Search Results for: Rookie

The Rookie and the Zetas

Longreads Pick

How the Feds took down a drug cartel’s horse-racing empire.

Author: Joe Tone
Source: Dallas Observer
Published: Apr 1, 2015
Length: 27 minutes (6,940 words)

At 18, Tavi Gevinson Is a Fashion Veteran—and a Broadway Rookie

Longreads Pick

A profile of a teen icon, after graduation. “‘She likes to argue and so do I,’ says [Kenneth] Lonergan, ‘and she’s really smart and so am I, so you end up having these discussions about interesting and broad-ranging topics. But then I find it very charming that she’ll go from mentioning a talk she gave in Australia at 16 to complaining about ‘Why does my dad care if I go to bed late?’ Or how annoying it is that her best friend is in Costa Rica and she can’t text her.'”

Published: Aug 10, 2014
Length: 15 minutes (3,824 words)

‘What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?’

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 115, “The Snitch,” by Jordan Michael Smith.

Jordan Michael Smith | The Atavist | May 2021 | 5 minutes (1,356 words)

 

CHAPTER 1

Carle Schlaff wanted more out of his job. As an FBI agent, he’d spent more than ten years working low-level drug cases in the bureau’s Denver office. He eventually moved up to investigating organized crime—only to be transferred to the violent-crimes squad and made the liaison to a low-security prison called Englewood, in Littleton, Colorado. It was the sort of job that was good for a rookie, not a veteran. “I was kinda pissed,” Schlaff said.

The Atavist is Longreads‘ sister publication. For 10 years, it has been a digital pioneer in long-form narrative journalism, publishing one deeply reported, elegantly designed story each month. Support The Atavist by becoming a magazine member.

Schlaff was 42, with two kids, an easy smile, and an unpretentious manner. He was the type of FBI agent who read crime novels in his spare time. He’d grown up watching Hawaii Five-0. He wanted to take down mob bosses, catch serial killers, expose international drug cartels.

In August 2002, Schlaff’s luck changed: He learned that a prisoner at Englewood named Scott Kimball knew about a murder plot. Schlaff and a colleague met with Kimball in a small interview room at the prison. Kimball was 36 at the time, a weathered, stocky man who wore a goatee and had a long scar in the center of his forehead. He shared a cell with Steve Ennis, a young drug dealer. Kimball claimed that Ennis had talked about recruiting someone to kill witnesses preparing to testify against him.

“I would be willing to do some undercover work for you guys,” Kimball told Schlaff and his colleague.

If the offer seemed blunt, it was because Kimball already knew how the FBI operated. After being arrested for check fraud in Alaska in 2001, he told authorities that his cellmate, Arnold Wesley Flowers, planned to order the murders of a federal judge and a prosecutor, along with a witness in the case against him. (Flowers was facing fraud charges of his own, according to court records.) The FBI worked with Kimball and an undercover agent to record Flowers organizing the hits with help from his girlfriend. In March 2002, the couple were charged with murder for hire, witness tampering, and attempting to murder federal officials.

There was more: Kimball told the FBI that another Alaska prisoner, Jeremiah Jones, had bragged about murdering Tom Wales, a prominent assistant U.S. attorney shot to death through a window of his Seattle home in October 2001. While it investigated the matter, out of concern for his safety, the FBI transferred Kimball to his native Colorado in April 2002. Now, at Englewood, it seemed that Kimball had yet more valuable intelligence to offer.

Before Schlaff went chasing Kimball’s story, though, he wanted to know what type of person he was dealing with. He didn’t mind so much if someone had committed nonviolent crimes, but he didn’t want to work with an informant who could be easily discredited. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Schlaff asked Kimball.

Kimball admitted that in addition to his crimes in Alaska, he’d committed fraud in Montana and served time there. He excelled at check forgery, Kimball said, but he wanted to go straight. It sounded plausible to Schlaff, who’d reviewed Kimball’s record—he didn’t have any convictions for violent crimes—and had checked for outstanding warrants.

Schlaff scribbled down on a notepad what Kimball told him. After leaving Englewood that day, he made contact with the Drug Enforcement Agency and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which were both working the Ennis case. Kimball was soon reactivated as an informant, with Schlaff as his handler. Their goal was to foil the alleged murder plot, and charge Ennis for orchestrating it.

All the pieces were falling into place: This was exactly the kind of case Schlaff had been craving.

It takes a thief to catch a thief, as Schlaff likes to say—that’s the logic behind using jailhouse snitches. In the United States, the practice has a history as troubling as it is long. Incentivized by the promise of reduced sentences, better prison conditions, and financial compensation, criminal informants sometimes offer cops and prosecutors bad information, which can lead to wrongful convictions and other miscarriages of justice. And too often, authorities treat informants as if their lives matter less than the work of law enforcement.

In recent years, there have been efforts to reform the way authorities handle informants. But back when Kimball started working with the FBI, there was less communication among law enforcement agencies and relatively minimal scrutiny of an informant’s history. It was easy to miss the kind of facts from a person’s past that might have made authorities think twice before using them as an informant.

It takes a thief to catch a thief, as Schlaff likes to say—that’s the logic behind using jailhouse snitches. In the United States, the practice has a history as troubling as it is long

Born in Boulder in 1966, Kimball was ten when his parents divorced, after his mother came out as gay. Around that time, according to Kimball and his brother, a neighbor began molesting them. Kimball told me the abuse continued until he was in his teens. The neighbor was ultimately sentenced to seven years in prison for sexual abuse of a minor. According to people who knew him as a young man, Kimball seemed haunted by his past. He once tried to end his life but only managed to wound himself—the source of the scar on his forehead.

