Carnival might be the world’s biggest party, but pop culture always provides a level of self-reflective cultural narrative. And the stories told by samba schools passing through Rio de Janeiro’s Sambódromo every year are no exception. Although the schools themselves deny political activism, a handful of themes selected by this year’s top schools are causing waves.
Indigenous Rights and the Environment
To the excitement of environmental activists and the distaste of agribusiness moguls, Imperatriz Leopoldinense has focused on the Brazil’s indigenous Xingu populations, threatened by Belo Monte dam and large-scale farming actions. Although the school’s enredo doesn’t directly reference agribusiness giants, it does criticise those who prioritise “profits, progress, consumption and development” over conservation.
Only days after Imperatriz announced its choice of theme this year Arnaldo Manuel Machado Borges, the head of Brazilian Zebu Breeders Association, called the plot “sensationalist” in an official statement, saying that it “shows total unpreparedness and ignorance regarding Brazilian history and the economic and social reality of the country”. Criticisms from the sector have kept coming, but discussions around conservation and indigenous land rights aren’t about to disappear anytime soon.
Recognizing Afro-Brazilian Heritage
Although 54 percent of Brazilians identify as black, Afro-Brazilians are just beginning to get formal cultural recognition in Brazil. Three of the top schools this year honour Brazil’s African heritage, including reigning champions Mangueira, with a display of Brazil’s eclectic deities from Catholicism and Candomblé in equal measure. Meanwhile, União da Ilha are honouring Brazil’s links to Angola through a traditional Bantu tale, and Vila Isabel looks at how black cultures transformed music throughout the Americas.
“It’s very important today for samba schools to maintain this link with black culture,” explains Bruno Ferreira, one of the dancers in Vila Isabel’s front commission. “Samba schools always valued black culture, but the question is if it’s valued in other spaces.”
If the last year is anything to go by, activists don’t feel that Brazil values black cultural contributions, either historically or with current treatment. Campaigners frequently decry government the Museum of Tomorrow’s construction in the Port Zone, denying the area’s black history rather than commemorating its links to slavery. And shortly before the Olympics, a high-profile campaign from Amnesty International, Black Lives Matter activists from the US and black Brazilian activists also criticised police brutality which killed more than 20,000 young, black Brazilian men in 2012.
São Clemente, famous for presenting enredos with a mischievous sense of humour, transports audiences back to 18th century France this year. This year, audiences will watch as French King Louis XIV’s finance minister Nicolas Fouquet builds himself an ostentatious palace, using stolen public funds.
Of course, there are obvious parallels to Brazil’s ongoing corruption scandal, Lava Jato, which is thought to implicate up to two thirds of Brazil’s current elected representations. But even with the title, São Clemente is playing with audience expectations: ‘Onisuáquimalipanse’, based on a French phrase that translates to ‘shame on those who think badly of it’. Perhaps less of a critique, then, and more of a joke at the current political climate to alleviate current tensions.
Samba Schools Alone Won’t Cause Social Change
Even though equality is important to Patrick Carvalho, Vila Isabel’s choreographer, he thinks that samba schools’ displays present limited opportunities for progress.
“The samba schools try to combat racial discrimination, but they talk very little about it,” said Carvalho. “I think that we all have to talk and we have to embrace one another and buy into the idea that we are all the same.”
For many, the guise of Carnival festivities means that social commentary will be rapidly forgotten. “Art has links to read life, yes, but [the parades are] the same thing as football here. It’s to have a lot of fun. Carnival the same: it’s a message, but it’s a show. It remains a show,” sighs Maryem Kaba, Vila Isabel Front Commission dancer, with a shrug.