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How funk taught creatives a lesson in Black Brazilian culture

President of the Brazilian Creative Club Joana Mendes on why learning has been key to her family journey as well as being a tool she now uses to address inequality in the creative industry

Illustration by Kirstin Moore

Creative Director Joana Mendes is the first Black President of the Brazilian Creative Club, as well as the founder of YGB.black, the only image bank in the world entirely made by Black women. Here, as part of our series exploring learning, to mark our first D&AD President from Education Rebecca Wright, Mendes shares a learning exercise she initiated to educate aspiring Brazilian creative industry professionals about Black culture at home. 

It was 6pm on a Tuesday in Brazil, and we had 138 creative people in a zoom meeting. A month earlier we had decided that for a student's briefings of Brazilian Creative Club, where I am the president, we would have an "Aulão," a typical Brazilian class that is made for people that will take Vestibular, a test to go to a university. Usually, Aulãos are day-long classes on different subjects.

This time we would have a lesson in Brazilian funk. We wanted students to not only have the traditional debriefing, but to learn something that they would never learn anywhere else, the origins of a Brazilian dance, born out of Black culture in Brazil, and is unique to different regions.

MC Taya, a rapper/planner, and GG Albuquerque, a doctorate student focused on peripheral music, taught students about diaspora, about the origins of funk, different styles of beats, and how each Brazilian region has its specific funk style that was born from social manifestations that those places have, that the music follows the body and much, much more. Have you ever had a class like this? Because I hadn’t when I was studying. Many people left the class saying that it was the first time in a while that they were learning something fresh and new.

Speaking of new, I have become the first Black president in the 45 years of the Brazilian Creative Club with a 100% black committee. If you don't know Brazil or have never heard about it, we have the largest black population outside Africa – 56% of Brazilians consider themselves black. 

"Speaking of new, I have become the first Black president in the 45 years of the Brazilian Creative Club with a 100% black committee"

I come from a family that left poverty because of education. I was born and raised in a city in the Brazilian Amazon Forest called Porto Velho, in Rondonia. Besides my parents, I was also raised by my grandmother, who often reminded me of the power education – and music, since she was a founder of a famous Brazilian Escola de samba – had in our lives and how it has changed everything.

My grandmother was a maid. She was forced to leave school at 11 to work as such, which is disproportionately common for black women in Brazil. One day, someone told her that her only child, a black girl as she once was, would also be a maid. She couldn't stand it, and she started to tell my mother that her only option was to study. My mother listened, and now she has a doctorate in malaria. She's part of the 3.5% black people with a doctorate in Brazil. As for my father, who came from a rural community, he finished university when I was about to enter.

Because of this, I grew up believing that education combined with a wild sense of imagination of the future would be what would make it possible for anyone to have a bright future. But then life hits you, and you understand that education is nothing without opportunities. In a profoundly uneven country, even if you have had the chance to have an education, nothing will happen if you don't have the opportunity.

"But then life hits you, and you understand that education is nothing without opportunities"

The Aulão was free and accessible, and it was a success. Not only because the students had the opportunity to speak to the owner of the briefing but because now they have tools to have a better idea that was significant for those who would see it and not an empty notion for someone unfamiliar with the subject. They could know that funk is not only a music style but also culture, resistance, and knowledge. 

As the President of Brazilian Creative I hope that we can show that education has many manifestations, but perhaps they are not as linear and eurocentrical as expected but they work just as the bass on a funk song. 

Read more from the D&AD community on how learning influences the lives of professional creatives here.

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