Photo: Jef Delgado

It’s All For Yesterday: An Interview with Emicida

By | 12 January, 2021

Confined at home since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Emicida received me virtually at his Lab Fantasma studio to talk about his documentary AmarElo – É Tudo Pra Ontem (AmarElo – Its All For Yesterday), which premiered on Netflix in the last “breath” of 2020.

At the moment when the whole world had to stay at home, and all the shows were postponed, the Brazilian rapper entered houses around the world to celebrate a historic show at the São Paulo Municipal Theater in 2019. Much more than showing his achievements (which can also be considered a victory for the Afro-Brazilian community), he rescues personalities who were essential to the development of Brazil, but whose contributions had been erased from history because they are Black.

“I think we have a sad tradition in Brazil that is not to revere people who came before,” he says. “The same names are always remembered”.

During our conversation, Emicida reveals details of the construction of the film, including its research and script, and talks about issues relating to the current moment of Brazilian politics and the lack of support for culture and artists during quarantine.

Who is Emicida 2020, compared to the Emicida of 10, 12 years ago, who conquered Brazil with the song “Triunfo”?

Man, thinking about these variations in personality makes you think about what a person can offer the world in an environment of poverty and what a person can offer the world in an environment of abundance… you know? The truth is that in this space of 12 years, we [it should be noted that Emicida refers to his work in the first person plural, it’s the product of his own graft and of his team’s] went through a period of construction, we had some successes in the things that we produced, and this created an opportunity for us in relation to abundance… And when you look at 2020 and see how many beautiful things we were able to share, for me it is a provocation for us to then look at our entire country and think: how many incredible stories have been pushed into poverty (and cannot get out of this cycle of poverty). Why are these people more busy surviving than living and building something that could benefit the world? The truth is that we live in a country that doesn’t care about eradicating poverty. It manages misery. This is a very sad finding. So, I think the big difference is scarcity and abundance.

10 years ago, I wanted to do a lot of these things, but if we look at, for example, the first mixtape Para Quem Já Mordeu Cachorro Por Comida, Até Que Eu Cheguei Longe… (“For those who have already bitten a dog for food, I’ve made it this far…”), even the song “Triunfo” that you mentioned… “Triunfo” is a positive song, it’s a song of strength, of fighting, of raising your head, because Brazilian rap was kind of down at that moment. There was no big exponent [of the genre] and everyone was abandoning music… There are a lot of parallels even with 2020… The first mixtape brings many songs that dive into it, but everything there was very much governed by the lack of opportunity and scarcity. From there we can look (me and the entire team at Laboratório Fantasma) with more power, and try to create an environment of faith that expands far beyond us. To build anything, we have to believe first.

You have often repeated the Yoruba saying “Exu killed a bird yesterday with the stone that he only threw today”. Is it about rescuing the past to write the future?

A beautiful explanation for the meaning of this saying is that it is always time to re-open life. We don’t need to be held hostage to the mistakes that were made yesterday. If there is still life in our body it is time to take a turn and say: if we can do it in a better way, let’s do it! So, the saying is closely associated with the title of the film (É Tudo Pra Ontem / It’s All For Yesterday) for two reasons: (1) because it is always time for us to re-open life, and (2) because this phrase is used as an expression meaning to run because everything is late and needs to be delivered quickly. We reframed it in a way so that everything we have produced up to now takes on a much greater meaning after reflecting on our origins. This is because we are working through oppressional structures that are very old. They have been redesigned, but they are still here. And thirdly, it is because there is something that I think is very important… I really like people to know me, but I think they will not have a broad view of who I am if they do not know where I came from. So, let’s say that AmaElo is like those books that have the prologue at the end. And I think that this film, not that I’m at the end of my career (laughs), it’s just a way of explaining that it has arrived after a lot of things have happened, and hence it helps makes sense of everything we’ve done so far. Now people look and understand the political issues, the power of culture as something other than entertainment and things like that, this is neither my invention nor that of this generation. These things that are often understood in society as being small things, were the things that civilized Brazil and kept it away from colonial barbarism for a long time.

In the movie you talk a lot about this, but you say little about yourself. Your story is in the background to give evidence to other people who, in some way, were essential to getting you where you are. How was it to make this redemptive story?

