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From Political Prisoner to Cabinet Minister: Legendary Brazilian Musician Gilberto Gil on His Life, His Music and the Digital Divide

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Forty years ago, the legendary Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil was a political prisoner. Today, he is a cabinet official in the Brazilian government. As protests raged across the globe in 1968, Gil was at the center of a cultural and political revolution in Brazil known as Tropicalia. The movement was seen as such a threat to Brazil’s military dictatorship that Gil was jailed, then forced into exile, where he would become one of the world’s most celebrated musicians as well as a spokesperson for Brazil’s emerging black consciousness movement. Today, Gil remains one of Brazil’s best known artists, as well as the country’s Minister of Culture. He is now spearheading a different kind of anti-establishment revolution. This time it’s about democratizing the distribution of intellectual property rights. We spend the hour with Gilberto Gil in a wide-ranging interview on his life, his music, the black consciousness movement and the future of the internet. [includes rush transcript]

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AMY GOODMAN: The music of Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes. Close to forty years ago, the legendary Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil was a political prisoner, held by the Brazilian military dictatorship. Today, he is a cabinet official in the Brazilian government.

As protests raged across the globe in 1968, Gilberto Gil was at the center of a cultural and political revolution in Brazil known as Tropicalia. The movement was seen as such a threat to Brazil’s military dictatorship that two of the movement’s brightest stars, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, were jailed and held in solitary confinement. They were both eventually released and forced into exile.

During his time in exile, Gilberto Gil would become one of the world’s most celebrated musicians, as well as a spokesperson for Brazil’s emerging black consciousness movement.

Today Gilberto Gil remains one of Brazil’s best known artists, as well as the country’s Minister of Culture. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva appointed Gilberto Gil to the cabinet position in 2003.

As Minister of Culture, Gil is spearheading a different kind of anti-establishment revolution. This time it’s about democratizing the distribution of intellectual property rights. The country has battled Microsoft, Monsanto and drug companies selling patented HIV drugs. Gil works closely with Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig and the Creative Commons project.

Gilberto Gil was in New York this week for the Personal Democracy Forum, a conference that focused on how technology and the internet are changing democracy. He also performed last night to a packed crowd here in New York. Yesterday, I sat down with Gilberto Gil in the press room of the Personal Democracy Forum.

    AMY GOODMAN: Gilberto Gil, welcome to Democracy Now!

    GILBERTO GIL: Thank you.

    AMY GOODMAN: It’s a great honor.

    GILBERTO GIL: A pleasure for me, too.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where you were born?

    GILBERTO GIL: I was born in Salvador. It’s the capital of Bahia, the state of Bahia. And it’s been — like in the fifteenth — the sixteenth century, Salvador — and when New York was founded, Salvador was larger then. That’s what — Salvador was the largest city of the south hemisphere then. And it’s been a very important place for Brazil, as far as the development, the culture, the politics, everything. I mean, it was the founding city of Brazil.

    AMY GOODMAN: It’s also known as the musical city.

    GILBERTO GIL: It is, it is, it is. It’s been an artistic city, not just for music, but for other things also, but especially for music — people like Dorival Caymmi, great Dorival Caymmi, people like Joao Gilberto, our generation, myself, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethania. And now, the Carnival, the Carnival in Salvador, that has developed into a very, very, very broad and big party with a lot of music for a whole week, music — and local music and music, international music, music from the Caribbean area and everything. I mean, Salvador is really a musical city.

    AMY GOODMAN: How did you become a musician?

    GILBERTO GIL: That was a kind of self-initiative, so to speak. I told my mother when I was two to two-and-a-half — I told my mother that I’m going to be a musician. And she kept that in mind. When I was ten, and then I had to move from the small city that we lived in inland in Bahia to Salvador, the capital, she told me, “Now, it’s time for you to start to be a musician, as you wanted, you know, since very early childhood.” And then she bought me an accordion, sent me to a school to learn how to play it. And then I started playing accordion. And then later, at the age of seventeen — seventeen, eighteen — I took guitar. She also bought me a guitar and gave me. So I’ve been now — it was a kind of self-inspired and self-envisioned thing that I had myself about being musician, and with my mother’s help.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the Tropicalia movement?

