Participants celebrate after the final round of Brazil’s national poetry slam in December. (Sérgio Silva/Slam BR)

Dozens of young, black Brazilians shouted their fears into a microphone on a recent Sunday afternoon here.

“If a black slum dweller dies, it’s just another number,” said Sabrina Azevedo, her fingers pointed to form a gun as she crouched before the crowd at a slam poetry competition that drew hundreds of people from around the country. “One. More. Down.” 

Poetry slams — spoken-word contests that originated in Chicago in the 1980s — have exploded in popularity in Brazil over the past decade. Since Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, was elected president in October, they have evolved into politicized gatherings that challenge his policies and call for change. 

Many black Brazilians see slams as vehicles for rallying against police brutality, poverty and racism, issues they say will be magnified under Bolsonaro, who is to take office Jan. 1. 

The president-elect has a history of offensive comments about blacks, as well as controversial stances on policies that benefit minorities.

Asked in a 2011 interview what he would do if his son fell in love with a black woman, he said he would not “discuss promiscuity,” adding, “I don’t run that risk because my sons were very well educated.” Bolsonaro has said a good police officer is one who kills, and he has disparaged traditional Afro-Brazilian communities, saying they “did nothing” and were “not even good enough to procreate” anymore. 

Luz Ribeiro, 30, writes and performs poems about black power and racism. (Léonardo Mussi)

Racial inequality is rampant in Brazil, although the government has recently made some strides in addressing it. Affirmative-action programs saw the number of black Brazilians at universities double between 2005, shortly after the policy was introduced, and 2015. Bolsonaro has said he wants to relax the policy, saying it promotes racism by allowing in unqualified candidates and emphasizing differences between races. He said he would not trust pilots or doctors who entered universities under the quota system. 

Outrage over those comments filled the stage here Sunday as the poets urged opposition to the president-elect in indignant verses. 

“They want to take away our quotas because they say it is a privilege. But how is it a privilege for blacks, who entered the game in overtime?” Barth Viera, a poet from southern Brazil, said to cheers from the crowd. “I hope you hear us, brothers. We are live poets, militants of the people. We are the voice of the revolution.” 

Despite his views, many black Brazilians voted for Bolsonaro, voicing hope that his tough-on-crime stance would curb a wave of criminality that claimed nearly 60,000 lives last year. Bolsonaro captured an estimated 45 percent of the black vote in the Oct. 28 presidential runoff, compared with 56 percent of the white vote.

Emerson Alcalde, 30, brought slam poetry to the streets of Brazil in 2012. (Marina Lopes/The Washington Post)

Still, many are worried that his security policies will disproportionately disadvantage poor black Brazilians targeted by police. This year he said he would machine-gun a slum to deal with surging violence in Rio de Janeiro. Black Brazilians are already three times as likely to die at the hands of police than white Brazilians, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, which studies violence here. 

In this context, slams emerged as a safe venue for black Brazilians to air their grievances. 

“It’s hard to find a poem that doesn’t mention his name,” said Emerson Alcalde, 36, one of the founders of the slam movement in Brazil. “Things in Brazil are pulsating. You can feel that in the poetry.” 

Alcalde discovered slam in 2012, when it was still a niche art performed in theaters and casinos in downtown Sao Paulo. He fell in love with it and began traveling two hours by bus from the outskirts of the city to participate. Later that year, he decided to bring slam to the streets, arranging free public performances outside subway stops in the slums surrounding the city. 

Commuters were intrigued. On the street, the poetry became more political, Alcalde said, as participants addressed such once-taboo issues as domestic violence, rape and racism.  

Many were drawn to slam poetry’s free form, which rewards wordplay and can be less intimidating for those with no formal education. At first, only a handful of people would stop to listen. But the gatherings, which were advertised on social media, soon swelled, drawing as many as 400 at a time. The disaffected black Brazilians who responded developed a sense of safety in numbers. Surrounded by peers with the same fears, their voices grew louder.

Meanwhile, Brazilian politics grew messier. The country’s economy crashed in 2014, its president was impeached in 2016 and a massive corruption scandal tainted the political establishment.

“Poetry on paper is silent. But when it’s proclaimed on a stage, using voices and bodies, you get to shout about the urgent issues of the country,” said Cynthia Neves, a linguistics professor who studies slam poetry at the University of Campinas, in Sao Paulo state. “From 2014 until now, these urgencies have taken over the stage,” she said.

Brazilian slam’s political slant sets it apart from slam in other parts of the world, according to Neves. At the annual worldwide slam competition, Brazil’s poems tend to stand out from others focused on technology, relationships and nature. 

“We don’t have that luxury in Brazil. The issues we have to talk about are too dire,” said Luz Ribeiro, a 30-year-old poet from Sao Paulo who represented Brazil in the 2016 world championship. “How can I get up there and not talk about machismo, racism, black power?” 

Slam, Ribeiro said, awakened her political consciousness. When she first took the stage at 20, she was stunned by the audience’s silence.

“I was emotional at the possibility of being heard,” she said. “Suddenly I had a place to unleash my thoughts. Slam gave me the ammunition. Slam helped me find my voice.”

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