By early adulthood, Kimball had a long rap sheet. In 1988, he received his first felony conviction for passing bad checks. In another instance, he was charged with running an illegal outfitting business in Montana, helping out-of-staters hunt elk, bear, moose, and deer. Kimball continued to commit nonviolent offenses, the kind that Schlaff later saw on his criminal record. There were other allegations against Kimball, far more unsettling ones, but due to a series of decisions made by law enforcement, finding them would have required some digging.

In June 1993, Kimball married a woman named Larissa Mineer. They moved to Spokane, Washington, and had two sons. Though they divorced in 1997, they maintained a relationship until December 1999, when, Mineer alleged, Kimball raped her at gunpoint. Kimball claimed he hadn’t harmed or threatened Mineer—according to a police report, he said that his ex was trying to sway a custody dispute over their sons in her favor. After Mineer failed a polygraph, the police decided not to file charges. (Polygraphs have been deemed unreliable by the American Psychological Association and the National Academy of Sciences, but law enforcement still use them to quickly ascertain whether someone might be telling the truth.)

In 2000, Kimball landed in prison in Montana, convicted of violating probation, which he’d been serving for a fraud offense. After a year in lockup, Kimball was transferred to a halfway house, but a month later he went on the lam. Mineer alleged that he came back to Washington, broke into her home, and then kidnapped and raped her. This time the Spokane police issued a warrant for his arrest. But when Kimball was picked up for fraud in Alaska in 2001, and then became an FBI informant, the kidnapping and assault charges went away. (The FBI said it did not request that local law enforcement drop the charges.)

As a result, when Schlaff looked up Kimball’s record, none of Mineer’s accusations were on it. The escape from the halfway house was there, but Schlaff wasn’t too worried about that—Kimball had been near the end of his sentence when he’d slipped away. Schlaff spoke to Colton Seale, an FBI special agent in Alaska, who said that Kimball had been helpful in the case against Flowers and his girlfriend. Seale, who is now retired from the FBI, told me that he has no memory of whether he knew about Kimball’s kidnapping and assault charges at the time.

At worst, Schlaff thought, he was working with a petty con artist. “He was a typical wise guy,” Schlaff told me. “He had an answer for everything.” But Kimball wasn’t a child molester or a murderer. He seemed like the type of informant who might be good before a jury.

The truth was something else entirely.

 

Read the full story at The Atavist

The NHL’s Lacrosse Takeover

Bill Armstrong, who played a single NHL game in the '90s, is often overlooked as the originator of the "lacrosse-style" goal. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sam Riches | Longreads | June 2020 | 21 minutes (5,399 words)

During the third period of a late October game between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Calgary Flames, Andrei Svechnikov, a right-winger for the Hurricanes, corrals the puck deep in Calgary’s offensive zone.

Sensing the presence of the 19-year-old Russian, Flames goaltender David Rittich seals his body against the post. It’s textbook positioning, a preventive measure in case Svechnikov — the second overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft — attempts a centering pass or a sneaky shot from a bad angle. Unfortunately for Rittich, who has seen, studied, and saved a lot of shots in his life, there is no playbook for what’s about to happen. Read more…

The 25 Most Popular Longreads Exclusives of 2019

Our most popular exclusive stories of 2019. If you like these, you can sign up to receive our weekly email every Friday.

1. The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People

Laura Lippman | Longreads | November 2019 | 17 minutes (4,147 words)

Laura Lippman, admittedly a rotten friend, is bummed by the ways in which friendships end as one gets older.

2. Atlantic City Is Really Going Down This Time

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,579 words)

There’s no doubt that Atlantic City is going under. The only question left is: Can an entire city donate its body to science? Read more…

Longreads Best of 2019: Sports Writing

We asked writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here is the best in sports writing.

Nicole Auerbach
Senior writer at The Athletic.

The Unbreakable Bond (Mina Kimes, ESPN the Magazine)

A beautifully written, wrenching story from one of the best feature writers in America. It’s about football, sure, but it’s actually about a son and the mother who raised him — a mother who was blinded in her late 20s by a bucket of bleach mixed with lye. DeAndre Hopkins was 10 years old at the time. Mina Kimes’ brilliant prose tells an incredible story of resilience and love. It’ll stick with you for quite some time after: If her son scores, she explains, her daughter will help her stand up and lean over the barrier so she can accept the football from Hopkins. This ritual serves as a reminder that, while she can’t see her son, he still sees her — and he wants the world to see her too.

Jackie MacMullan is the Great Chronicler of Basketball’s Golden Age (Louisa Thomas, The New Yorker)

This isn’t exactly a feature, but to label it simply a Q&A is to sell it short. It’s just a lovely, lovely interview with Jackie MacMullan, one of the all-time greats in sports journalism. Personally, I can’t imagine being a female sportswriter right now without someone like Jackie Mac to look up to, without someone like Jackie Mac paving the way. She opens up about her crazy career path and her issues with access journalism (preach!) in this day and age in the NBA. She also discussed the problems with writers being fans (again, preach!) openly. I loved all of it, and it’s worth sitting down to read. It’s not quite a feature, but you’ll feel you have a good read on the GOAT by the end. (Also, she references her relationship with Celtics great Red Auerbach … who is the person I named my dog after! Bonus points for that.)

