Agency in Afro-Brazilian Travesti and Trans Feminine Music

I decree that it ends here and now

I decree that it ends with me, and does not end me

I decree that it ends with us, and unties

And that tomorrow, tomorrow can be different for them women

May they have other problems and find new solutions

May I live in them, through them, and in their memories[1]

Oração, Linn da Quebrada

Video: Linn da Quebrada – Oração

We first see Linn da Quebrada fully dressed in white and holding a machete. Standing in an open field, she recites the poem above while chopping dry twigs. We can also see an empty and abandoned church. There, she stands with open arms against a huge window frame, as if referring to the image of Jesus on the cross. Her black skin contrasts with the bright sunlight. We then see other black women holding hands and a piano. The choir starts singing. That is how the music video “Oração” starts. The video by the 31-years-old Brazilian multimedia artist Linn da Quebrada refers to the country’s legacy of slavery, black history, and spirituality, but I would like to focus on something else in this short piece. “Oração” is also a powerful celebration of the new voices that are now making themselves heard in the country. As a collective work, the song and video also features Liniker Barros, Verónica Valenttino, Ventura Profana, Urias, Danna Lisboa, Alice Guél, Jup do Bairro, Ceci Dellacroix, Magô Tonhon, Rainha Favelada, Kiara Felippe, Ana Giza, Maria Clara Araújo e Neon Cunha. They are all Afro-Brazilian travestis[2] and trans women artists/activists who made their way into Brazilian cultural industries circuits in the last years, and I would like to call attention to this recent phenomenon.

In dialogue with popular music genres like rap, Brazilian funk, soul, and MPB, Afro-Brazilian trans feminine and travesti artists have grown their presence in the country’s media sphere to re-position social discourses on their existence, create new possibilities, and make the violent reality they are subjected to into something visible. Dora Silva Santana once asked, “How do we imagine possibilities of livable lives, of freedom, well-being, and transformative change, as we resist death?” (2019, 210-11), a problem she tried to solve through her papo-de-mana methodology, or a way of accessing and activating embodied knowledge through black women’s interpersonal interactions[3]. I believe some of these contemporary artists have been hacking the mainstream to do something similar, turning it into a new site for those conversations. They use their art to connect to each other, extend the discussion to wider audiences, and materialize their community. Together, they produce an escrevivência.

Escrevivência, a neologism that could translate as ‘writexperience’ or ‘writexistence’, is a term created by the Afro-Brazilian writer Conceição Evaristo (2008) to describe the process of collective emancipation through embodied conditions. Evaristo argues that fictional narratives created by marginalized individuals (black women in particular) always write about a body, or a subaltern condition, through which others who share similar social markers and life experiences can find ways of resisting and existing. In that way, they write about their existence to subvert the conventions of knowledge production that oppress them and articulate themselves as an I/we sympathetic enunciator. Afro-Brazilian travestis and trans musicians, I believe, are collectively producing something similar. Despite their different interests and approaches, their music (lyrics in particular) can be a tool for bringing black transfeminism to the mainstream and making new ways of existing, unveiling the violence they are forced to experience.

[Video: Urias – Andar em Paz]

What reality is that? “More than one of mine dies every day. I hope this changes, I hope the anger stops walking with me, I hope the fear stops following me (…) I deserve to live, I deserve to sing, I deserve to walk in peace, I deserve to stop getting killed”[4], Urias[5] sings in “Andar em Paz” (“Walk in Peace”), referring to the shocking position Brazil holds as the most violent country for trans and gender-diverse people in the world. According to Transgender Europa’s Trans Murder Monitoring project, 125 trans and gender-diverse people were murdered in Brazil between October 2020 and September 2021. That represented 33% of all cases registered in the world. Brazilian travesti, trans, and gender-diverse populations have a life expectancy of about 35 years. 82% of them are said to drop out of primary schools, according to the Brazilian Bar Association’s Sexual Diversity Commission (OAB), and 90% are forced into prostitution, as reported by the Brazilian Association of Travestis and Transsexuals (Antra). But they are fighting to be more than a result of those statistics. “My body is the proof that the world wants me ready and dead, but now it’s my turn. My fullness, my attitude, my way, my gestures, my dick, my fingers, my mouth. Now it’s my turn, my return”[6], Alice Guél[7] sings in the song/poem “Reflexões” (“Reflections”).

