"The challenge of the 21st century would be "how to live with difference""

Diasporic Negotiations of Belonging and Citizenship, Cosmopolitanism from Below and the Political Aesthetics of Migration

By Caetano Maschio Santos


Echoing W.E.B. Dubois, Stuart Hall once said that the fundamental challenge of the 21st century would be “how to live with difference”. In this brief excursion through parts of my work with the Haitian diaspora in Brazil, I’ll try to showcase how music making provides us with valuable insights to reflect on how this specific black migration wave has spurred processes of negotiation and construction of cultural identities, and is struggling to be recognized as a legitimate part of Brazilian society. In the processes of creating its own spaces and pathways for political action, we find complex entanglements of Hall’s Fateful Triangle: race, ethnicity, and nation.

Haitian immigration to Brazil

Albeit still little known within the Global North, Haitian migration to Brazil has an important place within that which some name as the global “crisis” of migrants and refugees. In the Haitian case, a combination of the longue durée effects of colonialism and imperialism, restrictive immigration policies, internal political crisis (Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ousting in 2004), international occupation through United Nations’ MINUSTAH mission from 2004 to 2017, and natural catastrophes (the Port-au-Prince 2010 earthquake) has come to affect time-honoured migration routes to the US, Canada and France that stretched back at least to the 1950s, now bent towards South America, specially to Brazil and Chile. Scholars researching Haitian migration to Brazil have linked it to the country’s significant economic growth in the first decade of the millennium, its military presence in Haiti leading MINUSTAH, to Haitians perception of or belief in a cultural affinity between Haiti and Brazil (centred on the sharing of African roots) and to restrictive immigration policies in the Global North (Audebert, 2017).

In the borderline between economic migration and climate refuge, Haitians arriving in Brazil have been granted a special humanitarian visa that affords them right to work and reside, and the possibility of bringing relatives through family reunification processes. Even though a significant percentage of migrants held higher education degrees, the staggering majority ended

up taking very precarious work, becoming cheap labour force, in activities such as civil construction and meat processing. Whilst many have worked their way out of this, one is reminded of Hall’s powerful suggestion on how race is the modality through which classed is lived – something true not only for Haitians but also for Afro-Brazilians even today, more than a century after the abolition of slavery, as income statistics continue to demonstrate the structured racial and gender inequalities in Brazilian society. Last but not least, scholars studying Haitian migration have shown how a racializing gaze has been determinant in forging the native/other divide in Brazil (Uebel, 2015), and a common experience to Haitian migrants has been the sudden confrontation with the fact of their own blackness, underscoring once more the continuing importance of the work of Frantz Fanon.

Music and Migration: Haitian artists in Brazil

As it seems to be the case with most diasporas, with Haitians also came along music, or, shall I say, an overwhelming diversity of Haitian and Caribbean musics: konpa, rap kreyòl, reggae, bachata, reggaeton, merengue, twoubadou, gospel music, etc. Haitian immigrant artists’ music making is a noteworthy grassroots cultural industry, despite still barely visible (and audible), and has gradually increased its output and sophistication, specially during the last 3 years. It is all the more surprising if we stop to consider the intense work routine that most of these artists/workers live on a daily basis, having to find the time to compose and record, the latter mostly carried out in the home studios that they have been setting up through patient savings and collective efforts. Within the remarkable diversity of this diasporic musical output, what I wish to stress here is Haitian artists’ significant engagement with Brazilian reality, a reflexive and dialogic engagement that denotes the work of truly organic intellectuals, in the Gramscian sense, through the commentary, critique and interpretation of their own lived reality in Brazil. It’s the kind of intellectual workings of what Stuart Hall called a diasporic consciousness – of those who have one foot in and one foot out, are both here and there, constantly living in translation and remaking themselves (Hall & Werbner, 2008). Particularly, I’d like to briefly comment on two specific cases to illustrate what I’ve just said.

The first one is the song “Lula livre”, by Surprise69.[1] Surprise69 is a musical group formed by Mariolove, Elnegroflow, and RealBlack, artistic names of three Haitians migrants living in São Paulo. According to them, Surprise69’s main aim is to help Haitian immigrants within and outside Brazil through art, encouraging them to pursue their dreams and vocations. In the final weeks of the 2018 presidential campaign, as right-wing candidate and now president Jair Bolsonaro approached victory, Surprise69 released in social media and Haitian WhatsApp groups a new song and video clip entitled “Lula livre” (Free Lula). Mixing freestyle hip hop verses and a sort of political campaign jingle chorus over a digitalized breakdance beat, the song was an overt manifestation of support for Workers Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, and also a critique of Lula’s questionable imprisonment due to operation Car Wash. As a participant in some of the digital networks of the Haitian diaspora in Brazil, I was then witnessing Haitians’ apparent unease with Bolsonaro’s likely victory, and the compelling critiques they addressed him, facts connected to his openly xenophobic, racist and anti-minority posture. Surprise 69’s song, despite circulating mainly within the circles of the Haitian diaspora, nonetheless succeeded in converting a reading of the political moment into music that sought to enable political action, aligning itself with a powerful tradition of politically engaged music making in Haitian history known as mizik angaje (Averill, 1997), one of the most distinguished marks of cultural resistance against the Duvalier dictatorship. Since as migrants Haitians are dispossessed of the right to vote, Surprise69s’ musical agency can be viewed as manifesting a type of cultural and sonic citizenship, stemming from their own conjunctural reading and using the available means to craft belonging and make themselves heard as politically conscious subjects.

