For Brazil’s Gilberto Gil Every Individual Is an Institution and Piece of Art

Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil Singer-composer Gilberto Gil was the Brazilian minister of Culture from January 2003 to July 30, 2008. His iconic status, however, mostly comes from being a Grammy-award winning musician, friend of fellow legendary singer Caetano Veloso and a cohort of Bob Marley in the social consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The political content of his musical lyrics offended Brazil’s military dictatorship, and he was jailed in 1968 and exiled to London in 1969.

His political career began in the early 1990’s in his native Bahia in Salvador, a northeastern province of Brazil with a predominantly afro-descendent population. As Minister of Culture, Gil was the ideal figurehead for Brazil’s promotion of alternative development approaches, such as cultural industries and public-private partnerships.

Alternative models are only just penetrating the mainstream of development policy and practice, and many say that this is largely because of Brazil. In this interview, given when he was still a minister, Gil talked about some of these models.

What preparation or special insight did you derive from your background that is important to you in your job as the minister of Culture?

My experience with music and performance helped to inform the relationship with the public. The relationship with audiences with broad and collective expectations gave me a sense of being able to share impulses, ideas, concepts and feelings with my people. We have to give room for our feelings, for our sentiments, for the boiling dimension that we have inside of our selves.

In Brazil, we decided that we should start by opening discussions about culture in Brazil. That was one of the Lula administration’s first projects – opening discussions about what the issues were: the new ones, the suspected ones, the unsuspected ones, the traditional ones and the unexpected and untraditional ones. And we decided that everything that occurred to us was valid because we faced a formidable country of extraordinary diversity, in racial, cultural, and political terms, in everything. So there was a lot to look for and at.

Like alternatives?

Yes, alternatives. We should be open to that. And this openness to the concept of culture was central to that in Brazil. What’s culture? It’s a right, first of all. A right to exchange experiences, exchange languages, traditions, exchange acts and facts. It is citizenship. It is a right to be individuals as institutions. Any individual is an institution. Any individual is a piece of art. Any individual is a cultural body.

We looked at culture in that sense, first. We also looked at culture as a symbolic universe. The interchange of individuals, of languages and everything creates an atmosphere that is evaporating all the time – like a spirit. So culture is a symbolic spirit. It is the national soul.

Culture is also a system of doing things, of selling things, of buying things. It is an economy.

Which brings us to the intersection of the idea of individuals as cultural bodies, of culture as a symbolic universe, and the idea of culture as economy.

Yes, with those three elements as our guidelines we started establishing the programs and projects integrating those three points of view.

And people are starting to think about replicating this model of social and economic empowerment through culture to tackle societal problems throughout the region. In societies where crime and violence are a problem, for example, the observation has been made that at the root is deep youth discontent that plays out in societies facing ” identity crises” in the face of globalization. Holding on to and deriving value from culture, being able to sustain yourself, your livelihood and dignity from it, just might be an option to a cycle…

…An option to a cycle of engagement in negativity. And so starts a cycle of engagement in positive things. Culture provides a substitute.

You also demonstrate a lot of faith in programs to encourage youth and civic development, social entrepreneurships, etc. Why do you think these things are important? What’s working?

These kinds of programs are important for two main reasons. First, we have observed that neither the markets, on one hand, nor the state governments on the other, have by themselves been able to solve society’s problems. So we have to engage civil society – individuals and communities, the creative and social bodies – in the processes of supporting and sustaining themselves so as to complement the work that is done by the market, and the work that is done by the state.

Especially in places where both state and market have drastically failed in terms of attending basic needs, such as education, health, environment, human development, justice. Brazil is an experimental base for this engagement of people. We have to empower people, to work at the level of self-esteem, to encourage them to organize themselves. We are entering a “people’s period” of history.

And increasingly more non-traditional partnerships with civil society seem to be founded on that premise and benefiting from it. Take some of the public-private partnerships pioneered in Brazil, such as the creative commons concept. What are some of the factors that seem to work out in these relationships?

The first requisite is the consciousness by the market and private companies of the limits to attending everyone’s needs. The second consideration is that the voice of the people is increasingly becoming louder. People demand that there be a social dimension to private sector actions. The two must converge. The interest of the people and the interest of enterprises converge towards the concept of social responsibility.

There is the recent example of the mayor of Bogota who initiated a very fruitful public-private partnership by saying to the private sector: Lend us one or two of your best executives for one or two years. We don’t want your money; just lend us your human capacities…

Your vision is very cosmopolitan, or open to giving and receiving from a wide variety of perspectives. In tune with a more expansive definition of globalization, perhaps, that requires people and societies to be open, not always without resistance.

Globalization is inevitable and irresistible. It is curiosity – an impulse towards the unknown. Globalization can be a process of exploitation from a certain point of view. But it can also be a process of discoveries, of novelties, of initiatives and innovations, of going places in order to influence other people’s lives.

It is as a consequence of globalization that we must, and because of globalization that we can, approach things in a more global manner so as to find solutions. This is one of the characteristics of people’s history. One of the slogans of politics in general is that “people know what they want.” But I used to say, and I included it in one of my songs, “people also want what they don’t know.” blue square

Racquel Smith manages FOCAL’s projects on governance, civil society, and Afro-Latino issues. This article was originally published in Focal Point – http://www.focal.ca.

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