Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

A G3 and a Song about a G3

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A G3 and a Song about a G3

Vou falar agora vê se não bate viela

Os dez mandamentos que tem dentro da favela

O primeiro mandamento é não cagüetar

Cagüete na favela não pode morar

O segundo mandamento já já eu vou dizer

Com a mulher dos amigos não se deve mexer

O terceiro mandamento eu vou dizer também

E levar no blindão e não dar volta em ninguém

O quarto mandamento não é difícil de falar

Favela é boa escola mas não se deve roubar

O quinto mandamento, boladão estou

Vou rasgar de G3 o safadão do encharcador 5

One of the most succinct examples of the representation of the power of the drug traffickers in funk is the song “The Ten Commandments of the Favela,” quoted in the verses above. This particular was sung live at a baile funk in Rocinha, probably in the Via Ápia or the Valão sometime in 2001 by a duo from another favela controlled by the Comando Vermelho and appears on the pirate CD entitled Dos Bandy 2. The song suggests very clearly the idea that there is a consensus about what should be expected from the governance of the traffickers, some mutually recognized code of conduct or culture of the world of the favela. While the use of violence hangs over these commandments as the means of enforcing them, the commandments themselves constitute rules that go beyond the business of trafficking drugs. Just as God was represented in the Old Testament as capable of violence but having moral authority beyond this capability, so too are the drug traffickers represented in this song. The use of a religious metaphor for presenting the rules of the favela is typical of the tendency pointed out by Hobsbawm, whose ideas will be discussed below, to equate the outlaw with a traditional order. The performative dimension of the song, which occurs as the drug traffickers and other residents come together in the live setting of a baile funk in a street in Rocinha, is a ritual of power and is critical to the discursive function of the song. The performance of the “Ten Commandments of the Favela” is not a lecture to a group of feeble, repressed residents but a celebration of the strength, courage, smarts and anger of the people of the favela and of their rulers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the first commandment in the song refers to what is often called the “law of silence,” the law that a person cannot inform the police or rival gangs about the activities of the local gang. Such a person, referred to as X-9, Mr. M, or a cagüeta, is constantly represented in funk as the public enemy number one of the favela and his or her actions the ultimate cowardice and self-centeredness.6 The negative consequences such informants have on the business of trafficking drugs is obvious; less obvious perhaps is the way in which informing is seen as damaging to the well-being of the community. Perhaps the following quote from another proibidão song will shed light on this. The song begins with a short dialogue between a drug trafficker and a police officer who wants more money. The drug trafficker angrily suggests that the police officer sell him an informant:

-Aí, cidadão, é o arrego.

-Qual é, Chefia, de novo? Porra. Tá maluco.

-Pois o salário tá bravo, né?

-Ah, quer dindin, então vende X-9 para mim.

Next, the singer denounces the falsity of the X-9, who is said to have pretended to be a friend:

Se faz de amigo, só faz de conta,

Sujeito safado tem que apanhar,

Por causa dele o meu mano morreu

O plantão, todo o trabalho, ele enfraqueceu

E causou muitas mortes deixando infeliz

Famílias dos manos que eram raiz

Os moradores já querem pegar

Até grampearam o seu celular

O patrão já tá preso e mandou avisar

Sua sentença já vamos executar

É com bala de AK7

In the song, the singer blames the informant for the arrest of the boss, the death of members of the quadrilha and the sorrow of their families. Without the boss, the gang is weakened and cannot guarantee the protection of the favela. Worse still, it is always possible that the boss’s lieutenants will fight one another for leadership or that gangs from other areas will seize the occasion and attempt an invasion. Whatever the case, the peace of the favela has been compromised and the residents are in danger. The blatant implication of this song, like that of the “Ten Commandments of the Favela,” is that the person who has violated the laws of the favela should be punished. Still, violence and people talking, or singing, about violence are two different things; in the end, the fact that this “commandment” is being represented lyrically in a popular musical style and sung in a favela at a dance paid for by the drug traffickers brings it beyond “violent means” into a discursive framework. This discursive framework is considerably more complex than the gossip of neighbors discussing a specific murder, for the reason that the violent acts mentioned are not concrete, specific acts that have occurred but rather abstract general possibilities of what can happen if the ire of the gang is provoked.

