Annually, the eyes of the world hone in on Rio De Janeiro, Brazil midway through February as their Carnival gets underway. It is a jubilant and electric experience that stretches over five days, ending on Ash Wednesday to usher in the Lenten season. From the thrilling movements of the samba schools to the colorful costumes, Rio’s Carnival has steadily given off an appearance of exuberance. This year however, there is a slight undercurrent to the festivities that looks to bring awareness to a serious issue.
This year, a sizeable amount of samba schools and revelers in associated street festivals throughout the city displayed racial pride and anti-racist themes in their performances. These themes included a higher emphasis on Afro-Brazilian heritage, as well as a massive float dedicated to Nelson Mandela. This float was meant to be a visible reminder to many of both Mandela’s fight for equality and the need for more inclusion within Brazilian society for those citizens of African descent. The famed samba school, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, also included a performance alluding to this issue during their procession through the Sambadrome.
The performer, a harlequin figure dressed in black & white dancing inside of a peeled banana, was a metaphor that drew upon an infamous moment involving Brazilian football star Dani Alves and his reaction to a banana being thrown on the pitch as he played for Barcelona versus Villareal. Such troubles of racial discrimination still plague Brazil severely on the home front. There was heavy criticism leveled at the country as a lack of Black fans in the stands at last year’s World Cup Final was noticed by those watching online and via television broadcasts of the games. This, coupled with numerous instances of blackface being used in street fairs during this year’s Carnival season (one instance being the ‘Luxury Maids’ parade where white men donned Afro wigs, blackface and maid’s outfits) is something many Brazilians are determined to eradicate.
This move has been praised by Brazilian journalists and historians. Felipe Ferreira, head of the Carnival Reference Centre at Rio De Janeiro State University, went on record saying, “The aspect of racial integration and the meeting of different cultures was something that samba schools initially promoted. This seems to be a return to the ideal.” For a nation that gave the world its first glimpse of Carnival through the highly acclaimed 1959 film Black Orpheus, this renewed ideal will hopefully remain long after the season ends.