A Geography of Race & Music in Early 20th Century Brazil

April 27, 2016

Over the last several years I’ve conducted extensive research in Brazil focused on the multiple and complex intersections of race, music, and space. In this post I offer an elaboration on just one of those intersections: the transformation of samba from a musical form developed in the predominantly Afro-Brazilian favelasof Rio de Janeiro into a genre said to represent an entire nation in the first half of the 20th century. In a separate post I will explore a second intersection—the creation of samba-reggae and its subsequent global commercial success in Salvador in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.1 Many have written the history and geography of samba in Brazil (e.g. Shaw 1999; Vianna 2004; Hertzman 2013). My purpose here is not to rehearse those histories or engage in the debates surrounding the origins of Brazil’s “national” music. Rather, my intention is simply to highlight the tight, and oftentimes fraught connections between music, race, and place.

To begin, it’s worth thinking about spaces of marginality. Radical feminist and social theorist bell hooks has argued that marginality is not only defined by deprivation, it can also be:

a space of resistance… a central location for the production of a counter hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives. [It is not] marginality one wished to lose, to give up, or surrender as part of moving into the center, but rather as a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds (hooks 1990: 341).

She continues: “Understanding marginality as position and place of resistance is crucial for oppressed, exploited, colonized people” (hooks 1990: 342). Paul Gilroy has argued that during the 300-year history of slavery in the Americas, all throughout the Black Atlantic slave music challenged the primacy of written and spoken language as the dominant expression of consciousness. Since slaves’ access to literacy was vastly limited, the importance of music was inversely proportional to the limited expressive power of language. Similarly, in contemporary Brazil music has long been “of utmost importance as a channel of communication in a society in which education and literacy are limited to half of the population, and in which social and civil rights are denied to the majority of Brazilians” (Lucas 2000: 44). In early 20th century Rio, music became an important route for Brazil’s negro-mestiço population to assert identity, create an Afro-Brazilian cultural consciousness, and claim a physical space within the city. But as this example also shows, the Brazilian state quickly realized the power of music and acted to co-opt and re-scale this sound of Afro-Brazilian identity.



To get there, one needs to go back in time, to the years just following the 1888 abolition of slavery in Brazil. Ashamed of their slave-owning past and hoping to appear “modern” and “developed” in the eyes of the world, the country’s white elite set out to redefine Brazilian culture in terms of European aesthetic notions. Within this mindset, scholars of the time turned to environmental determinism to explain “the country’s stunted development” in comparison with their European counterparts (Reily 2000: 2). It was considered “scientifically proven that the intellectual capacities of Indians and Africans were significantly lower than those of European whites, [as] the vaporous conditions of the southern hemisphere were supposed to be conducive to indolence” (Reily 1997: 79). Brazil’s elite set out on a quest for “ethnic ‘redemption’” (Skidmore 1990: 7), rethinking race in Brazil in terms of branqueamento, or “whitening,” and believing—hoping—that Brazil’s race “problem” would, quite literally, fade away. For instance, João Batista de Lacerda, director of Brazil’s National Museum, quantified the progression of whitening in Brazil and presented his findings to the 1911 Universal Races Congress in London, predicting that over the subsequent 100 years Brazil’s mixed-race (“mestiço”) population would be reduced to only three percent while the black population would completely disappear (Lacerda 1912).

(source: Lacerda 1912)

The desired disappearance of blackness through branqueamento led directly to the physical segregation of Rio de Janeiro’s negro-mestiço population. Starting at the turn of the century, Rio center was the site of a vast “bota-abaixo,” or “knocking down.” With the popular mantra “O Rio civiliza-se” (“Rio civilizes itself”), the city was seen to be crossing the “universal threshold of Civilization” and would be refashioned as French and European through “a war on a shameful and barbaric past of ‘colonial’ filth and ‘African’ degradation” (Needell 1995: 524, 533). As a result, between 1904 and 1906 over 20 streets and 600 structures were demolished to make way for the new Avenida Central and approximately 20,000 of the city’s poor and predominantly black residents were forced to the urban fringe, creating the shantytowns that would become known as favelas, and effectively removing Afro-Brazilians from Brazil’s social imagination, annihilating not just their place in the past and present, but also in the future.

(source: Needell 1987)

(source: Goodenough 2014)

Tracing the geography of samba in Rio de Janeiro starting in the beginning of the 20th century, Vianna (2004) outlines the emergence of samba from within this mass of marginalized neighborhoods—an area known as Pequena África (little Africa)—as a strong form of social cohesion in the face of exclusion from broadercarioca society. It was this musical form that “acted as an identity marker for the poor, largely black community, whose physical territory was frequently taken away” (Shaw 1999: 5). In the face of overt racial discrimination and marginalization from the economic and political mainstream, samba became an important organizing mechanism for community solidarity.

