On Sunday, March 23, I attended a sarau, somewhere between a salon and a poetry slam, hosted by Sarau da Onça and Grupo Ágape in Sussuarana. Sussuarana is a “peripheral neighborhood” (the literal translation of the Brazilian euphemism for ghetto) of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil’s colonial capital, which has enduring ties to its African heritage. The event was held in a small amphitheater located on an unassuming residential street in the neighborhood’s Afro Pastoral Center (CENPAH). The amphitheater’s seating is formed by ten rows of cement bleachers painted yellow, red, and green. On the wall perpendicular to the stage is a massive mural of Abdias Nascimento, a prominent Afro-Brazilian scholar in the Pan-African movement. On Sunday, the stage was lined with books that were raffled off at the end of the sarau, ranging in genre from a guidebook for Cuba, Opus Dei literature, and manuals for Windows Powerpoint troubleshooting to Samuel Beckett novellas, a Portuguese-language dictionary, and a collection of erotic poems.
Grupo Ágape and Sarau da Onça are Sussuarana-based collectives that make up a network of slam poetry groups and movements throughout Salvador. The poetry coming out of Sussuarana, a predominantly black, lower-income neighborhood of 164,000 inhabitants, hinges on criticizing the quotidian. Both Grupo Ágape and Sarau da Onça fundamentally believe in using literature in a way that is dynamic and accessible, offered to the public at no cost, as a means of building consciousness and contributing to conversations on race, gender, and socio-economic status. In a city where the cost of a book is upwards of R$50 (more or less US$25) and the average income is approximately R$1200 (US$530) per month, literature is a considerable luxury. The slam poetry movement in Sussuarana provides cultural access previously unavailable to the community.
Grupo Ágape was founded in 2011 in the Santo Antônio Catholic church down the street from CENPAH. Heavily influenced by contemporary hip-hop, the eight poets that make up Grupo Ágape compose their own poems, or ruminations, on the privileges afforded to those at the center. For example, health care, quality education, and better living conditions. Sarau da Onça, the biweekly poetry slam at CENPAH, is one of Grupo Ágape’s principal performance spaces. They also host writing workshops in public schools and perform on city buses in collaboration with “Poesia no Trânsito,” or Poetry in Motion, a project launched at the Fundação Gregório de Matos, a cultural division of the city government named after the famous Bahian poet. The program supports poetry performances on municipal buses and in public squares, as well as saraus in Salvador's major transit stations.
At Sunday’s sarau, poets were called up to the stage one by one. Some to share rehearsed pieces that the audience knew by heart, others freestyled new poems that they had just written that day. The intervals were filled by DJ Nai Sena’s mix of Brazilian hip-hop and dance hall.
The treatment of “ethnic” or “natural” hair in contemporary culture is a particularly fierce polemic, referenced in almost all of the evening’s performances. One young man read a short story entitled “Maria,” about a girl coming to terms with her natural hair. Maria's story was followed by a poem by Lourdes, a young woman with a cropped Afro, called “Deixe Meu Cabelo Em Paz,” or “Leave My Hair Alone.” Lourdes explained that it was the first poem she had ever written and that it was inspired by recent news of school administrations encouraging black students to cut their “natural” hair. One striking example that garnered substantial media coverage is the story of Lucas Neiva. In December 2013 in Guarulhos, São Paulo, the eight-year-old boy was asked to cut his thick, curly hair, which the school's principal described as “crespo,” or “kinky,” because it apparently blocked the other students' view of the blackboard. When his mother refused to conform with the school's request, she was unable to register him for the following year.
Another point of contention, touched upon in a call-and-response poem, is the state of public health care in Bahia. An out-of-pocket hospital visit at one of the private hospitals in Salvador can cost up to R$800 (US$355), more than the monthly minimum wage. And the public health care outlets are so bound up in bureaucracy that people have died just waiting in line to be attended to by a physician. The particular poem in question addressed these very inequalities with a play on words, changing the name of the public health system, known as SUS (Sistema Unica de Saudade), or single health plan, to Sujo Unitária de Saudade, or dirty health unit.
I was particularly struck by Thiago, a poet from the Capão Redondo region of São Paulo, one of the most violent areas in Brazil, who had spent the week traveling from the interior of Bahia to the capital working with “peripheral” communities. He didn’t recite a poem, but offered us these parting lines: “Nós é ponte e atravesa qualquer rio,” or “We are the bridge that crosses any river.” Through poetry, members of Grupo Ágape and Sarau da Onça are able to navigate the reality of their communities and investigate the space they occupy in the larger context of the world. Literature, thus, becomes their bridge across any river.