Rio de Janeiro’s world-renowned Carnival has always had streaks of irreverence and political satire. But with the ascendancy of President Jair Bolsonaro, many revelers have come to see the celebration as an act of resistance.
Bolsonaro, who came to power as a far-right candidate last year, and the city’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, an Evangelical pastor, have done little to hide their contempt for the rambunctious festivity that paralyzes much of the city during the peak of the summer.
If anything, their disdain has turbocharged the creativity, passion and political theater that were on display in the streets of Rio de Janeiro this month, in particular at the street parties and performances known as blocos, which are held across the city.
The nature of blocos today reflects the angst and rage many in the country feel, said Amanda Salles, 30, who dances in several blocos across Rio. “In difficult times, like during the era of dictatorship, Brazilian culture flourishes,” she said. “We become richer, we unite, we become empowered.”
The O Baile Todo bloco, founded last year, devotes itself to celebrating baile funk, a dance style that started in low-income former squatter settlements known as favelas. The police often shut down baile funk parties claiming that they enable criminal activity, including drug sales.
Its founders saw fit to bring the dance back to Carnival to push back against negative stereotypes.
“Baile funk has been subjected to a process of criminalization simply for being baile funk,” said Polliana Souza, 27, who creates dance choreographies for the bloco. “There’s an automatic assumption that everyone doing it is a criminal.”
“Our idea was to show that funk is happiness, it’s family, it’s people coming together to dance,” she said.
Souza said that black people often feel like outcasts when they’re on the street. So taking up space can feel like an act of resistance.
“As a black woman, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the street,” she said. “The street loves me, but many people on the street do not.”
Performing on the street, she said “feels like a scream of resistance. The street is ours, so why not use it to do what we do best?”
“The idea at the beginning was to bring people who liked each other together, to sing our songs,” said Michele Krimer, 39, one of the founding members of Toco-Xona, a bloco founded in 2007. “It wasn’t a political thing, it was just to have fun.”
While most of the founders were lesbians, they didn’t promote — or even acknowledge that fact — for several years. In 2017, they decided to start waving Pride flags during their parties and performances, seeing value in visibility.
“How do you build from the grassroots? You need to open a dialogue,” Krimer said. “It requires having a broad conversation, showing people your struggle as legitimate.”
Each year, Toco-Xona has picked a famous artist to highlight during their events. This year, the group championed a principle: freedom.
“Since we have a president who wants us to stop existing, it’s important to have a voice,” Krimer said. “Resistance means continuing to stay in the streets.”
The Tambores de Olokun bloco pays homage to Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. Dancers sway to the beat of drums, wearing long skirts, in the tradition of Maracatu, a performance genre that originated on slave plantations in the northeast of the country.
Nyandra Fernandes, 25, one of the dancers in the bloco, said the beat of the drums connects her to a past that she thinks many Brazilians would rather not think about.
“The drums are my connection to my ancestors, to their struggle,” she said. “Drums contain a lot of history.”
Several blocos this year have struggled to get city permits to perform, and others have been given time slots very early in the morning. That makes Fernandes feel that their performances are transgressive.
“We take to the streets, but it still feels like we’re doing something forbidden.”