    GILBERTO GIL: Well, by the ’60s, early ’60s, we had in Brazil — late ’50s and early ’60s, we had a range of, a set of different artistic and cultural movements that were all sort of trying to update Brazil, you know, in terms of contemporaneity: theater, cinema, plastic arts and music. And, of course, I mean, like the bossa nova, late ’50s, early ’60s, was the main movement engaging. Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinicius De Moraes, Joao Gilberto, they came to the States. They did the Carnegie Hall thing. I mean, the bossa nova became a very important thing.

    And then, the Tropicalia came some years later, after the bossa nova and the Jovem Guarda, the Young Guard movement that was the first level of Brazilian engagement in rock-and-roll and in the rock-and-roll era. And with both movements, the young Jovem Guarda and the bossa nova, we thought that we should sort of use all the Brazilian elements and the things that were happening outside in the States, in Europe and everywhere to get Brazilian music to even another sort of level of updating process. And so, we decided to — yeah, to do things, to bring rock-and-roll, to bring electric guitars, to bring the new generation’s speech, you know, like people like Bob Dylan and the Stones, the attitude like the Rolling Stones had and the Beatles had, everything — so we brought all of those elements together with the Brazilian normal sources, and we developed the Tropicalia in that fashion.

    AMY GOODMAN: Did you see it as a form of resistance? And did the Brazilian government see it that way, see you as a threat?

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah, that was seen as the threat, because of the contingents, as I would say, because of the realities of the moment. The military people had taken the political space. You know, they did the coup d’etat. They had the dictatorship process starting and everything. So they would be absolutely crazy about anything that would sort of contest, that would shake the grounds they were on. And so, they were reacting to all civil society’s movements, you know?

    And music was something very important. Music gave the opportunity to the Brazilian resistance, you know, to oppose the regime through the songs, with the mobilizing possibilities that music gave society to gather and to protest, and so and so and so. And Tropicalia was one of those movements. As I said, next to bossa nova, next to Jovem Guarda came Tropicalia, and we were considered by the military as dangerous as the other one, with an increasing thing that we were sort of using long hairs and having new attitudes, you know, and new possibilities of mobilizing the youth, and so on. So they really considered us very dangerous to the regime.

    AMY GOODMAN: Why were you imprisoned?


    AMY GOODMAN: And why?

    GILBERTO GIL: Why? Because of that. Because of the suspicions that they had that we could sort of mobilize the society against them and by the ideas that we addressed, you know, with our speech, I mean, like ideas about freedom, about freedom of expression, about ways of contesting the regular ways, you know, of conservative society, to stand up for rights and everything. So they felt that we meant a menace to them and by being dangerous. I mean, they had the power to do whatever they wanted to do, so they imprisoned us.

    AMY GOODMAN: How long were you held?

    GILBERTO GIL: We were in prison for three months, and then — I mean in the sort of jail, Rio jail arrestment, and then in home arrestment for six months. And after that, they asked us to the country.

    AMY GOODMAN: Were you in solitary confinement?


    AMY GOODMAN: What was that like?

    GILBERTO GIL: That was for the first month, in solitary confinement, and then to a sort of more sort of open, less hard situation, and then at home without possibilities to leave the city and everything — imprisonment, home imprisonment.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary Brazilian musician, now Minister of Culture of Brazil, Gilberto Gil. Back to my interview with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return now to my conversation with the legendary Brazilian musician, Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil. In 1969, he was placed in solitary confinement by the Brazilian military dictatorship. I asked him to describe what that was like.

    GILBERTO GIL: It was difficult. Difficult. First two days, three days, I was lost completely, I mean, like I couldn’t really think about how to resist and how to keep myself, how to get — I mean, food was absolutely bad, and the facilities, sanitary facilities, almost nothing, and everything, so a small space like — you know, I could hardly lay down or something. And it was difficult.

