No bishops, no captains: Rio Carnaval vs the Far Right

This year’s Rio de Janeiro carnaval parade, which will take place on February 23rd and 24th, shows sings of being one of its most political ever, as voices of Rio’s black population rise up against the religious, social and economic persecution of the right wing extremist Jair Bolsonaro government

By Gabriel Deslandes

In 1929, a group of school teachers jokingly labelled their street carnaval drum group, Deixa Falar, as a “Samba School”, the name caught on and started a tradition which grew into the nation’s largest annual live television event, with millions of viewers glued to their screens for two 12 hour nightly broadcasts of huge parade groups from Rio’s favelas and suburbs dancing through the Oscar Niemeyer-designed Sapucai samba stadium. For the second year in a row, most of the parades are focusing on political criticism . Rio’s biggest Samba Schools are criticizing the nation’s complicated sociopolitical conjuncture with themes of resistance against authoritarianism, prejudice and social inequality. 10 of Rio’s 13 biggest samba schools will have political parade themes criticizing people like President Jair Bolsonaro and Rio mayor and neo-pentacostal bishop, Marcelo Crivella.

Political protest is a long tradition in Rio’s street bloco parades, where party goers use irreverent costumes and sing songs ridiculing politicians and political events, but this criticism normally bypasses the Rio carnaval stadium event. But from the time that the first samba school parade competition started in 1932, themes of pride and exaltation have been more common than criticism. This is due to a long tradition of samba schools working to keep good relations with State institutions as a survival strategy.

According to the historian Luiz Antônio Simas, samba schools, which are based in poor suburbs and favelas and formed mainly by Afro-Brazilians, have traditionally used carnaval to legitimize themselves to dominant power brokers in order to survive through years of social marginalization. However, the socio-economic and the political situation in Brazil has degenerated to the point that it has become impossible to avoid addressing it in Brazil’s “greatest show on earth.”

Jesus of the poor and Mangueira’s stations of the cross

Estação Primeira de Mangueira, which won carnaval last year honouring murdered city councillor Marielle Franco, is clearly the samba school that has attracted the most attention for its 2020 carnaval theme: Jesus Christ. Mangueira one of the oldest and most traditional samba schools in Rio – will not portray a conservative and ecclesiastical figure of Christ. With the theme “The truth will make you free”, the school will show a combative Jesus Christ who was born poor and black in Mangueira favela. This Christ suffers from poverty and social exclusion, embraces the marginalized and fights against the hypocrisy of religious leaders and all forms of discrimination.

The lyrics of Mangueira’s parade song say that Christ has a “black face, Indian blood and the body of a woman”, they are a street urchin and the son of an unemployed carpenter. The song tells of a Christ, hung on twine and wonders if the people understand the message. One line of the song goes “There is no future in the favela without sharing / No Messias with a gun in his hand”.

Mangueira’s composer, Luiz Carlos Máximo, says that “Messias” (“messiah” in English) is meant as a broad reference, not merely to President Jair Messias Bolsonaro. The lyrics were composed with his wife, Manu da Cuica, who says that the song portrays a historically realistic Christ. “He dedicated his life to the struggle for sharing, for justice, for tolerance and equality. He fought and was tortured and killed by the State for this. This is a Christ which is far from the image that he is known for – the image that was appropriated by that of a blond, blue eyed European,” she says.

The idea is to look at Jesus as a political and historical figure who is important for understanding Christian thinking, which has been appropriated by right wing extremist political leaders and religious fundamentalists,” says parade coordinator Leandro Viera. He says that in Mangueira’s parade, Christ does not have a Eurocentric image. “Man was made in the image and likeness of God, so Jesus has several faces. He is the brother of people of several faces. In Brazil he is Indigenous, Black, female too. Our Jesus does not have a gender. It is a character with our face, our likeness. And we have many faces,” says Viera.