Central to the emergence of samba from the favelas was the figure of themalandro, an Afro-Brazilian spiv or hustler, much more interested in fashion and women than labor. The malandro “parodied bourgeois values and lifestyle in his dapper, white, linen suit, which formed an ironic contrast to his dark skin, his jauntily titled straw hat, two-tone shoes, silk shirt and scarf, and spurned the manual labour that was so closely associated with exploitation and the institution of slavery” (Shaw 1999: 7). The malandro rose in the face of extreme levels of unemployment within the negro-mestiço community, brought on by Rio’s inability to absorb the labor capacity of freed slaves as a result of the distinct preference among elites to import European workers before employing former slaves. Themalandro emerged as the folk hero of the favelas as “blacks became a reserve army of labour for whom work evoked not only the oppressive memory of slavery but also the present equally oppressive experience of exploitation tied to the process of primitive accumulation of capital” (Rowe and Schelling 1991: 128-129).

Feeling threatened by the social cohesion emerging among Rio’s Afro-Brazilian population, the ruling white elite could not tolerate samba, this musical embodiment of the black experience in post-slavery Rio de Janeiro. It was a threat to both the image of the European city that they were busily attempting to construct, and more importantly the “traditional” (i.e. white) values of carioca society as a whole (Shaw 1999). As Vianna (2004: 21) puts it, “the repression of samba was connected to its association with its African origins… the repression was continuous as samba performances were seen as meetings of thieves and the marginalized.” The conflation of Afro-descendent cultural practices and criminality—of sambistas and the mythicized malandro—became so widespread among the elite population that samba musicians was essentially criminalized, and performing the music, even possessing the instruments to do so, were, in the eyes of the law, equivalent to “public order offences like drunkenness, vagrancy and begging [that] were used to control those outside mainstream society” (Shaw 1999: 10; Vianna 2004).

The three decades following the abolition of slavery in Brazil constitute a period in which Brazil’s African heritage was a great source of shame for carioca high society. Branqueamento, it was hoped, would effectively rid their capital city—and the elite’s cultural imaginary—of all remnants of Africa in Brazil. In that context, samba played an active role in the on-going creation of a black identity for Rio’s marginalized negro-mestiço population. Resonating through the alleys and streets of Little Africa, the syncopations of samba and the persona of the malandroactively created an alternative source of cultural cohesion for a population that was both physically and discursively being shut out of mainstream society, erased from this new Paris in the tropics.


Racial Democracy

Beginning in the 1920s, shifts in Brazil’s own cultural understanding meant that Brazil’s African heritage was no longer something to be covered up, marginalized from view, and eventually erased.2 Rather, in the emergent view of the Brazilian elite, the three Brazilian races—Portuguese, African, and Indigenous—were said to “meet and mix in the heat of the tropical jungle” (Reily 2000: 4), thereby creating the mestiço, superior as a result of his ability to survive in the tropics. In this new racial formulation, miscegenation was considered at the heart of Brazil’s “natural” democracy as whites, blacks, and mestiços worked together toward common goals. In his extraordinarily influential tome deconstructing Brazil’s racial history under slavery, The Masters and the Slaves, first published in 1933, Gilberto Freyre argued that racial mixing should be carefully cultivated, as it held the promise of Brazil’s distinctiveness among other nations both in Latin America and Europe. The cultural effects of this new embrace of miscegenation cannot be overstated as the cultural focus of Brazil’s elite shifted inward, away from Europe. Weakening their transatlantic cultural ties, painters, sculptors, composers, writers, poets, and intellectuals deployed their art for the sake of a unifying and distinctly Brazilian national identity.

Samba—the music itself, the notes, melodies, rhythms, and syncopations—played a key role in Brazil’s shift from cultural traditionalism to modernism, and frombranqueamento to (the myth of) racial democracy, as this musical symbol of Afro-Brazilian identity came to symbolize the nation as a whole. The process was deliberate. Obsessed with the perceived regionalization and cultural fragmentation of Brazil, Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas (in power from 1930 to 1945) set out on a nationalistic mission. Given the Brazilian President’s generally weak political position following his rise to power in a 1930 coup, Vargas felt the need for a strong, unifying national identity (Shaw 1999). The nationalistic power of music was not lost on the political class, and samba was seen as an optimal vehicle to promote Brazilian cultural unity. In 1939 the Departamento de Imprensa e Propaganda (Press & Propaganda Department, or DIP) was created with the explicit goal of elucidating “national opinion on the doctrinal directives of the regime, in defense of culture, of spiritual unity and of Brazilian civilization” (Goulart 1990: 62). To that end, the DIP shaped media output and encouraged artists and writers who fit the nationalistic mold with subsidies, sponsorships, and prizes (Shaw 1999; Reily 2000). According to Reily (2000: 5), samba “was co-opted and fashioned through censorship to promote ‘Brazilian-ness’. With its carnivalesque associations, samba could be heralded as the felicitous integration of diverse cultural and racial groups that had been achieved in the country.”

