Ambitious futures for (digital) education: Perspectives from Tropicália – Part 2 of #domains19 keynote

[Slides and notes from my recent #Domains19 keynote on June 11, 2019 in Durham, NC. Video forthcoming! A huge thanks to that amazing and supportive community. Giving this talk was a real treat and only possible because of that community of people]

In 1967, Veloso and Gil launched their new sound at one of the live TV MPB contests. And, as you can imagine, it arrived to very mixed reactions.

[slide10] Here is Veloso’s first MPB entry, Alegria, alegria (which means happiness, happiness). Alegria took a traditional dance form, the marcha, and added electric instruments, which were not welcomed because electric instruments were considered too American or European. The song is about a solitary wanderer who stops at newsstand to peruse the stories about urban crime, space exploration, Ché Guevara, and actresses. The song features one of Veloso’s most famous, remembered, and remixed lines “sem lenço, sem documento” which means without handkerchief, without documents. It’s veiled language, the handkerchief representing those carried by student protestors to protect themselves from tear gas; the documents referred to official government documentation. Let’s listen in. [note: see if you can spot the garbage being thrown at Veloso]

[slide11] Here is Gilberto Gil’s first entry into an MPB contest. Here is Gilberto Gil’s early performance at an MPB contest. His song, Domingo no Parque [Sunday in the Park], featured avant-garde composer Rogério Duprat’s full orchestra arrangement, layered with the psychedelic rock of Os Mutantes, and percussion played on a berimbau, an instrument of Angolan origin used to play capoeira music. It also featured an African call-and-return on the verses. The song tells a cinematic story of two friends torn apart by loving the same woman. The story ends tragically with the death of the lovers while on a date, their blood mixing with strawberry ice cream they were enjoying after a ferris wheel ride. It’s a masterpiece of musical influences and it scored well with the judges but poorly with the audience.

Despite some negative reactions they received at MPB contests, Veloso and Gil and a growing number of Tropicalista musicians continued to push the envelope, and were influenced by other cultural forms: art, poetry, and cinema. One major influence from the art world was Helio Oiticica. Oiticica was interested in banishing the separation between art and life, using his works as sites for collective experiments.

[slide12] Here is his 1967 Tropicália installation, which gave name to the musical movement. Oiticica’s installation was a critique of art and Brazilian life. The installation is intended to give viewers a sense of the favelas of Rio, with shanty wood structures covered in vibrant cloth. The viewer is guided through these spaces, walking atop tropical sand and pebble paths, hearing live parrots squawking, seeing lush plants–all leading the spectator to a large shanty room dominated by a glowing television set. Another shanty offers a single statement inscribed on a wall “purity is myth.” This installation not only gave Tropicália its name, but the Tropicalistas continued to intersect with and learn from Oiticica’s neo-concretist art. His art would later have an even more significant impact on their lives.

In 1968, as polarization grew in response the military dictatorship’s assassination of a student protestor, the Tropicalista musicians released their manifesto album, Tropicalia, ou Panis et Circenses. [slide13]. Panis et Circenses is misspelled Latin for Bread and Circuses, a reference to the famous verse by the Roman satirical poet, Juvenal, indicating that people want only food and diversion. The lyrics of the title song on the album echo this sentiment, describing a person engaging a number of outrageous actions, including murder, only to have the bourgeoisie audience not care. Instead, the song says, “the people in the living room/are busy being born and dying.” The fragment “Those people” is repeated to end the song, judging those who watch with complacency. It was a deft critique of those who remained complacent as the military rule tightened its grip because of the economic benefits they experienced. As you can see, the cover of the album parodies a bourgeoisie family portrait.

The songs on this album showcase the anthropophagia and the Tropicalista’s heavy use of allegory as critique. Tropicalistas critiqued both right and left political movements, each claiming to have the best of Brazil and for Brazil. Tropicalistas satirized emblems of brasilianness and rejected formulas for producing so-called authentic national culture.

