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Exploring the performer and composer Elsie Houston’s reception in her day and, posthumously, in her birthplace of Brazil and abroad in Europe and the United States, this essay follows the politics projected onto music. The ways people use music to stake political claims can reveal the contours of contexts that make certain interventions possible, on the one hand, and needed, on the other. In the case examined here, routes of empire sent Houston from Rio de Janeiro to Paris and New York, hopes for racial uplift and unity inspired the African American performer and activist Etta Moten Barnett to play Houston’s songs, and tangled currents of race and nation made a group of Afro-Brazilians return to Houston’s work at the turn to the twentieth century. Houston’s interpretations reveal the overlapping projects of U.S. and European empire, U.S. black cultural politics, Brazilian neoracial democracy, and the political charge of music itself.

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