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Afro Nation’s success doesn’t prove that Portugal isn’t racist

08 Aug 2019

Photography courtesy of Buraka Som Sistema

Last weekend, Portimão in the Algarve was the stage for one of Europe’s biggest Afrobeats festivals, with acts like Davido, Wizkid, Burna Boy and J Hus turning out to perform. The inaugural Afro Nation was four days of celebration soundtracked by waves, and enhanced by churrasco-style BBQ meats and sunny weather. Social media was lit with festival goers, the majority of them black from outside Portugal, hashtagging their memories of an unforgettable musical experience.

But, on the Twitterverse a debate was firing up over whether Portugal was too racist a country to play host. Although some people claimed to have been victims of racism at the festival or heard about it second-hand, many defended Portugal and shared their positive experiences of visiting and attending Afro Nation. It’s left me wondering whether Afro Nation’s publicity has helped Portugal continue to ignore its racist relationship with its own black population.

As I perused over supportive posts, I turned to Portuguese Twitter to hear more about the festival’s reception in my country of birth.

“I went to bed in Portimão and woke up in Luanda [the capital of Angola].”

“Black plague in Portimão.”

For anyone familiar with Portugal’s relationship to blackness, it isn’t surprising. For a country that “discovered” much of the world, they have a huge blind spot when it comes to race and the African continent. As put by black Portuguese podcaster Rui Paquete, who hosts Idiosincrasia Africana, “Until Afro Nation, most Portuguese people thought there were only two countries in Africa: Angola and Cape Verde”. We must remember that Portugal not only led the vanguard of colonialism, but actually started the transatlantic slave trade. Brazil, one of their former colonies, has the largest African diaspora outside of the continent itself.

In Portugal itself, there have historically been problems with collecting data around the population of black people. What we do know is that in cities like Lisbon, there are plenty of us living, breathing and making music. And yet, black Portuguese musicians aren’t given the same level of recognition as others in Portugal. This is ironic, considering that, despite the country’s musical landscape being deaf to its black artists, a few of them have gone on to achieve wildly successful careers elsewhere.

“It takes black artists to be successful elsewhere for Portugal to reluctantly acknowledge them as musical ambassadors of the country”

For instance, Lisbon-based music collective Buraka Som Sistema, which features black band-members, are known globally for their fusion of techno, zouk and kuduro. They have even been credited with launching a new genre of zouk bass danced in clubs across Lisbon, Luanda, Praia, Paris, London and beyond. Their music is an ode to Buraca, a Lisbon neighbourhood once infamous for immigrants, drugs and crime, and the band has toured across the world and released several albums, with notable songs such as ‘Sound of Kuduro’ featuring M.I.A.

And in January, Portuguese-born singer Dino D’Santiago made it into Rolling Stone magazine for bringing funaná (accordion-based music from Cape Verde) to the world. His latest album, Mundu Nôbu, pays homage to another musical genre from Cape Verde, batuku. This genre is an inheritance from African slaves who sang and danced to it in colonial Cape Verde. His passion for batuku had Madonna use much of it as inspiration for her latest album, Madame X

It takes black artists to be successful elsewhere for Portugal to reluctantly acknowledge them as musical ambassadors of the country, but it has no problems hosting Afrobeats stars, provided their presence boosts its economy.

“Most white Portuguese people and the country’s media fail to acknowledge problems with racial profiling, hate crimes and daily micro-aggressions”

Portugal has always struggled with questions around race and identity. Most white Portuguese people and the country’s media fail to acknowledge problems with racial profiling, hate crimes and daily micro-aggressions.

A few months ago, I was excited to find out that a black woman, Thando Hapo, was fronting Vogue Portugal in an issue that was to be an homage to Africa. But to my surprise, I found out more about black British women than black Portuguese women. One piece on black activism in Europe missed the opportunity to highlight the work of influential black feminists in Portugal, such as Joacine Katar Moreira, the founder of INMUNE – Black Woman Institute of Portugal.

Such occurrences make me think that Portugal is only comfortable giving space to black people that are outside of its borders. Many of us are complicit in helping Portugal maintain the masquerade of diversity and are ignorant about the struggles of black people outside of our comfort zone. That is why so many black British people were quick to jump to the defence of Afro Nation being held in a country whose police were a devastating presence in colonial Lusophone Africa, torturing and killing Africans by the millions, and continues, in present day Portugal, to target its black population.

“I wonder what Portugal’s High Commissioner for Migration would say to the video of Portuguese police beating black people that went viral in January?”

In a 2015 BBC article, Portugal’s High Commissioner for Migration, Pedro Calado, is quoted saying, “We don’t have this big problem of racism in our society”. Today, I wonder what he would say to the video of Portuguese police beating black people in the Bairro da Jamaica that went viral in January 2019?

Next week, the Algarve will be welcoming a very different festival. The homegrown Sou Quarteira [I am Quarteira], was conceived by Dino d’Santiago and Miguel Jacinto and curated by Naomi Guerreiro and Inês Oliveira. The festival is championing black Portuguese musicians in its line-up, with a few international additions such as the UK’s Kojey Radical. This is the kind of initiative that the diaspora should be paying attention to and supporting, alongside showing love to Afro Nation.

Portugal is beautiful but it is also a deeply racist country, and the diaspora needs to show solidarity by empowering each other and giving space at the table.