2019 Sportsperson of the Year: Megan Rapinoe (Jenny Vrentas, Sports Illustrated)

One of the best stories I read this year came in just under the wire, in SI’s Sportsperson of the Year issue in mid-December. Jenny Vrentas wrote a masterful piece on an athlete I thought I knew quite a bit about. But it became clear as I began reading this that there were layers to Megan Rapinoe I was totally unaware of, layers that made her even more intriguing both as an athlete and person. There’s a care and precision to the reporting and writing of this piece that comes through in each and every word. You can tell it’s important to Jenny that just the fourth unaccompanied woman to be named Sportsperson of the Year have her story told honestly and fairly. And she does just that.
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A Woman’s Work: Becoming a Home of One’s Own

All illustrations by Carolita Johnson

Carolita Johnson | Longreads | December 2019 | 24 minutes (6,000 words)

This essay began very differently a few months ago. I had started writing it at the same time as the previous one in this series, “Till death do us part,” and, just as I observed while writing the fifth one, the very act of writing it resulted in a real-time evolution of my understanding, processing, assessment, and reassessment of what I was writing about, to the point that by the end of the essay, it was obvious I was not the same person who had begun writing it. Just as I’ve changed from the beginning of an essay to the end of it, every few months I look back on my life and think, yet again, how much more like myself I feel. Three years, three months or three pages — it can be a long, slow recovery, or it can happen in shorter but exponentially more intense increments. Recent widows and widowers will either be glad to know, or be dismayed to know that, well, from what I gather, and with luck, it never really ends.

***

Immediately after my husband Michael died I found myself alone in the house we had been renting from his daughter for the last year and a half. It had been full of his relatives for a week, from the moment he came home to die. Now, it was empty. Empty except for our stuff, and not just our stuff from our life together: preparing for a future that would now never happen, for the six months of treatment and recovery we had expected to live through after his surgery, I’d stocked up on six months’ worth of toilet paper, paper towels, laundry soap, dish soap — soap and cleaners of every kind — dry goods, anything that was heavy and not available within a mile’s walk for me, since I don’t drive. Now, I felt like a stowaway on an abandoned frigate, floating along aimlessly.

I still had our dog, Hammy, with me, a 14-year-old poodle named after the noir fiction writer, Dashiel Hammett, of the “Thin Man” movies, whose dialogue Michael and I often quoted to each other. Hammy, too, was close to approaching the home stretch of his life, but for now he was there to stand guard while I cried on every floor of the house, with a preference for the one in the kitchen. Have you ever noticed that the kitchen floor is somehow the most suited for letting your knees give out before crumpling to the floor in wretched tears? I recommend it. I suppose it’s because the kitchen is where so much of coupled life happens. That’s where you will have eaten together, had coffee in the morning together, sipped hot lemon water and honey to ward off colds together, cooked for each other. If you’re going to mourn your lost partner, it might as well be in the place where the spirit of your partnership seems to occupy every cupboard, shelf, and drawer.

A friend immediately insisted on “sitting shiva” with me, which, as a modern adaptation (though I’m not religious and am unfamiliar with this Jewish tradition), took the form of bringing me my favorite coffee beverage, a cortado, from my favorite cafe so I wouldn’t have to go outside with my leaky-faucet eyes. This is exactly how the crying began to feel: tears that puzzlingly continued even when I thought I was done crying. I mused that it was as if a pipe were broken inside me and I might need to call some kind of metaphysical plumber soon.
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The Story of Salvador’s Banda Didá

Photo by Tari Ngangura

Tari Ngangura | Gusher | April 2019 | 23 minutes (4,474 words)

 

 

Early on monday morning/police arrest my brother/for working for the black community/monday afternoon/went to see my brother/police man treated me like a donkey/I say to police man you’ve got a bad attitude/oh no/I am no criminal/ I am a good black woman.

                                                            —Brenda Fassie – Good Black Women

 

Brazil is a country layered and complicated by realities, set up like a Matryoshka Doll. The moment you think you have unravelled and understood one particular kind of politicized social structure, another one is always deeply embedded under it. It’s a country built off government instituted eradication of blackness — not unlike Fidel Castro’s attempt in post-revolutionary Cuba, when he set about banning Afro-Cuban religions, Afro-Cuban social clubs, and blues music. Castro believed that such things were divisive, and stated that the only colour which mattered was the “Cuban Colour.” In Brazil, it was miscegenation that was always seen as the best possible way to deal with the “black problem,” and efforts to whiten the country over the decades have been widespread, intentional and historically violent. Recently, in the lead up to the most divisive election in recent memory, Hamilton Mourao, a candidate for Vice President, attributed the beauty of his grandson to branqueamento de raca — whitening of the race.

There is a widely circulated trope in the liberal West, which is that the mixing of races will undoubtedly lead to the end of structural anti-blackness and systemic racism. The hope is that when no one is darker than a brown paper bag, anti-blackness will effectively be rendered obsolete. Brazil is the living embodiment of that fallacy. An estimated 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil during the Transatlantic slave trade, accounting for 40% of the Africans who were shipped to the Americas. Dismally little is known about the experiences of Afro-Brazilians whose lives are daily overshadowed by the historical legacy of slavery and racism. This void is exacerbated by a vehement government refusal to acknowledge Brazil’s slave history and the generational ramifications it has had for its black citizens. It is against this background, that black womanhood has had to fight, survive, and thrive.

