On Brazil’s north coast, reggae’s cultural protectors seek to preserve its role in rebellion
SAO LUIS, Brazil — On a gusty night on the north coast, a breezy song carries over the moon-lit beach, through the seaside streets, and between the shiny new apartment complexes that overlook it all. In Brazil’s reggae capital, almost everything is irie.
Hundreds of people are lined up to get into a popular seaside club. Hundreds more are dancing to the music on the sand outside. And on this night, a group wearing T-shirts for a local candidate in the country’s coming general election is arguing with a supporter of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, who won 46 percent of the vote in a primary election earlier this month and is poised to win the presidency on Oct. 28.
The Bolsonaro supporter is angry that one of the performers mentioned something about the far-right candidate, who has been derided by his opponents as “Tropical Trump.”
“We should all just be having a good time,” the man complains.
“You came here to listen to non-political reggae music?” a woman laughs. “You are so confused.”
Reggae has, of course, always been political. Over time, here in the northwestern state of Maranhão — where it took hold among people who were “black, poor and peripheral,” as one historian puts it — it also became cultural.
Now it is institutional. A government agency has been established to promote it — and to protect the people who make money from it.
And a few miles from this beach, tucked into a side street of the historic quarter of this city, the employees of a new museum are hoping to preserve all of those things. But, in advance of what could be a severe political shift for South America’s largest country, perhaps none of reggae’s roles is more important than its roots as the soundtrack of rebellion.
That, however, might be the hardest thing of all to preserve.
The tunes arrived, vinyl single by vinyl single, in the briefcases and backpacks of Brazilians who had made their way to and back from New York, London and, of course, Kingston — all places where reggae, which had evolved from ska and calypso tunes in Jamaica, was flourishing in the 1960s.
Every song that came back to Brazil was in English. Very few people in São Luís spoke that language at the time. Even a local record runner named Edmilson da Costa, who made dozens of trips overseas to purchase reggae albums, which he sold to a growing and voracious army of DJs in Maranhão, didn’t understand the lyrics of the songs in the albums he was trafficking.
Most reggae fans back in São Luís couldn’t even read the names of the records they were listening to. Instead, albums from that time often came to be known by descriptions of their cover art. Bootleg copies of a popular compilation album from 1976 called “The Front Line,” the cover of which featured a black and white photo of a man’s fist squeezing a section of barbed fencing, are still sold in São Luís, where the album is known in Portuguese as “Mão No Fio,” or “Hand on the Wire.”
To Brazil’s military government, which had come to power in a 1964 coup that was supported by the United States, it didn’t matter whether the growing number of Brazilian reggae fans understood the protest messages that permeated the lyrics of people like Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Having enacted stifling restrictions on freedom of speech and especially political expression, the regime was quick to crack down. Clubs were raided and shuttered. Some who spoke up were arrested and jailed.
If reggae was not inspiring resentment of the government before those tumultuous years, it was after. And given that the center of Brazil’s reggae movement was poor, black neighborhoods, the connection between artistic persecution and political oppression became stark in the minds of those who embraced that music.
“For people here, reggae became a symbol of peaceful protest,” says Alessandra Vieira, a manager at the Museo do Reggae, which will celebrate its first anniversary in January. “It was about enduring the oppression.”
Indeed, reggae proved to have greater staying power than the military regime, which ended in 1985. And record by record, club by club, its influence continued to grow. By the mid-1990s, São Luís had become internationally known as a center of reggae culture. Jamaican-based performers even began recording tracks specifically for the Maranhão market. Middle and upper- class Brazilians flocked to the favelas where the trendiest clubs were and where the most popular DJs were performing.
“Here we say that good reggae is ‘pedra.’ That means ‘rock,’ but not like rock-n-roll,” says Staynana Barbosa Carvalho, a museum docent. “It is like a precious stone. And it was a stone that people had to come here, to Maranhão, to touch and to feel. Just think about how that changed the power dynamic. They had to come to us.”
As the people came, the money did too. And in this seaside town, the rising tide lifted many boats.
“There were the women who did the dreadlocks. And the ones who sewed the clothing. There were the dance troupes, too. Of course there were the DJs. And then, at the top, the club owners,” Vieira said. “There is a woman who lives in this town here who we celebrated recently. She has been selling chocolates at reggae clubs for 50 years. Her fate, and all of these people’s fates, has been tied to reggae.”
Vieira wants to protect those people. And, to that end, she celebrates the fact that Maranhão’s state government has set up an agency to protect reggae. That’s the only way the museum — which is free to visitors and school groups — can exist.
But she wants something else, too.
