In my eyes, 2020 is the year Black people across the diaspora collectively decided enough is enough. And after a summer of Black Lives Matter protests around the world that are showing no signs of slowing down, it’s worth remembering that this is not the first time Black people and non-Black allies have rallied together to fight against systemic racism and oppression. Black revolution goes way back, notably to the 18th century with the Haitian revolution.
But there was a lesser-known revolution that cemented the legacy of African People in the Americas. A legacy that is still shared and celebrated today in communities around the world. Capoeira.
Capoeira is a non-contact Afro-Brazilian martial art that favours constant movement rather than fixed stances that are more commonly associated with martial arts. It is most recognisable in pop culture from fighting games and several martial arts movies. But in these contemporary depictions, there is little space for the cultural and historical significance that is central to the art form.
I grew up watching films like The Drunken Master (1978), Ong Bak (2003), Enter The Dragon (1973) and The Tai Chi Master (1993). I even trained in Southern Preying Mantis Style for a brief period around the age of 10. Yet something never really ignited a passion for it. That all changed when I discovered the fighting game series Tekken.
I was immediately drawn to the character Eddy Gordo for two simple reasons, he was Black and he had locs. It was the first time I had encountered a character that looked so similar to myself. On top of that, his fighting style was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was a captivating mix of fluidity and acrobatics that made for a deceptively dangerous and graceful style. I later learned it was a martial art from Brazil called capoeira, and I was fascinated. It wasn’t until I was 16 when I found the opportunity to learn capoeira during college enrichment. I initially came for the spectacle but what kept me was its rich history and cultural significance to the people of Brazil.
Capoeira was born from the enslaved people of Brazil, who disguised martial arts as a form of dance serving as a means of liberation from their Portuguese oppressors. It incorporates percussion, language, cultural traditions and oral storytelling through song to create something that transcends the common definition of martial arts. It’s this acknowledgment of history and tradition that sets capoeira apart from other martial arts in my eyes.
The exact influences of capoeira are unknown, but it is widely thought to be a mix of many different fighting styles from West Africa like N’Golo from southern Angola and Dambe from the Hausa people of Sub-Saharan Africa (northern Nigeria/southern Niger/southwestern Chad today).
Practitioners of early forms of capoeira trained in a sacred circle known as a roda (hoh-da) to the sound of a single drum known as an atabaque. Over time, more instruments were added to the roda, most notably the berimbau – a percussive instrument with a gourd and a single string stretched across a flexible piece of wood to form a bow. The addition of the berimbau was instrumental to how the practice of capoeira continued in secret as when the Portuguese cavaliers drew near on horseback, the rhythm of the berimbau would change, alerting those within the roda to disperse or disguise their movement as a dance. This is the reason capoeira developed as a non-contact martial art. Its unique existence in the intersection of fighting and dancing ensured its survival, and combined with songs, capoeira became instrumental in preserving oral history and folklore and teaching it to the next generation.
As a second-generation British Jamaican, I learned at a very young age just how difficult tracing your ancestry is. My grandparents never spoke much about their family history and it is very likely their parents (and countless generations before them) did the same. The institution of slavery made sure that descendants of enslaved Africans find it incredibly hard to trace and reclaim the culture and history stolen from them. What I find remarkable about the history of capoeira is that despite all efforts against them, the enslaved Africans in Brazil managed to hold on to some aspects of their roots and keep those traditions alive.
To this day, that tradition is strikingly evident. I remember my first roda being a transcendent experience. Martial arts aside, the combination of music and call and response songs in melodies easily reminiscent of negro spirituals felt like a spiritual encounter. It was as if my distant ancestors were in the room with me clapping along and singing words in Portuguese I barely knew the meaning of.
I’ve never been able to fully articulate how I felt after that first roda, but ever since then, I’ve had a connection to capoeira like no other. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that it changed my life. And even though it’s a physically demanding activity that fully engages the mind and body and can take well over a decade to master, being a capoeirista is its own reward.
Perhaps what I love most about one of Brazil’s top cultural exports is the sense of community that you find with capoeira. Wherever you go in the world, you can find a capoeira group or school and they will welcome you into their homes with an open heart. This is no accident. It’s the result of several generations of capoeiristas looking after their own. From the Palmares – settlements built by enslaved Africans who fought for their freedom to the secret identities given to capoeiristas when capoeira was outlawed in Brazil after the abolishment of slavery in 1888, community has always been at the heart of capoeira. And today capoeiristas around the world regardless of gender or race share this belief.
I love capoeira not only because it’s a great way to keep fit, but because it’s something that represents liberation, self-expression, and individuality. It is a relevant example that Black revolution is as old as racism itself and a powerful reminder of the legacy of Afro-Brazilians who fought for their freedom and to preserve their culture. As a Black capoeirista navigating the continued violence against Black people across the western world and global south, capoeira is a part of Black culture that keeps me grounded and allows me to connect with a distant ancestry and celebrate my blackness at a time when it can feel most difficult to.