    But then, you know, for one week, two weeks, and then, finally, a month later, we got to sort of a cell with others, you know, other in prison. And that started being a little more human for us. The imprisonment started to get to this human level, minimum human level, and then I was able to breathe and to say, OK, now I have a chance to live, and maybe I have a chance to go out sometime. And it came two months later. They sent us home, still as prisoners, but home imprisonment.

    AMY GOODMAN: And you went into exile?

    GILBERTO GIL: And then, we asked permission reengage in music and in our public life, normal public life that we had before, and they said, “No. No, you don’t. You don’t. You cannot. You have to — if you want to resume music, if you want to reestablish your possibilities as an artist and everything, you have to go out of the country.” And then we left.

    AMY GOODMAN: Where did you go?

    GILBERTO GIL: I went to London. I went to Paris first for fifteen days, for a couple of weeks, but then I decided that I wanted something different, and then I went to London, because London was too appealing then, you know, with the music and everything.

    AMY GOODMAN: What year was it when you went into exile? What year?

    GILBERTO GIL: What year? That was 1969. I remember that I arrived in London the very same day the Stones gave the concert at the Hyde Park. You know, I arrived in the afternoon, and I saw the leftovers of the concert, you know, all over the park. That was July something, 1969.

    AMY GOODMAN: So, 1968 — we’ve been doing on Democracy Now! a retrospective, looking back forty years. How far do you think we have come? What was the significance of 1968 for you in Latin America, in Brazil?

    GILBERTO GIL: In Brazil, definitely we’ve come a good way, you know, a long and good way, because we have democracy institutionally reestablished in Brazil. We have a congress, you know, have an open congress now. We have a voting process functioning, electing government people, presidents and governors and mayors and constituents, you know, parliament people and everything. So, formally, we have the democracy back.

    We also got rid of censorship, in a sense. You know, the hard censorship that we had then, it’s gone. We have reestablished the free speech possibilities and the free expression possibilities in the country. So we are back into democracy, democratic process, that we should definitely defend and enhance and increase. But democracy is like that. It’s a life process. You know, we have to work it every day, every night.

    AMY GOODMAN: Gilberto Gil, you’re here in New York at the Personal Democracy Forum. Your latest album is called Broadband Pamphlet. You’re performing here tonight. Can you talk about the significance of the internet and what you call the peaceful revolution?

    GILBERTO GIL: I think, as any other technologies and the previous ones that we had, you know, the time of the Industrial Revolution, the steam machine and everything, and then the plane, and then the radio in the twentieth century, and all those things have provoked movements, you know, shakes and movements in the society, in terms of instigating the society to advance, you know, in terms of broadening democratic possibilities, and so on.

    So, this one now — I mean, the computer and the internet and the digital culture and the digital possibilities and everything — they have taken that to an exponential level, you know? So that the possibilities of inclusion and personal democracy, like the empowerment, the individual empowerment in this society, now the possibilities for that are extraordinary. And I think that we have to use it. We are starting to use that. The societies are claiming more space, more freedom, more inclusion in the communication process and everything. So now we are close to be able to say “I am the media,” you know, that every individual being empowered and given the possibilities, given the means to express themselves, to network, to post, to publish and everything and everything. It’s quite a new possibility that we have, you know?

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the Creative Commons movement, what it means, what it means in Brazil, what it means for your music, what you’re trying to do?

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah. The author laws, the author rights, I mean, they belong to — the way they are set and the laws are written and applied and everything, that all belongs to a previous period, you know, previous time, an analog, so to speak, an analog time. Now, the digital area, the digital era enable us to extend and expand cultural products and cultural goods and cultural possibilities to a level that we — we have to also rewrite and reshape the legal framework and the regulatory framework, so that it can adjust to the new possibilities. That’s what Creative Commons is about, bringing possibilities to manage their own work, you know, to the creators, so that the songwriters, the theater play writers, the book writers, and so and so, can have the possibilities to manage their own work and say — and determine what their work will serve for.

    AMY GOODMAN: We are here in the Time Warner building in New York, where the Personal Democracy Forum is taking place. Can you talk about your experience with Time Warner?

