Music and the (re)making of territory: A commentary on the Silvio Luiz de Almeida and MC Carol Panel
What is the role of music in (re)definitions of space? What is the role of humor?
In the fourth event of the “Reconstructing History” series, CSSD Geographies of Injustice working group members joined singer and activist MC Carol and professor and attorney Silvio Luiz de Almeida for a conversation on the meanings of territory, experience, theory, and humor in musical production. The working group, led by Professors Ana Paulina Lee and Anupama Rao, recently launched a podcast, titled Music and Migration in Rio and Mumbai’s Favelas. It can be accessed via Rádio Batuta or Spotify.
The guest speakers challenged normative understandings of “territory” by illuminating links between geographical space and conceptualizations of gender, race and class, and thus amplified diverse perspectives on the everyday and its inequalities in Brazil. Diverse not because of the speakers’ neat correspondence to idealized social “types”—the feminist, the Black activist, the favelada, or the academic—but because of their distinct relationship to these categories, their impositions and their possibilities, and the common ground found in the multiplicity of experiences characteristic of the human condition.
Potent. That is how Observatório de Favelas’ Júnior Pimentel characterized MC Carol. Carol has consistently explored music’s potential to open new avenues of thought and self-expression—from her early disagreements with relatives and partners who did not understand her aspirations to sing proudly about the pleasures and pains that made her independent, to her persistence against efforts to subvert her feminist stance. Her deliberate deployment of humor, dismissed by some as unpolished, bridges content and form, allowing Carol to pose difficult and serious questions so that her audience can relate and identify with them.
Carol is a troubadour and a chronicler of Rio’s suburban lives, with a keen sensitivity to everyday favela dynamics. At a first glance, her lyrics may seem like extrapolations, affording the element of dissonance that activates humor. But this exercise of discursive exaggeration is also an act of epistemic expansion, welcoming others to visualize parts of their experiences in the every-day that is Carol’s primary source. As Silvio de Almeida put it, it is in evoking the “absurdities of quotidian life” under a newly legible light that Carol combats individuals’ longstanding alienation from the perception of those absurdities. Political action through affect.
Silvio defined the event’s theme as an observation of “the political construction of the spaces where this affect is produced.” While the affect evoked by MC Carol’s lyrics exposes structures of race, gender, and class-based discrimination, Silvio draws attention to their role in forging cultural and geographic space. What makes a favela? Steep hills, bare-brick houses, “overpopulated” areas? One is sure to find that most if not all favelas challenge neat physical and geographic categorization. Yet the category stands. As territory, favela is more affective than physical. It constitutes itself by the quotidian absurdities, the ways people find around the everyday, their relationship to action and alienation, the presence and absence of the “outside,” which even the state seems part of at times. “Territory is a physical space that is signified,” Silvio affirms, “and what gives meaning to this space are the relationships developed there.” MC Carol’s music and Silvio de Almeida’s teaching meditate on these relationships, how they are produced and resignified through performance, thus paving the way to uncharted territories.
Author Bio: Gabriel A. D. Franco is a PhD student in the History Department at the University of Chicago, studying the intersections of criminal legislation, race, citizenship, and class formation in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Brazil. As a Geographies of Injustice fellow, between 2019 and 2021 he contributed to the production of the podcast Música e migração.