[slide14] Here is Veloso’s Tropicália. The song opens with a parodic reference a poem from a letter written to the King of Portugal announcing the “discovery” of Brazil in 1500. This recording of the poem happened by accident. As the band began recording, the drummer began citing the poem and the band decided to keep it. It laid a foundation for an ensuing critique of Brazil’s brand new capital city, Brasilia.

A juxtaposition of modern and archaic elements in Brazilian life provide a basic structure for the song. Bossa, as in Bossa Nova, the now-nationalistic music is rhymed with palhoça, the straw huts that housed the poor in Brazil’s favelas. “Long live ‘A Banda’ da-da/ Carmen Miranda da-da,” couples an MPB festival hit “A Banda” with the cultural icon Carmen Miranda, and invokes the avant-garde Dada movement with the last two syllables. In evoking Carmen Miranda, Veloso was using her as an metaphor for Brazilian culture and perception in the rest of the world.

[slide15] Here is Gilberto Gil’s “Geléia Geral” (General Jelly) which is the most overtly political songs on the record. The song refers to a country whose society was divided and contradictory, between modernity and tradition. It features an interlude of clichés and kitsch objects from Brazilian popular culture. Gil announces these “relics of Brazil” as if they were being auctioned off.

In the final lines of the song, the satire turns dark by calling out brutalidade jardim (brutality garden)–evoking contradictions of a military regime wanting to portray Brazil to the world as a “peaceful garden'” while it crushes dissent towards the regime. The phrasing of the words, which doesn’t fit with how Brazilian sentence structure works, instead evokes how an American might piece together those two words.

The music reinforces those contradictions by layering a traditional folk genre bumba-meu-boi in contrast with electric rock instrumentation, while the lyrics mock unbridled patriotism.

[slide16] Finally, here is Veloso’s É Proibido Proibir (It is Forbidden to Forbid). This was Tropicália’s most disruptive and disrupted performance. Caetano Veloso came out on the MPB stage with Os Mutantes, all wearing futuristic plastic garb. As the music started, the crowd immediately began throwing tomatoes and trash, and yelling raucously. Caetano began to sing and dance suggestively. The crowd turned its back on the band, and the band still playing turned its back on the crowd. When the crowd became too disruptive, Caetano launched into a frustrated tirade (see slide 16 for translation).

Veloso’s tirade highlighted Tropicália’s frustration with the MPB cultural movement, which they saw as a regressive protest, rather than one that created a new dream for Brazil. The Tropicalistas wanted to resist the authoritarian regime, but not by capitulating to thoughtless reactionary positions. Tropicalistas were subversive because they wanted people to be free–not imprisoned by polarized positioning.

In June of 1968, people came together in the city of Rio to march in protest of the military dictatorship and its brutal oppression. The march, known as the March of 100,000, brought together students, artists, intellectuals, politicians and other segments of Brazilian civil society–including our Tropicalistas. The Tropicalistas held up signs that said:

Down with elite culture.

Art is suspended etiquette.

No more swallowing of finished works.


Culture with gods.

From the bottom up.

Everything has changed.

Imagination in power.

Third World.


Chewing gum.

Artist, Quixote.

Marginal, marginalia.

The rebels think so.

Though the military and police allowed this march to happen, they quickly responded by cracking down again and systematically removing rights. Tropicalistas, now seen as marginals because of their music and participation in the March of 100,000 gained the attention of the dictatorship.

In December 1968 the dictatorship handed down a new law that suspended Brazilians’ civil rights. Institutional Act no. 5 revoked the right of habeas corpus (among many other rights) and led to 4 years of a tyrannical military and police state. By that time, the Tropicalistas were under surveillance by the regime, who had begun to comprehend the subversive intent in their songs and performances. Tensions between the Tropicalistas and the authorities were further exacerbated in November 1968 during a performance at the Sucata club in Rio when an agent of the Department of Public Order publicly denounced Veloso and Gil for displaying a banner created by Hélio Oiticica, the Tropicalia artist I showed earlier. [slide17] The banner featured an image of Cara de Cavalo [Horse face], a famous urban outlaw executed in the street by the police in 1964. The phrase on the banner “Seja marginal, Seja herói” translates to “Be an outlaw, Be a hero.”