“The economic aspects are important, of course, and I’m just speaking for myself here,” she says while sitting in a desk underneath a large, framed photograph of Maranhão’s governor, Flávio Dino, “but it’s important to protect the message of reggae, too… It is a message of protest.”
That message, she worries, has been lost over the years as reggae has been popularized and commercialized. In Maranhão, where beach parties blast reggae until well past midnight and a Thursday night reggae concert series in the historic district is an occasion for many young people to debut their most expensive outfits, it’s no longer just the music of the oppressed.
At the beachside reggae club, reveler Cláudia Almada says reggae “doesn’t belong to anyone.”
“It is as important to us in Maranhão as opera is in Italy,” Almada says. “Not everyone likes opera the same way, but it is respected as art by almost everyone.”
Bianke Araujo Rodriguez, a 22-year-old college student who also works at the museum, says all of her friends like reggae music.
“I don’t know anyone who does not like it,” she says. “If those people exist, they must be very rare. I’ve never met someone like that.”
But Rodriguez also says she is the only person in her friend group who counts reggae as her favorite type of music. Her boyfriend like electronic dance music, she says. Her friends enjoy American hip hop and the Puerto Rican-born reggaetón.
“I think the one thing we all agree on is that we like songs that are uplifting,” she says. “Now, you can have any kind of music from anywhere in the world, so whatever you like can be what sustains you. It can be your anthem.”
Rodriguez says the only thing that would make her judge a friend’s choice in music is if the lyrics or singers were outwardly prejudiced.
“I think that’s the key message in roots reggae,” she says. “It’s a message of no prejudice.”
But what of demanding justice from powerful elites? What of self-determination and the rejection of tribal politics? Rodriguez says she understands that those sorts of themes were central to the songs her parents and grandparents listened to.
But these are trying times in Brazil. Bolsonaro has unapologetically engaged in racist descriptions of poor people and once said he’d rather have a dead son than a gay one. In September he was stabbed, and doctors say he barely survived. That only appears to have made his supporters more numerous and more determined. Brazil is factionalizing in a ways that haven’t been seen since the days in which communists and fascists nearly tore the nation apart.
“Maybe,” Rodriguez says, “at this time just being against prejudice is rebellious enough.”
Vieira understands that times and tastes will change. So she’s not trying to convert people to become reggae fans.
“What we want to do is to germinate a seed — something that helps connect them to the role reggae played for people who are black, poor and peripheral during some very difficult times,” she says. “If they come to love reggae also, that is wonderful.”
She’s doesn’t want to return to a time in which the only reggae clubs in Maranhão were crumbling shacks. These days, many of the most popular clubs in São Luís are owned by white men, of generational wealth, who may indeed be lifelong fans of the music, but never needed it to sustain themselves in trying times. But those clubs help sustain a “productivity chain,” she says, that could leave many people out of work if reggae’s popularity was to decline.
These are not trifling concerns, particularly not in uncertain political times, which in Brazil have often led to uncertain economic times.
As a high school group comes through the museum’s front doors, Vieira says she knows she has a lot of work to do to even get reggae to register as something more than just another choice in music.
“They tend to see reggae as a rhythm, not a movement,” she says of Maranhão’s younger generations.
At that moment, her nephews burst into her office. The boys, not yet school-age, wrap her legs with hugs.
“I would really like reggae to exist in its political form for them,” she says. “Because they will almost certainly have hard times in their lives, too.”
In another group of children, she sees a lot of hope. That group, which visited the museum’s courtyard on a muggy Saturday afternoon, comprised about 20 kids, between the ages of 3 and 13, who come from one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Staff members take the children on a tour, telling them about the history of reggae in Maranhão, before releasing them into the museum’s courtyard, where they draw pictures of Jamaican flags, album covers, and children dancing next to giant reggae sound systems.
As they draw, Vieira and the other staff members take turns fielding questions.
“How many people are in a reggae band?” one boy asks.
“Where did reggae come from?” a girl inquires.
“Can we be reggae singers?” another girl wants to know.
Above the children, four enormous banners are hanging along one wall. There is Peter Tosh. And Jimmy Cliff. And Bob Marley, of course.
But on the second banner to the right, every bit as larger than life as those three reggae legends, is Célia Sampaio, who also grew up in one of Sao Luis’ poorest neighborhoods and is now considered to be the country’s queen of reggae.
She sings about being brave. About overcoming long odds. And about fighting oppression. She sings in Portuguese. And all of the children can sing along.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor of journalism at Utah State University, and the author of the forthcoming book Superlative: The Biology of Extremes. A selection of his work can be found at mdlaplante.com.