I really understand myself as the continuity of these people. So, I see myself too much in the story of each one of the people there, because I know they went through challenges very similar to what I did. Especially when they get up and decide they are going to tell this type of story. This for us… this is very crazy… And I think the whole team perceives itself in the same way, because for us it was never an issue that we need to talk more about Emicida. For us everything is at the level that it needs to be. Because we are the continuity of this culture. We are the continuity of these values. We are the continuity of this dream, of this struggle… So, it is not strange. I think we have a sad tradition in Brazil which is not to revere people who came before. The same names are always remembered. For example, when it comes to literature, we keep revisiting Monteiro Lobato (a historical Brazilian writer who has books with racist texts). This is tragic, looking at 2020. It is not just sad. How much incredible stuff was produced that has better values ​​than those Monteiro Lobato defended? So, it is important to re-open new possibilities for honours. The film also works as a great provocation, because I bet with you that from now on many people will feel provoked to continue those stories. Many people will provoke themselves to talk and meet other characters similar to those. There is something that surrounds the whole film that is fundamental: there is an attempt, and sometimes it is even well intentioned, to say that this is the story of Black people. But it is not just the story of Black people. Those are chapters of the history of Brazil that were stolen from us. It is as if we have access to a book in which a series of pages have been torn out. And then we found these pages and brought them back. But we need to learn to tell the history of this country, observing all the elements involved.

It’s that thing that Brazil doesn’t know Brazil… I say that too, because several people told me that they didn’t know many of the characters featured in the film. In fact, it is a rescue of the country’s history, not just the country’s Black history. For all this, AmarElo is important to keep our history alive. Tell me about the research process.

Felipe Campos (Choco) was responsible for the research and helped us to make a series of arguments. But those names are often in our conversations, you know!? For me it is very important to tell a story, offering a new starting point. The point from which the energy emanates is another place. So, in general, when talking about the history of a country, we surround the history of the local bourgeoisie. And we wanted to take this place and put another place. So, we offer a perspective that for a long time was a marginal perspective. Then, I created a kind of timeline, where I put a lot of events. But in the middle of the research itself, with a lot of conversation with Choco and Toni C (who is our screenwriter), this timeline was being increased and we needed to sew this with the show, because it is very important that we give it the attention of our average, contemporary fan, who says: wow, an Emicida documentary will come out… He will see why it is an Emicida documentary. Only then he finds things. So, we had to draw this in a way [so these threads] met in a very nice way.

Choco, in a very technical way, was very important to cross the numbers, mapping each of the events. There is a cool thing that was changed precisely because of the research, which was the inclusion of the 50th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Just before the Unified Black Movement (MNU) rose within the Theater, we mentioned the 50th anniversary of abolition, which we discovered during research on Mário de Andrade. I read eight to ten books about Mário de Andrade: Macunaíma, Paulicéia Desvairada, Losango Caqui… I took all these things and plunged into them to understand how Brazil struggled to talk about itself a century ago.

From that, I discovered the role of Mário as director of the Department of Culture of São Paulo and this organization of the 50th anniversary, which in the end ended up being sabotaged by the coup of the Estado Novo and by President Getúlio Vargas. There was a big celebration made by the main character of modernism, who put Black people at the centre of the anniversary celebration and Getúlio Vargas converts all of this into a great tribute to Princess Isabel (responsible for signing the Golden Law that liberated those enslaved on May 13, 1888), excluding all Black people from the celebration. This is a tragedy that marked Mário so deeply that he abandoned politics. The idea of ​​taking the library away from downtown São Paulo was born there.

And that comes from a long time ago, the culture in the country continues to be played out…

Today, the pandemic has hurt us a lot. Before it arrived we were already under attack. So, how many years has culture been under attack in this country’s recent history?

It is constant, and there is also no support and no action to change it.

