Falina Enriquez discusses her new book, The Costs of the Gig Economy

Interview by Owen Kohl


Owen Kohl: Let’s start with the powerful title. Can you briefly describe the gig economy in question?

And if I could add a couple of related follow-ups: How does entrepreneurial and precarious project-based work exact costs on contemporary Brazilian artists and musicians? Are there insights that you gained in this distinct context that illuminated what you’ve seen elsewhere in related neoliberal gig economies, e.g., among adjunct professors?

Falina Enriquez: Thank you for these questions and for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to have my book included on the CaMP blog. The title is a great place to start.  The gig economy is, in some ways, particular to Recife and Brazil but in other ways, it’s relatable to those of us who are increasingly part of—or familiar with—the informal and/or temporary employment, lack of benefits, and emphasis on entrepreneurship that gig economy labor entails.

What’s particular about the gig economy in my case study is how strongly it was influenced by multiculturalism in the 2000s both in Pernambuco and in Brazil, more generally. Multiculturalism became part of federal and state-level efforts to democratize political participation, bureaucracy, cultural production, education, and other domains while also becoming part of how Brazil was branding itself domestically and to global audiences.

In Pernambuco, Recife’s municipal government began to brand the city as a multicultural place in the early 2000s and the state government strengthened these efforts, especially after 2007. The comparison of musical practices and sponsorship that I undertake in the book, however, reveals that this push for multiculturalism didn’t really democratize as much as it was supposed to. Instead, it intensified neoliberal economic policies and ideologies. The state government created a new grant-based system of sponsorship [called an edital] for artists and musicians to apply for funding. In the past, if you wanted to perform at Carnival, for example, you had to appeal to a bureaucrat or politician who had clout at a state institution in order for them to appoint or recommend you. But with multiculturalism and the bureaucratization that followed, the system ostensibly became more democratic because anyone could apply regardless of their connections to powerful people. This was more inclusive than before, and it brought more people into the scope of state sponsorship.

At the same time, musicians now had to comply with more demanding standards. They had to be more professional and entrepreneurial in order to stand out among hundreds of other applicants and to show that they could contribute to what was becoming a multicultural economy in Recife and Pernambuco. This economy boosted opportunities for musicians because there were more events where they could perform and more sponsorship [funds] to go around. But in order to take advantage of these opportunities, they had to change their modus operandi.

Musicians accustomed to getting gigs based on word of mouth and peer connections now also had to consider things like: “How am I going to write an application that describes my band in a way that will appeal to state sponsorship committees?” This alone is a demanding task. Most of the musicians I know in Recife don’t generally train to write grants while they also learn to master their instruments. Grants are also a very specialized genre that can be challenging even for people who are highly educated on formal university pathways. Many of my middle-class interlocutors don’t have university degrees and that’s even rarer among my working-class interlocutors, especially those who are elderly.

In summary, then, for musicians in Recife the emergence of the gig economy encompassed a combination of new opportunities and limitations. I think that this is also comprehensible on a broader scale. Neoliberal policies and ideologies related to entrepreneurship present some affordances and flexibility, but as other anthropologists like Ilana Gershon have also discussed, these conditions create tensions and paradoxes that affect ideas of selfhood and other more practical conditions. For example, flexibility in the sense that you aren’t permanently beholden to one company can mean more autonomy, but it also requires laborers to acquire more skills and broaden their networks in order to attract clients and make more money. Not everyone has uniform access to the kinds of resources—both financial and social—to accomplish this.

Similarly, and this is likely something fellow academics can relate to, the popularization and intensification of the gig economy and its related ideologies means that it’s harder to separate leisure time and work time. We have technologies like Zoom that enable us to work from various locations and at various times, but this also means that we are expected to be constantly productive. Among my interlocutors, this has surfaced in the increasing importance of establishing a social media presence across platforms in order to maintain and expand one’s audience. This also requires learning new skills and often, relying on other kinds of professionals like promoters to help. The book sheds light on how being a musical entrepreneur in Recife—as for other entrepreneurs around the world—means having to constantly maintain one’s productivity and expand one’s sphere of influence, so to speak.

This comes with costs like a lack of work/life balance, the production and reproduction of overlapping social inequalities, and a sense of anxiety that comes with financial insecurity, professional instability, precarity, and the need to be in survival mode. These conditions were already present in Recife in 2010 but they have become even more relevant for local musicians since 2015 due to Brazil’s recent and political crises, which have expanded neoliberal policies and ideologies.

Owen Kohl: Musical cosmopolitanism is another valuable theme that you develop. How did you see cosmopolitanism at play in the symbolic connections that artists were making across styles, continents, and eras of Brazilian history?

Falina Enriquez: Cosmopolitanism has been addressed by many scholars, but what I liked about the concept is that it fit how my interlocutors were talking about their music. They understood themselves as bridging gaps between places and people via their music.

So, for example, one of the bands that I worked with, A Roda, thought of themselves and explicitly marketed themselves as “genuinely Pernambucan.” And in many cases, they weren’t just focusing on their connection to Pernambuco, but to the historic neighborhood of Olinda, which is a city within Recife’s metropolitan area. And they pointed out how their music was informed by—and spoke to—that locality. So, they situated themselves in an extremely specific, local way. At the same time, they would describe themselves as being “the same” as Afrobeat band-influenced bands in Brooklyn like Antibalas and the Menahan Street Band that they were aware of, but none of them had ever been to Brooklyn, none of them knew these bands personally. When I would ask them to compare what bands they were most like, they wouldn’t mention their peers in Recife, in Pernambuco, or even in Brazil, which had similar sounds. Instead, they were citing these Brooklyn bands. I see the kinds of stances [that A Roda’s members took] as important aspects of their rooted cosmopolitanism. Just because they saw themselves or heard themselves as being similar to Afrobeat bands in Brooklyn, by no means did they abandon their localness. In fact, these two localities–and their aesthetic dimensions–were in perfect synchrony for them.

As a metaphor, rooted cosmopolitanism reflects how these musicians feel connected or rooted to a specific place and sensibility while also creating material and symbolic branches that link disparate and distant places and sounds. None of this means that they’re also surpassing or transcending the kinds of power dynamics that influence their lives, however. And contrary to other scholars that sometimes celebrate cosmopolitanism as a set of practices that let people transcend boundaries and identities, in this case, I’m using rooted cosmopolitanism and cosmopolitanism, more generally, to try to pinpoint the power relations that enable my interlocutors’ practices.

These power relations—and how they relate to the costs of the gig economy–are audible when you compare bands across genres and demographics. In drawing on Afrobeat music and adopting entrepreneurial practices, middle-class bands like A Roda don’t lose prestige, they gain it.

But working-class groups that play traditional music can’t do that, they can’t experiment to the same degree. They also often lack the resources to uphold the increasingly high standards of professionalism that entrepreneurial ideologies are making normative. They’re held responsible by state agencies who often are the only source of funding they have, by middle class listeners, and by other kinds of people in power to uphold tradition, and to therefore limit their experimentation while nonetheless being pushed to become more entrepreneurial. Yet, traditional groups like Maracatu Nação Cambinda Estrela, are nevertheless creating their own rooted cosmopolitanism. They perform maracatu, which has been part of Recife’s sonic landscape since at least the 19th century and are therefore part of a very localized phenomenon. At the same time, this group poetically and politically invokes pan-Africanist ideologies and Latin American forms of leftist activism, thereby recontextualizing maracatu to claim a sense of belonging to much broader regional and global movements.

Owen Kohl: Turning to a subdisciplinary interest: How does attention to issues of scale illuminate contemporary music practices and politics in Brazil?

Falina Enriquez: I drew from linguistic anthropological approaches to scale, scale-making, or scaling as they also call it, because they helped me interpret what my interlocutors are, in part, achieving through their rooted cosmopolitan practices. Scaling is a way to describe how my interlocutors are creating senses of belonging and socio-aesthetic hierarchies through their musical and metamusical practices. They make sonic connections to places, people, and time periods, and in the process imagine their world and their place(s) within it. Scale, in this sense, is both quantitative and qualitative, it is not solely spatial.

Like rooted cosmopolitanism, in the book, scale serves as both a theory and a metaphor that I use to compare different actors across the music scenes that I examine. My interlocutors, for example, musically–and otherwise–express their relationships to other kinds of past and present music from Brazil and elsewhere. And sometimes that scaling happens in qualitative terms. Musicians compare themselves—and others compare them—to other musicians and musical movements. When band members make comments that their music is better, worse, or similar to other bands, they are creating evaluative scales. This is also what’s happening when they’re claiming that their music is more or less locally rooted than other genres or styles. Such processes influence—and are influenced by–the structures of power in which they’re embedded and their access to material things like state sponsorship. So, for example, in an application for state funding if a band can show via their music, their written narratives, and other textual materials that they are as good or better than existing high-prestige bands, then they’re more likely to get sponsorship. Their ability to show this, however, is often dependent on their level of education and familiarity with the genre of grant applications, or their social and financial ability to acquire help from promoters and managers that can help them with these applications.

I employ scale and scaling in other ways throughout the book too. I draw from Arlene Dávila’s idea of upscaling [from Culture Works (2012)] to analyze how governmental and commercial actors were trying to use multiculturalism to make Recife more upscale. They wanted to make the city seem more prestigious, more cosmopolitan, and more appealing to outsiders, especially tourists from southeastern Brazil and the Global North. This kind of upscaling describes neoliberal development projects, but I also combine it with a linguistic anthropological sensibility to show how these economic developments are semiotically communicated and constructed. Governmental discourses about multiculturalism and the staging of specific kinds of musical genres at multicultural, spectacular events like Carnival make Recife into a more upscale place because they reveal its actual and potential value as a commodity. This upscaling relates to my argument that musical entrepreneurship and its intensification in Recife and Pernambuco are evidence of the kinds of encroachments, as some scholars call it, or economizations, as Wendy Brown calls it, which exacerbate the influence of market logics on all parts of our lives.

Owen Kohl: One powerful aspect of the book is your treatment of race and class as entangled aspects of musical performance. Obviously your focus is on neoliberalizing Brazil, but I think your semiotic analysis is applicable far beyond. This comes through in rich ethnographic descriptions, for example, of when government sponsors are reviewing musicians for Carnival.

Could you explain to your audience how you think about how best to capture the unfolding interconnections of race, class, and music in contemporary Brazil?

Falina Enriquez: Yeah, that’s a really complex question because it touches on all of Brazil’s history, essentially. But in terms of the book, what I wanted to reflect was the instability and mobility of race, class, and music in the kinds of unfolding events that I was experiencing. Yes, race, class, and music are definitely entangled. But that entanglement and the kinds of mobility to which I’m referring doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all because there are moments when the regimentation of race, class, and music becomes really clear. This issue, I believe, is relevant to many of us who are interested in teasing out the tense and contingent relations between structures of power and how they are artistically and otherwise expressed.

So, for example, the band, A Roda, draws on Afrobeat. They also cite R&B from the US and gesture towards classic Brazilian genres like bossa nova and samba, for example. They incorporate other sounds too, including drumming styles that are associated with the religious practice of Xangô [a.k.a. Candomblé]. In other words, the band plays with–and indexes–Blackness in many ways. And yet, as a whole, and mostly as individuals, the members of A Roda do not identify as Black. Nevertheless, they’re still able to play with racially marked musical elements and gain sponsorship and some prestige because they do it in a way that satisfies middle class norms and expectations.  When a middle-class band like A Roda applies for a grant from the state, they are going to be judged [by the committee evaluating them] very differently than a band that’s taking on a much more explicitly politicized Black sound like reggae, for example.

Meanwhile other bands who applied for state sponsorship and were usually ranked very low or were even disqualified by the evaluating committee often had a much more racialized, working-class kind of self-presentation. For example, some of these bands adopted visible stylistic features of U.S. hip hop, like sunglasses and baseball caps, and sounds drawing from racialized Caribbean styles, like merengue, which prompted [state sponsorship] committee members to hear that band’s music as unfit for state sponsorship. The racialization of such bands was implicitly compounded if most of their members were relatively dark-skinned. In theory, therefore, one can play with musical elements endlessly, but these elements get stabilized and standardized in relation to race and class by powerful actors. The specific interests and sensibilities of middle-class bureaucrats lead them to evaluate musicians in explicit racial and/or class-based terms. These are revealed in judgments they made during discussions about who and what sounds will be best to feature at Carnival and why.

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