Music and politics have always had an intimate connection. On the same week that Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was removed from office, The Brazil Curator compiled a playlist of songs that have been used as political protests since the military dictatorship in that country, from 1964 to 1985.
Brazil’s political class currently faces a huge corruption scandal. President Rousseff, representing the left-wing Workers Party (PT), is now facing a trial that may last up to 180 days, and Michel Temer (PMDB), her coalition vice-president, has taken over the presidency. Among Temer’s first actions “to get the country back on track” was axing the Ministry of Culture and lump it together with the Ministry of Education. This decision was condemned in an open letter from Procure Saber, an association of artists including renowned singers Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil – who himself was the minister of culture from 2003 to 2008.
Rousseff is not accused of any personal misconduct, but rather of improperly using state banks to cover a budget shortfall; The New York Times wrote in April that it is not clear that what she did was criminal behavior, and some in Brazil believe she is being charged simply because she is unpopular (the country is in a dire recession) and leads a party that is resented by the nation’s elite. A former militant who was arrested and tortured under the military dictatorship in the 1970s, Dilma Rousseff was the first woman to be elected as the president of Brazil, in 2010 and again in 2014.
Under these conditions, and more than 30 years after the end of the dictatorship, some people in Brazil seem comfortable speaking out in support of the military regime, praising convicted torturers as if their undemocratic methods could save the country from the current political and economical crises. Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who represents the state of Rio de Janeiro, is the head of this movement. Pro-torture, anti-gay (watch Gaycation) and potential presidential candidate for the 2018 elections, his controversial remarks finds resonance among the most conservatives – he secures 23 percent of support among those with the highest incomes, according to Datafolha, a local polling company.
As a reminder for those who inquire the return of the military dictatorship in Brazil, São Paulo’s vinyl collector Juliana Cesso compiled a playlist of songs of that time when Brazilian popular music experienced its period of greatest growth but also of greatest repression. Many of the country’s most important artists (Elis Regina, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, and Gil, among others) were forced into exile or censored. These are songs that were forbidden to the population in order to preserve the “morality and good traditions”. The censors were indeed ultra-moralists, but they were also anti-democracy, paying attention to the morally degrading material while focusing on political dissent.
By limiting songwriters on their freedom of speech, the artists were forced to explore new forms of expression. As a way to escape the censorship and still be able to protest against the repressive system, they used devices such as made-up words and analogies. Chico Buarque, who had about 40 of his songs vetoed, explained the process at that time saying “artists had to do ‘acrobatics’ when writing a song, by using metaphors that would seem really silly now.” The influence of these songs shows just how powerful music can be as a way of rebelling against the system.
Check out the story behind some of the most popular songs of that time and enjoy our Political Protest playlist at SoundCloud.
Tropicália – Panis Et Circenses (1968)
Lyrics by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso with Os Mutantes; arrangements and sound by Rogério Duprat. The title “Bread and Circuses” is an allusion to the satires of Roman poet Juvenal, who scorned ancient Romans for their easy and predictable manipulation through diversion of food and games. The song, in return, is a satire of bourgeois conventions. In the lyrics, a first-person poetic voice tries desperately to alarm the family, to snap them out of their mental and physical stagnation; the attempt is futile.
Secos e Molhados – Assim Assado (1974)
Composed by João Ricardo, the lyric is about the dispute between socialism and capitalism. Using an analogy, it talks about a senior who meets a “beautiful guard” on the street, which represents the oppressor system “who kills because it doesn’t like your color”.
Caetano Veloso – Nine of Ten (1972)
Nine to Ten is part of Transa, an album recorded while the artist was exiled in London. In the lyrics, Veloso says “The age of music is past, I hear them talk as I walk.”
Elis Regina – Canto de Ossanha
Elis Regina was criticized because of a perceived political ambivalence, on one side she attacked the military dictatorship and on the other she had to accept tradeoffs in order to avoid having to leave Brazil as many other composers and artists that left to avoid political repression.
Chico Buarque – Apesar de Você (1970)
“In spite of you, tomorrow will be another day,” Chico wrote and released it as a single. The censors initially approved the song as it quickly became a hit on the radio. With the popularity, rumors started spreading that it was dedicated specifically to general Médici, who served as president from 1969 to 1974. Apesar de Você was re-approved and re-released on the album Samambaia in 1978, as the government began a gradual political liberalization process.
Chico Buarque – Cálice (1973)
Written by Chico Buarque and Gilberto Gil, this song is under an apparent religious theme, using Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane (Luke 22:42) as the chorus. The word cálice (cup) and the word cale-se (an imperative form of “to be quiet”) are homophones in Portuguese. By writing “cup”, the writers were actually referring to the command to be quiet. An undisguised version of the song would be, “Father, take away this censorship and this repression from me.”
Sources: The Influence of the Brazilian Dictatorship on Brazilian Music: A Rhetorical Analysis of Protest Songs by Fernanda Rezende
Brutality Garden: Tropicália and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture by Christopher Dunn