Backlash to Anitta’s Music Video Evokes a Painful History in Brazil

Published: May 18, 2024

Anitta, the popular Brazilian singer, was the target of intense backlash over the release of a music video in an episode that highlighted persistent religious intolerance and racism in Brazil.

The furor began on Monday, when the 31-year-old pop star shared a preview of the video for her new song, “Aceita” (“Accept” in Portuguese), with her 65 million followers on Instagram. Within two hours, she lost 200,000 followers, she said.

The video depicts the practices of her faith, Candomblé. Her Instagram account showed images of the artist dressed in religious garb with a Candomblé priest and stills of spiritual items and other iconography associated with the faith.

Candomblé is considered a syncretic religion, meaning it draws from various faiths and traditions.

It evolved from a mix of Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs brought to what is now Brazil by enslaved West African people during the colonial expansion of the Portuguese empire, scholars said.

Although they are practiced by only 2 percent of the population, Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé make up a disproportionate number of reported religious intolerance cases, according to a 2022 U.S. State Department report on religious freedom in Brazil.

For centuries, Candomblé was relegated to the shadows. It was considered demonic sorcery and a public danger in an overwhelmingly Catholic society.

“They were prosecuted under the premise that they were hazardous to public health, because the witchcraft laws were hidden under public health code,” said Ana Paulina Lee, a professor of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University.

Despite the backlash this week, reaction to Anitta’s video was overwhelmingly positive. Many lauded her for paying homage to the religion.

Still, critics flooded her Instagram post.

“This is pure witchcraft, even a layman can see that it is Satanism,” one person wrote in Portuguese.

Her black-and-white video depicts other faiths, such as Catholicism, and the lyrics seem to speak broadly to the theme of acceptance, suggesting that the song is a commentary on religious intolerance.

Born Larissa Machado, Anitta burst onto the scene in 2013 with a pop song, “Meiga e Abusada,” written in Portuguese that was a huge hit in Brazil.

She solidified her popularity with several albums in the 2010s and with a performance at the 2016 Olympic opening ceremony in her hometown, Rio de Janeiro.

After releasing a few Spanish-language hits featuring well-known reggaeton artists, such as J Balvin, Anitta established herself among Latin American audiences. She was part of a wave of Latin American artists who successfully crossed into the U.S. market.

On Tuesday, she performed on “The Voice” on NBC and this month, Anitta joined Madonna at her free show in Rio de Janeiro that drew 1.6 million fans. Last year, Anitta performed at the MTV Video Music Awards and was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist. In 2022, she appeared on the main stage at the Coachella music festival.

As her celebrity has grown, Anitta has candidly tackled questions about her faith.

In 2018, when she came under fire for not condemning Brazil’s newly elected far-right presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, Anitta said she had been secluded for multiple weeks as required as part of her Candomblé initiation.

Characterized by its percussive rituals and celebrations honoring several deities, the faith has been forced underground since its inception.

Practitioners at one point veiled their practices by adopting Catholic iconography, Professor Lee said.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that mainstream society began to tolerate expressions of Candomblé in an effort to recognize Brazil’s African heritage and cultivate a stronger Brazilian national identity, said Luis Nicolau Parés, a professor of anthropology at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil, who wrote a book about Candomblé.

Brazilian artists and intellectuals in the 1970s and ’80s embraced and celebrated the religion. Government officials recognized it.

At the same time, Brazil’s population of evangelical Christians bloomed, increasing to 26 percent in 2022 from a single-digit percentage share of the population in 1991. The rise of Neo-Pentecostal churches helped revive anti-Candomblé sentiment.

“It was demonized in a way so people would shift and convert into Christianity,” Professor Parés said of Candomblé.

As acts of violence and discrimination targeting Candomblé and other Afro-Brazilian religions have persisted, activists have pointed to the issue of race, which they say is inextricably linked.

In a social media post, Anitta said she had been the subject of “religious racism,” a term introduced by Candomblé leaders to describe acts of religious intolerance toward Afro-Brazilian faiths, Professor Lee said.

“What happened to Anitta happens every day,” said Professor Lee, who pointed to the murder of a well-known Candomblé priestess last year.

“I think that it’s an incredibly important thing to show that this is not new, but this is part of a really long history of anti-Black racism, and it’s not just skin,” she said.

“When you go after faith, you’re going after soul,” she added.

Leonardo Coelho contributed reporting.

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