The second case I’d like to address here is overwhelmingly infused with particularities. It concerns the individual articulation of cultural identity through music by Alix Georges, a Haitian migrant living in Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. It concerns his strategic use of a popular regional song through lyric quotation in daily conversation and his translation of the song to French.[2] The song, “Canto Alegretense” by the family-based ensemble “Os Fagundes”, refers their native town of Alegrete, close to the border with Argentina and Uruguay, and can be seen to stand as a synecdoche to the state’s hegemonic narrative of cultural identity, one in which discourses surrounding the symbolic figure of the gaúcho (the horse rider and ranch peon of the countryside) have historically invisibilized the state’s black population and culture, and highlighted amongst other things the conflicting qualities of hospitality and defense against foreign invaders (Oliven, 1996). Alix’s development of a personal identification with what is known as “gaúcho regional music” (Lucas, 2000) since his first years living in the state has rendered him able to articulate his belonging in a social and cultural environment significantly marked by the hegemony of Eurocentric and white cultural standards.

The main impulse for his use of the song came from daily intercultural encounters, in which his blackness would be the focus of racializing and othering gazes, epitomized by the question of: “Where are you from?”. In these dialogues framed by what Judith Butler has called “normative schemes of intelligibility” (Butler, 2005), in the crossroads of axis of race, ethnicity and nation, Alix’s answer with the initial lines of the song (“Don’t ask me where Alegrete is, follow the path of your own heart”) resulted in a powerful and effective claim to his right to be and to belong, momentarily disrupting power relations and his own othering as a black migrant through a form of conversational sampling (Roth-Gordon, 2012). He even came up with a hybrid identity moniker to mark the uniqueness of his position: Haitiúcho, a combination of Haitian and gaúcho. The final product of this process, his translated version of the song, achieved considerable popularity within the state, and, as a consequence, got him to know the composers of the song and get their authorization to include it free of copyright charge in his CD. Significantly, he later was invited to Alegrete and awarded the official prize of “Black Star of Alegrete” by the city’s municipal chamber, as part of the celebrations of the Brazilian Black Consciousness day. This second example allows us to see how, through the able use of what is regarded as an authentic asset of regional cultural identity, Alix musically played with identity through difference, effectively countering the binary native/migrant divide. This might be seen as a consequence of his cosmopolitan outlook and engagement with local culture, a cosmopolitanism from below, of those who had little or no choice as to whether become cosmopolitans, as Hall once said (Werbner & Hall, 2008). Amongst other things, then, Alix’s musical agency speaks loudly to Stuart Hall’s comments on cultural identity within the Caribbean diaspora (Hall, 1992): the matter of “becoming” as well as “being”, the unstable points of suture made within practices of representation, within discourses of history and culture – made through a politics of positioning affected by unequal power relations.

Concluding remarks

Despite having had set aside many of the complexities of these examples, in way of conclusion I wish to stress that the black labor migrant wave that characterizes the demographics of Brazil in the last decade, of which Haitians are perhaps the most significant part, has brought to the fore issues of race and identity in a unique way, questioning the hegemonic understanding of racial relations in Brazilian society, still today marked by the ideal of racial democracy, the harmonious interracial model of the three races owed to the thinking of Brazilian anthropologist Gilberto Freyre in the 1930s – consequences that, I might say, I’m not really sure that Freyre would unhesitatingly accept. However, in real life one is confronted by the enactment of a racially marked regime of differentiated citizenship, structurally lived and enforced, both formally and informally, affecting the daily lives of Afro-Brazilians and black migrants such as Haitians. It is in such a context that the musical production of Haitian artists such as Surprise69 and Alix Georges attests to what ethnomusicologist Phillip Bohlman has named the political aesthetics of migration (Bohlman, 2011), and stands out as a significant engaged grassroots musical phenomenon. In a global context of escalating nationalism, authoritarian and conservative right-wing populism, Haitian migrants’ aesthetic agency is providing us with valuable lessons on how to learn to live with difference.


  1. The song can be viewed at <> [16/03/2020].
  2. Alix’s version can be viewed at <> [16/03/2020].


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