview with writer, researcher, and Women’s Studies scholar Nicole Froio for this newsletter when I saw her tweets around the time of Carnaval this year in Brazil; when a lot of correspondence declared that Carnaval had ‘turned political’ in response to the racist, sexist, homophobic and dictatorial Bolsonaro administration which took office late last year.

A Brazilian-Colombian woman and currently a PhD student in the UK; Nicole is a friend, colleague, and fellow collaborator with the Rio-based NGO Catalytic Communities. She kindly agreed to this exclusive interview for The Troubled Region.

1. What's the political history of Carnaval in Rio, and what did some foreign journalists covering it this year get wrong?

I think we need to first establish the political roots of samba itself; it's a music invented by Afro-Brazilian people and it's deeply tied to resistance. The very roots of samba isn't my specialty, but I know that historically, samba parties (particularly in Pedra do Sal or in the favelas) used to be criminalized and disrupted by the police since the genre was invented. This was partly because of how racist the police was (and continues to be--see, how funk is currently criminalized in favelas as well), I imagine that it was a mixture of recognizing the power art can have in providing joy and strength to people and the fact samba was created as a form of resistance.

With that origin history established, I can now talk about Carnival specifically: since samba has always been political, so has Carnaval. Since the mid-70s, Brazil has commodified Carnaval, but this hasn't changed it political potential; after all, isn't the ability to experience joy during a repressive dictatorship inherently political? Carnaval is the time of year where a deeply neglected part of our culture--Afro Brazilian culture--gets celebrated 24/7 for a whole week; this brings up a myriad of aspects from black Brazilian culture to the fore, and nobody can say anything about it (except for Bolsonaro, I suppose... but everyone knows he is a racist). For Brazilian feminists for example, Carnaval has been a site of resistance for at least the last decade, with Marielle Franco being part of a parade called "Bloco das Trepadeiras" last year, shortly before her death in March 2018. Also, last year a samba school depicted the right-wing president as a vampire. These are only the most recent examples I can tell you from the top of my head.

What foreign journalists got wrong this year is the assumption that Brazilian Carnaval has only just become political because of the current political situation in Brazil. It's insulting that such a powerful and all-consuming holiday to be misrepresented so thoroughly by white men who have been living in Rio de Janeiro for years--have they not been observing and learning Brazilian culture to get it right? It's this kind of thing that makes me wonder if the Western gaze is really something people can get rid of. I felt like they framed Carnaval as "a party where people got really drunk that has now become political" which could not be further from the truth.

2. Why is it important for outlets like The Guardian to get it right and what could they do to do better next year?

I have been saying this for years: foreign journalists really need to work hard at letting go of their Western framing. I know it's difficult because ultimately you are writing for a Western audience, but you are also educating them about the place you are reporting from! Which means you have a unique opportunity to break the cycle of the Western gaze. It would be amazing if a feature about the history of Carnaval and its political resistance was published in the Guardian instead of waiting for Carnaval to make the news next year. Portray Brazil as the nuanced country that it is, with complex traditions and a heavy racial history--not as the party paradise every Westerner thinks it is. I know that might break a few hearts, and force Westerners to reckon with colonial histories--but it's hard to say this would be a bad thing.

3. What's the value, to Brazilians/the world, of foreign correspondence on/from Brazil? (I can't help but notice that at the moment a lot of the prominent correspondence is written by two white men with very similar names - Dom Phillips and Tom Phillips....)

I think Brazil was the last frontier to be taken over by white supremacists and I became tired of yelling about how this was going to happen. If we look at history and how Latin America was controlled by the US during the Cold War, we could have predicted that Brazil was also going to become a right-wing dictatorship that has been elected through a concentrated fake news effort that is now global. Perhaps if Brazil was portrayed in a nuanced and holistic way, people would care more. Or maybe this type of reporting could be used to combat discrimination against Latino people more broadly. Ultimately though, it's important because Brazil IS important, as important as the US and the UK--perhaps this type of reporting could contradict Western self-importance.

4. We share a connection with the Rio-based organization Catalytic Communities which, through its projects like RioOnWatch, has succeeded in changing the global narrative about favela communities in Brazil. I remember in particular that this included having community journalists like Thaís Cavalcante writing about the favela experience for The Guardian.  What do you think was the value and/or effect here of having Brazilian voices writing for a foreign audience? (if you feel like it/have time, I'm also interested in - why do you think her articles appeared in the 'global development' section? (i.e. does this downgrade/pigeon hole Cavalcante's journalistic contribution to the Guardian's foreign correspondence in some way?))

Having Brazilian voices writing about Brazil is essential for any foreign audience. I used to be the kind of journalist who was like "I want to give people a voice!" and I never used to question whether the voice I was giving people was warped through my own gaze. I still work really hard to be loyal and legitimate to anyone I interview, but I do think "giving people a voice" is kind of a Western white-saviour thing that I've disabused myself from. And that's what Brazilian voices writing about Brazil makes me think of--how the Cavalcante was using her own voice and how important and essential that is. The Western gaze is difficult to formulate if people from Brazil are taking over the narrative.

However, the second part of your question is also really important. I feel like because The Guardian has a foreign correspondent in Brazil, they're unwilling to take any reports from actual Brazilians, and I do think pidgeonholing native contributions to foreign newspapers like that is problematic. It's like when Brazilians are given the opportunity to write their own narratives, the editorial approach is still dedicated to stereotyping it in some way. I can't help but think, as well, that pieces in these type of sections aren't as promoted as the actual foreign correspondent's pieces.

On the other hand, there's also an issue of typecasting certain writers as "the one from Brazil" which I feel can be really exhausting. Like, of course discussing Brazil is important, but have foreign editors ever considered that writers whose first language is not English have thoughts on other issues as well? Either way, the writer can't win; they will either have to prove their worth within that "global development" framework to make sure Brazilian voices are being heard or not write at all.

Gained some knowledge from this interview?

You can tip Nicole here.

Friends; I’ll write you again soon, thanks as ever for reading and of course for subscribing!

Abrazos from Mexico,


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Jamie Larson