A week later, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil were arrested in their apartments in São Paulo, initiating a harrowing experience in a military prison in Rio. In June 1969, they were exiled to London where they remained until 1972. Their exile led to a surge of musical rebellion by musicians who now wanted to be on the side of the Tropicalistas, creating progressive music that subverted dominant forces at work in Brazil. In the face of the regime, these musicians  rebelled with new creative sounds and lyrics. Many were jailed, beaten, and tortured. Through it all, though, the Tropicalistas showed how a creative movement can shape new approaches to resistance and progress.

By the time Veloso and Gil returned in 1972, Tropicália had come to an end as a movement, but remained as a central point of reference for countercultural cultural practices in the 1970s and that continue to shape Brazil to this day.

So where does that leave us today, in 2019? I realize that it may be a bit of a stretch to say that the lessons of Tropicália apply to today, to our current national and global contexts. That was after all another time, a different historical, social, and geopolitical moment.

We should acknowledge, though, that Brazil is currently dealing with a new wave of authoritarianism, one that often resembles and celebrates the dictatorship of the past. President Jair Bolsinaro was elected democratically, but he has ushered in some of the same dictatorial strategies seen in the 1960s, like exiling political foes and reinstating police rule of law. Perhaps most relevant to us, he has shuttered what he calls “Marxist garbage” in schools and universities, eliminating social studies programs in favor of what he calls “moral and civic education.” (Source) As part of that effort, he removed Paulo Freire’s designation of patron of Brazilian education and is working to expunge Freire’s work from it. During his campaign, Bolsinaro promised to “enter the Education Ministry with a flamethrower to remove Paulo Freire.”

Tropicália happened at a time of intense polarization, like we see today. Economic interests of the United States were driving destabilization around the world. Authoritarianism took hold in many countries’ governments. Education that reduced marginalization and inequity was seen as radical and to be squashed. It all sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it?

So maybe it’s a stretch to look back to the 1960s, or maybe it’s useful to recognize what’s happening now in light of what happened then. I returned to 1960s Brazil in hopes of finding connections between Tropicália and Freire that inspire us at the present moment, at a moment that feels so distressing in our world. This statement from Paulo Freire feels like the right place to start that connection: [slide18]

“I have the right to be angry and to express that anger, to hold it as my motivation to fight, just as I have the right to love and to express my love for the world, to hold it as my motivation to fight, because while a historical being, I live history as a time of possibility, not predetermination… Rebelliousness is the indispensable starting point; it is the eruption of just ire, but it is not enough…Changing the world implies a dialectic dynamic between denunciation of the dehumanizing situation and the announcing of its being overcome, indeed, of our dream.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Indignation

Freire and Tropicalia reminded me that we have a duty to denounce dehumanization and to aim for consciousness-raising that helps people, and more specifically our students, to find liberation from oppression. Freire and Tropicalistas engaged in consciousness-raising, Freire through his literacy program and subsequent publications/presentations; the Tropicalistas through allegory, cannibalism, and creative resistance. Consciousness-raising is not just about critiquing the present moment, though that is part of it–it’s also about announcing the overcoming of the present moment–our dreams for different possible futures.

