Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

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As I have argued above, it was not a coincidence that Tim Lopes was murdered trying to secretly film inside a baile funk. What is not clear, perhaps, is how to account for the political fallout of Lopes’s murder and the debate it has brought on. In a city where thousands of people are violently killed each year, just what is it about the tragic murder of this specific human being that has touched such a nerve in Brazil? Why are people calling on the government to send the army back into the favelas, why are favelas being surrounded and shut off by the police, why are funk CDs that were ignored before being confiscated and dances that went on suddenly being closed? Perhaps this is because, in a sense, the “favelification” of Rio throughout recent decades has brought about an informal welfare system in which drug traffickers have helped to provide minimal low-income housing, protection, medical assistance, public works and leisure and recreational activities. My friend Sérgio Soares Almeida, a prominent member of the business community and owner of a successful pizzeria in Rocinha, suggested this development has been the result of the complicity of the status quo and an informal policy he calls “favela as solution.” At some level, the extremely high levels of violence inherent in this approach were known to all and considered lamentable, but it is only when the “favela as solution” system spills over into the non-favela space of the asphalt that the middle- and upper-class residents of the city are directly confronted with the failings of the system. Of course, the slow evolution of Rio throughout the decades into a city in which the rich must live behind gates and body guards has made things difficult for everyone, but even certain limits on their freedom might be acceptable to the elites to some degree if they can at least remain in power. But when a crime boss like Elias Maluco crosses the line and audaciously applies the rules of the favela to a TV Globo reporter, it is as if the monster which was allowed to thrive threatens to rattle out of its chain and turn itself loose on its master.

Some readers may be asking themselves why excerpts from popular proibidão songs have been placed at the beginnings of the subheadings throughout this chapter, even though I have thus far not provided any close readings of them. I have done this in an effort to further contextualize the world of funk music in relation to the climate of violence and social exclusion in which it was born. I have also done this to make it apparent that the themes referred to throughout this study in fact do appear consistently in funk, something easier to see in this type of longer passages. Besides, there would not be much point trying to make too much sense of these lyrics without giving a good amount of background on the world of drug traffickers and favelas. The practice of funk music is every bit as complicated as the socio-cultural terrain of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, of which it is such a vital and important part. It is my hope that, having contextualized funk within the scope of the general crisis of violence and social exclusion in Brazil, a much closer and more meaningful analysis of the ideological strategies evident in funk will be possible in the next chapter. In any event, I hope I have made it clear that there is a strong connection between funk and the power of the drug traffickers in the favelas of Rio, and that a strong connection exists between the reality of the favela and the larger carioca society. Favelas are communities of people living as a part of a Brazilian system that exploits them as it forces them to the periphery. If many poor people in Rio rely on drug traffickers for protection and social services, it may be less from a “consumerist” impulse or a “medieval disposition” as from the need to survive amidst a growing crisis of poverty and violence. If there can be any hope to diminish the crisis of social exclusion in Rio specifically, and in Brazil more generally, the culture of the drug trafficker must be understood in the context of its relationship to the larger Brazilian society. Ultimately, the drug traffickers’ rule of the favelas is a part of the larger society of Rio de Janeiro and Brazil more generally and in order to change it the larger society will have to change as well.


1 Translation:

The Via Ápia, Paula Brito, Cachopa,

Fundação, Terreirão,

The gangs ready, always with their AKs in hand,

Pissed off, watching your bullshit,

Faith in God for the big Red Command

2 As one of the chief cultural productions of the favelas, funk music is one of the principal spaces in which the ideological negotiation occurs between the drug traffickers, other residents and the larger Brazilian society. My understanding of ideology and the hegemonic process can be described as dialectical in the sense that it represents the sort of continuous renegotiation of power described by Eagleton as “a discursive field in which self-promoting social powers conflict and collide over questions central to the reproduction of social power as a whole.”(29)

3 According to the information published on the special insert of Sunday, June 16, 2002, published in O Globo, the most heavily armed favelas are Complexo da Maré, Complexo do Alemão and Rocinha. Rocinha is generally considered different from the other two because it is one favela, whereas the other two are groups of favelas. In the case of Maré, both the CV and the TC (Terceiro Comando) control some areas of the favela. Still, Rocinha is comprised of several areas, some of which, under different circumstances, could be considered separate favelas. Currently, there is only one comando in Rocinha; the favela’s location in the richest part of Rio makes it an excellent place to sell large quantities of drugs and as result, the comando is extremely well armed and very much in evidence in the daily life of the favela.

