Brazil's 'Minister of Cool' Hits Harvard

Gilberto Gil could very well be a superhero. Politician by day, renowned international pop star by night…it’s what many a middle-aged man daydreams about. He is currently Brazil’s Minister of Culture, but it is no wonder the media has dubbed him the “Minister of Cool.”

And so, when Gilberto Gil visited Harvard’s Sanders Theater last week to give a lecture on “Brazilian Cultural Policies and Social Inclusion,” the audience could hardly guess that the ridiculously cool individual standing in front of them was 62 years old. Kicking off the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies’ “Brazil Semester,” Gil energetically stood in a sharp suit, his shoulder-length dreadlocks tied back in a ponytail.

THE BRAZILIAN BOB DYLAN

In the late 1960s, Gil became one of the founders of Tropicalism, the Brazilian equivalent of the hippie movement, a role that has earned him the title of “the Brazilian Bob Dylan.” Like its American counterpart, the Tropicalist movement was set in the midst of a tumultuous time in Brazilian history—the height of the power of the military dictatorship.

Tropicalism emerged out of the fusion of bossa nova and samba, with varied international influences—the Beatles, Miles Davis, and James Brown, as well as urban African rhythms from Senegal, South Africa, and Nigeria. The result was a unique sound that profoundly altered the cultural landscape of Brazil.

“All these things stimulated us,” Gil explains. “I would hear a song by the Beatles and say, ‘I would like to have a sound here in Brazil that is equivalent to this.’”

But the movement was not merely confined to music. The Tropicalists extended their reach into literature and cinema, with Gil citing influences from intellectuals such as Heidegger and Nietzsche, as well as filmmakers Godard and Fellini. The Tropicalists even made their way onto to the television screen, with a short-lived experimental show, “Divino, maravilhoso,” showcasing the group and all of its facets.

“It was a spirit of the time that manifested itself through various forms of expression,” Gil explains. “We were invaded by this spirit.”

This spirit, however, came at a price. In December 1968, the military dictatorship passed a law which curtailed freedom of speech and artistic liberty. Shortly thereafter, Gil and Caetano Veloso, another Tropicalist founder, were imprisoned under the pretext that the two had disrespected the national hymn and the Brazilian flag. Their heads were shaved, and they were held in custody for several months. In July of 1969, they were exiled to London.

Gil took advantage of his stay in England, though, to play concerts throughout Europe, jamming with notable rock greats such as David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and Jim Capaldi of Traffic.

After his return to Brazil in 1972, Gil’s musical career blossomed through the ensuing decades—with scores of CDs and hit singles, Gil is today one of the pop icons of Brazilian culture, and was rewarded most recently as the 2003 Personality of the Year at the Latin Grammy Awards ceremony.

CONNECTING CULTURES

With political undertones in his music since the beginning of his career, it is no surprise that Gil began devoting more and more of his time to politics. In the late 80s, he became a councilman in the city of Salvador, where he also served as the president of the environmental commission among other posts.

Gil once more entered the political arena upon the election of leftist President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in 2002, when he was appointed the Minister of Culture.

Regarding his current ministerial post, Gil explains that “culture is the impulse of societal life. The symbolic exchanges that occur between people…[are] what gives meaning to people’s lives. So all the work to strengthen citizenship, to strengthen the economy…all of this is culture.”

In this manner, Gil has heralded efforts to enhance public access to culture by supporting nonprofits such as Stanford professor Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons. In November of 2004, with the intent of challenging conventional copyright laws, Gil participated in a compilation CD for Wired magazine with artists such as the Beastie Boys and David Byrne, entitled “The Wired CD: Rip. Sample. Mash. Share.”

According to Gil, the Brazilian government is more than doing its part.

“The Brazilian government has adopted an open position regarding new technologies and the sharing of these new technologies, a flexibility of law and of regulation to allow the spread of sharing,” Gil says.

Gil also spoke of the idea of “culture points” during his lecture at Harvard, describing the current network of 260 centers open to the Brazilian public where, according to Gil, anyone has access to the use of equipment for artistic projects. The goal for 2006, Gil explains, is 1,000 of these culture points, concentrated in poverty-stricken areas, where manifestations of culture can be a positive force for the community, especially the younger generations. Not only would these cultural centers be individually effective, but according to Gil, they would also act as a way of linking communities.

To Gil, an open exchange of ideas is fundamental to his progressive approach towards cultural growth. These cultural centers, as well as file sharing, are new ways of bringing the same fusion that was at the core of the Tropicalist movement to flourishing musical movements in Brazil and the world.

Thus, it is both ironic and inspiring to see Gil, exiled only a few decades ago, now highly influential in the government, and helping his country become more and more Tropicalist at heart.