In a country where officially 56% of the population is recognized as Black/Brown, in the state of Bahia, and specifically, its capital city of Salvador, black and brown people make up over 90% of the population. One of the most pulsing points in Salvador is the historical city of Pelourinho, made up of cobblestones, Portuguese colonial architecture and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Built by enslaved Africans over the dead bodies of their kin — many of whom were buried where they fell — the name Pelourinho means whipping post; a telling but obscured reminder of the city’s dark history. It’s a city of angels and demons with every corner marked by a church. Down the cobblestoned hills, and tucked away in a three-storey house, lodged between the House of Cinema and a clothing store, is the home base of the first black female percussion group in Brazil. Known as Banda DiDa (DiDa Band), for twenty-five years this band has been teaching young black women how to drum. In the process, Banda DiDa has slowly set about challenging the constricting gender and racial norms that exist in Brazil’s deeply Evangelical and machista culture.

I was first introduced to DiDa in November of 2017, during Salvador’s annual Marcha do Empoderamento Crespo (March for the Empowerment of Kinky Hair), where they sang songs by popular Afro-Brazilian female artists along with their own compositions, and dazzled the crowds with their playfully bright outfits, engaging smiles and undeniably badass drumming skills. At different times throughout their routine, one or two of the girls would raise the drum (surdo) above their heads and while its elevated, continue dancing and at times spin in circles. Swaying side to side, they thrilled spectators with not only their drumming skills, but the tricks they did with their drum batons, all while in motion. It was electrifying. Here were young black women making music on the very instruments their ancestors had used to spread messages, announce the birth of a child, the death of an elder, the encroachment of an enemy, imploring for rain or celebrating a wedding. As a musical instrument, the drum calls for a total and complete abandonment of the body, integrating into the beats, and realizing that one does not perform on this instrument, but collaborates with it; carving gestures and telling stories which are intimately close to the subject.

Banda DiDa was founded in 1993 by Neguinho de Samba — who is largely regarded as the Father of Samba-Reggae — along side Viviam Caroline de Jesus Queiros, Adriana Pereira Portela and Neguinho’s daughter Deborah de Souza. He is also the founder of Olodum, which you might know as the drumming group in Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us music video. DiDa was a response to the glaring exclusion of black women within the percussion community. Neguinho de Samba realized that as much as young black men needed a space to participate in the cultural traditions which are theirs by birth, black women too deserved to have their own stage. Neguinho passed away almost a decade ago, leaving Queiros, Portela and Souza with the mission of teaching percussion to young black women and children. Queiros and Portela are now instructors at DiDa, and Souza runs the administrative side of the organization.  In the twenty-five years since its creation, over 2000 young women have passed through DiDa, forging not only life-long friendships, but an inextricable link with their African heritage.

Laila Castro’s afro frames her face like a halo dipped in cotton candy. She dyed it pink after seeing a picture of another black girl on Tumblr rocking the same style decked with flower crowns at the alternative music festival, Afropunk Johannesburg. “E legal ne?” “Yeah it’s really cool,” I responded to her rhetorical question, as she fluffed her hair, making sure it has maximum volume. The day we met, she had travelled from her home in the neighbourhood of Cabula, which has a population of about 24,000 people. Located an hour away from Pelourinho, her commute can easily turn into two hours when the buses are running behind schedule. “The buses here have no schedule,” she says. “They come when they come and when they don’t, they don’t.”  It’s a long journey, and one she takes twice a week to make it to the band’s practices. We were sitting by the Pelourinho square, overlooking Igreja dos Rosario dos Pretos (Church Of The Rosary Of The Blacks); one of the oldest churches in the city built for African slaves by African slaves.

Castro has been a part of the group for over four years, starting when she was eighteen after seeing a video of DiDa performing online. She’s now twenty-two. “It sounds unbelievable, but I had never heard about DiDa, even though I live in the same city they are in. I knew about Olodum, but I didn’t know there was also one for women, so when I saw them I was so surprised and very, very excited.” When Castro first came to DiDa, she didn’t think she would be allowed to stay because she did not have any prior training in percussion. “I thought they would tell me to come back when I knew a bit more or tell me to take classes, which I could not afford, ” she says, wringing her hands together as if reliving the fear of possibly being denied admission into something she passionately wanted to be a part of. “But my first day, they gave me a drum and told me to sit in a class with about five other girls, and that is how I learned. They made it so easy for me. For all of us.”

Queiros, the longest serving band member of DiDa, who also happens to lead the band’s culture classes, was sixteen when she started with the group at the very beginning of its formation. Eighteen years later, she remains fiercely dedicated to making sure that all the girls who want to learn percussion have the opportunity to do so. “All of our classes at DiDa are free. A few years ago, when we were more financially stable, we had classes every day,” she said. “We would also offer the girls transportation back to their homes. But now we can’t do that and we only have classes Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Along with being a member and Professor at DiDa, Queiros is also working on her PhD in Samba-Reggae ethnomusicology.

Most of the young women in DiDa come from similar backgrounds as Castro, with accessibility always hindered by their proximity to poverty, their gender and their race. “In Brazil, a lot of people do not expect black girls to be anything. They want us to disappear, which is why you don’t see us anywhere,” Castro told me, with frustration in her voice. “When you grow up seeing this empty space, you start to believe it’s because we do not deserve anything good. That this is our fault. But being in DiDa showed me that I could do great things and be a part of something that was important and beautiful.” When Castro plays, she becomes someone else, by her own admission and that of the people who have had the opportunity to watch her. “It’s like she becomes one with her drum,” says Queiros. “She becomes this person who is experiencing almost like a trance. And it is a powerful thing to see.” In a world where black women’s bodies and voices are censored to the point of gross ridicule, it’s a particular kind of freedom that comes from knowing that in certain spaces, you can move as you please, exist as you please, react as you please, and your black life will still have value.