Freire and Tropicalistas problematized the present so that new futures could be reached. Freire wrote that an education oriented toward our dreams for students should become an instrument for choice as they see new possibilities and explore their agency in making those dreams happen. Tropicália also pursued possible futures, new dreams, that could overcome colonizer/colonized relationship and liberate a new Brazilian situation for its people. Announcing possible futures created choice. It expected freedom at a time when freedoms were being pulled away. It sought hope at a time when people tried to put faith in the past, in some kind of imagined and static national identity. Caetano Veloso wrote in Tropical Truth that Tropicália was, “the right to imagine an ambitious intervention in the future of the world, a right that immediately begins to be lived as duty.” [slide19]

Today, much of our educational system accepts predetermination and limits possible futures shaped by students. It accepts and furthers inequities and restrictions of freedom. It can even dehumanize and marginalize. The technologies we are using in education are not making this better. They aren’t, generally, counteracting these problems, liberating students from them. They’re worsening them. They’re capitulating to dominant economic forces.

What we need is to announce new dreams for education and the role technology plays in education and for our students–focusing on liberation and freedom. We need ambitious futures for our students, ones in which students have access to the tools of freedom and agency that they can use to create works of critique, works of progress, works that shape our world.  I feel that we have done a lot of that here this week.

Now it’s time to take those dreams back home. This is sometimes where I struggle with my work. I run an organization focused on digital learning and technology and we do try to do things differently. We run Digital Detoxes focused on helping our community understand bias and inclusion in digital spaces. We run an Information Environmentalism Studio aimed at getting students involved in addressing pollution/misinformation on the web. I’m working on a project with several colleagues, called Higher Education After Surveillance, to try to make strides against the surveillance platforms and pedagogies we use in education. But the dreams we have for these programs and for our students are often received with hostility and misunderstanding. Maybe not MPB-festival-level fruit throwing, but definitely hostile.

I wonder, how might Tropicália help more of us to create spaces of freedom and liberation, perhaps embracing technologies for the purpose of resistance, rather than to fall in line with increasingly controlling economic and political regimes? Here are some of my responses to this question, though I think this is a question open for our discussion, for our continued exploration beyond today and this conference.

I think Tropicália calls us to…

  • be intentionally and extraordinarily cross-disciplinary. To work with colleagues and ideas from across academia, professional ranks, and beyond. Not be one-sided in our approaches and fall prey to dominant polarizing forces. This is hard to do, especially when academia is designed with hierarchies and polarities as a central design principle.
  • take risks and to make space for students to take risks. Risk comes from the willingness to explore one’s freedoms and demolish one’s restrictions. We can do this by advancing participatory forms of education that extend freedoms to students and supports their use of those freedoms to create, to critique, to change. It’s risky, but an essential part of education as a practice of freedom.
  • embrace open practices that make anthroprophagia possible. I think about the open practices we have seen this week that have made new forms of art, culture, conversation, and education possible. When I look around the room, at the people here and at the art installations, I see what’s possible when we embrace those cannibalistic forms of resistance.
  • invert colonizer/colonized relationships in education. To be honest, this is where I think we need the most conversation and experimentation. We saw how the Tropicalistas did it, through allegory and anthroprophagia. We know how Freire did it, through liberatory literacy practices. What might this look like for us now, in 2019? Can we have conversations about that? I hope so.

Tropicália also reminds us how important it is to stay connected to other creative rebels who inspire us and stand beside us. In my world of Tropicália, Veloso and Gil are Martha Burtis and Alan Levine. Gal Costa is Lora Taub Pervizpour. Tom Ze is Tom Woodward. I could go on and on, filling our manifesto album with people in this room and many who are not here. And maybe Visual Thinkery will design and produce our first album. Like the Tropicalistas, many of us will be persecuted for our work, for our creation. And in those times, we’ll need each other’s support and for all of us to rise up to keep fighting the fight.

We need a lot of things in education and in our world at this moment. We need education to stay engaged in the issues affecting our students, including our own roles in exposing them to invasive and predatory platforms. We need education to stay engaged in the pursuit of equity, freedom, and liberation. We need education to critique the world and its predetermined futures, and to announce new possible futures.

And maybe, to do all of that, we need some Tropicália in education. A little mischief, critique, resistance, cannibalism, and a lot of Divino, Maravilhoso (Divine, Marvelous).

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