Should Brazil Boycott Traditional Carnival Songs With Sexist and Racist Overtones?

Partygoers in Rio de Janeiro's Carnival. Image: Flickr user Ronald Woan, CC-BY-NC 2.0

“Your hair doesn't deny it, mulata / Because you’re mulata by color / But since color doesn’t rub off, mulata / Mulata, I want all of your love”. Those are the lyrics of one of Brazil's most popular marchinhas, a popular musical genre in the country's world-famous Carnival.

The song “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega” (your hair doesn't deny it), composed in 1929, is among the carnival traditions that have been heatedly debated in recent years in Brazil. This year, with the party set to take place in the final days of February, is no different. At least three Carnival groups, which are called blocos, have said they would remove such songs from their playlists this year. Meanwhile, others object to such a movement, stating that Carnival is a festive time when things should be put out in the open.

The marchinha (little march) is a genre of music that satirizes the seriousness of military marches, played by brass bands and followed by a snare drum. They were popularized in the 1930s and are still a hallmark of Carnival in some Brazilian cities, particularly Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The lyrics are often comical and satirical, with double-meaning that some might deem “politically incorrect”.

Musician Thiago França, the creator of Charanga do França, a popular bloco from São Paulo, expressed in an interview to website UOL why he is against songs like “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega”:

É uma afirmação racista. Deixar essa música de fora não deixa a festa menos animada e a gente consegue fazer um baile em que todo mundo se diverte numa boa. Sou responsável por 50 músicos, 20 pessoas da produção e cerca de 10 mil pessoas que vão com a gente para a rua. Tenho essa preocupação de não ofender quem está ali. A sátira deve existir com quem é opressor, não com quem é oprimido. Por outro lado, não quero insinuar que quem toca é racista. Cada um sabe de si. Essa decisão faz sentido para mim.

It's a racist affirmation. Leaving this song out doesn't make the party less fun and we manage to have a gathering where everyone can really enjoy themselves. I'm responsible for 50 musicians, 20 people in production and close to 10,000 people who will join us on the street. I have this concern about not offending who's there. Satire should be about those who are oppressors, not those who are oppressed. On the other hand, I don't want to insinuate that those who play it are racist. Every person knows what's best for themselves. This decision makes sense to me.

Renata Rodrigues, one of the organizers of Mulheres Rodadas, another bloco from Rio, had the following to say in an interview with Brazilian news radio network CBN (via O Globo):

Se a gente é um bloco feminista, não temos como passar ao largo dessas coisas. Se isso está sendo considerado ofensivo, acho que a gente não deve fazer coro.

If we're a feminist bloco, there's no way to keep our distance from these things. If this is being considered offensive, I think we shouldn't go along with it.

Regarding the marchinhas, other songs on the chopping block include solidified classics whose lyrics are very well-known among Brazilians, such as “Maria Sapatão” (1981) and “Cabeleira do Zezé” (1964), both by João Roberto Kelly. Let’s briefly take a look at some of the lyrics from these two songs:

Maria Sapatão*
Sapatão, Sapatão
De dia é Maria
De noite é João

O sapatão está na moda
O mundo aplaudiu
É um barato, é um sucesso
Dentro e fora do Brasil

Maria Big Shoe
Big Shoe, Big Shoe
By day she’s Maria
By night she’s João

The big shoe is in style
The world applauded
She’s cool, she’s a success
In and outside of Brazil

Sapatão, which means “big shoe”, is generally derogatory slang in Brazil for a butch lesbian, both pre-existing this song but also popularized by it. Some lesbians in the 1970s were said to enjoy wearing men’s shoes but couldn’t find sizes that fit well, thus the shoes they wore were too big for them.

Olha a cabeleira do Zezé
Será que ele é?
Será que ele é?
Corta o cabelo dele!
Corta o cabelo dele!

Look at Zezé's head of hair
Is it possible that he is?
Is it possible that he is?
Cut his hair!
Cut his hair!

According to an article on Carnival marchinha innuendo from online mental health awareness portal (En)Cena, Kelly, who's now 78, has always alleged “Cabeleira do Zezé” refers to the 1960s counterculture when men had long hair. There’s also a double meaning, however, that Zezé is either secretly gay or just womanly.

Traditions subject to criticism

The bloco Domésticas de Luxo features primarily white men dressed as black female domestic workers and has faced online criticism. Image: TV Globo/screenshot

Carnival is a major holiday in Brazil that draws millions of people to the streets for festivities that last at least five days. Music genres and the party culture itself varies from one region to another. In northeastern cities like Salvador, styles such as axé music dominate, while the famous samba schools competition is a hallmark of southeastern cities like Rio de Janeiro. A culture of costumes and brass bands, which had withered away since the late 1970s, has seen a revival in the past decade in many cities, especially in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which brought to the foreground the somewhat forgotten marchinhas.

Other costume traditions of old have also been subjected to scrutiny, like the “indian” outfit and the “nega maluca”, which translates as “crazy black woman”, whose features include black paint and clothes associated with female domestic workers. In 2015, the bloco “Domésticas de Luxo” (Glamorous Domestic Workers) from the city of Juiz de Fora was the subject of much online criticism, as its members traditionally dress as black domestic workers. The bloco has existed since 1958.

When talking about the marchinhas he composed, João Roberto Kelly told newspaper O Globo the following regarding the controversy:

Acho um pouco exagerada. Eu respeito todo mundo, todas as opiniões, mas acho que o carnaval é uma festa tão alegre, tão pura, é brincadeira em cima de brincadeira. O sujeito vai censurar uma letra de carnaval? No carnaval, o homem se veste de mulher, mulher se veste de homem, a gente brinca com careca, com barrigudo, brinca com todo mundo. A gente sai fantasiado de índio, sai assim, sai assado.

I think it’s a bit exaggerated. I respect everyone, all opinions, but I think Carnival is such a happy, pure party, it’s one joke on top of another. Someone is going to censor Carnival lyrics? During Carnival, men dress up as women, women dress up as men, we play around with bald men, with fat men, we play with everyone. We go out dressed up as indigenous people, we go out as one thing or another.

And when asked if he considered it a form of patrulha, which is a derogatory word that refers to activist pressure groups, he said:

É uma patrulha, mas sem necessidade. O carnaval é isso, é todo mundo solto, todo mundo procurando fazer uma fantasia qualquer. E agora vem o politicamente correto, o que é, o que não é… Essas músicas todas têm por volta de 50 anos, e o povo as consagrou, o povo gosta de cantar.

It is patrulha, but there’s no need for it. That’s Carnival, it’s everyone letting loose, everyone looking to make some kind of costume. And now the politically correct come, [saying] what it is, what it isn’t…These songs have been around for about 50 years, and people are devoted to them, people like singing them.

Blocos not involved in removing the songs in question share Kelly’s opinion. Pedro Ernesto Marinho, the president of one such Carnival group, Cordão da Bola Preta, said:

Não consideramos essas marchinhas ofensivas. Quem as compôs, certamente, não tinha essa intenção. Carnaval é uma grande brincadeira. Essa polêmica não vai levar ninguém a lugar algum e até desmerece o carnaval. O preconceito está mais dentro das nossas cabeças do que nas marchinhas.

We don’t consider these Carnival songs to be offensive. The composers certainly didn’t have this intention. Carnival is a big game. This scandal won’t get anyone anywhere and it’s even unworthy of Carnival. Prejudice is more in our heads than in the Carnival songs.

In one of the many opinion pieces that came out in the lead-up to this year's Carnival celebration, the author of an article from Brazilian news website G1, titled “Banning incorrect Carnival songs is useless, but reflecting on lyrics is necessary”, took both sides into account:

Talvez o melhor, em ambos os casos, seja refletir sobre o conteúdo dessas músicas e cantá-las em contexto adequado – como em um baile ou bloco de Carnaval, no caso das marchinhas – com a consciência de que não há mais como defender tais letras e, sobretudo, de que é preciso combater o racismo e a violência contra a mulher em qualquer tempo ou lugar. Inclusive em um baile ou bloco que toque O teu cabelo não nega e que, por acaso, registre caso de racismo ou de violência contra a mulher. Boicotar tais músicas é ineficaz, assim como pôr na mira qualquer outra composição que tenha a palavra mulata na letra chega a ser risível pelo exagero. Ter bom senso também é ser politicamente correto.

Perhaps the best, in both cases, is to reflect on the content of these songs and to sing them in a suitable context — such as in a dance or in a Carnival bloco, in the case of marchinhas — with the awareness that there is no way to defend such lyrics and, above all, that it's necessary to fight racism and violence against women in any time or place, including in a dance or a bloco that plays “O Teu Cabelo Não Nega” and that, by chance, invokes racism or violence against women. To boycott such songs is ineffective, just as putting in the crosshairs any other song with the word mulata in the lyrics is excessively laughable. Having common sense is also being politically correct.

A debate is now certainly taking place, with ideas being challenged. The blocos against the lyrics mentioned above are not calling for a Carnival-wide ban on the songs — they are merely deciding to challenge the ideas within them. Revelers that disagree with making any changes are free to go elsewhere, and they literally have hundreds, if not thousands, of other options available. In the end, any alterations will only make Carnival more of what it already is — an event where there's something for everyone.


Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.