In Brazil, drums are present in every facet of Afro-Brazilian culture. In the religious ceremonies of Candomblé, they are used during chants and prayers. In Samba-Reggae, they are the fulcrum on which hangs the soul of the rhythm. And during Capoeira matches, the drums signal the changing pace of a game; marking the rapid fire urgency, the slow steady moves, and the swift kicks. Drums are arguably the definitive African instrument as they are visible in nearly every African country, and in countries inhabited by any number of African descendants. As with all things which hold cultural relevance for people of African descent, when seen through a white lens in Western media, the drum has been distorted and manipulated to suit racial clichés. The bastardized sounds of the drum are the background echo you hear in the imperialist, white saviour trope portrayed in Tarzan, or in mind-numbingly racist cartoons like Jungle Jitters. When stripped of their cultural significance and reduced to simply being an exotic addition to a lacklustre production, the drum ceases to be a symbol of resistance. It becomes merely an entertainment object, appropriated by the white masses and force-fed back to its original owners as bland amusement. You will sooner hear Ringo Starr labelled a drum master, than a young black girl from a Brazilian town who travels 120 minutes twice a week to learn something intrinsic to her cultural survival.

A few weeks after my first meeting with Castro, a torrential rain fell hard on the early morning of September 7th. This just happened to be Brazil’s Independence Day. Almost two centuries before, the country had declared itself independent from Portugal, and as the people in Salvador gathered to celebrate, a seemingly ceaseless amount of rain continued to fall. The day before, ultra right-wing Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro had been stabbed in the abdomen during a campaign rally and rushed to the hospital with what had been described as near-fatal injuries. The election was set for October, and Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed ‘The Trump of The Tropics,’ by North American media, was commanding the polls with a political rhetoric that would fit well in the congress that makes up Trump’s governing elite. And yet Bolsonaro represented a particular kind of ultra right-wing sect whose beliefs are deeply rooted in Brazil’s slave legacy, its 1964-85 military dictatorship, and a growing base of radicalized evangelicals. The latter view queerness, reproductive rights and Afro-Brazilian religions as social aberrations. If this former military paratrooper were to emerge victorious in the presidential election, his policies would adversely affect the lives of women like those I met in Banda DiDa.

Three days before the election, I headed over to the DiDa headquarters to sit in on one of their late-night classes. About twenty young women were waiting in the narrow, brightly-lit entryway, painted a palm tree green and whose walls were etched with drawings of the DiDa girls drumming. The hallway turns into a staircase on the left side which leads you to the second floor that acts as a theatre space, drumming space and culture lesson space every Thursday. From 7 until 9:30 pm, classes are run, and it’s mandatory for the girls to attend all of them. Tuesday’s lessons are solely percussion based and take place on the streets of Pelourinho with a live audience. Theatre starts first and as the class progressed, the sounds of elevated voices practicing lines and improvisation could be heard from behind the closed door. And yet it wasn’t until the drum class which followed soon after, that the energy became palpable and active. Professora Portela was leading the class and her head, with her trademark black and red jumbo twists, was moving steadily to the beats of the drums. As the first female leader of a bloco-afro (African block) in the city of Salvador, Portela carries herself with the pride of someone who’s proven so many wrong, and also bears the weighted expectations of not only those who want her to fail, but those who desperately want to emulate her.

For Portela, being a black woman in Brazil has been a lesson in survival that at times feels futile. “It’s not easy, and there are some days — no many times really — where it feels like the work I’ve done and the dreams I have will never amount to anything. Because I’m black in Brazil, that means being at the bottom all the time.” In Brazil, to exist as a black female percussion player is to court derision while claiming the space that is rightfully yours. Twice a week, Professora Portela equips young black girls to maintain the legacy for which she continues to carve out a space — not only for herself, but for those she is bringing along with her. As of right now, there are eighty-five members in DiDa and this includes the young children who make up the junior classes. The children peek into the senior class every few minutes in clear anticipation of the time when they too will be able to join the ranks of the seasoned performers.

After the drum lesson, Queiros comes in to lead the last and final lesson — aula de cultura — ‘culture class’ that looks at the Brazilian landscape, its social structures and how they relate to the women congregated in the room. The feared but much anticipated election is only seventy-two hours away, and so much of the class centers around the moments in history that led Brazil to this particular point of existing on the brink of electing someone so enraged by the idea of fairness, equity and basic respect. “This is a dangerous and very important time in Brazil,” said Queiros as she sat in front of the girls who were staring at her intently while sitting in a semi-circle. She tied her honey-coloured locs behind her head and then adjusted her rings as she continued speaking. “A lot of people in Brazil don’t know the laws and they don’t know the constitution. Black people especially, look at politics and think it is not for people who look like them, and that it’s only for rich, elite white men.” Salvador has elected only one black mayor in its entire history, and the state of Bahia has never had a black governor. Brazil is yet to have a black President and just early this year, Marielle Franco, a black queer woman and city councillor, was murdered in Rio de Janeiro. To be black means being political even when unwilling — and in Brazil, active political participation for Afro-Brazilians is filled with countless landmines; least of these being visibility.