[Video: Alice Guél – Reflexões]

Against the hegemony of white, male, cis, and heterosexual norms, these artists/activists are reorganizing ways of existing as art discourses to challenge the derogatory or dismissing narratives produced by the normative society to propose a type of transfeminism as that one defined by Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (2014): focused on life experiences and intersectional identities. They have been fighting for a long time, but I believe their voices are now getting amplified. They are disputing space in cultural industries to produce a large-scale papo-de-mana as an escrevivência that activates embodied knowledge and allows them to imagine new possibilities. As stated by the hashtag campaign that followed the music video “Oração”: #EstamosVivas (“we are alive”). And they might be taken as illegitimate offspring of patriarchal capitalism and its exploitative engines, but they are looking for ways of re-building themselves (Andrade 2016). Confronting any possible naturalness or stillness predicated to gendered and racialized bodies, they are unstable assemblages of forces, affects, energies, and movements within societies of control, in Jasbir Puar’s terms, that reflect a constant state of becoming. They are not the other produced by the violence, but heterogeneous bodies that can connect to each other and question the violence itself, contesting the Cystem[8] from inside the mainstream.

Beyond the boundaries of queer activism and local communities, the voices of Afro-Brazilian trans feminine and travesti artists are growing in mainstream society and media. To name a few achievements, Linn da Quebrada’s documentary “Bixa Travesty” (Kiko Goifman & Claudia Priscilla, 2018, 75 min) won 19 national and international awards, including from the Berlin Film Festival. Liniker has been featured in dramas produced by Netflix and Amazon Prime, and in 2019 became the first trans singer nominated to the Latin Grammy. In the same year, Danny Bond got into the Top 10 Most Viral Songs on Spotify Brazil, and then reached #1 on iTunes Brazil in 2021, together with an average of 400 thousand monthly listeners on Spotify Brazil. In 2020, Jup do Bairro won as “New Artist” at the Multishow Awards and the APCA Awards, organized by the São Paulo Association of Art Critics. In the same year, Erika Hilton became the first black trans councilwoman in the country, as the most-voted woman and ‘top 10’ most-voted councilors across the whole country. Through those, I believe art and politics have become platforms for them to collectively create new possibilities of proving that life can be much more than the vulnerability, marginalization, and poverty expected. Building on their memories, they write new life paths and create ways of voicing pain, struggles, and needs, disputing places never-before occupied by them.

[Video: Ventura Profana – Eu Não Vou Morrer]

As Ventura Profana[9] sings in “Eu Não Vou Morrer” (“I Am Not Gonna Die”), “The old women will have dreams, the new ones will see visions”[10]. Referring to the Biblical verses Acts 2:17, she preaches that the message will come to all of them as either dreams or hopes, whatever they are. The invisible will be made visible, and the subalterns will turn into subjects of knowledge. They are the amefricanas Gonzales (1988) talks about, emerging out of intense cultural dynamics of resistance, accommodation, and reinterpretation to create new ways of existing beyond the governance of the dominant (post)colonial power in the Americas. “Female bodies holding hands breaking the whip, a black love can heal all the pain”, defies Monna Brutal[11] in the song “Dedicação” (“Dedication”). Their revolution is black, non-cis, poor, peripheric, and collective. Emerging as a transgressive body formed out of its social reality and fictionalized encryption, they are Afro-Brazilian trans and travesti subjects who fight to disturb the hegemony from the margins of history, archive their stories, and build a future in which they can be together.

[Video: Monna Brutal – Dedicação]

Works Cited

Andrade, Luma Nogueira de. “Travestilidades na Carne.” In Discurso, Discursos e Contra-Discursos Latino-Americanos Sobre a Diversidade Sexual e de Gênero, edited by Fernando Seffner e Marcio Caetano, 1475-1489 .Rio Grande: Dados Eletrônicos, 2016.

