Demonstrations are the physical representation of the will of a group of people, a show of force by those whom the world might see as peripheral. Yet, for all the muscle that a protest may exhibit, lasting impact comes from something more intangible, something that strikes a chord and resonates with all those involved. This space can be filled by a speech or slogan, yet few things work better than song.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.05.15 PMVem Vamos Pra Rua

Music plays a vital role in Brazilian culture. Suzel Reilly, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, told the HPR, “Music was believed to be the key to Brazilian exceptionalism, utilizing its unique diversity in order to separate itself from the European model.” Through song, Brazil shows its true nature, that of a burgeoning world power unlike all the others, eager to impress, yet conscious of and restrained by its domestic problems.

Last summer, these domestic problems exposed themselves to the world. While many consider the protests a call to question Brazil’s viability as a global player, it is worthwhile to consider the dissent through the lens of Brazil’s distinct nature and history. Brazilians are no strangers to protest, having taken to the streets to bring about a republic in the 1930s and during the military government of the 1970s and ’80s. Interspersed with music that showcased the complexity of the Brazilian condition, the recent Confederations Cup protests exposed the conflict that comes when the dust pushed under the rug fights back.

Que O Brasil Vai Tá Gigante

Perennially on the cusp of global potency yet in a perpetual battle with internal inequity, Brazil faces divergent realities. President Dilma Rousseff’s national approval ratings constantly fluctuate, precipitously dropping as low as 30 percent in June, parallel to the protests. Indeed, Brazil’s push toward global competitiveness—as shown by the country’s upcoming international sporting events, its status as the world’s sixth largest economy, and its increasing diplomatic capacities—seems to be deepening the divide between haves and have-nots.

Despite the foreign policy improvements and gains in international standing, Brazilians remain disillusioned by a system that fails to address internal inequality. This search for equilibrium manifested itself after a 20-cent increase to public transportation costs in São Paulo, which instigated countrywide protests. Thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to protest price hikes and corruption, waking a dormant sentiment that lies at the center of Brazil’s history of political protest and activism.

“Pode Vir Que a Festa É Sua”

The views that international media takes towards the Brazilian protests aren’t maliciously narrow, but rather a casualty of cultural misunderstanding—a product of fetishizing Brazil and its people, stripping them down to happy, over-sexed, partyhard alternatives to the grim denizens of “developed” nations. This, in turn, does no justice to the gravity of Brazilians’ ongoing struggle: taking away people’s tragedies dilutes the depth of their victories.

“Brazilian melancholy—and how deeply it’s been misunderstood—is on full display in the country’s music,” says Jasmine Garsd of the NPR Alt.Latino program. Indeed, protest songs speak to the deep conflicts between Brazilian society and the state, inspiring involvement rather than passivity.

A variety of songs fueled this activist narrative during the demonstrations, but the rallying cry of the movement was O Rappa’s “Vem Pra Rua.” The lyrics, which open “Come, let’s go to the streets / Come, this is your party / Brazil is going to be a giant / big like you’ve never seen before,” were meant to create support for La Seleçao, the Brazilian national soccer team, and through a slick nationwide advertising campaign, get people into new Fiats.

In an ironic twist for Fiat, the lyrics resonated with protestors who were flooding into the streets not by car, but on foot. The thought of going out to the streets en masse appealed to the growing number of protesters who utilized the chant to draw more people to their demonstrations. The song’s promise of a “giant Brazil” and its declaration that “the country’s biggest stand is the street” linked to the communitarian appeal of the protests, building a stage conducive to broadcasting the plight of the poor.

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“Grande Como Nunca Se Viu”

While this new jingle became the voice of the contemporary movement, rapper Criolo’s cover of Chico Buarque’s “Cálice” spoke to the deeper Brazilian condition. “Cálice” cryptically protests censorship against freedom of speech by the government, becoming an anthem for repressed people. Criolo’s edition masterfully mimics the distinctive pace and beat of Buarque’s song but with a message felt by today’s Brazilians: “How to go home without getting shot/ How to go to work without getting shot … Prejudice for all / unless one has a rich father.” The constant fear, pressing inequality, and nonexistent upward mobility expressed by Criolo’s lyrics resonate with Brazil’s youth.

At the same time, the nature of the song brings the plight of the younger generation to the established one; by harkening to the revolutionary spirit of their youth, Criolo’s “Cálice” incited involvement by older Brazilians in the demonstrations. This link in song brings about a communal spirit that validates the protests, particularly in the group that can most produce institutional change. The voices of other established musicians have served to reinforce this connection.

Then, a veteran of the country’s ’80s rock and roll revolution, often known as B-Rock, vocalized the “get involved” aspect of the protests. On June 16, a song appeared on YouTube called “As coisas não caem do céu” by an artist named Leoni. Over a gentle guitar strum, a voice sings longingly, “Why does everybody complain about what they read in the morning newspaper? / Forget about wishing, and enter the dance/ Things don’t fall from the sky.” A video comprised of clips from the early days of the protest—young Brazilians with signs moving through the nighttime streets—accompanied the song.

“I wrote it about being stuck and not participating in the political life of the country, and suddenly there was this movement,” Leoni told the press. “I don’t think artists can lead the people and tell them what to think—it’s more a question of listening, of giving people the poetic weapons to communicate what they are trying to say.”

“Terra Adorada, Entre Outras Mil”

The music of the protests served to touch the core of the Brazilian condition and embody the beliefs of an upcoming generation, a people who would not remain silent while inequality and apathy engulfed them. The songs were not used to instill divisions between classes of Brazilians. Rather, they were unifying forces, bringing together the breadth of the Brazilian community. While the people of Brazil face looming challenges, there is an indomitable spirit within them, a spirit in tune with their national character.

The power of Brazilian identity was best seen in the final of the Confederations Cup, in the midst of the protests. With the first bars of the “Hino Nacional Brasileiro,” the crowd rose and delivered a deafening rendition of the anthem. In the voices of the 96,000 within the Maracana, the emotion felt by an entire country in its turmoil was let out, with a passion that words alone cannot describe. That’s why they used a song.

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