As Queiros talked to the young women around her about what was at stake in the next few days, they asked questions and also offered their own analyses on the state of their country. “Whenever I go online, especially on Twitter, I am amazed at how popular Bolsonaro is. He is always trending; 35000 tweets or 45000 sometimes,” said Castro, looking around the class to share her disbelief. “Gente que loucura. This is crazy.” Queiros nodded her head in agreement, while the girls talked amongst themselves sharing stories about the Presidential candidate and the possibility of his victory.

The country has been down this difficult road before, but all the women in the room, myself included, were not yet born or saw the final years of that rule. The Brazilian military dictatorship lasted from 1964 until 1985 and it was two decades of torture, political instability, corruption and mass fear of the state. Looking at Brazil in 2018, certain parts of the nation will be fearful of what a Brazil led by a former military man will look like. A man who has publicly shared his support for Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most feared and infamous torturers during Brazil’s military rule who died in 2015.

“For me personally, Bolsonaro is the only one who has actually talked about security. I would feel so much better with a gun as a woman because all the gangs have guns. I want to feel safe,” said Vanesca Louana, a 25-year-old from the Santa Monica bairro. One of Bolsonaro’s most popular platforms is a campaign against those deemed “criminal” or “suspicious,” particularly those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. He has also promised policemen the liberty to use violence as they please, making it seemingly inevitable that civilian involved police shootings will continue to rise. In 2016, police killed an estimated 4224 people in Brazil. A staggering number when you consider that the US, which has a population that is 35% larger than Brazil had an estimated 1134 people killed by police in 2015. The majority of these deaths in Brazil are young black men. And just late last year, Brazil’s congress passed a bill that would make it impossible for members of law enforcement accused of unlawfully killing civilians to face prosecution in civilian courts. Louana’s sentiments are similar to those shared by black people voting for Bolsonaro who have applauded his law and order stand, while discarding his anti-black discourse, whether its explicit or covert. Early this year in reference to the black descendants of warrior African slaves (quilombolas) Bolsonaro said, “They don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.”

A few days after the class, on the seventh of October, Brazilians headed to the polls for the first round of the election. In Brazil, elections happen in two parts unless a candidate is able to receive over 50% of the vote in the first round. The final tally gave Bolsonaro 46.3% of the votes, with the second place progressive candidate Fernando Haddad almost twenty percent behind. Although Bolsonaro lost in Bahia, he took most of the Northern States. It seemed Brazil had made its decision, which would be finalized in the second round set for October 28. There were no classes the Thursday following the election. Friday was a public holiday and so the professoras decided to give everyone an extended weekend. The election result had also taken an emotional toll, so the empty class at DiDa felt less like a long weekend and more like a deep breath before jumping into the eye of the storm.

Professora Adriana Pereira Portela was once a Mulher de Olodum (Woman of Olodum). During Salvador’s carnival, Olodum, a Bloco-Afro (African Block) used to choose one black girl to dance during their performances. In 1992, she was the chosen one. “It was a big honour and it was so much fun. I had the chance to dance for millions of people during carnival. But what I really wanted to do was drum,” she tells me while we sat inside DiDa headquarters a week after the election. “I saw those drums and I fell in love. But the instructors did not want to teach women. I begged and begged and I would ask every single class, until one day Neguinho [de samba] pulled me aside and told me we would start a percussion group for women. I was so happy!” Her joy is evident, and twenty-five years later her eyes still sparkle when she talks about drumming. “Before DiDa, everyone was used to seeing only men drumming, and they would drum with force and power. Neguinho wanted us to do the same thing, but I wanted us to do something different, and so one day he let me lead the class.” Portela then got up and proceeded to show me how exactly she created the rhythmic blueprint DiDa has become renowned for. “I wanted us to dance as women. To show our sensuality and our African expression.”

Rock and roll, like drumming, was granted sensuality when black women chose to reclaim their own sexuality by harnessing the genre as a vehicle to sexual liberation. Thornton, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson are black women who subverted the anti-black notions of over-sexed black female bodies, and instead amplified their autonomy to celebrate not only their inventive musical genius, but their radical body positivity. Portela’s desire to reclaim black sensuality was likely not linked to a desire to imitate these African-American performers, and yet these women shared the same notion of wanting to frame black womanhood not as a cautionary tale, but as a glorious expression of beauty, life and defiance. Most percussion groups in Brazil have separate sections made up of those who drum and those who dance. In DiDa, everything is done at the same time by the same people. “We dance while we drum, and we drum while we dance,” said Portela. When you see DiDa, live or online, you will be drawn to their movements — and the effortlessness of their synchronized choreography is belied by the fact that they spend hours practicing; at home, at school, in the street and at the DiDa headquarters. “This is how we practice our militancy,” says Portela. “By being a part of movements that change the conversation on what it means to be black and what it means to be a woman in Brazil.”

On the 28th of October, exactly three weeks after the first election round, Brazilians headed back to the polls to make the final decision that would determine which candidate would lead the country for the next four years. After Bolsonaro’s first round victory, many had already resigned themselves to his eventual victory, yet there was a clear surge in the days leading up to the election that saw widespread mobilization by mostly women in Salvador, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with simultaneous waves also happening online through Twitter and Whatsapp. The latter social network had largely been used by Bolsonaro’s campaign to spread “fake news” regarding his opponents. It proved to be an incredibly powerful and effective tool in a country where nearly 67% of the 200 million population uses Whatsapp as their primary source of communication. By 6 pm Sunday night, the election count was done and Jair Bolsonaro had defeated Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro received 55.1% of the votes and Haddad came in at 44.9%. This was closer than the first round — a testament to the last minute campaign rush — but it was not enough to deter Bolsonaro’s appeal to over half the voting population. The women of DiDa would now be living in a Brazil whose leadership and goals would largely undermine their ways of living. Everything had changed, but one thing still remained constant; drumming was, and is, the avenue they would continue to use to punctuate their deep pride and love in their black existence and affirm their African heritage.

