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Debi Ou-Yang’s ('08) first step into life after Lehigh didn’t begin in a corporate office; it started over 6,500 miles away in South Korea with a one-year stint teaching English to school students as a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant).

Fulbright Home > Prof. Tanya Saunders Wins Fulbright to Explore Music & Social Change in Brazil

Tanya Saunders

In the United States of America, we rarely think of politics and arts as related. In fact, we usually see art as an explicitly apolitical form of expression, and so we afford it little to no role in movements for social change. In much of the world, however, there is no such separation, and especially in the Americas to the south of us, music can and does play a powerful role in articulating the voices of political contestation.

Sociology Professor Tanya Saunders explored the causes and consequences of this issue in Brazil in December 2011. Based at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro for her first semester, Professor Saunders began her research by looking into the culture of Brazilian “funky,” an art form that grew out of 1970’s American and Brazilian Funk and has today evolved into a popular dance music akin to reggaeton. After that first six months, she moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and the economic hub of the nation. Unlike in Rio, hip-hop culture has emerged as the most popular musical form among the city’s African diaspora community, and Professor Saunders will spend the second half of her time absorbing the hip-hop culture of Sao Paulo, as an affiliate researcher with the Casa das Africas.

Deb Ou-Yang
Professor Saunders (far left) at the 2010 Cuban International Hip Hop Symposium

In both cities, she talked to a variety of individuals in the music world, from the artists themselves, to TV producers, MTV Brazil insiders, and general entertainment media. At the heart of her interest is the divide she perceives in the musical consciousness between the two cities. She sees Sao Paulo, the corporate and media capital, as the predictable home to international commercial influences, and hence the site where political hip-hop imported from the US has taken root. The artists that lead the hip-hop scene approach their work with an activist mentality and a strong desire to understand and challenge the social context in which they find themselves. Conversely in Rio, the nation’s tourist mecca, the “funky” culture has developed as a highly sensual, sexualized, and relatively depoliticized art form, in keeping with the image the city presents to the world.

As she approaches her research, she does so from a perspective that eschews the traditional Western academic assumptions in favor of an African-rooted mentality through which music must be understood in order to see its true social and political meanings. As Professor Saunders sees it, there is a general myth of “colonization” in the Americas, wherein European powers imparted their culture to the colonized and to those brought here as slaves. On the contrary, however, with the majority population of the Western hemisphere belonging to the African diaspora, it’s the colonizers themselves who have been brought into the cultural traditions of the colonized in most of the Caribbean and Latin America, as Professor Saunders has observed repeatedly throughout her travels. To see the situation clearly, one must therefore begin from the source of cultural dissemination, namely the African point of view.

The work shedid in Brazil constitutes just one leg of a journey in a three part series of studies that began in Cuba and will end in the southern USA, a journey that will manifest itself in a trio of books dedicated to the role that music plays in African diaspora communities in the Western Hemisphere. She hopes that her findings in Brazil can suggest possibilities for the US, where, as mentioned at the start, the connection between art and social change has been marginalized, and thus the powerful potential for political contestation through art undermined.  

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