Gilberto Gil
"Contemporary Brazilian Culture"

February 17, 2005

Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil speaks at Berkeley on February 17.

Building a Creative Utopia in Brazil
By Tiffany Linton Page

Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil has a vision of government-sponsored, grass-roots cultural creation across Brazil. During his CLAS talk, Gil, who is also a world-renowned musician and one of the founders of the Tropicália movement, described how he has attempted to make this vision reality in his role as a member of the cabinet of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

As Minister of Culture, Gil’s focus is on promoting what he calls full human development. He said that when governments and multilateral bodies talk about development, they often focus entirely on the economic dimension. However, he argued, development is multidimensional and its social and cultural aspects must not be neglected. Gil sees his role as revolving around both “the economic dimension of culture and the cultural dimension of the economy.” Above all he wants to validate cultural endeavors as an integral part of Brazilian society and development.

Gil insisted that art can be a mobilizing force that changes society by changing perspectives, moods and visions. However, he said that forcing art to serve specific political ends is not effective. Instead, the government should support communities so that art flourishes throughout the country. That, in and of itself, contributes to the cultural development of the country, he argued.

Brazil’s new cultural program, instituted by Gil, follows this philosophy by providing financial support for communities to engage in creative projects. For example, the program aims to promote community television and radio stations by providing digital recording studios in communities across the country. Members of the community can make and record music and shoot films, among other artistic activities, at these community “cultural points.” By the end of 2005, the Ministry of Culture will be supporting six hundred cultural points across the country.

Gil’s cultural program aims to strengthen the capacity of individuals, particularly in slums and rural areas, to produce and share their art. The goal is the production and diffusion of diverse cultural expression, representing the multiculturalism of Brazilian society. Gil views hip-hop, for example, as an important part of Brazilian culture and as a way for young people to positively channel their anger. Hip-hop is one means by which people can use their creativity to address the challenges they face on a daily basis, he said. Through this program, the government is attempting to mobilize the population’s creative energy and combat the social and cultural exclusion of the poorest groups within society.

The Lula administration, and the Workers Party more generally, have focused on empowering segments of civil society that were previously excluded from politics. For example, Gil involved civil society in the design and implementation of the new cultural policy. Moreover, communities have the autonomy to choose their creative projects. Gil explained: “The communities choose their activities, the equipment and the training. They shall be users and managers at the same time… It is a flexible program shaped to reality rather than shaping reality itself.”

According to Gil, the government sees its role as one of simply encouraging shared management of cultural projects and helping to establish a network linking different community cultural sites. Gil described this network as “the means to link public power actions and community actions and the means to link the cultural actions of the diverse articulated communities.”

Despite these lofty goals, Brazil has limited resources to devote to cultural development because of the repayments it must make on its enormous national debt and the need to prioritize spending on social services in a country with widespread, often extreme poverty. Gil acknowledged this economic limitation, and after describing his cultural program joked: “A lot of utopia. Let us go for it. Let us not be shy. Let us just go for it.” He believes that people must always have a utopian vision on the horizon to strive towards in order to continually enhance the condition of humanity. In pursuit of this ideal, the government has come up with novel ways to fund its cultural policy. For example, there are plans to create a lottery to help fund the community cultural projects as well as the creation of public-private partnerships that give tax breaks to corporations that invest in culture.

Beyond the individual and community development that Brazil’s cultural policy promotes, Gil suggested that there is an economic benefit in promoting cultural development and creativity. Although developing countries are extremely restricted by the rules and demands of the neoliberal global economy, Gil said that governments still have some freedom to encourage creative alternative strategies to promote local economies. Gil suggested that developing countries can develop alternative ways to creatively build up their economies by drawing on local knowledge, culture and experience. Creative thinking, he said, can help the workforce, for example, find ways to adapt to changes in the global economy.

Just as Gil emphasized the importance of multiculturalism in Brazil, he highlighted the effectiveness of multilateralism in achieving development goals. Creative development strategies can be found through dialogue between people across countries, he argued. Brazil has recently taken a leading role in the development of partnerships with other countries in Latin America. Through collaboration and solidarity the power of developing countries vis-à-vis other global economic actors is strengthened. Gil said that countries should jointly develop strategies to promote creative economic solutions to the pressures coming from the global economy. An approach to development that focuses on creative thinking, he argued, is the key to success in today’s global environment.

In the 1960s, Gil first gained fame as one of the leaders of the Tropicália movement, which combined Brazil's regional folk culture with international influences to create a new sound. Tropicália influenced multiple areas of artistic expression, including cinema, literature and music. Gil is known for fusing music forms from all over the world in his compositions, creating his own unique sound. His songs have often touched on political issues and activism, leading to his arrest in 1969 by the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil. After his release, he left Brazil and took his music to the rest of the world.

Though his talk focused on his newfound role as a policymaker, Gil’s love of performing came through in the question and answer session that followed his speech. He insisted, to the audience’s delight, on playing a song before answering any questions. After that he quietly strummed on his guitar while Harley Shaiken, Chair of the Center for Latin American Studies, read out several questions from the audience. Then he insisted on a new arrangement: “Another question and then I sing a song.”

Gilberto Gil is Brazilian Minister of Culture. He is also regarded as one of the most important singers and composers in modern Brazilian music. Gil gave his talk on “Contemporary Brazilian Culture” as part of CLAS’s Brazil in Berkeley series on February 17, 2005.

Tiffany Linton Page is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology.

Minister Gil on campus.
Minister Gil walks the campus with Professor Harley Shaiken,
Chair of the Center for Latin American Studies.
Minister Gil examines the first book published in Portuguese (circa 1498), part of the Bancroft Library's collection.
Minister Gil answers questions from the audience with Professor Shaiken.
Minister Gil plays for a rapt crowd in Wheeler Auditorium.
Minister Gil directs the crowd to sing along.

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