    GILBERTO GIL: Well, when I decided to open one of — some of my songs, you know, so that recommendation and sharing and everything would be possible, made possible for other people, I had a “no” from my company — then my company; I am not Time Warner anymore, then I was —- and they wouldn’t allow me to use the songs that they had recorded. And I wanted -—

    AMY GOODMAN: You wanted them to be able to be downloaded for free?

    GILBERTO GIL: Not necessarily to be downloaded for free, but to be open for different uses, you know, cultural uses by different people, the way the licenses, the Creative Commons licenses allow people to, so that they could recombine, they could share, they could redo parts or wholes of the songs for the cultural purposes, you know? And I couldn’t use the pieces that I had recorded for Time Warner. And then I used some of the pieces that I had already recorded for myself, because my contract with them was ending by then, and I had started doing my own recordings and owning my own recordings and some of them. And then I used some of that.

    AMY GOODMAN: Gilberto Gil, do you see the way the music companies are cracking down on musicians and cracking down on access to music, calling it piracy, similar to the food companies like Monsanto cracking down on farmers, because they’re claiming they’re using their seeds in an unauthorized way?

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah, this is one of the things that we have to reconsider — I mean, the whole of the society, as I say, politicizing the new technology, so that we can discuss the uses, you know, and the restrictions and how far the restrictions should go and should stay and how open we should sort of get the whole system, you know, going, because we need that. I mean, there are several social uses that we can have, from pharmaceuticals and from intellectual goods and everything, that need openness to be considered, you know, so that the sharing, the access and everything, could be permitted. So we have to reshape them and the whole legal framework, you know, internationally and locally, you know, country by country and internationally.

    And we are doing that. I mean, the Creative Commons project, for instance, helps a lot this kind of advancement, so that the individuals, the creators themselves, they can start establishing which kind of use they want their works to have, and which they allow, which they don’t allow the other people to do their works. But in Brazil, for instance, we are now launching a whole project of changing the authoral law in Brazil, discussing —-

    AMY GOODMAN: You’re working with Lawrence Lessig?

    GILBERTO GIL: With Lawrence?

    AMY GOODMAN: With Lawrence Lessig?

    GILBERTO GIL: Oh, definitely. Yes, we are partners. He brought the Creative Commons project to Brazil. We helped them -— we helped him and the whole group to find their ways in Brazil, to find the right people, to find the universities and institutions that back them in Brazil. So we became close friends. We are working together, yeah.

    AMY GOODMAN: How do you deal, Gilberto Gil, with the digital divide in Brazil, who gets use to the internet?

    GILBERTO GIL: That’s one of the problems that we have, because when we talk about universal access that the new technologies allow, we — it’s theoretically OK, but in practice, we face the divides that we have in the society, you know, the excluded people, economically and socially excluded from the past, you know, from previous periods of history.

    And now, to guarantee that you can universalize access, you know, to broadband, to computers, to digital facilities, in general, we have to address the old divides that we have in the society. So we have to fight for inclusion, a broad sense, not just digital inclusion. We have to still fight educational inclusion, you know, social inclusion, in general, economical inclusion. So it’s something that will take us to a whole process of struggle and fight against the odds of the system that have charged so hardly the Brazilian society. This government now in Brazil is trying to address those things — I mean, the social issues — so that we can have social democracy in the very large sense of the word.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about race relations in Brazil?


    AMY GOODMAN: You’re one of the first black ministers in the Brazilian government. You were one of the leaders of the black consciousness movement in Brazil.

    GILBERTO GIL: We have in Brazil both — we have two things in Brazil. We have this general social racial divide that we have here in the States, that we have everywhere because of slavery and the status, the dehumanized status that the slaves had. And abolition of slavery didn’t really work well, at least in many ways, like in Brazil, it didn’t work. The slaves were freed, but they were not given land or opportunity to have education or inclusion. So the divide, you know, stayed. And as it stayed, it gave the base for the prejudice, you know, for the apartheid situation, for the rejection of the black by the white, and so and so. But at the same — this is one thing that we still have in Brazil.