4 Translation:

We’re Red to the bone, it’s peace, justice and liberty,

I’m armed to the teeth, the gang is awesome,

That’s why we’re faith in God and the gang keeps growing,

Here it’s us who decide if it rains or shines

I’ll defend the favela my whole life long

5 On June 16, 2002, the Sunday edition of O Globo was released with a special ten-page insert entitled “O Rio está perdendo a guerra contra o tráfico?” Here I have translated “tráfico” as “drug trafficking,” though the Portuguese also implies “the drug traffickers” and their organizations.

6 This was reported in an article entitled “Apreendidos CDs piratas e de apologia ao tráfico,” appearing on O Globo Online on June 24, 2002.

7 For further information on the evolution of funk and its relationship to violence, see the anthology Abalando os anos 90- funk e hip-hop. Globalização, violência e estilo cultural, organized by Micael Herschmann, especially the articles “O funk carioca,” by José M. Valenzuela Arce, and “Rebeldia urbana: tramas de exclusão e violência juvenil,” Glória Diógenes.

8 “Juizado não consegue fazer a fiscalização.” O Globo, June 16, 2002, Especial, 4. The article cites a resident of the Vila Cruzeiro favela, saying, “ Todo mundo aqui sabe que há drogas, tiros e orgias nos bailes. Às vezes, eles arrastam alguém. Pode juntar seis batendo num cara só.”

9 For a brief history of the rise of the Comando Vermelho in the Instituo Penal Cândido Mendes, on Ilha Grande, see André Cypriano, Caldeirão do Diabo, São Paulo: Cosac e Naify Edições, 2001.

10 These statistics are based on studies published in the book Violência e Criminalidade no Estado do Rio de Janeiro, organized by Anthony Garotinho with Luiz Eduardo Soares, Barbara Soares, João Trajano Sento-Sé, Leonarda Musmeci and Silvia Ramos.

11 One case study supporting this claim is that of the favela called “Santa Ana” in Arias’ study of crime, violence and democracy in Rio de Janeiro (111-151).

12 Translation:

If you invade and go bang bang bang,

You’ll get all full of lead

Because the gang doesn’t fool around

So I say, it’s very well prepared,

If you are an enemy, or a cop,

Better not invade the favela of Rocinha

The strong gang of Rocinha is armed to the teeth

13 This passage is quoted from an interview at the Escola Moranguinhos, in Rocinha, with Erick, Filipe, and Maikom, on March 28, 2002. Translation:

Question: You all see these folks everyday around here (the drug traffickers), coming in and going out… Are you afraid of them? What’s your reaction?

Filipe: No! We, we’re used to them… They don’t hurt the residents, see? They treat people well…

Question: So, and police officers, if you see one around here, does it scare you?

Filipe: Oh, yes. Police officers, yes, we get scared. Because a police officer doesn’t know the difference, he doesn’t know who gangsters around here are, so the first person he sees, “Hey! He must be a gangster.” He shoots, kills or at least arrests you.

14 Translation (continued):

Erick: You know why I think it’s just ok, it’s because it’s like this, because there’s the good part that we don’t get hurt, the part also that we can get hurt when the police come here, and the part that we aren’t free because nobody knows when the police are going to invade, so we don’t know when there’s going to be a gunfight, we can be playing in the street, we don’t know the police are invading, so then all of the sudden a gangster goes by there in the alley where we live, goes by running and we think the guy’s playing, the policeman comes, sees the guy in front of us, shoots, doesn’t even see us, so he shoots, and he shoots us by accident instead.

15 Translation (continued):

Question: Do you guys like living here?

Maikom: The only thing uncool here in Rocinha for me is because there’s lots of houses all close together all stuffy, and when the police invade we don’t, I don’t know… But now I know when they’re coming in because they (the gangsters) shoot off three roman candles.

Question: So what do you do then?

Maikom: I go home, and sometimes dona Raimunda calls me over to her house and we all stay close to her, so everyone goes into her house.

16 An eyewitness account was given to me on November 20, 2000 by the owner of a local Rocinha restaurant, PizzaLit, Sérgio Soares Almeida, a resident of the Rocinha who was inside the bank at the time of the robbery.

17 Translation:

There where I was born, you have to know how to live,

I’m talking about my CDD (Cidade de Deus)

We add, we divide, but we never come up less,

Our unity is a natural thing, and its simplicity is really divine,

But if you cause problems, you’ll turn into roots,

Mess around and get killed by the gang!

18 In an interview with MC Júnior at his house in Rocinha, on March 26, 2002, he said he personally would not want to sing proibidão for the reasons mentioned above. Júnior and his brother, MC Leonardo, were two of the all time most famous and best-selling funk artists, performing around the country and on Xuxa Hits and Domingão do Faustão. Ironically, they themselves were accused of being spokespersons for the Comando Vermelho for their song “Rap das Armas.” The song includes the words, “paz, justiça e liberdade,” which, according to the press, was the slogan of the CV. In reality, their song was intended as a social protest song decrying the problem of violence in general in Brazil and was never meant to support organized crime. When I asked him if he and Leonardo knew that “peace, justice and liberty” was the slogan of the CV, Júnior laughed heartily and said that the reporter who wrote the article apparently knew more than them (Helena). Though their song has often been sampled and imitated by singers of proibidão, Júnior and Leonardo’s vision of funk is much bigger than the traffickers; it is a vision of funk as a beautiful Brazilian musical style for the entire country.

19 This was observed at a baile in Rocinha during carnival on February 12, 2002.

20 Much of the information regarding the Clube do Emoções comes from an interview held on March 22, 2002 with its owner and manager Wagner Dias Beta.

21 This was observed at the matinê at the Clube do Emoções on January 13, 2002.

Chapter 3: The ‘Social Bandit’ in Funk

E os amigos de plantão botaram pra cantar

E fizeram realidade o rap do parrá pá pá

-A cappella introduction to “Tá ca cuca louca,” by MCs Cidinho and Doca

Pizza and Helicopters1

A dozen and a half or so tables line the area under the awning in front of 100% Gostoso Beer Pizza. They go all the way up the sidewalk and in front of the pharmacy next door. It’s about midnight on a Thursday and some hundred people chat, drink and eat as they mill about the tables in the muggy summer heat of Rio. The restaurant is well lit, the TV mounted in front of the restrooms inaudible over the roar of dozens of motorcycle taxis, cars and buses constantly passing by. Even at this hour, the narrow Estrada da Gávea road is choked by a low-grade traffic jam. At the far end of the tables, a thin young man with an electric guitar shakes his head as he sings an old favorite by Legião Urbana. Several people sing along as waiters in white shirts and black pants bustle through the crowd.

The main drag in the favela of Rocinha almost never sleeps. Even this late, people walk by on their way to and from work, others come back from night school or just heading out for the evening. A group of girls from a local gym, dressed in tiny athletic shorts and sports bras, stop and hug a group a capoeiristas relaxing over pizzas and beer. One of them sees a friend from Rocinha’s computer lab, Estação Futuro, and runs to his table to hug him around the neck. There is also a birthday party going on for Vicente, one of the waiters, who is off-duty tonight and sitting amidst a huge group of friends and family at a long row of tables. The fumes from the traffic mix with cigarette smoke in the hot carioca night.

“Did you see that damn helicopter this morning?” Renato leans over to Charlys, who has just arrived with his girlfriend. “Porra, mané! That thing was right on top of me! It stuck around here for hours!”

Charlys hadn’t been in Rocinha since yesterday; he’d done two shows with his band in Campo Grande; one last night and one today.

“Pô, cara! They were flying up and down the ‘big hill’ all morning, cara.” Renato explains that the police came into the favela early with some X-9 informants in tow, all dressed in black from head to foot. Black masks also hid the informants’ faces as the police led them along on the ends of ropes. The police were after “21,” a well known soldier of the local gang, but they went into the wrong building, Renato’s friend’s cousin’s house, and shot that house up by mistake. Next door, 21 heard the gunfire and came out, shot one police officer in the arm and took off running like a bolt of lightning. Since that time, the PMs had closed down the favela and had been searching everyone all day long. “I was brushing my teeth and I heard the damn helicopter right on top of me… I opened my window to see what it was and it was right in my face! Those two cops were hangin’ on it, hangin’ by belts, you know, standing on the landing rudders or whatever. They had those big assault rifles, with sights and all, and they pointed it right in my face, mané!” Renato drank some beer. “Tema, you were here this morning, right? Wasn’t that messed up?”

Just then, someone opened the trunk of a car parked next to them and a heavy thumping bass beat filled the street. The music of the funk song drowned out the din of the crowd and the MC’s voice chanted a familiar refrain:

Tá ca cuca louca, tá lêlê da cuca,

A Rocinha é Comando na veia

se quiser tomar tem que vir de bazuka…2

Nêgu Tema took his knit Rasta man hat off and let his dreads hang down. He rubbed his head and said, “The Third World is a great big videogame.”

Funk as the Globo of Favela Folks

I have chosen to open this chapter with this little dialogue about a pizza place on the night after a police invasion of the favela of Rocinha for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I hope it reflects a bit the acute feeling of insecurity and powerlessness such draconian measures often instill in the general population of the favela community, a population that is more often than not innocent of whatever crimes are practiced by the drug traffickers that share the neighborhood with them. It can be very scary to find ones’ self in the sights of a gun, or to be just next to a ferocious machine gun battle, and it is humiliating to be frisked by police or ordered to step out of a house or vehicle. In another police operation occurring in March of 2003, some time after the one depicted in the dialogue above, the front door to my house was kicked in by a military policeman and my house searched. When the same police officer went to kick my neighbor’s door down, that of a fairly high ranking drug dealer in the local gang, he changed his mind. After one kick, the drug dealer’s young wife opened the door, baby in arms, asking him what all the fuss was about. The baby took hold of the policeman’s finger and wouldn’t let go. He just kept holding onto the man’s finger and smiling. Something about this softened the policeman’s demeanor and he said to the infant, “You’re a strong one! Someday you’re going to be a cop!” The drug dealer, hiding in the shower just a few feet away, overheard the policeman’s prediction and was deeply offended. “The nerve of that guy!” He later told me. Anyway, the policeman went away without breaking down any more doors. After some three days of searching, the police eventually found the men they were looking for and left.

Beyond the feeling of insecurity that such activities instill in the populations of favelas, they also inadvertently serve to de-legitimize the state and its agents in the eyes of Rio’s poor residents. Inevitably, the police comes to be seen as an invading force of outsiders who place the safety of the everyday residents of the community at risk. Such actions make it clear, at least in terms of police tactics, that the state is more than willing to treat the residents of the favelas as second class citizens, or even a some kind of enemies. Of course, individual police, whether from the Polícia Militar, Civil or Federal, have their own individual opinions regarding people in favelas and many are upstanding and well-intentioned. Still, there’s no getting way from the fact that the police in Rio de Janeiro are often corrupt and that they frequently employ brutal tactics of repression. By way of an anecdote, I was once horribly surprised at the candor of an army colonel who told me during a cookout that a bomb should be dropped on the favela of Borel. He was completely serious, and though he lamented the necessity to do so, he felt that due to a question of karma, there was no other way to straighten out the mess that Borel had become.

Returning to the question of why I have chosen to open this chapter with the pizzeria dialogue, I hoped that in portraying a proibidão funk song and its lyrics in the context of the discussion of the invasion I could suggest some of the principal features of its appeal for so many young people living in favelas. In proibidão, the police as portrayed as an invading enemy, one who is corrupt, prejudiced and incompetent, while the local drug traffickers are represented powerful, crafty warriors who both confound the police and replace them as the legitimate defenders of their communities. It could be argued that the drug traffickers are as much responsible for the invasions by police, and the resulting climate of violence that characterizes life in favelas, as the police themselves. This may be true, but when the guns pointed at a person are in the hands of the police, and when it is them who kick doors down and stop people in the streets, it is hard for a person not to see them as the enemy. The fact that many of the gangsters of the drug gangs in any given favela are residents of that community, and the police are not, only serves to deepen this sentiment. In this context, it is not surprising that many residents of Rocinha would sympathize with 21 in his Hollywood escape from the bumbling police, as it should not be surprising that the funk music which praises the deeds and lives of drug traffickers in general could become so popular in favelas.

In the previous chapter, I discussed the social landscape of the favela of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro and discussed some of the principal issues in the debate about the role and nature of organized crime in the city’s low-income communities. I also discussed the ways in which organized crime has patronized the musical practice of funk in their communities, principally through offering larges bailes funk in the favelas and by supporting various composers and singers of proibidão funk. In this chapter, I will discuss in greater detail the specific ideological strategies evident in proibidão-style funk that serve to construct the drug traffickers of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as ‘social bandits,’ or primitive rebel avengers of their local populations attempting to establish a traditional, clientelist system of social order. To what extent these drug traffickers actually are social bandits in practice is another matter and perhaps best left to some form or another of social science quantitative analysis. It seems to me in the model of the social bandit as primitive rebel, proposed by Hobsbawm, the tendency of the local population to see its outlaws as rebels is more important in terms of what it says about their consciousness than whether or not the outlaws really are rebels or not. Regardless, Hobsbawm recognizes the tendency for these outlaws to eventually accept and pander to this view, for the obvious benefits such popularity affords them. Thus, by focusing on Rio’s drug trafficker as social bandits in funk, and not necessarily in practice, I intend to analyze the complex set of ideological negotiations occurring between these drug traffickers and the residents of their favelas in the discourse of the power of the organized crime.

Whatever the agreement between the traffickers and their communities, it is informal and unwritten and the ways in which it will actually play out in practice are unclear and in a constant state of negotiation. Additionally, there are innumerous possible expectations and interpretations of the governance of the traffickers as there are innumerous needs of residents of favelas. In any event, these may or may not fall under the jurisdiction of the traffickers, who share space with other institutions such as NGOs, churches, neighbors’ associations and even limited government organizations.3 Some relatively clear rules and norms for the social organization under the traffickers must be articulated and upheld, to some extent, in deed in order that the various actors have a notion of the workings of power within the community. The traditional media in Brazil plays only a small role in the dissemination of the laws of the favelas, and it is usually the case, of course, that newspapers and televisions spread false information about the social formation of favelas. The hegemony of the drug traffickers is dependent on oral communication, more than anything else; residents talking to one another, recounting oral history both remote and recent, telling a neighbor what happened on their street and what they saw last night. A great many of the traffickers’ actions are intended to be public, in fact, and even great celebrations involving thousands of rounds of ammunition have their place in the construction of the hegemony of the boca-de-fumo.4 As the traditional media is to the status quo in Brazil, and the Globo television network in particular, so is proibidão funk to the order of the drug traffickers in Rio. It reflects the social formation of the favela even as it helps to shape it, naming names, mentioning places, reporting what is going on and the rules of how one must behave to survive in the world of the favelas.

If the members of a society do not learn the rules of power within their communities, they will inevitably break them. Those in power would then be forced to occupy themselves in the constant punishment of the guilty parties. For this reason, it is always beneficial for the ‘powers that be’ to improve the efficiency of their governance by educating those they govern as to their expectations. An action itself is often insufficient as a means of instructing the public and there is a need for some interpretive framework to explain it. In order to do this, the traffickers can call press conferences, as they sometimes did in the late eighties, in which they explain their understanding of their own role in the favela. Such a practice is dangerous for obvious reasons, in addition to the fact that, by calling on the press, the traffickers run the risk of having their messages distorted. Perhaps for these reasons, it has become rare to call the press and instead they have developed other discursive and ritual means of disseminating the rules of the favela. Presently, one of the most important means at the disposition of the traffickers for the representation of their power in the favelas are the bailes funk and the lyrics of the proibidão style. Proibidão funk in the favelas has become the principal platform for the presentation of the power of the traffickers and the underlying values and rules of behavior in their governance of the favela.

For instance, if the drug traffickers kill a rapist but no one knows why he died, the educational dimension of their action is nullified. In order to educate the residents about the rules of the favela, the traffickers might kill the rapist in the night and leave his body in the street with a knife holding up a note on his back saying that he will never rape again, something that did in fact happen on my street in Rocinha in October of 1990. They may instead drag him screaming from his home, marching him across the neighborhood to die in the clandestine cemetery at the top of the hill. They may even strip him nude and parade him around in women’s underwear. If such an action is to effectively discourage future rapes, it must not be seen as a random act but rather as being taken within some common understanding of the rules about rape in the community. In this way, the population learns the rule and is convinced that the traffickers can be trusted to efficiently enforce it. On the other hand, if word gets around that other rapes do occur and go unpunished, the authority of the traffickers will be diminished. In order to avoid spending all of their time policing the neighborhood and punishing culprits, therefore, it is in the interest of the traffickers to invest in activities that support and legitimize their hegemony through public ritual and discourse; activities such as the bailes funk in favelas and proibidão music.

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