With the recent passing of pop music superstar Whitney Houston, radio stations have been playing Houston’s hits around the clock, as is customary when a well-known artist dies. Today, I heard some of Whitney’s greatest hits, songs I hadn’t heard in a while. When I heard the song “I Have Nothing”, I marveled at Whitney’s emotional intensity and vocal range, a voice that had become only a shadow of itself in recent years. A few things came to mind as I listened to her vocals and the music production with its searing strings and orchestral horn arrangements. First, I remembered the night of the Soul Train Music Awards sometime in the late 80s or early 90s when Whitney was booed after being introduced to the audience. It seems that after Whitney’s first two or three albums, black folks deemed her music “too white.” Her songs were more Barbara Streisand than Aretha Franklin and folks wanted her to know it. Whitney Houston’s music again brought to the fore the question of “what is black music”? Is it specifically Soul, Gospel and Hip Hop? Or is it any style of music that is sung by black artists?
Whitney came along in an era of American pop music when artists like Michael Jackson and Prince had only a few years earlier began to break down the segregated walls of American radio and music television. For those who don’t remember the days before MJ’s videos were given prime time TV specials, there was a time when black artists were banned from MTV’s playlist. The excuse? MTV was for Rock music, and Rock, i.e. white, audiences, and since black artists didn’t make Rock music, they received no airplay. I remember funkster Rick James mounting a challenge to MTV and labeling them racist for not airing his videos and that of other black artists. Eventually, songs by MJ and Prince were added to the playlist making them the first black artists to appear on the 24-hour music channel. So why did Mike and Prince succeed where Rick James had failed? Well, Mike and Prince recorded for two huge record labels, CBS and Warner Bros. respectively, that threatened to pull the music videos of its other artists (white artists, no doubt) if they didn’t play the videos of the Gloved One and the Purple One. Motown Records, the black record label for whom Rick James recorded, could not make a similar threat.
It was only a few years after the breakthroughs of Thriller and Purple Rain that a 22-year old Houston would walk through the doors of pop radio that MJ and Prince had cracked open. But in order for this to happen, some sacrifices had to be made. Clive Davis, the music mogul that had guided the careers of countless artists, saw Whitney as the “black girl next door” that could become a pop princess, but to successfully market Houston to the masses, he had to tone down her Gospel inflected vocals. Stories would surface many years later that had Davis ordering Houston and her producers re-do songs if they sounded “too black.” Again, in order to reach the masses, her sound had to be more Streisand than Franklin. The formula worked and Whitney went on to sell more 170 million albums throughout her career.
Now while it is true that Whitney’s albums were definitely short on gritty Soul and R&B, it is also true that there was no black voice in mainstream American music making these types of songs and selling millions of records in the meantime. True, much of Houston’s music was lightweight fluff and carried music arrangements that wouldn’t be out of place on a Musak channel or Barry Manilow concert, but Whitney represented yet another signal that black folks were “movin’ on up” as the Jeffersons theme song would say. Well, at least some black folks. The point here is that Whitney at least had the opportunity to make this type of music and climb to levels of success that only a decade earlier may not have seemed possible for a black artist. I didn’t necessarily care for all of Whitney’s music but I accepted the necessity of someone having the opportunity to record it. Some of music’s greatest black singers and musicians stepped outside of the boundaries of “culturally accepted blackness”, stretched the boundaries of music and/or found huge success doing so. Let’s imagine some of the works of Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix and the aforementioned Prince. Whether you love their music or you just ain’t feelin’ it, their contributions to music cannot be underestimated. No, Whitney Houston was not Mary J. Blige. But if you want Mary J. Blige, the range of Black Music is such that you can choose one or the other or both. Whitney’s soaring vocals and appearance in the movie The Bodyguard took her to heights that Marian Anderson was not allowed to achieve.
Also consider Houston’s achievements in comparison to the situation of black Brazilian singers.
Whether Brazil likes to admit it or not, it is a highly segregated society. Not so much residentially, but in the upper echelons of society. If you do a little research, you will discover that Brazil’s government, institutions of higher learning, media and many other areas are overwhelmingly white; this in a country of 200 million that recently declared itself majority non-white. Although many Brazilians are quick to point to the United States as the real racist country, the fact is, even with the clear underrepresentation of African-Americans in many realms of American society, the existence of black Americans in the highest echelons of business, politics, medicine, law and education far outnumbers the numbers of their Afro-Brazilian counterparts. The music industry is but another example of Brazil’s “dictatorship of whiteness.”
In Brazil, black musicians and singers are expected to sing the country’s national style of music: the Samba. Samba is to Brazil what Jazz and Blues are to the US. And it was during the 20h century that the association between Afro-Brazilians and Samba was permanently embedded into the consciousness of the Brazilian people. But as one dreadlocked black teenager said to author Ricardo Santhiago at a seminar about blackness: “But everybody knows that we can do this well. What they don’t know is that we can go much further.” In the 20th century, the Brazilian music industry began to segregate itself into the music that was “of the blacks” and music that was “of the whites.” Thus, when you delve into archives of the Bossa Nova era, you will note that its singers and musicians were overwhelmingly white, while, if you’re fishing for Samba albums, you will see primarily black singers and groups. Bossa Nova and Brazilian Popular Music (MPB) artists will have more visibility, sell more records, earn more money and have more marketing potential overseas while Samba is often portrayed in a certain folklorist manner that doesn’t allow much in the way of musical creativity.
Music critic Nelson Motta noted that in the 1990s, singer Sandra de Sá was practically the only black female singer in the area of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB). If one speaks only of black female Samba singers, the list is long. Alcione, Dona Ivone Lara, Leci Brandão are only three of the countless black female sambistas* that come to mind. But whereas there are many popular Afro-Brazilian male singers (Gilberto Gil, Djavan, Milton Nascimento, Jorge Ben and the late Tim Maia to name a few) of MPB, the same cannot be said of Afro-Brazilian women. In the past 50 years there have been few to recognize: Angela Maria, Elizeth Cardoso, Alaide Costa, Carmen Costa, Elza Soares and Eliana Pittman are a few names of distinction. There was also the great Clara Nunes, a woman whose musical roots were a balancing act between Samba and MPB. In the Brazilian music industry, if a black woman was a singer, it was almost automatic that she would be placed into the Samba category. The great actress/singer Zezé Motta gives an example of this in her book, Zezé Motta: Muito Prazer:
“Since the beginning, Warner (Bros.) wanted for me to sing Samba. But I didn’t want to be labeled a sambista. Nothing against sambistas, but I wanted to be free to sing music of various genres. And it was also a political attitude for perceiving that they wanted to pin this label on me because of the fact that I was black.”
In his book, Solistas Dissonantes – História (Oral) de Cantoras Negras, author Ricardo Santhiago interviewed 13 black Brazilian female singers that fought throughout their careers to sing the type of music they wanted to sing without being forced to sing a certain type of music simply because they were black. The 13 singers are Adyel Silva, Alaíde Costa, Arícia Mess, Áurea Martins, Eliana Pittman, Graça Cunha, Ivete Souza, Izzy Gordon, Leila Maria, Misty, Rosa Marya Colin, Virgínia Rosa and Zezé Motta. In this book of 294 pages, these women share a little about their lives, musical and personal, and reveal their struggles, frustrations, triumphs, joys and one could say bitterness about their journeys.
Here are but a few of their comments and opinions.
Alaíde Costa: “My biggest difficulty was singing a type of music that persons are not accustomed to expect from someone black. Even today, even now, the majority of the black artists sing mainly samba.”
Most of the singers interviewed considered the great Elizeth Cardoso to be a pioneer in terms of not being boxed into a certain genre due to hidden racism. Alaíde Costa, now in her 70s, was one of the few black singers that was part of the 1950s/60s Bossa Nova phenomenon. Costa fought to do things her way but she paid dearly for her insistence:
“When I started to sing…there was a certain discrimination in relation to my musical posture. They all would say: ‘Yes…She sings well but her singing is complex and she chooses complex songs.’ It was difficult to deal with this. It was difficult to overcome this barrier.”
In his discussions with these singers, Santhiago would discover that they saw the use of a piano as a status symbol that was almost always denied to black singers who wanted to diversify the capabilities and expectations of black singers. In the basic samba, the main instruments are usually a guitar, a cavaquinho** and percussion instruments (although some Samba arrangements can get very complex including various instruments and string sections). The piano and more complicated arrangements were considered a domain of whites. Even in a state like Bahia, a state that is considered to be an extension of Africa due its large black majority (70-75%) and culture, it is white singers like Daniela Mercury, Ivete Sangalo and Claudia Leitte that are most promoted and have the greatest record sales. One of the lines of a Sangalo song says “I am the color of Bahia”, an ironic lyric considering her European appearance and the African appearance of the majority of Bahia’s inhabitants. Although there are many Afro-Brazilian females singers from the state of Bahia, with Margareth Menezes being the most well known, none have managed to achieve the prestige, popularity and media access of their white counterparts.
This question was posed to the anthropologist Liv Sovik who has studied the question of race in Brazil:
João Pombo Barile: Isn’t it a little curious that starting with Daniela, going through Ivete Sangalo and up to Claudia Leitte, the so-called Axé music seems to have an obsession with white people. Why is it that all of the singers that are successful in the mass media are always white women?
Liv Sovik: It’s true. In the case of Carnaval in Salvador, we watch a modernization of racism, with the new technologies of televised transmission.….When a star is on the rise, the dominant aesthetic is the white woman placed into black culture.
On the topic of racism, singer Adyel Silva had this to say:
“I don’t want to be hurt. I don’t want to be enraged. I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want any of that … I have to start creating defense mechanisms to avoid creating a cancer inside of me. Losing space to a person who has more quality than you is cool. But losing to someone who doesn’t have this quality, but has the accepted skin (color), accepted eye color, the accepted type of hair – is bad. It’s very bad.” Adyel opined.