The second commandment in the song, that one should not “mess with” the women of friends, is not one that is generally mentioned in funk and in fact is not considered to be a rule of the favela in general. In reality, this rule applies more to members of the gang than to the general public, perhaps because any ill-will between members of the gang can seriously weaken and jeopardize it. Still, the rule does reflect a more traditional view of sex relations than one might expect who sees every aspect of the power of the traffickers as hinging upon the force of their arms. For example, the rule could have been that the more powerful members of the community could be with whatever women they want, or at least that the drug traffickers could be with any women not involved with other drug traffickers. Instead, the rule is one that even those in power must obey. In any event, the rule does reflect a consensus about interpersonal relations in the favela; it does not prohibit other forms of involvement with women sometimes prohibited by other cultures, such as involvement with married women or women under eighteen. The basis of the consensus is less abstract and more directly born of the close tribal kinship of the members of the community; if one doesn’t know the husband or boyfriend of the women, it is ok to be involved with her. In a similar way, the third commandment, that one must respect the other residents and not do them wrong in general, is also indicative of this sort of personal level of actions over more abstract principles. The commandment is understood to apply only to the residents of the favela in dealing with other residents of the same favela and not as a more abstract moral code. The fourth commandment also suggests this loyalty to the favela as a sort of tribe or family when it forbids theft within the community. The fourth commandment calls the favela a “good school,” an inference that one can learn about theft from the residents but not carry out robberies against them. In the fifth commandment, the singer states the authority of the drug traffickers to kill those who violate the previous four, a sort of “Thou shall die.”

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the remaining five commandments of the favela are not mentioned in this version of the song: the singers do not finish the list but instead go on to do a medley of other proibidão style songs. Math, no doubt, is not their main concern, and perhaps the singers feel that they have already touched on the most important commandments with just five. In any event, it is a song sung at a live show where the aesthetics of funk and the entertainment of the crowd are also important. The point is that the “commandments” are indicating a set of commonly understood rules for life in the community and that these are not limited to the sale of drugs. So not only is there a discourse about the rules of the favela, there is a consensus about the values of who can use violent means where and when. The fact that these rules are being sung in a song at a baile funk patronized by the comando suggests that an intricate consensus is being negotiated within the social formation of the favela. This occurs through the actions of both drug traffickers and other residents as well as the variety of discursive forms through which the significance of those actions is defined and represented. This staging of power of the drug traffickers, both in the baile funk and the music of proibidão, indicates that at some level the acquiescence of the population and their dependency upon the drug traffickers does constitute some sort of “culture” of drug trafficking in which the hegemony of the traffickers is experienced as legitimate. The residents do have expectations that the traffickers will uphold the laws of the favela among the residents of the favela. By walking into the boca-de-fumo, fully expecting the traffickers to resolve his or her problem in a satisfactory way, a resident displays an understanding of the power of the traffickers that goes far beyond the notion of the “law of silence.” In the same way, by writing a song that depicts rules for the drug traffickers to follow, the composer has an opportunity to mold the notion of what it means to be a social bandit in the context of the favela and therefore participates in the negotiation of the order of power in the community.

Crimes of legitimate self-defense

The cliché “bota o fuzil pra cantar!”, which appeared at the beginning of the last chapter, is a typical opening line in funk meaning “make the gun sing.” These words are shouted by a proibidão-style funk MC as if to the DJ, who then unleashes the heavy beats of the song so the MC can begin to sing. In the other song quoted at the beginning of this chapter, the opposite occurs and instead of musicians making music that is gunfire, gangsters make gunfire that is music. The equating of gunfire and music in these two directions is emblematic of the deep relation of funk to the gangs and of their discourse of the drug trafficker’s rule of the favela. In these two apparently simple verses, funk music and gangster violence are mixed together in one complex knot that both glorifies criminal behavior and laments the system that creates it. “And the friends on duty (the armed gangsters guarding the favela against invasion by police or rival gangs) made their guns sing, and they made that old ‘bang bang rap’ become reality.” The verses portray a gunfight between the soldiers of the favela and an unspecified invading force. In the song, the gangsters make their guns “sing;” on one level, they are engaged in a life and death gunfight and on another they perform a song about a life of deadly gunfights.