Living in Salvador, I’ve found myself privy to the fact that there is something about this city and the ways blackness has fought and survived here that has led to compelling musical innovations. Globally, for black communities, music has always presented itself as an avenue of limitless expression. From the pan-Africanist radicalism of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti and the South African songstress Brenda Fassie, to the lyricism of Bob Marley and the caustic wit of Mighty Sparrow. The singular ingenuity of Aretha Franklin, the raw appeal of Poly Styrene and the carefree joy of Scary Spice. Music and blackness have lead to stunning collaborations resulting in genres such as jazz, hip hop, rock, samba-reggae and afrobeat. Music, blackness and the specificity of the Afro-Brazilian experience in Salvador has meant that an unprecedented number of Brazil’s greatest musicians have come from the city that is home to DiDa. The likes of Virginia Rodrigues, Margareth Menezes, Tiganá Santana, Gilberto Gil, Luedji Luna, Lazzo Matumbi, and Carlinhos Brown all call Salvador home. Banda DiDa runs along the same musical lineage as these artists, and so it was preordained that their groundbreaking artistry would lean so heavily on their African heritage and outsider experience as people whose skin colour forces them to live on the margins of Brazilian society.

Inside DiDa’s building there hangs a poster of Neguinho de Samba in the hallway, with his trademark sailor cap over his braids. Below is written, “Arma a banda, a batalha ja vai comecar” — “Arm the band, the battle has already begun.” This was something he would say before a show, and it could be read as a more eloquent way of saying “break a leg.” Yet in the context of Salvador and blackness on a global scale, the messaging is clear; for black people, culture is armour, the band is our community, and the fight is one which has been ongoing for centuries.

The women of DiDa are one link in a long chain of cultural resistance, and to see them drum in front of millions of people during carnival is to see resistance in motion. Beautiful, glorious, black motion.

***

Tari Ngangura is a journalist and photographer based in Brazil. She documents black lives around the globe, their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine, Hazlitt, VICE, Catapult, The Fader, and Rookie Mag.

This story originally appeared in Issue 3 of Gusher, a print rock music magazine written and created entirely by women and non-binary people, and focused on longform music journalism and criticism. Gusher is based in Sydney, Australia.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath

Under the Influence: Watch(wo)men

Jacques Benazra

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 |  7 minutes (1,716 words)

Part three in a three-part series on the influencer economy. Read part one, “White Lies,” and part two, “Deeper than Beauty.”

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“I haven’t believed the purity of my own intentions ever since I became my own salesperson.” Imagine PewDiePie — the Swedish influencer who at one point was the most-subscribed user on YouTube for literally just playing video games while spewing alt-right fodder, the guy name-checked by a mass shooter yet little scrutinized by anyone, let alone himself — saying that. “I saw the gap widening between the story we told and the situation on the ground.” Imagine Logan Paul , another YouTuber whose popularity is barely examined perhaps because his Jackass-lite routine suggests there is nothing to him beyond the denigration of all living things from rats to suicide victims, saying that. Those quotes, both published in The Cut, come from women, both of them influencers: the first is Tavi Gevinson, whose success as the founder of the teen magazine Rookie has been parlayed into an acting career fueled by Instagram; the second is Caroline Calloway’s ghostwriter Natalie Beach, who exposed her employer as a largely empty vessel filled by Beach’s own talents. Theirs came in a long line of critiques recently piled onto the influencing industry (and those within it), critiques that seemed to be overwhelmingly delivered by women like Gevinson, like Beach, even like me.

I notice male influencers interrogating video games, superhero movies … even women. What I don’t notice is male influencers interrogating this interrogation. But is it really only women who are contemplating this industry and their roles within it? Who are capable of thinking a little, instead of constantly doing? According to Crystal Abidin, who has been studying influencers for more than a decade, the lack of clarity starts at the source, with the word itself. “I think the politics of naming and self-branding contributes to the perception that there are more women scholars or more women influencers looking at these things,” says the author of Internet Celebrity (2018), “when I don’t actually feel that this is the case.” The case is what it always has been: We watch women as they watch themselves, a Matryoshka doll of reflection and self-reflection, and we watch men as they watch themselves, with little more than a passing glance.

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On its face, influencing is visibly feminine, which tracks if you think about what an influencer actually does. “You are basically in the business of persuading people to like you,” says Abidin. While women may not be considered authorities on much, they are certainly expected to have a handle on likability. Some women in the influencing industry even feel they have an advantage over men, since the job lends itself particularly well to the emotional-labor savvy. That the most successful influencers tend to project the most empathy explains in part why queer male influencers do so well in the lifestyle niche (one of the industry’s most lucrative) — their emotional acuity tends to exceed that of many straight men, who have never been forced into introspection by oppression.  