Through the rescaling of samba from local to national, the Vargas regime was able to divorce the music from its inherent connections to Rio’s marginalized negro-mestiço population. As the city’s elite shifted their cultural compass inward, understanding their country’s racial make-up in terms of what they perceived to be some kind of egalitarian racial democracy, they effectively dislodged the “dangerous elements [of samba] from the ‘exotic/decorative,’” in a gradual process of cultural appropriation (Shaw 1999: 11). The obvious irony is that in this so-called era of racial democracy, it was only through cultural whitening that samba was decoupled from its Afro-Brazilian context and made to stand for the nation as a whole.

While samba had, in the first decades of the 20th century, become an important marker of identity for Rio’s Afro-Brazilian population, its elevation to symbol of national identity diminished its role in the communities from which it arose. Much in the same way that racial democracy emphasizes a “biological and cultural assimilation [that creates] an illusion of happy intermixture masking its racist content,” thereby stripping “the victims of their collective consciousness of domination” (Nascimento and Nascimento 1992: 147), the reconfiguration of samba to a national symbol had the distinct effect of neutralizing its power as a symbol of black identity. In this transformation, the power of the malandro was ceded to the malandro regenerado, a “reformed spiv” more socially accepted in the Brazilian mainstream. According to McCann (2004: 42): “In samba lyrics, in critical reviews, and in popular cultural references, samba was depicted as flowing forth unbeckoned from the favelas, a pure, authentic popular form ennobled by its expression of Brazilianness.” Removed socially and spatially from the dangerous elements of its Afro-Brazilian roots, samba was re-scaled from being the musical embodiment of black identity in the favelas to being an aestheticized musical symbol of Brazilian national identity.


1. Taken together, these posts constitute a condensed version of my 2014 article “Soundtrack of a Nation: Race, Place, & Music in Modern Brazil” in the Journal of Latin American Geography (vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 67-95). Please refer to that full article and complete bibliography at:http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/lag/summary/v013/13.2.finn.html.

2. I discuss this transition in significantly more detail in the full article.



Finn, J.C. 2014. Soundtrack of a Nation: Race, Place, & Music in Modern Brazil.Journal of Latin American Geography 13 (2): 67-95.

Freyre, G. 1961. Casa Grande e Senzala. 11th ed. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria José Olympio Editôra.

Gilroy, P. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.

Goodenough, J. 2014. Researchers Reflect on the Big Picture: Rio’s Favelas in the Face of a Changing Planning Landscape. Rio on Watch: Community Reporting on Rio (Available at: http://www.rioonwatch.org/?p=17334).

Goulart, S. 1990. Sob a verdade official: ideologia, propaganda e censura no Estado Novo. São Paulo: Marco Zero.

Hertzman, M.A. 2013. Making Samba: A New History of Race & Music in Brazil. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hooks, b. 1990. Marginality as Site of Resistance. In Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture, R. Ferguson, M. Gever, T. T. Minh–ha, and C. West (eds.), pp. 341-344. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Lacerda, J. B. D. 1912. O Congresso universal das raças reunido em Londres (1911): Apreciação e comentários pelo Dr. J. B. de Lacerda, delegado do Brasil nesse congresso. Rio de Janeiro: no publisher data.

Lucas, M. E. 2000. Gaucho Musical Regionalism. British Journal of Ethnomusicology9(1): 41-60.

McCann, B. 2004. Hello, Hello Brazil: Popular Music in the Making of Modern Brazil. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.

Nascimento, A. D., and Nascimento. E. L. 1992. Africans in Brazil: A Pan–African Perspective. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.

Needell, J. 1987. A Tropical Belle Epoch: Elite Culture & Society in Turn-of-the-century Rio de Janeiro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Needell, J. 1995. Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires: Public Spaces and Public Consciousness in Fin-de-Siècle Latin America. Comparative Studies in Society and History 37(3): 519-540.

Pierson, D. 1967. Negroes in Brazil. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Reily, S. A. 1997. Macunaíma’s music: National Identity and Ethnomusicological Research in Brazil. In Ethnicity, Identity, and Music, M. Stokes (ed.), pp. 71-96. Oxford and New York: Berg.

———. 2000. Introduction: Brazilian Musics, Brazilian Identities. British Journal of Ethnomusicology 9(1): 1-10.

Rowe, W. B., and Schelling, V. 1991. Memory and modernity: Popular culture in Latin America. London; Verso.

Shaw, L. 1999. The Social History of the Brazilian Samba. Brookfield: Ashgate.

Skidmore, T.E. 1990. Racial Ideas and Social Policy in Brazil, 1870-1940. In The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870-1949, R. Graham (ed.), pp. 7-36. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Vianna, L. F. 2004. Geografia Carioca do Samba. Rio de Janeiro: Casa da Palavra Produção Editorial.

About Author(s)

Johnny Finn
John Finn is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, VA, USA. His research focuses on race, culture, and place, especially in Latin America. He has conducted extensive field research in Cuba, Brazil, and along the US-Mexico border. Based on this research, Finn has published academic journal articles, book chapters, and popular press feature articles in English, Spanish, and Portuguese on subjects as varied as music, graffiti, race and urban landscapes, and cultural mapping. He can be reached at john.finn@cnu.edu. Webpage: http://www.johnnyfinn.net