The song turns shooting into singing, but it is not just any singing that is implied in the song. The old ‘bang bang rap’ referred to is the “Rap das Armas,” a tremendous funk hit recorded by two brothers from Rocinha, Júnior and Leonardo, in 1995. The refrain from that song, sung on their album by guest vocalists Cidinho and Doca, of the Cidade de Deus favela, is a vocal imitation of the sound of machine gun fire, “pa parrá pa parrá pa parráa claque bum.” Though the song “Rap das Armas” was intended by its authors as a protest of violence in Rio, it was accused in O Globo of glorifying the Comando Vermelho and the song found itself at the center of a wide spread debate as to whether or not funk was an apology for crime.8 The new song, performed some six or seven years after the controversy over “Rap das Armas,” could certainly be considered an “apology for crime” in a way that the original never was; the gangsters portrayed are presumably trying to kill somebody with guns. Still, the semiotic inversions implicit in the song turn things on their head in a playful way; a machine gun becomes a voice imitating a machine gun and violence becomes a staging of violence. The gangsters, like the MCs of proibidão funk themselves, engage in singing/fighting as a counterattack, as a means of asserting themselves against another power from without. Though their violent acts are glorified, as is their power and identity as the champions of the favelas, the tragic singing of their machine guns also becomes the mark of a hard life of violence and poverty.

With such blatant praise of the violence of the drug traffickers so common in proibidão funk, it is easy to understand why funk is so often accused of making an “apology of crime.” Let me say from the beginning that in my opinion, yes, proibidão does make an “apology of crime,” though what this actually means is more complicated than one might expect. The “crime” it defends is, of course, the culture of the drug traffickers who partially govern the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and who provide their communities with policing, basic welfare services and recreational activities. These drug traffickers are defended and glorified in proibidão funk and are, in fact, represented as being the legitimate defenders of the poor against the violence and corruption of the larger Brazilian system. The “crime” being “apologized,” in this sense, is not random violence but rather a sort of systematic “revolt as survival tactic” by some of the people most effected by the crisis of violence that plagues Rio and indeed Brazil more generally. To defend this crime, however, as do the MCs and indeed the entire culture of proibidão, is more than to make a protest; it is a way of negotiating the use of power in the favelas through the discursive field of the hegemony of the drug traffickers. True, the crimes praised in proibidão often go beyond the activities of the drug gangs as defenders of everyday people and even the sale of drugs, sometimes glorifying such things as robberies, assaults, and kidnappings as well. Still, in the end, what appears to be an “apology of crime” is also an implicit condemnation of the social norms in Brazil that have created high levels of class and race disparity and produced a social welfare system dependent on organized crime for its very existence.

In March of 2002, I conducted an interview with a very talented hip-hop artist named Nêgu Tema who was living in my area of Rocinha and who taught me a great deal about favelas and contemporary music in Brazil. At the time, Tema and I were working to put together a hip-hop workshop for kids in the favela through the Two Brothers Foundation. Unlike most hip-hop artists and indeed fans who tend to dislike Brazilian funk, Tema was somewhat positive about funk and even sympathetic with what he identified as a certain spirit of revolt in proibidão. He definitely liked it much more than the more sexualized, pop variety of funk and he even wanted to get some of the big name proibidão MCs, whose song writing and delivery he admired, involved as teachers in our rap workshop. I asked Tema to compare the older type of protest songs, songs calling on an end to violence that had been common in funk in the mid-nineties, like “Rap das Armas” and “Rap da Silva,” to the proibidão-style funk songs of the millennium. Surprisingly, Tema told me he didn’t see proibidão as so different:

O funk quer fazer uma crítica social quando faz o “Rap da Silva” e quer fazer uma crítica social também depois quando fala do poder dos nossos irmãos do Comando Vermelho, e aí? É uma crítica também. É, que fala, “Porra, nunca me deu, nunca me deu oportunidade este sistema, então, ó, sou da Rocinha e não dou mole pra Terceiro Comando querendo esculachar,” …“Ó cachorro, vem me vender um X-9, pega o dinheiro e rala.” 9

Not surprisingly, Tema linked the rebellious spirit of proibidão and the cult of the gangsters to the failings of the system for many poor youths. Furthermore, whereas some would say that the system bears the burden of half the blame for the actions of poor criminals and the individual criminal is responsible for the other half, Tema is more radical. According to Tema, crime is widespread and found everywhere in Brazil, but there are different types of crime, like the crime of the rich against the poor and the crime of the first world against the third world. The difference, he said was that, unlike these types of crime, the crime of the poor is in legitimate self-defense, “…o nosso crime é de auto-defesa, de legítima defesa.”10 So by representing and glorifying this crime musically and artistically, singers and composers of proibidão are engaging in a strategy of protest against the unfair treatment of the poor. Tema does not see much difference between the performance of proibidão funk and involvement in more explicitly criminal activities. Unlike the rappers of West Coast gangsta rap in the U.S., who he sees as mostly posturing, Tema views the Brazilian MCs of proibidão as actual criminals revolting in both word and deed. They are not posturing, but are rather singing about their real lives and those of the gangsters they represent.

Interestingly enough, it is not the glorification of violence that Tema criticizes in MCs of proibidão funk music or the gangsters they sing about, but rather their lack of a more explicitly revolutionary consciousness. He thinks the militant spirit of proibidão and indeed the culture of drug trafficking more generally needs to be tempered with some a broader, more radical rejection of the violence of the system.

…Eu me considero gangsta… eu me considero criminoso, igual ao Galo, igual ao Catra, só que um criminoso diferente… um criminoso diferente, mas com mais ódio do que eles. Eu nunca me esqueci do preconceito que eu sofri, não… eu não esqueci, mano…11

Tema says that, more than just the sense of revolt he identifies as the driving force behind proibidão, his higher level of consciousness has stirred in him a greater hate for the status quo than that of his funk counterparts. In Brazilian hip-hop circles, people say that “rap” is revolução através da palavra, or “revolution through words.” Proibidão, as Tema sees it, like the rule of the drug traffickers themselves, is still subversive but much less articulate and self-conscious and ultimately not revolutionary. Although Tema himself never said so, one could say that the rap in funk, instead of being a “revolution through words” is a revolta através da palavra, or “revolt through words.” In the end, Tema’s assertion that the crimes of the poor are “legitimate self-defense” turns the concept of an “apology of crime” on its head. Poor criminals such as the drug traffickers that govern Rio’s favelas become “legitimate defenders,” as do the MCs who advocate them. Tema’s hip-hop revolution may be more self-reflective than that of funk culture, but ultimately both revolutionaries and outlaws act on the impulse to reject the power and authority of the state.12

Drug Traffickers and Primitive Rebels

While Tema’s comments, reproduced above, are both intelligent and suggestive, I do not offer them as conclusive evidence as to the nature of drug traffickers but rather to shed light on the way in which residents of favelas can see organized crime in this way. Certainly, Tema’s interpretation of Rio’s drug traffickers as some sort of ‘primitive rebels’ who revolt against the system in legitimate defense goes is at odds with Alba Zaluar’s analysis, discussed at length in chapter two. And unlike the portrayal of the drug trafficker as the legitimate defenders of the populations of favelas so evident in funk songs like “The Ten Commandments of the Favela,” for Zaluar the gangsters are radically self-serving business people who impose their rule through nothing more than the force of their arms. In addition to her constant claims that the scope of their activities does not include welfare and recreational functions but rather is limited to the efficacy of the sale of drugs in the favela, she also writes that the drug traffickers, “…acabam empregando meios sempre violentos para manter seu poder.”13 She frequently argues against the tendency of residents of favelas and newspaper reporters to view the drug traffickers as “social bandits” or primitive rebels:

…não cabe romantizar ainda mais do que os moradores da área um bandido-protetor ou bandido-herói e concluir que estamos diante de heróis românticos de um movimento social. Apesar de todas as conotações com a injustiça que os termos revolta e revoltado trazem à tona, a atividade principal está num rendoso comércio –o tráfico de tóxicos – e o seu estilo de vida está longe de ser contestatório… Nem tampouco têm “um programa de defesa ou restauração da ordem tradicional das coisas tal como deveriam ser” como supostamente os bandidos ou os camponeses fora-da-lei. (Zaluar, 31)

Zaluar’s comment that the residents of the favelas themselves are romantic about the nature of the drug traffickers is interesting. Perhaps she sees the “romanticism” of the population of the favelas as some sort of false consciousness. Certainly it is possible for people to have unrealistic notions about their rulers; in fact, to a large degree, such a problem is fundamental to the very concept of ideology itself. Still, one must be careful in suggesting that the social scientist knows the reality of the situation better than the actual residents. By the same token, I think the word “romantic” is insufficient to describe the attitudes of the much suffered people of the favelas of Rio, people who have every reason to be very practical and realistic. In any event, by suggesting the existence of romantic notions amongst the residents of favelas characterizing the traffickers as protectors and heroes, Zaluar undermines her general assertion that the rule of the traffickers relies solely on the power of their weapons and violent means. If there is not some sort of culture of favelas, and some accompanying discursive process through which such notions are presented and negotiated in the hegemonic terrain of the favela, how do these romantic notions grow and take hold?

In any case, the residents do have notions of the relationship between those who are drug traffickers and those who are not, and they do have an idea about how the rules about violence work. As much as these notions are derived from concrete actions, they are also derived through communication between residents about those actions. To some extent, such notions arise as people observe the actions of the drug traffickers and talk about them with one another. Residents of favelas comment on violent occurrences in their communities in which informants or thieves are killed, for example, occurrences that can take place in their next door neighbor’s house, on their street or around the corner. They will say things like, “Wow, that was surprising!” and, “Boy, he sure had that coming,” or, “My God! What’s the world coming to?!” The drug traffickers are, of course, aware that people discuss their actions in the neighborhood and often choose to perform these actions publicly to let people know what they are doing and why. Such behavior is an extremely powerful and important aspect of the hegemonic process through which power and the authority of the drug traffickers is negotiated. This process is more than an education of the rules of favela life from the repressive machine of the drug traffickers; it also involves the expectations of the non-trafficker residents of the communities in terms of how power and leadership should and should not work. On the one hand, it allows the traffickers to institutionalize and extend the reach of their power and authority; on the other, since the non-trafficker residents of the community have a voice in the dialogue, they also actively participate in the development and acceptance of the consensus on power in the favela.

Distinctions like the ones made by Nêgu Tema above between revolutionary activities and more primitive revolts are fundamental to E.J. Hobsbawm’s classic study of social bandits, the mafia and millenarian movements of the 19th and 20th centuries. Hobsbawm’s analysis focuses on the ways in which pre-modern peasant communities in 19th century Italy tended to regard their outlaws as “social bandits.” These bandits were seen as protectors resisting the corrupt order of the legal authorities, redistributing the wealth, righting wrongs and dealing out justice within the parameters of a traditional value system. For Hobsbawn, the pre-modern, pre-capitalist consciousness of these peasants limited them from envisioning the total overthrow or destruction of the social order in which they lived. For this reason he considered the millenarian movements to be more “modern”, despite the fact that they were often contemporaneous with the cases of social bandits studied by him, precisely because the radical apocalyptic vision driving them call for the total destruction of the world as it was. In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of Hobsbawm’s model is the way in which it emphasizes the consciousness and opinion of the peasants over the intention of the criminals to be seen as social bandits. For Hobsbawm, altruism is not a necessary ingredient in the make-up of the social bandit, who rather more likely to be motivated by self-serving political sensibilities:

It does not greatly matter whether a man began his career for quasi-political reasons like Giuliano (an Italian mafioso studied by Hobsbawm), who had a grudge against the police and the government, or whether he simply robs because it is a natural thing for an outlaw to do. He will almost certainly try to conform to the Robin Hood stereotype in some respects; that is, he will try to be ‘a man who took from the rich to give to the poor and never killed but in self-defense or just revenge.’ He is virtually obliged to, for there is more to take from the rich than from the poor, and if he takes from the poor or becomes an ‘illegitimate’ killer, he forfeits his most powerful asset, public aid and sympathy. If he is free-handed with his gains, it may only be because a man in his position in a society of pre-capitalist values shows his power and status by largesse. And if he himself does not regard his actions as social protest, the public will, so that even a professional criminal may come to pander to its view. (Hobsbawm, 20)

For Hobsbawm, the lack of altruistic motives does not keep a bandit from being a “social” one; what makes him a social bandit is that he is outside the law and dependent on the support of other poor people who are sympathetic to him. The social bandit’s decision to play up his image as being a protector of and for everyday people is characterized by Hobsbawn as more of an afterthought than evidence of a revolutionary consciousness or an agenda of social contestation.

Another aspect of Hobsbawm’s analysis that is interesting is that the social bandit does not need to impose himself on his supporters. Certainly the bandit may impose himself to an extent on his supporters, but if he is too repressive the people will turn on him and he will therefore lose the advantage of their protection. If he is smart, on the other hand, the natural affinity many other poor people will have for the social bandit will grow. This is why, for Hobsbawm, the phenomenon of the social bandit emerges more from the attitude of his supporters as from the bandit himself. In the following quote, Hobsbawm expresses an idea very similar to those of Nêgu Tema discussed above:

…For in some sense banditry is a rather primitive form of social protest, perhaps the most primitive we know. At any rate in many societies it is regarded as such by the poor, who consequently protect the bandit, regard him as their champion idealize him and turn him into a myth.(13)

So, on the one hand the public elevates the bandit to the status of a heroic avenger and protector of the weak, and on the other hand the bandit panders this view; both parties stand to gain in this construction, for if the public can get the bandit to name himself as their protector and avenger, they can see at least some of his power used for their needs. In a like manner, by placing himself within this framework created by the public, the bandit gains protection against the legal authorities, greater access to supplies, a more developed system of eyes and ears and even some people willing to join his group of bandits. This mutual benefit has important consequences for the dynamics of the hegemonic process and how both the top and the bottom affect the construction of power in the favela, a process that cannot be adequately explored in the confines of the present study.

Hobsbawm’s observation that the social bandit phenomenon is related to a pre-modernist consciousness which is not revolutionary may help to explain Nêgu Tema’s dissatisfaction with the drug traffickers and with the MCs of proibidão and his feeling that they are not radical enough. In some ways, the drug traffickers and MCs of proibidão are tragic figures for Tema, as is the social bandit for Hobsbawm; their revolt is a crime of legitimate self-defense by people pushed to the edge by a socially stratified, corrupt and violent society. They may be brave, just and clever within the landscape of the reformist battles they fight, as they may spend some of their wealth on charity for the poor and as acts of personal largesse. But the tragic nature of these bandits is not the result of their ruthlessness and potentially violent nature but rather because their overall aims tend to be conservative and fundamentally non-revolutionary. In the end, although the bandits are raised up as champions of the poor, they represent more of a survival tactic, an immediate response to the failings of the larger Brazilian social order, than a forward thinking revolutionary plan. Rio’s drug traffickers fight a system in which they themselves are trapped in a parasitic relationship, a system they can never really hope to destroy or replace.

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