    But at the same time, we are sort of more open in the sense of the race relations, individually speaking. So, racial marriage in Brazil is something more natural than in other places. And in the interplay in various forms, through art and through culture and everything, it’s allowed, and it’s been in place in Brazil. So it makes the whole Brazilian society, in terms of race, a little more, you know, open and a little more — not too hard, you know, as it can be in other parts of the world. So we have this opportunity to build a new interracial society in Brazil. That will help Brazil itself, and it could help the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: The Brazilian Minister of Culture, legendary musician Gilberto Gil. We’ll come back to the conclusion of our conversation in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our conversation with the legendary Brazilian musician and Minister of Culture.

    AMY GOODMAN: Brazil has the second largest black population outside of Nigeria?

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah, yes.

    AMY GOODMAN: In 2001, President Bush, our president in the United States, reportedly asked the President of Brazil, “Do you have blacks, too?”

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah, that’s a lack of knowledge, you know? That, it’s a severe one, you know, by an American president not to know that Brazil has the largest black population. That happens, you know?

    AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of presidents in the United States, do you have thoughts on the 2008 presidential race right here in the United States?

    GILBERTO GIL: I am trying to follow the movements. I mean, there are lots of new possibilities, you know? We had a female possible candidate. We have a black man that’s a candidate now, a young man — well, no? — well prepared. And I think it’s an opportunity that the States are — United States is having now, you know, to really shake the political ground and get the society a lot more involved in discussing and doing, performing politics. This is the new possibility that we have here.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about what we have now? How has President Bush, or has President Bush, affected Brazil?

    GILBERTO GIL: We have a — presidents, I mean, they talk themselves about their countries and their states and their governments and everything. President Bush has been talking to Brazil’s President Lula. They have a level — normal level of understanding. Relationships between Brazil and the United States are being kept out of the individual idiosyncrasies, idiosyncratic elements, I mean, like we have institutional level of dialogue established, you know, no matter the presidents that we have.

    AMY GOODMAN: How has global warming affected Brazil and the deforestation of the Amazon?

    GILBERTO GIL: Deforestation is a serious problem that we have due to many things, to cultural compounds, first of all. I mean, we have not been able to develop a culture of respect to the nature and respect to the future, that kind of thing. They’ve been for different purposes, especially for making money. I mean, they’ve been into this gradual process of devastating the forest in the Amazon and everything.

    It’s also lack of a stronger government body that could sort of assure the processes of having them to obey the laws and to do the things that they should. But at the same time, it’s a question of international support. I mean, we have to have international support so that we can establish policies, public policies, you know, regarding the conservation and the preservation. And it should be supported by the international community.

    AMY GOODMAN: There has been a food uprising around the world because of the problem with people having access to food — hunger, protests all over. President Lula has been a big advocate of biofuels. Some have said that is a problem, when, for example, corn is used for fuel instead of for food. What are your thoughts on that, Gilberto Gil?

    GILBERTO GIL: We have to be careful about that, about, I mean, reshaping the matrix, the energy base that we need to change. We need to go forward, you know, the oil base. We have to use new energies and everything, and the bio, bio-energy is one of the sources. We have to be careful not to affecting the food production. We have possibilities to do that, like in Brazil we have plenty of land, you know, to do that. We use a base of production that’s not corn; it’s sugarcane, which is less effective on the food supply. Sugar is one thing. Corn is one — it’s another thing.

    So, about this impact of biofuels on food, I think that we have many, many, many ways of not letting it affect badly the food supply, with the right managing of the land use, about the use of the species, you know, that we’re going to grow to make the biofuels good. In Brazil, we are OK. I mean, I think that the Brazilian biofuel project is OK, as far as the land rationalization. You know, the land rationales and the food rationales and all the rationales are being taken care. And I think we’re going to come up with a good project, national-wide and worldwide.

    AMY GOODMAN: Brazil is being described as an up-and-coming superpower. Can you talk about whether these conditions are really changing for the majority of Brazilians?

