Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

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Bandits of Christ

Bandidos de Cristo, tem muita fé em Deus,

Bandidos de Cristo, tem muita fé em Deus,

para esta vida tem que ter muita disposição,

pergunte pro Patrão

O Rebelde ficou bolado, fez uma reunião

Quero todo mundo armado lá no alto do morrão

Fogueteiro de AR-15, o gerente de G3,

o vapor vem de pistola, eu vou falar só um vez

os soldados do meu bonde vem de 762

os olheiros de traçante, o aviso é dois em dois

o contexto quando é sangue, os amigos reconhecem,

Rebelde vem no comando de AK-47 14

The lines above, from the song “Bandits of Christ,” is a classic example of the complexity of the discourse about drug traffickers in funk music. The first and last verses of the stanza, the ones that mention the boss’s name, Rebelde, are in the third person. The use of the first person in lines two, four and five places the remaining verses in the voice of Rebelde himself, a former boss of the Rocinha quadrilha whose very name, “Rebel,” suggests the Hobsbawmian social bandit. The motive of Rebelde’s anger, the reason he has called his men to arms at the top of the hill, is never explained in the song. The implication, especially when it appears along with “Bandits of Christ,” is that Rebelde is an authority; symbolically, he is at the top of the social structure of the favela, as he is physically “at the top of the big hill.” He righteously prepares his men to come down like a storm, or like a plague, on the unidentified guilty party and take whatever steps necessary to correct any wrongs done. The detailed mention of the names of the guns used by the various types of gangsters in the quadrilha suggests his willingness and power to undertake this vengeance, but his power and authority do not stop at the barrel of his gun. Line seven is ambiguous; on the one hand, it can be taken as coming from Rebelde who, by saying, “O contexto quando é sangue os amigos reconhecem,” is thus portrayed as appreciating the worth of the support of the residents. On the other hand, it can be understood as being in the voice of the singer/composer and as merely pointing out what is portrayed to be an objective truth about the unity between the drug-traffickers and the community. The word sangue in this verse is a use of a heavily loaded slang expression of the culture of funk, sangue bom, literally “good blood.” Sangue has a certain racial or tribal connotation very important to the construction of a subaltern favela identity and to the idea that the gang is one with the people it rules and protects. The implication of being “sangue” in this case is that the gang is fair and righteous, not selfish or abusive. Whether the words are understood as coming from Rebelde himself or the narrator, a certain consciousness is implied of some mutual advantage between the gang as “sangue” and the residents as “amigos.” In this sense, the mobilization that Rebelde has called of his warriors and the unspecified violent actions they are about to take are clearly portrayed as part of Rebelde’s role as protector and champion of the people of his tribe.

The religious dimension of this song is remarkable, a dimension that begins with the initial image of the gangster as a ‘bandit of Christ’ but that goes much further. The first stanza, reproduced below in the foot notes, is about the “brothers” who are in prisons, a sort of Babylonian exile. There is something deeply messianic about the singer’s faith in God that the Boss will return one day. In the second stanza, also reproduced below, even the trafficking of drugs, conventionally seen as abominable, is viewed as a supreme gesture that unifies the city of Rio and the people of Brazil independently of their race and even of social class. By thanking the drug traffickers in this context, the “bandits of Christ,” the singer elevates them to the status of spiritual servants of a higher good and a social order not racially polarized or class stratified. The final stanza, reproduced at the start of this section, is steeped in nostalgia and that ever so Brazilian quality of saudades as it recalls a time when the Boss was not in prison. Back then, he was powerful and just and was a friend of the other people of the favela. When understood in the light of the whole song, this stanza becomes a longing for the “peace, justice and liberty” of the Comando Vermelho’s slogan, a utopian hope for people living in the harsh reality of the favela and one that can only be made reality by the good Patrãozinho, the good and beloved Boss, together with the power of the Comando Vermelho.

Hobsbawm’s observations about the phenomenon of social bandits as primitive rebels are easily applicable to the song “Bandits of Christ.” At the same time, the religious dimensions of “Bandits of Christ” take the song beyond the rigid demarcations Hobsbawm makes between types of “primitive rebels,” in particular those between the social bandit and the millenarian. For Hobsbawm, the social bandit, like the mafioso, is a form of primitive protest that is reformist in nature. Millenarian movements, which are apocalyptic and religious, on the other hand, have a far more sweeping, revolutionary scope that makes them much more modern, despite their superficial medieval appearance. For the social bandit, wrongs are righted and the order of justice is reestablished; for the millenarians, the whole world is remade from top to bottom. In any event, the necessary condition for either is a population with a “pre-modern” consciousness in which other forms of protest and social organization do not exist as practical options.

It seems to me that the construction of the drug trafficker as a social bandit in the song “Bandidos de Cristo” actually mixes the two impulses in a striking way in which the social bandit becomes something of a messianic figure. Hobsbawm thinks that the millenarian movements are mistaken by the modernized middle and upper-classes to be barbaric, that the revolutionary spirit in them is mistaken for the reformist impulse of primitive protests like the social bandit and mafia phenomena. Certainly, in the case of the war of Canudos, which Hobsbawm mentions on the first page of the preface to The Social Bandit, the Brazil of the coastal region did seem to view the followers of Antônio Conselheiro as backwards religious fanatics stuck in a medieval past centuries gone. In fact, the presence of the jagunços, or bandit gunmen of the sertão region where the war took place, did lead to a conflation of bandits and millenarians in the eyes of the Brazilian republican government, as is evident in Euclydes da Cunha’s master work Os Sertões (1902), also mentioned by Hobsbawm. My question is the following: if the population begins to turn the social bandit into a millenarian figure, would this mean for Hobsbawm that they are more or less pre-modern than a population that does not? We could turn the question around: is the notion of social bandit as millenarian figure more revolutionary than the traditional type of social bandit, described by Hobsbawm, or are the people so non-revolutionary that even a simple reformist revolt gains a messianic significance? My suspicion is that the latter is true and that, in the harsh reality of the favela and the crisis of social exclusion that surrounds it, the possibility of revolutionary social transformation is so remote that any possible semblance of order becomes eschatological.

It could be that in this sense the song “Bandidos de Cristo” suggests more than a symbolic “revolt,” one operating within conservative tendencies to restore a traditional order or right specific wrongs, and carries the discourse of the power of the traffickers toward a more radically revolutionary dimension that seeks to turn the world on its head. My suspicion is that such is not, in fact, the case, and that the mixture of imagery typical of the social bandit with elements of millenarian longings is the result of the radical cultural hybridity that exists in Rocinha. The social terrain of Rocinha in the new millennium is more complex than that of rural, pre-capitalist Italy, a reality that entails overlapping levels of consciousness characteristic of post-industrial and pre-modern society. As I discussed in chapter two, for decades Rocinha has experienced a massive influx of people from a variety of places in the Sertão backlands of the Brazilian Northeast. These people have steadily have mixed into a population that includes people from all over Brazil and from all sorts of socio-political backgrounds. The result is a hybrid culture in which bandits, for example, may in some ways be both the ruthless and hedonistic post-modern businessmen of Alba Zaluar’s portrayal of them and the traditional clientelist big bosses of the Sertão region. And once again, whatever they may actually be in practice, what is really at issue in the context of the present discussion is the way in which they are interpreted by the people and constructed as some kind of heroic figures who offers hope and courage to the population.

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