Evaristo, Conceição. “Escrevivências da Afro-Brasilidade: História e Memória.” Releitura, Belo Horizonte, n. 23 (2008): 1-17.

Garcia, Cecília. “O Acesso à Educação para População Trans e a Importância de Políticas de Permanência.” Portal Aprendiz, July 26, 2019.

Gonzales, Lélia. “A Categoria Político-Cultural de Amefricanidade”. Tempo Brasileiro, 92/93 (1988): 69-82.

Jesus, Jaqueline Gomes de. “Género Sem Essencialismo: Feminismo Transgênero Como Crítica do Sexo.” Universitas Humanística, 78 (2014): 241-257.

Oliveira, Joana. “Erika Hilton: ‘Este É o País dos Paradoxos, Que Elege Mulheres Negras e Tem Homens Negros Assassinados.” El País, November 22, 2020.

Puar, Jasbir K. “’I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess’: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory.” philoSOPHIA 2, no 1 (2012): 49-66.

Santana, Dora Silva. “Mais Viva! Reassembling Transness, Blackness, and Feminism.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 6, no. 2 (2019): 210–22.

[1] “⁠Eu determino que termine aqui e agora / Eu determino que termine em mim, mas não acabe comigo / Determino que termine em nós e desate / E que amanhã, que amanhã possa ser diferente pra elas / Que tenham outros problemas e encontrem novas soluções / E que eu possa viver nelas, através delas e em suas memórias” (Translated by the author)

[2] As a gender identity attached to a history of vulnerability and criminalization, “Travesti is an identification that indexes a political position of resistance by trans femme/feminine/women’s bodies of, historically, mostly black and people of color from poor communities” (Santana 2019, 212). As an originally derogatory word re-appropriated by Latin American activists, the term refutes the imposed dominant expectation of womanhood to propose a non-binary and political identity that makes visible a population that has historically faced social exclusion and structural violence.

[3] Acknowledging that black people have always been theorizing through oral history, Santana proposes her papo-de-mana as a dialogic qualitative methodology “of working with/as/for black women that take into account an ethics of care but also a critical perspective on the not-taken-for-granted insider status of the scholar writing the work” (2019, 211). Through both face-to-face and digitally mediated interactions, Santana engages in and promote the conversations to access and activate embodied knowledge, to access the multisited archive of black trans women knowledge in Brazil.

[4] “Todo dia morre mais de uma das minhas / Espero que isso mude / Espero que a raiva pare de andar ao meu lado / Espero que o medo pare de me acompanhar (…) Eu mereço viver, mereço cantar / Andar em paz, eu mereço / Mereço que parem de me matar” (Translated by the author)

[5] Urias (1994-) is a singer, songwriter, and model.

[6] “Meu corpo é a própria prova / Que o mundo me quer ativa e morta / Mas agora é a minha vez / Minha plenitude / Minha atitude, o meu jeito, os meus trejeitos / A minha neca, os meus dedos, a minha boca / Agora é a minha vez, a minha volta” (Translated by the author)

[7]   Alice Guél (1995-) is a singer, songwriter, and model.

[8] Erika Hilton proposes the term “cystem” (or “cistema” in the Portuguese language) as a way to refer to the oppressive system of Cisgenerity, Classism, and Whiteness Black Travesti and Trans people have to fight against (Oliveira 2020).

[9] Ventura Profana (1993-) is a missionary pastor, singer, writer, songwriter, and visual artist.

[10] “As velhas terão sonhos / As jovens terão visões” (Translated by the author)

[11] Monna Brutal (1997-) is a rapper and songwriter.

Tiago Canário is a Brazilian journalist with a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Communication and Culture Studies (Universidade Federal da Bahia, Brazil) and a Ph.D. Degree in Visual Culture Studies (Korea University, South Korea). Currently based in Seoul as an independent scholar, Tiago has been studying the intersections of media, popular culture, queer expressions, and everyday life. 

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