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah, a superpower — I mean, we still have to go a long, long way on developing our industrial possibilities, our industrial power. We have to empower the society, in terms of a political power. We have to distribute the wealth. I mean, we have lots of things. We have to universalize access to the new possibilities, to the new technologies. So we have a long, long, long process of inclusion for the whole Brazilian society that we still have to do. And then we’ll probably be able to start talking about a superpower.

    And I also hope that Brazil is going to establish a superpower situation not necessarily in military terms or something like that, but in cultural terms, in social terms, in economical terms, because military, I don’t think that nations, new nations, new developing and developed nations, like Brazil, will need to have too much protection against other powers, you know, in terms — in military terms. I expect that, anyway. That’s what — it’s a little expectations that we have for a more sort of peaceful society developing worldwide.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think, in an odd way, Iraq may have saved Latin America, that with the United States focusing on war in Iraq, that Latin America — well, I mean, what it has grown into — Lula in Brazil, Correa in Ecuador, Chavez in Venezuela, throughout Latin America, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, the President-Elect Fernando Lugo in Paraguay — that it’s changing in a way that…?

    GILBERTO GIL: It’s changing, yes. I mean, we had — like thirty, forty years ago, even later, twenty years ago, we had a sort of a hidden process for democracy, you know, democracy being swept out, the current reason the dictatorships being established and even being supported by some international forces and everything.

    AMY GOODMAN: The United States.

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah. We have changed that, you know, even with the United States engaged themselves into a sort of more democratic policymaking process, you know, supporting democracies in Latin America and everything and everything. And we are responding. The democracies are raising, you know, are coming, in new forms and with elections and the renewal of the individuals in power and everything. The parliaments are in good shape, working OK. I think it’s better, Latin America. And we are growing economically, entering a new cycle of goals.

    AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Gilberto Gil, how has your position as revolutionary musician, imprisoned, then exiled, to government official, Minister of Culture in Brazil, changed your view of social change, how it happens?

    GILBERTO GIL: Yeah, not just that the tides of life have brought me to a different shore, so to speak — I mean, I was — not just that, but also because of aging and maturity. I mean, maturing is a process that comes — at least it has been that way for me — it comes with a sort of broader sense of perspective, in terms of the dialogue between the forces, between the opposite forces that we have in nature and that we have in human life. So, to me, it’s like natural that I was responding for one thing then, and I am responding for another thing then, because they have to dialogue.

    I mean, the revolutionary attitude that informs art, that informs culture, that has to be balanced by the cautious position that governments and then the states have to have. And I can see the balanced approach that we can have, you know, for both things. I can see that today. I can see the contributions that the revolutionary attitude can give and the contributions that the cautious sort of procedural, day-by-day kind of life also can give.

    AMY GOODMAN: Has your vegetarianism, your macrobiotic yoga, has it also changed your view? And why did you go that way?

    GILBERTO GIL: I think so. I think so. By letting me be conscious about the needs of balance, you know, and the needs of respect with nature. And the first part of nature that we should respect is our own body, you know? We are part of nature. We need balance, you know? We need right balance between the liquid and the solid parts of ourselves. And, you know, that sort of thing. I mean, like writing well, you know, it’s an educational thing that we have to do. We can’t go on with societies that are being — suffering from obesity and from coronary diseases and from diabetes, and so and so and so, because of the wrong use, of the lack of balance, you know, for nourishment, for the nourishing processes that we have to be engaged with. So I think that this consideration of balance as a good thing has given me the opportunity to really grow into maturity, the way I was saying before, you know, able to see life with broad perspective.

    AMY GOODMAN: And at your concert tonight, the message you want to convey to Americans, what you want them to take away?

    GILBERTO GIL: The name of the concert is “Broadband,” in that sense not only the technological sense, but the spiritual sense. The band broadly playing fusions and sharings of different cultures, different sounds, different moods, different processes of civilizing, you know, different civilizing processes. You know, respect, mutual respect. I think that’s the central message.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary musician and Brazilian Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil.

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