And in context it won’t even come. Do you know why? Because culture is a provocateur and reflection. For example; (President Jair) Bolsonaro is a character who feeds on chaos. So, reflection is a damn thing in this context. Because who feeds on chaos and wants people to reflect in a calm way? Culture suggests other perspectives. It puts you in other people’s shoes. I think you have been through this many times in your life in recent history and so have I. How many things women have written and sung that we never imagined were perceived in that way as a man. That is the power of culture. It takes our mind out of our body and puts it into another experience, and that other experience can move us so deeply that we wonder why life is like that. So, you want to change that? Because the fruit of this reflection is the desire to transform the world. For a character who feeds on chaos, culture needs to be attacked. It needs to be converted solely and exclusively into advertising… As we have a thick, dense, broad, giant, very rich cultural material, with different matrices… It is impossible to tie the culture of Brazil and domesticate it. For this reason, the strategy they consider effective is to stifle culture in all ways, but it is impossible to stifle Brazilian culture. First, because it is bigger than the government. It is not a government sector (neither the left nor the right). Culture is a way the Brazilian people perceive reality. This attempt to alter this perception can only result in tragedy, because you do not teach people to see the world. They already see the world, they already feel the world. Culture just tries to sing it, paint it, write about it. But the central element of this is the Brazilian way of existing and perceiving him/herself in the world.

The documentary sort of broke that barrier. At the moment when the culture had to stop because of the pandemic, you put a movie on Netflix and reach the whole world. Of course, nobody was expecting all of this… But the doc arrived at a necessary time. Was the launch scheduled for that period or did you have another date?

Not in this way, and perhaps if there was no pandemic, the story could have been different. In the absence of the pandemic, we would have had the opportunity to capture a lot of things on the street. I already wanted to contextualize and tell this story. But maybe if we had another period that was not a pandemic, the format would be closer to a [behind-the-scenes] documentary, like a reality show, this thing of accompanying the artist, showing backstage scenes, and there would be less context. The situation of remote work made us reflect on origins; using material from the collection was very valuable because it enriches the film a lot. We have an image of Abdias (do Nascimento), an image of Lélia (Gonzales), an image of Ruth de Souza, an image of Marielle (Franco) at the end. That brings everything to reality, to the now. None of those characters were invented. There is no fiction. Because of the pandemic, the way of making the film had to be changed… we had to start rewriting it, thinking about how to tell this story.

Toni C and I like to build a story arc where we do justice to the myth of the hero. This thing about the character who leaves their original place, faces challenges, learns, meets their master, discredits themselves and returns even more to the place where they started. What we tried to do was to bring that energy from the hero’s myth into the film. But this is a real life hero. The character Emicida in the film is placed as if he were a character from (screenwriter) Will Eisner, who is a guy who drew real life. Then, people look at that and say: damn it, real life is so strong and transformative. That’s why we end the film by questioning ourselves. I don’t have any super powers. Everything there can be done by all of us.

In your lyrics you have made two statements: Blacks are at the top, and the favela has won. Do you think that Blacks are at the top and did the favela win? Or is there still a long way to go to reach that level?

I think we have to understand the meaning of these phrases. For example: “pretos no topo” (“Blacks are at the top”) is part of my song. When I, Rashid and Projota joined the studio there in 2011 in the song “Nova Ordem” the phrase that I put there is: “pretos no topo, sem morte ou julgamento / Era uma questão de sorte e eu fiz ser uma questão de tempo” (“Blacks are at the top, without death or judgment / It was a matter of luck and I made it a matter of time”). The phrase is born in that context. And it is interesting that we think about the context within it, because it is they who justify the sentence. Why are we talking about Blacks at the top? Because for us it was very rare to find Black personalities in admirable places. For example, looking at the music industry, we have a lot of Black people on the stage, but we don’t have a lot of Black people in the direction or management of the music industry. We saw that a lot. So, there is indeed a place of recognition, and we use the image of the pyramid (from the top) to exemplify this. However, it does not mean that we won, in the sense that the battle is over and now we celebrate. No, quite the contrary. We are a long way from where we should be. What happens is that people confuse some small individual victory with a collective victory. This is extremely dangerous, because these small individual victories, however much they can scale to create large collective victories, the truth is that we continue collecting tragedies.

Every day…

But even so, I think it is important that there are phrases like this, as they are attempts to give an agenda and remove the favela from a history only of tragedy and death. A kid buy some sneakers and considers themselves a winner. This may be questionable from some perspectives. But it’s also praiseworthy for others. Who are we to say that you cannot feel like a winner when you achieve something on the basis of your own effort?

AmarElo – Its All For Yesterday is available on Netflix


Follow Sounds and Colours: Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Mixcloud / Soundcloud / Bandcamp

Subscribe to the Sounds and Colours Newsletter for regular updates, news and competitions bringing the best of Latin American culture direct to your Inbox.

Share: