Scholar Reflects on Cultural Change Sweeping Brazil

Spotlight on Liv Sovik

Oct 08, 2003

For the past several years, Brazilian society has embarked on serious and open discussions on a long-standing problem: racial injustice. Liv Sovik, a professor in Brazil, attributes this new dialogue to a combination of cultural and political change currently sweeping the country.

Sovik, who spent the summer as a public policy scholar with the Wilson Center's Brazil Project, teaches communications and cultural theory at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. She is a dual U.S. and Brazilian citizen and, though English is her native tongue, she has lived in Brazil for 16 years and teaches all of her courses in Portuguese.

Sovik has written numerous published articles on Brazilian popular music and contemporary cultural politics in Brazil. Her doctoral dissertation had examined Tropicalismo, a 1960s revolutionary pop music movement-of which Brazil's current Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil was a leader-that profoundly affected cultural politics. Today, the latest form of music to have such an effect is Brazilian rap which, said Sovik, became a national event in 1998 when a Brazilian rap group's video received an audience choice award. The song's lyrics described the 1992 massacre of 111 prisoners in the Carandiru jail in Sao Paulo.

"Before 1998, the poor, mainly black peripheries of large Brazilian cities were largely ignored by mainstream culture," Sovik said. "But the success of [the song] "Diario de um Detento" inaugurated a time in which they are at the center of attention in all kinds of entertainment programs and products."

Since then, television programs on rap music and its subculture, publication of book-length prison memoirs, and other cultural products have surged across the country. Newspapers regularly feature stories on race relations. Recently, the government also has been part of this societal change, giving unprecedented attention to affirmative action during the past two years.

Sovik's project while at the Wilson Center was part of a book she is writing on whiteness as a value, in what remains a very Eurocentric Brazil. She looked at potential cultural policies that could have a democratizing impact on race relations.

"Over the years, whiteness has remained an aesthetic ideal of Brazilian identity," she said. "Cultural policy must address this [issue] in order to achieve a more just discourse of social cohesion and cultural identity."

The disparity of power and wealth between whites and blacks is pervasive in Brazil and the social gaps have remained constant. "Living in Salvador, Bahia" said Sovik, "I discovered how pervasive discrimination is, even in a mainly black city that prides itself on being 'Black Rome.' That's when I started wondering about the nature of whiteness."

Sovik advocates public recognition of the important political contribution of the black movement and a valuing of black history and cultural expressions—such as rap, hip-hop, and funk. This, she contends, could help provoke a discussion of Brazil's place in global culture, in which the culture of the African diaspora is such an important part, and a reinterpretation of what it means to be a country of racial mixture, one that would put whiteness in a less central place.