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GCAP and Capoeira Identity Politics

March 6, 2008

Mestre MoraesIf you want to stir up instant controversy among a group of capoeira mestres, according to anthropologist, author, and capoeirista Greg Downey, all you have to do is mention the words “GCAP” or “Mestre Moraes”. A group with one of the most hardline attitudes towards racism in Brazil and capoeira’s relation to it, GCAP’s (Grupo Capoeira Angola Pelourinho) mestre and members “recall the past as a saga of struggle against enslavement, cruelty, and exploitation, in which capoeira traditionally served as a weapon of the weak” (Downey 63), even as they draw accusations of “themselves being racist or overly ‘militant'” (Downey 71). Although capoeira is often advocated as a tool for social change, to be used against issues such as racism in particular, both the views of GCAP and those of its critics highlight potentially or already problematic areas in this field of capoeira identity politics.

The first and arguably most controversial of GCAP’s viewpoints is the purported “whitening” of capoeira, by practitioners and teachers of capoeira regional or contemporânea. Proponents of this argument say that with the advent of standardized movements, aesthetically clean, straight-lined techniques, and injections of speed and aggression, the original capoeira has been stripped of its (African or black) tradition, spirituality, and folklore, some going as far as to deem it “ethnically cleansed” (Downey 181).

If capoeira is supposed to be an agent of change against racism, it would seem problematic that such racial implications and distinctions exist within the art itself. What does this mean, then, for any attempts at a united front against racism, in Brazil or elsewhere? Does referring to “whitened” capoeira in a negative light make GCAP similarly tainted by the prejudice it works so hard to fight against? Would contribution by capoeira regional groups be rejected by people sharing GCAP’s views as hypocritical, considering they have already submitted to the allegedly racially colonialized/imperialised form of capoeira?

GCAP (Grupo Capoeira Angola Pelourinho)Something interesting that I noticed was that at one point in his book, Downey removes the quotation marks from around the word “whitened”: “whitened” capoeira as a concept or ideology under discussion becomes simply whitened capoeira (180), a phenomenon taken for granted and suddenly valid, it seems (but then the quotation marks return). I don’t mean to imply the concept is not valid—I don’t have enough knowledge or analysis to fully assert either side—but it caught my attention nevertheless.

After, what it made me realize was that for a lot of people/capoeiristas in the world, there are no quotation marks; that’s just how it is, to them: “whitened capoeira” is a plain fact, and moreover not a good one. So now I’m wondering if it’s possible to overcome racism (through capoeira) when such keen sensitivity to racial influence is apparent in the world of capoeira itself.

However, this makes me recall something else that Mestre Moraes said, but before I get there I want to discuss another point that is related to this one. This is the discrepancy between two main angles of capoeira history: the “notorious” narrative and the “liberatory” narrative, which are both described by Downey.

Basically, the notorious narrative focuses on the physical prowess of capoeiristas in the past, with songs celebrating amazing feats, daring battles, and capoeiristas of strength and power. Capoeira is associated with outlaws, vagrancy, gangs, and other notoriety-worthy concepts. The liberatory narrative, on the other hand, focuses on the slavery of capoeiristas, on their unjust treatment by the law, on their resistance to and suffering under colonialism, and the like. The significance of this difference is perfectly exemplified in each narrative’s take on the Paraguayan War, in which capoeiristas were sent to the front lines to fight for Brazil:

For those who hear capoeira’s history in a notorious key, the survival of capoeiras in the war against Paraguay demonstrates their formidability…. Told in a liberatory tone, in contrast, this episode smacks of blatant exploitation. … The notorious reading of this event is neutral or celebratory, dwelling primarily on the valor of the capoeiras; the liberatory reading is outraged at how unjustly the state treated black Brazilians [sending them to the front with too few weapons as expendable soldiers, or worse, to have Paraguay do the job of killing off capoeiristas for them]. (Downey 68)

Although not exactly problematic, per se, the way that people/capoeiristas view the history of capoeira in Brazil, whether they play mostly to live out old notoriety or new freedom, might possibly influence their views towards similar social issues today. That’s not to say that those who follow the notorious narrative don’t care about racism (not at all!), but one can imagine how much more urgency and motivation possibly propels the liberatory story-tellers when it comes to the issue, fueled as they are by that much more keen of an awareness of all the wrongs done to capoeiristas, Africans, and black Brazilians since even before the official emergence of the art.

Now, what I earlier recalled Mestre Moraes saying, in an article translated by Shayna M. on Capoeira Connection, was this:

And what is being racist? It’s the same thing as being communist, as being feminist. When you don’t react to offenses, you’re considered “nice” – “He’s black, but he’s nice” – because he accepts everything, he’s fine. But this is the racist Moraes: the Moraes who knows his history, who doesn’t allow himself to be disrespected… (2007)

Although I can’t speak for the communists, I think I understand what Mestre Moraes is saying here in terms of the feminism comparison. When people accuse him of being “racist” for denouncing “whitened” capoeira, that might be similar to when people accuse feminists of “reverse sexism”. In the latter case, feminists are misconstrued as “sexist” because of their concentrated efforts to level things out for women, which is necessary to make up for all the past’s drastic imbalances. So perhaps in the case of Mestre Moraes and GCAP, what others see as “racist” is concentrated efforts to ensure African and black traditions, history, and influence are not completely eradicated as capoeira spreads further throughout the world.

If this is the case, then the notorious narrative-followers are the “nice” individuals Moraes mentions, because their focus is for the most part apolitical—as Downey said, neutral or celebratory. Continuing the feminism comparison (though it is far from a perfect one), these people might be Moraes’s personal version of “female chauvinist pigs“, passively or actively complicit in their own oppression, however gradual or subtle it may be.

This is why I now question what I asked earlier, “if it’s possible to overcome racism (through capoeira) when such keen sensitivity to racial influence is apparent in the world of capoeira itself.” Because in the context of Moraes’s quote, and of the feminism comparison, of course you would be extremely sensitive to the phenomenon you are trying to fight. Isn’t “know thy enemy” the number one rule of war?

However, like I said, there are major places of misalignment to be found in this comparison. GCAP and Mestre Moraes are fighting to retain something that they consider originally theirs alone (by which I mean that of all “traditional” capoeiristas, black Brazilians, and Africans), for one, while feminists are fighting to gain something that belongs to all but was and is withheld from women in the world. So then, I suppose, the question in capoeira’s case becomes one of cultural sharing versus cultural appropriation.

Which, for now, seems like a good place to leave it. Whether or not Mestre Moraes and GCAP are right (in all senses of the word) in their views of capoeira, and capoeira regional/contemporânea in particular, it does not seem like an aspect of capoeira identity politics that can, or perhaps should, be extricated anytime soon. What is more important, it seems, is that we are able to transcend issues such as these in order to successfully address the much broader ones at hand.


Downey, Greg. Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Picture sources:

Joaninha, who writes under her capoeira nickname, has practiced capoeira since 2005. She is an undergraduate English major, and is interested in a career in writing, editing, publishing, journalism, or related fields. Joaninha also runs her own blog, Mandingueira, which is a feminist blog about capoeira.

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