But being introspective can also be a liability — it’s harder to function online when you’re reflecting on how every decision might impact you. At the BBC, #vanlife-r Brianna Madia presented the calculus this way: “How vulnerable can you be? What piece of information can I expose about myself? How wide can I rip my chest open for all of these people?” Any potential balance is something of a myth since the “authenticity bind,” identified by media and communication professor Jefferson Pooley in an essay in the 2010 book Blowing up the Brand, ensures that female influencers lose out either way: They are shameless if they share and a sham if they don’t. Gevinson’s essay described internalizing just this dilemma, dividing her life into “the part of myself that had learned to register experience as only fully realized once primed for public consumption, but that was monitored by the other part of myself, the part that knew the actual sharing of these specific moments would appear inauthentic.”

Women subject themselves online to a sort of identity fracturing on two levels, internal and external. Not only do they actively present themselves through a medium designed for the male gaze, but we actively receive and process them from this same vantage point, one that views them fundamentally as sex objects. Female influencers are siphoned into more visual platforms (Instagram, Facebook) where they deal in subjects requiring more visual expertise (beauty, fashion), while the text-based spaces (Reddit, Digg) that emphasize more expansive subject matter (politics, tech) are more hospitable to men. Ultimately, authenticity is not the only bind women find themselves in — they are also primarily valued as a gender by the qualities we devalue as a society. They are pressured not to perform “real work,” but instead to do emotional labor, to be more personal and intimate. It’s virtually the only arena in which they can succeed, for which they are simultaneously undervalued and overvalued. 

Even women’s content is secondary to their physical appearance, however, since this all falls under the male gaze, remember, and the male gaze objectifies first. “Your body is your calling card” is how Abidin explains it. Regardless of your skills, if you gain weight, like queer beauty influencer Mina Gerges did, you lose value. If you are expected to be single and you are suddenly coupled, once again, your value drops. The constant scrutiny of women’s personal lives impels them to do the same, deconstructing themselves in a way they might not were they left to simply live without constantly being dissected. But any woman in a world that surveils women is familiar with this everyday tyranny, so it follows that female academics would recognize it. As women experiencing the same repression offline, they gravitate toward studying it in a way that men, who are free of this quotidian analysis and self-analysis, don’t. “There’s a lived experience there,” explains Abidin. “We are trained to specifically look out for these things.”

Men are trained not to look at anything but the work, whether it’s offline or online. “There’s this tremendous culture of toxicity around being vulnerable,” says Gerges, “and around sharing real things and talking about our emotions and about talking about our struggles.” The same way female academics may have more of a personal interest in fashion and beauty, male scholars are likely inclined toward male-coded subjects like gaming and tech. Regardless of the actual gender breakdown in these two arenas, women are perpetually believed to be a subculture within them the way men are believed to be in lifestyle, despite the number of male makeup artists and stylists who dominate the sphere. So while it’s been reported that women make up 75 percent of the influencing industry, Abidin is skeptical: “We have to consider the politics of vocabulary.” Since the standard beauty influencer is female, both because beauty is associated with women and influencing is too, any males within this sector are identified by their gender. Gamers, however, shed the influencing moniker entirely and are popularly referred to as e-sports players or online streamers — no gender marker required, because the standard is male — while scholars (as well as the industry) classify them as content creators in the online creative industry rather than influencers in the influencing industry. “They’re conceptually a bit more distinct for academics who are giant nerds,” quips Abidin, “but in essence you are looking at the same thing.”

Despite the increasing number of women leaders in the influencing industry, particularly in Asia, men overwhelmingly hold the highest paid positions on the business side of things — they run media conglomerates, platforms, and even agencies scouting for talent. “So much of the money, so much of the power is still traditionally modeled after the tech industry,” says Abidin. “It’s men-heavy. You still get the same old boys clubs, you get the same gated networks.” These men make as many if not more decisions about what you see on their platforms as the women making the content, which is to say they are shaping the conversations around influencers, they’re just doing it a lot less visibly. The real question is whether they are at least hazarding some answers to the concerns — from pay gaps to opportunity hierarchies around race and gender — that appear to be predominantly surfaced by women. Abidin thinks they’re aware of the quest for equality, but if it affects their bottom line, in an industry that is particularly transient, they are less likely to react. From her work on the ground, Abidin senses that the women in charge “are the ones pushing for the change,” because they see their treatment in influencing as a symptom of their treatment in workplaces as a whole. Perhaps predictably, in Abidin’s experience, environments where there is more gender equity offline — Nordic countries, for instance — see men on the business side more open to reflecting this balance online.

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“Amid all the self-worth-measuring that has made up my experience of the internet,” wrote Gevinson, “I believe there was also self-actualizing, and that there still can be.” This self-actualization has been the arena of the women who are exposing the sexism and racism inherent in the influencing industry, increasing its transparency and uncovering the need for parity at the top. Women of color seem to be particularly enlightened, with Valerie Eguavoen launching the Instagram page You Belong Now to promote overlooked influencers, and Shannae Ingleton-Smith and Tania Cascilla founding Facebook group The Glow Up to support black influencers.  This seems to have had a sort of trickle-up effect in which women in charge have realized that the inequities faced by these influencers are just another example of discriminatory labor practices. Outside of that, female academics are parsing the effects of this dynamic on the industry. “I think the beautiful thing is that a lot of women have pushed against that unrealistic standard that has been sold to women for so long,” says Gerges. “Unfortunately for men, there’s still so much shame about talking about these things.” But the same way female influencers have established agency within the industry — for instance, making a living wage while rearing kids — similarly non-stereotypical male influencers like Gerges are introducing an alternative. Perhaps he too will inspire those within and around the industry to do better. He is an influencer after all.

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.