This humanist interpretation of Chris has drawn the ire of conservative religious groups against Mangueira, and the school is being attacked by a wave of fake news. In texts and videos spread by right wing Catholic and evangelical fanatics on the internet, Mangueira has been accused of blasphemy, of promoting the discretization of the Christian faith and even of portraying Christ as a communist. A fake news rumour has been deliberately spread across WhatsApp that the parade will portray Christ as a drug dealer. Leandro Veira says he expected the attacks. “In a certain manner, this only shows that we are proposing something related to the current debate. The character of Jesus has become a motto for almost everything. But while some present a violent Jesus, other people can show him in a different way.”

No Bishops, no Captains

Political criticism has also taken hold at the oldest Samba School in Carnaval, the ultra traditional Portela, which is basing its parade on the long struggle of indigenous peoples. With a parade song entitled, Guajupiá, Terra sem Males, the school will tell the story of the Tupinambá Indigenous people who lived in Rio de Janeiro before the arrival of the colonizers. The parade will portray the social, cultural and political lives of the first inhabitants of Rio.

Brazil is undergoing a resurgence of attacks against indigenous people, due to lenience and encouragement from the Bolsonaro government. In reaction against this current mood of hatred and violence, the lyrics of Portela’s new parade song have already taken hold of the public imagination during the lead up to carnaval due to the indirect criticism of politicians, “Indians ask for peace, but can fight. Our reservation has no party or faction, we have no bishop and bow to no captain.” In this song, “Bishop” refers to Rio mayor Marcelo Crivella, who is an “bishop”, in the Universal Kingdom of God prosperity gospel church. “Captain” refers to President Bolsonaro, who is a retired army captain. “The point is that there is no authoritarian religious leader or military commander that indigenous people should have to subordinate to,” says Rogério Lobo, one of the composers of this years Portela parade song.

President Jair Bolsonaro will also be the subject of a direct attack during São Clemente samba school’s parade. It’s parade song this year, O conto do Vigário, will reference recent controversies in Brazilian politics, such as the money laundering allegations against members of Bolsonaro’s former PSL party and the use of fake news in the 2018 presidential elections through lyrics like, “Brazil, shared, viralized, and went blind – the whole country sambaed this way and fell into fake news”. São Clemente’s carnaval samba was composed by comedian and actor Marcelo Adnet, who will dance in the parade dressed up like Jair Bolsonaro.

Paraiso do Tuiuti samba school will base its parade on Rio de Janeiro’s social problems like poverty and violence. It will tell the story of the daily battle of the poorest of the poor, through invoking the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro, St. Sebastian, and it’s parade samba is entitled Cidade das mazelas (city of ills). Unidos da Tijuca will also sing of Rio’s lack of urban planning with the parade, “onde moram os sonhos” (where dreams live), about architecture and urban planning, which will criticize the precarious housing stock in Rio’s favelas through lyrics like, “a tear rolls down the hill/chainsaw cuts down forest/kills the purity/Rio yells for help/man mistreats the earth.” The chorus of the samba is, “dignity is not luxury or a favour.”

Nearly every samba school parade will criticize racism. Elza Soares, diva of Brazilian music and one of the greatest symbols of resistance for Afro-Brazilian women, will be honoured by her favourite Samba School, Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel. During its tribute, Mocidade will tell the story of a black woman who, with her powerful voice, “gags oppression”. One part of the the song goes, “Brazil, forget the evil that consumes you. Children of planet hunger, don’t lose the hope in your song.”

Racism will also be a theme of other samba schools. Salgueiro will honour Benjamin de Oliveira, Brazil’s first black clown, as 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of his birth. “The struggle made me majestic, in the skin, the tone of courage, taking what comes, smile and resist.” Grande Rio will honour one of the most important figures in Candomblé religion with a message against religious prejudice of Afro-Brazilian religions. “For the love of God, whose love favours no faith, I respect, your amen, respect my axé.”

On February 23rd and 24th, during the middle of nationwide street parties, these courageous acts of resistance against Brazil’s rising climate of fascism will be transmitted  to an expected audience of 30 million.