Gilberto Gil: 'Digital rights for everybody'

When a minister from a far away country visits Brussels, one would expect an agenda fully booked with political appointments. Not so for Gilberto Gil, Brazils minister of culture and icon of Brazilian rhythms. On his tour through Europe he also visited Brussels where he played a concert for a full Bozar-theatre at the beginning of April. For Gil, culture is the liberating force that penetrates all aspects of life. He believes the digital media to have an enormous potential and dreams about letting all Brazilians participate in this new cultural wave.
A modest, subdued setting in an impressive Bozar theatre. Long black dreadlocks on a white shirt. Gil, caught in a circle of spotlights, slim and slender, with a dark and furrowed face. Almost like an engraving, brought to life by the rhythms of samba and bossa nova. These are the rhythms Gilberto Gil grew up with in Bahia. The Brussels concert is a performance of his album Luminoso, alternated with songs from a brand new CD that was released in June in Brazil. Luminoso is a philosophical collection of songs in which the singer interrogates himself about the deeper sense of life.
Gilberto Gil has his roots in the candomblé which is the black religion of Brazils Nordeste. He’s a musician in heart and soul. After two songs Gils son, who must have inherited his feeling for rhythm and music, appears on the stage to accompany him. As the evening progresses, also long-standing songs and tributes to former ideals are heard, like No woman no cry from the everlasting Bob Marley and When I’m 64 from The Beatles - Gil became 65 in June.
As soon as he breaks into Aquele abraço - the embrace - the whole theatre quiets down. It’s one of his first songs, written in 1969 when he was deported from the country. Gil as a young artist in his twenties, founded together with Caetano Veloso the cultural movement of Tropicália, Brazils protest movement from the end-sixties. Tropicália was anarchistic and politically engaged, with a deep admiration for The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. Later on, the movement itself became a source of inspiration to artists like Kurt Cobain.
In the sixties, Brazil faced a military dictatorship and the subversive music provoked the military authorities, causing Gil to be arrested. Between 1969 and 1972 he lived as a political refugee in the United Kingdom, where he immediately threw himself into a new cultural environment that further enriched his identity. Now, 40 years later, Gilberto Gil is at the other side of the political fence. When Lula was appointed president of Brazil in 2003, he asked Gilberto Gil to join his cabinet as minister of culture. For some time he doubted his second term, but eventually he gave it with much enthusiasm a go.  
After the show, we meet Gil backstage for an interview. We hit off with the period of Tropicála. How does he look back at that time of counterculture and political resistance? ‘There are several ways to remember that period. The times were changing and I was young. They were times of political actions. We protested against the military regime, but also in Paris there were manifestations and in the US, against the Vietnam war, and in Czechoslovakia. Rock ‘n roll was the new form of expression of the youth, there was the hippie movement, LSD and other spiritual means. For me it was a strong existential period, a time of experimenting and new encounters, like with Caetano Veloso and with everyone who later on played an important role in the movement of Tropicála. Above all I was an artist, more than a political activist. The communist party then called us their linea auxiliar. We were their ‘help line’, allies, but not the avant-garde of the revolution.’ He’s not filled with nostalgia for that period. ‘I think there will always be times of change, of renewal. The same aspects that gave us an impulse and inspired us back then did not disappear but took on new identities. There will always be new challenges.’  
The fact that Gilbert Gil combines his political function with performing on stage already caused some controversy in Brazil. Gil himself does not see any problem and ensures the strict separation of the two functions. ‘I have two months a year off to dedicate myself to music. My music company takes care of all the financials and logistics for the concerts’, Gil defends himself. How did he feel when Lula asked him to be minister of culture?
Gil: ‘Lula believed that I could make a valuable contribution. As a president he himself is already a big contribution to our country, through his history and personality. To Brazil, it is a huge step in comparison to the period of military authority. He saw in me an ally to support his program.’ According to Gil, Brazil has also gone through a lot of changes since the sixties and seventies: politically, institutionally and culturally. ‘We have succeeded in including parts of the population that were excluded before. We discuss and analyze our future projections. We have modernized the political and institutional life. What struck me most in those five years of being a minister is that unexpected circumstances turn up all the time, and also one discussion after an other. Change takes time, and a government too only has limited influence. But that is democracy. And we too are just another link in the chain.’  
For Gilberto Gil the participation in formal politics began twenty years ago, when he put himself forward for the Green Party at the local elections in Salvador de Bahia. He gained a record number of votes and became board member of the city in a time when Afro-Americans in politics were still scarce in Brazil. In that same period he also shortly became minister of culture in the state Bahia. He then also created Onda Azul - Blue Wave - a movement that wants to protect the Brazilian Atlantic coast from pollution. He also called for attention to the protection of the rain forest. Gil: ‘The industrialization in Russia, Europe and the US was too overwhelming and cruel for the environment. The ecological mindset is an essential part to restore balance on our planet.’ According to Gil the government of Lula does search for alternatives in several fields. ‘Lula tries out new possibilities for different models of capitalism. For the sectors of finance and industry, for poor families, the middle class and the poor.’
For Gilberto Gil, culture is a force that penetrates our whole life: our work, our way of living, our language. Our identity is made up of culture. As human beings with feelings, thoughts and longings, we are nothing but cultural beings. Culture is giving shape to the whole creative power of people and their environment. Gil calls it a ‘strategy’ to reach ones destination. To him the development of the Internet and ICT carry huge possibilities. As founding father of the Tropicália movement and pop art, Gil has always devoted himself to bringing music and culture close to the people. Totally in line with that, today he supports freeware (free software).
He supported the American initiative Creative Commons that pleads for a limited release of copyrights on the Internet. In 2004 he released a CD with a Creative Commons license. Gil: ‘The new technology questions copyrights. The Internet popularizes music; the logical consequence being that also the rights need to adapt to this new reality, and not vice versa. But the old industry wants a status quo and protects its interests. However I don’t think this is the future path.’ In Brazil, the government has decided to bring the legislation of copyrights up to date. That discussion will be held in the next coming months in the parliament and should be finished by the end of the year.
Gil also dreams of giving computer and internet access to the poor and supply the whole country with broadband for computer and networking. At this moment there’s already a digital radio program for communities, set up in cooperation with the ministries of Communication, Science and Technology and Education. There are also about two thousand cultural hotspots: Communities that got financial support for cameras and computers to create their own movies and music recordings. The purpose is to augment those two thousand hotspots to fifteen thousand. Gil: ‘We call this the inclusión digital, efforts to narrow the digital gap. We want to give both the poor and the rich access to the same technologies at the same time and in the same way. Native Americans, Afro-Americans, students at university, farmers, people who live in the slums: equal digital rights for everyone. India, South-Africa and Ghana are having the same kind of programs. The purpose is to use the digital culture for popular developments.’
Gil is very optimistic about globalization and the possibilities brought along by ICT. ‘That has to do with my nature. I’m optimistic about life. Death is coming to get us, for sure. But life is a gift. And a great opportunity to reshape this world into a better place for everyone. I do believe that.’ 

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