Can politics be made and minds changed to the beat of a musical style that blends samba, reggae, and rock’n’roll? The answer bears the face and name of a Brazilian man called Gilberto Gil. A true icon of Brazil’s musical history, Gilberto Gil never separated his artistic achievements from social activism — not everyone can become an internationally acknowledged star of world music and Brazil’s Minister of Culture in the same lifetime.
In 1964, Brazil’s Armed Forces seized power with a coup d’état and imposed a dictatorship on the country, which resulted in restrictions forced upon citizen’s rights and brutalities perpetrated against the poorest. Gilberto Gil was then 22, and was playing bossa nova tunes on his guitar – the decision to incorporate music into his life, after all, had come quite early: ‘When I was only two or two and a half, I told my mother I was going to become a musician’, he later explained. Around that time, Gilberto Gil met another young boy now tied to the roots of Brazilian music, Caetano Veloso; an acquaintance that would result in a decades-long friendship and artistic collaboration.
Despite an ocean separating Brazil from Europe, the 1960s cultural revolution that was sweeping across Europe – and Swinging London in particular – soon resounded as far as Brazil. Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and other artists of that generation opened up to its new, inspiring influences, experimented with new musical structures and mixing the folkloristic rhythms of samba and bossa nova with the sounds coming in from the Old Continent. But it wasn’t just a matter of music: they were adopting an attitude to life that had cultural rebellion against authorities as its fundamental value, and actively translated it into the factual circumstances of Brazilian politics. In other words, they were protesting against the military dictatorship. An artistic movement formed around this new sense of political urgency – one that involved not only music, but also literature, poetry and theatre. The movement borrowed its name, Tropicalismo, from the 1968 album released by Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Tropicàlia: ou Panis et Circencis. It became the movement’s musical manifesto.
The songs in Tropicàlia: ou Panis et Circencis were not strictly political in terms of content or ‘message’, but the military government still considered them dangerous because of the potentially revolutionary charge they carried. In effect, in 1969, Gilberto Gil faced arrest for seven months – of which three moths were spent in prison and four under house arrest – and was later forced into exile. Of all cities in the world, it is not surprising that Gil opted for London: ‘I was opened up to new music in London. For a while, it was the absolute centre of things. That was one reason for choosing it when I had to leave Brazil – not just for music, but the whole revolutionary attitude of young people.’
Gilberto Gil was able to come back to Brazil in 1972. Over the following years, he experienced a more private and spiritual phase, during which music served him as an instrument to explore his inner self and reflect on philosophical and religious matters.
But this changed again in 1977, when Gil travelled to Nigeria to participate in the Festival of Black Art and Culture. Born in 1942 in Salvador, the principal city of Bahia, a region in northern Brazil with the country’s biggest black population, Gil felt fundamental links to South America’s black culture. Many ships that carried slaves deported from Africa to America landed in Salvador. His journey to Nigeria inspired Gil to reconnect with his African roots – and that he did through his music. It was after this trip that Gil rearranged once again his artistic style – experimentation is, after all, his musical signature – to introduce reggae. And once again, his social activism did not remain separated from his art: ‘I put black consciousness into political terms. I worked within the black movement and presented myself to people as a model. Not as an ideal, but as a real person who might help validate people’s roots and culture.’
The dictatorship of the Armed Forces terminated in 1985. From then on, Gil began to make even greater efforts towards a more actionable and political involvement in the causes he believed in. The first step was his election as Culture Secretary in Salvador, a position which he kept from 1987 until 1988; then came his post as City Councelor, from 1989 to 1992. In 1990, he transformed the environmentalist movement Onda Azul for the protection of Brazil’s waters, created the year before; and left the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party to join the Green Party. In 2001, he was also appointed a FAO Goodwill Ambassador.
But the most meaningful of his political experiences was his 5-year (from 2003 to 2008) cabinet as Brazil’s Minister of Culture. Gilberto Gil, the second black man ever to be appointed as a cabinet minister in Brazil, was chosen by former president Luiz Lula da Silva, allegedly because of his connection to the black, poor population of the country (although he had been luckier than many – his father was a doctor, his mother a professor, and he himself had earned a degree in Business Administration).
As Minister of Culture, Gil’s was mainly preoccupied with designing solutions aimed at increasing opportunities for the poorest to both enjoy and create culture. To that end, shortly after his election, he promoted a partnership between Brazil and Creative Commons to release the content of the government’s website under the Creative Commons license. Quite a pioneering initiative, considering that it was 2003 and Creative Commons had been founded in 2001: ‘My personal view is that digital culture brings with it a new idea of intellectual property, and that this new culture of sharing can and should inform government policies’. Another honorable initiative of Gil’s as Minister of Culture was the so-called Culture Points programme. The programme consisted in funds granted to small administrations everywhere in Brazil and aimed to provide underprivileged citizens who could not afford multimedia equipment with the instruments – and the skills – to tell their own stories.
Even as minister, Gilberto Gil never put his musical career aside: ‘I can work from Monday through Friday at the ministry and do shows on Saturday and Sunday’, he once said. In 2008, however, he resigned from office: ‘I feel like I have come full circle and I want to remove myself. I felt a big pressure on my artistic work that was accumulating.’ President Lula da Silva rejected his resignation twice, but had to cave eventually.
Today, Gilberto Gil keeps entertaining international audiences with his tours around the world. It may just be impossible to find another man of such stunning talent, and one who has so stubbornly put his art at the service of his society. In addition to his musical contributions, social commitment and amazing spirit, Gil offers a humble piece of advice: ‘Most of the time, songs just show the things around us and within us. If you get it right, these also reflect other people’s feelings and experiences. So, while you are not talking about the politics of the moment, they are still somehow political because they are about human experience which is, of course, the starting point of all politics.’
And there you have Gilberto Gil’s secret. He got it right.