The Political Aesthetics of Brazilian Carnival

In this week's newsletter, Sophie Magalhães, explores how Brazilian Carnival, renowned for its vibrant spectacle, merges cultural celebration with political commentary, as samba schools craft elaborate performances and musical displays to address social issues and injustices like colonialism's legacy and environmental destruction.

When you imagine Brazilian carnival, vibrant sounds and images spring to mind: glittering floats, samba beats, scantily dressed men and women in ornate costumes heaping with feathers and jewels. Beyond its visual allure, Brazilian carnival is a celebration of diversity and cultural fusion. Despite its original religious connotations in marking the beginning of Lent, the modern-day carnival is marked by massive festivities, with meticulously organised performances from pre-eminent samba schools across Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. These schools spend years preparing for their performances which are seen live by 90,000 people in Rio, 30,000 in São Paulo, and millions more on TV.

Music lies at the heart of Brazilian carnival. Its infectious samba rhythm was first brought to Brazil from the Congo and Angola in the mid-19th century by enslaved Africans. Each year the samba schools compete with one another and are judged on things ranging from the group’s story, its harmony and its costumes. Each school has 75 minutes to parade down the ‘sambadrome’ with their samba music, floats, costumes and allegory inspired by unique themes, and typically imbued with political messages. In previous years songs have campaigned against economic inequality, violence and corruption in poverty-stricken areas. They also have been seen to promote sustainability in honour of Brazil’s natural landscape in a cry against environmental destruction.

The 2024 carnival, having recently taken place from the 9th-17th of February, saw a rise in displays that addressed the lasting impacts of colonialism, with samba schools incorporating powerful messages of resistance, cultural pride and decolonisation into their elaborate presentations. The Salgueiro samba school, renowned for their carnival presentations on severe Brazilian socio economic issues, used their glamorous performance to lobby against illegal mining on indigenous Yanomami land. 

The Salgueiro school, known for previous performances protesting prevalent racism against black Brazilians in their 2022 carnival performance, took the dance’s Afro-Brazilian roots to celebrate Brazilian cultural diversity whilst simultaneously joining the global outcry of violence against people of colour. Their recent performance on the 13th of February was no different in its aims in projecting mistreatment of indigenous peoples and their land, pressuring President Lula da Silva to take immediate action.

The lyrics of their song ‘Eu aprendi Português, a língua do opressor’ (‘I learned Portuguese, the language of the oppressor’) and ‘Não queremos sua ordem, nem o seu progresso’ (‘We don’t want your order, or your progress’ – a subversion of the motto on the Brazilian flag), as well as the awesome, coruscating display of a stereotypically indigenous head carved out of wood and decorated with samba dancers wearing painted yellow feathers, combines spectacle with political urgency. Inconvenient truths are transmitted to the public via eye-catching entertainment. 

The cohesive power of music, in this case a device to point out socioeconomic divisions, seems contradictory yet remains resonant. The winning samba school is judged entirely on performance and presentation: from the grandeur of the floats, the music and the drums, it matters how the theme is portrayed. The importance of carnival’s aesthetics in projecting political agenda connects the cultural and rhythmic diversity. Samba, with its Afro-Brazilian roots, integrated into an indigenous political agenda, underscores the profound impact music can have on all individuals. Music and performance, tightly woven into Brazilian society, fosters a sense of community to combat division. From traditional samba to contemporary styles, the music of carnival transcends both political and social borders, uniting people from all backgrounds in a vibrant shared experience of joy, camaraderie and life. Therefore, not only does the festival form a rich part of the cultural landscape in Brazil, it also works to shed a bright light on existing divides and trigger a change in attitudes and policies.

By Sophie Magalhães, Editor-in-Chief at the Oxford Forum

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Published by Anabelle Zaris, Newsletter Editor