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Ahead Of Presidential Election, Pink Floyd's Roger Waters Divides Brazil

Roger Waters, performing in Moscow in August, 2018. The artist recently drew attention in Brazil over his criticism of the right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.
Gennady Avramenko/ Epsilon
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Roger Waters, performing in Moscow in August, 2018. The artist recently drew attention in Brazil over his criticism of the right-wing presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

In ten days, Latin America's largest democracy, Brazil, will elect a new president. Polls show the runaway favorite is Jair Bolsonaro — a far-right congressman who openly admires Brazil's past dictatorship — and his widely anticipated victory is causing deep divisions.

This political fray has recently been joined by a high-profile outsider: Roger Waters, co-founder of Pink Floyd. Waters kicked off his "Us And Them" tour in May of 2017, which includes an eight-night stint in Brazil this month.

Last night in Salvador, a city in northeastern Brazil, the crowd came to be entertained, yet the show was about much more than music.

Waters has long been outspoken on political issues — he's a prominent supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and has spoken out against environmental destruction, antisemitism and fascism. Now, he's touring Brazil in the middle of that country's highly charged presidential election campaign. Waters' recent shows have overtly characterized Bolsonaro as a neo-fascist, and the Salvador performance was no exception.

Sandy Luciano, a 34-year-old bank clerk, appreciates Waters' message. "It's very good that artists like him they have got the guts to speak about this," Luciano says. "We are now, all over the world, facing a very complicated time in politics and it's very important that famous artists like him, they can speak. Because Bolsonaro is a fascist."

However, many Brazilians resent outsiders interfering in their politics. Humberto Miranda is 54 and plans to vote for Bolsonaro. He acknowledges Waters is a political activist who campaigns on many fronts, but thinks that in Brazil, the musician should be wary of broadcasting his opinions.

Emotions are certainly running high, and there's been a surge in election-related attacks. Agência Pública, an investigative journalism group, reported more than 70 attacks in the first 10 days of October. In Salvador, celebrated Afro-Brazilian composer Romualdo Rosário da Costa — known as Môa do Katendê — was stabbed to death on Oct. 8, after Costa expressed his support of Bolsonaro's rival from the Workers' Party. Last month, Bolsonaro himself was stabbed and severely injured at a campaign rally in Juiz de Fora. Bolsonaro has said he doesn't want the vote of anyone involved in violence.

Yet his opponents blame him for fanning the flames of violence, citing his record for sexist, homophobic and racist remarks.

Waters begins the show. There are some old favorites, then "Another Brick in the Wall" — perceived by many to be an anti-authoritarian song — begins. Waters has a group of kids dancing on stage with the band — and when they reveal T-shirts bearing the word "resist," there's mayhem. Many in the crowd are shouting "Ele Não" ("Not Him"), the slogan that unites Bolsonaro's opponents; others are booing and yelling disapproval. Later, a picture appears on the screen of da Costa, the stabbed musician. Waters pays a tearful tribute, and a similar, equivocal response from the audience ensues.

Waters is clearly dividing opinion in Brazil, but, in Salvador, his fans seem to approve of his mission. The city is not Bolsonaro territory — it's one of the few remaining strongholds of his leftist opponents, the Workers' Party. Many here seem quite happy to listen to Pink Floyd classics and Roger Waters' political commentary.

"He should take a stance," Ana Barbosa, a 31-year-old lawyer, says. "He's an internationally renowned artist. Isn't that what art is about?"

Web intern Kristy Guilbault contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.