Imitating the thoughts of typical Brazilian record execs, Silva continued:
“‘You want to make music? Then you have to have to make “that” music. “That” that was played in the senzala (slave quarters). “That” that you all (blacks) like. When you dare enter into the Casa Grande (master’s house), that has a piano, this becomes much more complicated. You end up being the exotic in your own country – and only for making a type of music that is not what was pre-determined.”
Leila Maria shared her grief that she justified because of her the lack of opportunity, which she believes was a covert resistance to her black pride. “I’m afraid that people don’t understand what I’m saying and not just take me to be prejudiced, but think I’m using it as a resource to justify why things don’t happen in my career…I don’t talk about it with anyone because people don’t even assume that general prejudice (exists) – imagine, then, specifically applying this to the field of music,” she continues. Leila was disappointed by the fact that her second album – Off Key (2004) – was not more successful.
In her interview, Ivete Souza openly expresses how she has become harder in her life due to her experiences with prejudice: “I am always accused for being black and not singing black music. I’ve already heard people say that I sing these songs to escape from my roots. But it has nothing to do with this. It has to do with the choices I made, with what I learned.”
“….it’s always the image. They see a black girl and they already will associate one thing with another. Black woman? Samba! Black woman? Black Music! And that’s how it goes….”
“Another thing that happened was an audition for a dance group in Santos***, famous at the time…I went to try out and the guy liked me. There were three singers: a brunette, a blond and me. Of the three, the best singer was me, but he chose the blond. Later, he said to a guy that chose me that he would never put a black woman in a dance band because it doesn’t make a pretty picture: a blond calls more attention. Even in Europe it is the opposite: they adore me, they think I’m exotic, pretty….And this is not rare, no…Once, a television director said to my sister that blacks don’t turn out good on television. Later, she gave up her career.”
Although Samba is a beautiful genre of music with many styles and sub genres, and it presents a legacy of Afro-Brazilians musicians, singers and songwriters, the placement of Afro-Brazilian female singers into strictly the Samba category represents a sort of racial/musical segregation. To understand what this means, simply imagine if Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston or even Beyonce would have been forced to sing only the Blues. To know Brazil, one must know the Samba but there are other genres of music that bring different flavors and emotions to interpretation. These 13 Brazilian women fought to have the right to interpret the full range of human emotion through song, be it through romantic ballads, Jazz standards, Bossa Nova or the music of another country.Rosa Maria Colin diluted the resentment she felt due to racial prejudice she experienced both inside and outside of the music world. “Throughout my life, I have received many compliments. They say I’m a wonderful singer, but the opportunities I had as a singer didn’t reflect that. If the choice was between a black woman who sang well and a white woman who was beautiful but didn’t sing anything, the preference was for her,”she laments.
Rosa Maria Colin
Áurea Martins remembered the boycott she says she suffered by the board of RCA in 1972 – when she recorded her first album – and expressed her pride for the CD Até Sangrar (2008) while dreaming of Brazilian music without ghettos. “I was in a difficult situation. Whites don’t accept me for being black and blacks don’t accept me because they say that I sing elitist things and that I’m in the white world … So I made my world: me alone.”
Alaide Costa: “The majority of the black artists sing mainly samba. I recorded some 15 albums in the studio and I think this is few for someone who has a career of 50 years. But, in reality, it’s really taking into account everything that I had to face…..I think that this comes, really, from racial prejudice. ‘Blacks can’t sing everything’, they think. Simply this. I don’t know if my career would have been different if I had followed another path because not in any moment did I think of making a choice that wasn’t this. Never will they tell me what I should record, how I should sing…Never will they tell me what I should do.”
“Racial prejudice exists, inclusive of the artistic realm. It’s full of it. Full! They say that Brazil doesn’t have these things but have you ever seen a country more racist than this one? I haven’t.”
Over the years I’ve asked many black Brazilian women to name their all-time favorite female singers of Brazilian Popular Music. I usually hear a range of names but the most consistent name is Elis Regina, a singer from the state of Rio Grande do Sul who was known for her emotional vocals and stage performances in the 1960s and 70s. She died in 1982. Of the newer generation, I often hear names such as Marisa Monte and Maria Rita, who is actually the daughter of the late Elis Regina and an established singer in her own right. These women are all great singers who have recorded very memorable, catchy songs. In the end, music is music so it shouldn’t matter in the least bit that all three of these women are white (there must be millions of black women that adore the music of a very blue-eyed Teena Marie also). But I always wondered why it was that there was no black equivalent to them in terms of musical range and popularity. Why does it seem that Afro-Brazilians do not have the opportunity to have idols that reach the pinnacle of musical success that happen to look like them? Perhaps this is the reason why so many black Brazilian women adore and share in the record-breaking triumphs of Beyonce as well as the sorrow of losing an icon like Whitney, a black woman who attained a level of success that seems to be inconceivable for a black woman born in Brazil.So long, Whitney. Your star shined bright and it shined a little brighter on the faces of those women of darker skin whose beauty and potential certain entities of society continue to ignore.
* – Musicians that play Samba music
** – A small, four-stringed instrument somewhat similar to the ukelele.
*** – Coastal city in the state of São Paulo