An interview with Brazilian indigenous rapper and activist Kunumí MC

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Kunumí MC is a teenage rapper calling attention to the struggles Indigenous people face in Brazil. Born Werá Jeguaka Mirim, the 17-year-old is from the Tupi-Guarani tribe and lives in the Krukutu village in São Paulo. His performance name, “Kunumí,” means “Indigenous child” in his mother tongue. Kunumí MC first rose to prominence when he led a protest during the 2014 soccer World Cup, which was held in Brazil. Kunumí held a small banner on which he had written “demarcation now,” in reference to his people’s demands for the Brazilian state to respect to the lands that were rightfully theirs before Portuguese conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and subsequently exploited and massacred Indigenous people. Kunumí’s act exposed this problem to the whole world, and the Brazilian state has even recently been condemned by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights for violating Indigenous rights.

Kunumí is also an author: Inspired by his father, famous Indigenous writer Olívio Jekupé, Kunumí published his first book at nine years old. Kunumí MC recently told the FBomb about the Indigenous struggle, how it is portrayed by media, and what we can expect from future generations of indigenous youth.

First, can you tell us how you got into music? How did you discover your passion for music and how did you go about establishing your career?

Here in our village, everybody listens to Forró (a traditional Brazilian style of music). But one day the Brô MC’s, the first Indigenous rap group in the country, came to the SESC (Social Service of Commerce; Serviço Social do Comércio) community center. I was 10 years old, and from there I got interested in rap music.

My father was a poet, [so] I [had already] started to write poetry too. One day I realized that my poems had a very musical approach and I tried to sing them, as they had a lot of rhymes. I suddenly stopped and noticed they were truly rap songs, and from this moment on I said: “I’ll be a rapper!”

My first album, My Blood Is Red, was released by the English label Needs Must Film, and now I’m working on the second, to be named Every Day Is Indian Day (Todo Dia é Dia do Índio). It will be released on April 19 (a day in Brazil that celebrates Indigenous heritage and culture).

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the Brazilian Indigenous population? How do you hope your work and music will address those?

In Brazil there are many talented Indigenous people: storytellers, lawyers, singers, writers, and other professionals. However, the ordinary Brazilian citizen is very ignorant [about our lives]. They believe that when we [participate in these “civilized” professions] we are losing our culture, at the same time they affirm we can’t do these things because they are part of their culture.

Today we use art as a means of defense. For example, we have an Indigenous school where we learn to write and read, [a place that] for us is very important for future youngsters, who will be able to think and protest about many issues [because of their education].

During the 2014 soccer World Cup, you famously protested the way Indigenous lands are geographically defined by the Brazilian state. What can you tell us about Indigenous land rights in Brazil? Why did you decide to protest this in such a public way?

I was 13 years old [when I led that protest]. Previously, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association; International Federation of Association Football) came to our village to see if there was somebody who could be part of the opening ceremony of the World Cup. My father said that I could, and I went to the Itaquerão Stadium (Arena Corinthians) to rehearse how to let the dove of peace fly, [which they wanted me to do at the ceremony], in two weeks from then.

Meanwhile, a village leader named Fabio came up with the idea of me protesting instead. He gave me the small banner on which he had written “demarcation now” and told me the importance of showing that banner. I didn’t understand much of it [at the time] but I did it anyway.

Once I did it, I got scared. There were millions watching the ceremony on TV. Afterwards, many [international] journalists came to our village to ask what “demarcation” was, and I did interviews explaining it. But Brazilian journalists never came: They didn’t want to show [other Brazilians] our Indigenous cause.

After I did that demonstration, I thought I should stop there. But then I decided to keep protesting through rap, and today I’m very pleased as many folks – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – listen to my songs and are thankful and even proud. On the other hand, I’ve been criticized for using rap music as a tool of self-defense, although I think it’s a very important one for us..

Indigenous people aren’t often exposed in Brazil’s mainstream media. Why do you think that is? And what do you make of the way they are portrayed when they are represented?

Because Brazilian media doesn’t show Indigenous [people and culture], we aren’t much valued [in Brazilian society at large], and therefore face enormous prejudice. If media exposed the Indigenous reality, how we live, to non-Indigenous people, we wouldn’t face the enormous prejudice that we do today. It would be a huge advancement, and that is why I always rap of such things. Indigenous people are trying to spread [this message through] channels like Facebook and YouTube. We are trying to push back on stereotypes about our reality and portray the Indigenous struggle.

What message do you want to send to Indigenous youth? What message do you hope your music will send more broadly?

I want to raise awareness about the Indigenous youth so that we have hope and to show that every Indigenous person has a gift. I also rap about never giving up on our cause, which is a very important one. We are gifted and we shouldn’t waste it.

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