In Brazil, Black social media influencers are helping to change perceptions and realities

In Brazil, Black social media influencers are helping to change perceptions and realities

More and more Black influencers are using social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube to connect with audiences, monetise their content and challenge dominant media narratives about what it means to be Black and Brazilian.

(Alamy/John Michaels)

With close to 250,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, Nath Finanças, or Nathália Rodrigues, has become one of Brazil’s best-known Black social media influencers by teaching personal finance to people who, like her, come from low-income backgrounds. On Instagram, Ana Paula Xongani has amassed more than 200,000 followers by talking about everything from tackling racism to fashion, and with over 600,000 followers, Bianca Santos is a huge success on TikTok, where she provides makeup tips for people with darker skin.

In one of the most unequal countries in the world, where Black and Indigenous Brazilians are still fighting for access to basic human rights like quality education, decent housing, decent work and equality, and where the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has led a disastrous Covid pandemic response which has exacerbated racial inequalities, social media platforms are providing a crucial space for young, Black content creators to share the kind of stories and perspectives that are usually shut out from the mainstream – and make money while doing so.

There are generally few opportunities for those born into poverty in Brazil, and as a direct consequence of an economy built on the labour of enslaved African people, and the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous people over three centuries, poverty is starkly racialised. While the majority of the population (55.8 per cent) are people of African descent who identify as preto (‘dark-skinned’) and pardo (‘brown-skinned’, indicating mixed African, European and/or Indigenous ancestry), by every single socio-economic indicator, non-white Brazilians, and specifically Black Brazilians (a term that goes beyond the five formal categories linked to skin colour offered by the national census and speaks to a broader social and political identity) are significantly disadvantaged.

Black people represent 75 per cent of those living in extreme poverty in Brazil, or the 13.5 million people living on less than US$1.90 per day.

Among those living on less than US$5.50 per day, the proportion of Black Brazilians is double that of white Brazilians.

However, with the use of digital technologies, young people from working-class favelas and the peripheries (low-income neighbourhoods far from the city centre) are breaking down socio-economic barriers to create popular personal brands and large online followings, which in turn brings them fame and financial success.

Social and political activism

Using just a mobile phone or a computer, and a lot of creativity, alone or with the support of national organisations such as the Unified Centre of Favelas (CUFA) or local organisations in Rio de Janeiro such as the newspaper Voz das Comunidades (Voice of Communities), young people are using the internet as a platform to reach audiences both within and far beyond their locales.

While some focus on lighter themes such as beauty, fashion, food and entertainment, others use their platforms as a space for political and social activism, zeroing in on issues such as combating racism in society and denouncing the state violence that disproportionately affects Black Brazilians. More than 75 per cent of all victims of deadly police violence are Black people, as evidenced by the Jacarezinho Massacre, when the police invaded the Jacarezinho favela in Rio de Janeiro and killed 28 people in May, with images of the violence circulating all over social media.

“While we are fighting for our rights, there are young Black people who are dying simply because they are Black. We need a state that does not see us as a target,” says Carla Candace, an Instagram influencer from the north-eastern state of Bahía who focuses on teaching her over 85,000 followers how to eat a healthy vegan diet on a low income.

According to David Nemer, assistant professor of communication at the University of Virginia and author of the forthcoming book Technology of the Oppressed: Inequity and the Digital Mundane in Favelas of Brazil, to be published by MIT Press next year, what we are seeing isn’t a new phenomenon: “People from the favelas have always been interested in culturally manifesting themselves by building digital content for individual and community promotion.” The difference now is that mainstream media and audiences are paying attention.

Before, Nemer explains, “access was achieved through appropriation: those who lived outside the periphery appropriated their cultural forms and content and brought it to the other side. Today, with easier access to this type of content and more people producing it, access ends up being more direct.”

In addition, these influencers are being heard by a public that goes far beyond their neighbourhoods or even country – they have access to global audiences, and with it, the attention of brands, policymakers and politicians across the world.

Larisse Pontes, a PhD student in social anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC), agrees: “If we talk about the US, for example, the Black Lives Matter activist movement erupted in 2013 through a hashtag and resonated here in Brazil. But communities and independent media in Rio de Janeiro have been using their platforms to denounce police atrocities and abuses for years.”

She further explains: “The residents of these places themselves, whether in Rio or elsewhere, use mobile phones to record and narrate situations that occur in their daily lives. The traditional media and television networks often use and reproduce these videos because it is often the only way these media professionals can get access to these communities,” Pontes adds.

Using social media to spearhead a revolution

Rennan Leta, a journalist and social media influencer from the Alto da Boa Vista favela in northern Rio de Janeiro, has been using social networks, particularly Twitter, as a tool for community advocacy for many years. He is the creator of the Favela em Desenvolvimento project, which uses social networks to improve the lives of the residents of the favela where he was born by offering workshops, distributing food and clothes, and providing career support.

“I have always worked with social media because I am a communicator. However, in 2020, with the pandemic, I saw that it could be a means for fundraising and mobilisation. I already had this experience at Voz das Comunidades, where I have worked since 2017. But last year I started to help the community and the people who were having a hard time here,” he says.

Leta’s organisation, like many others, has been using social media to spearhead a revolution in the way that his community is covered in the news. In a country where marginalised communities are generally stigmatised as violent and impoverished places where nothing positive happens, media produced for and by the people of the favelas offer an important vehicle to tackle misconceptions and dangerous stereotypes.

Ana Paula Camelo, a researcher at the São Paulo campus of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, an institute for higher education and a think tank, says that the role of social media “transcends mere entertainment and represents an opportunity for themes and projects aimed at these groups to increase their reach and visibility”.

This, she says, can have a “significant impact on the dissemination of information and discussion of themes and issues based on the reality of these groups, their own voices, narratives and their realities, strengthening identities, notions of representativeness and empowerment in the most diverse social and political spaces.”

A good example of this is Thayná Freire. In 2013, the then 15-year-old started a blog that focused on her transição capital [transition from wearing her hair straightened to wearing it in its curly, natural state). Today she has over 57,000 followers on Instagram, and works as a full-time lifestyle, fashion and beauty influencer, producing content for brands like Spotify that reaches audiences that have been historically ignored by the advertising of major brands.

“I created an Instagram account as soon as it launched, through a school friend’s phone because I didn’t even have one. When I got my own mobile phone I started posting the same things that I talked about on my blog, such as my journey to accept my curly hair,” she explains.

Although today Black Brazilians are taking up more and more space in the media ecosystem, the inequalities that exist in society are also reflected in these spaces. Black influencers tend to have smaller audiences than their white counterparts and are paid less.

Many are labelled as ‘Black influencers’ rather than being seen as influencers who happen to be Black, as a way of demarcating boundaries and treating them as an exotic exception, even though white Brazilians (Brancos) are the racial minority. “In many situations, these content producers are less influential, less publicised and suffer some kind of silencing attempt,” says Camelo.

But that doesn’t stop Black influencers from doing their work. Freire says that people “identify a lot with my story, they followed my development, the effort to wake up at dawn and go to college on a scholarship...I always showed my reality, my difficulties and all my achievements that helped me getting here.”

It is the same for Leta. He believes that he has been successful in “showing those outside that the favela has many positive things” and also “that we can reach places never imagined before. With my work, I see many people from where I live trying to follow the same path, which is great. Being an inspiration is always good.”