Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk



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Trafficking Culture


Meu movimento é político-social, meu tráfico é cultural

Meu movimento é político-social, meu tráfico é cultural…

Vou te dizer, tem preto e tem branco, seu moço,

Tem sim, empenhado no seu bem-estar

A favela é socialista me deu overdose de consciência

Religiosidade, fé em Deus trazemos no coração

Paz, justiça e liberdade, guerra pelo bem sem destruição 20

The quote above is a good example of how various ideological strategies typically work together in the lyrics of proibidão-style funk songs. On one level, the MC of the song presents himself as a metaphorical gangster who traffics revolutionary thought instead of drugs. His consciousness, represented as an outgrowth of the culture of the favela at the self-reflective level, is a of blend religion, revolution and a social organization built around drug trafficking. With an impressive economy of words, and phrases like “faith in God” and “peace, liberty and justice,” which are slogans associated with the Comando Vermelho, the singer presents the core images associated with the governance of the drug traffickers: religious sentiment, the commitment to the well being of the gang and the community and the idea of the legitimate use of violence on the part of the drug traffickers. In addition, the song involves as double-entendre of the words “black” and “white,” which besides their racial connotation mean “marijuana” and “cocaine.” In so doing, the song elevates the favela as an instance of racial democracy, smoothing over very real and important racial differences that do exist in favelas, and rationalizes the economic base of the drug traffickers. Ultimately, the whole song is a sort of double-entendre that presents the “war for good” as both that of artist as a revolutionary intellectual, representing the revolutionary nature of the favela, and that of the gangsters as actual warriors in a just revolt. In any event, by talking about an “overdose” of consciousness, the MC ironically flips one of the most negative images of the culture of drug use around and turns it into the central metaphor of quasi-spiritual liberation in the song. The urban culture of the favelas of today are far more complex than the sort of pre-modern mostly rural cultures Hobsbawm discussed and thus it is not surprising that the role of its outlaws also be more complicated. As is the case in the song “Bandits of Christ,” this song is evidence of the mixing of Hobsbawm’s ideologically conservative “social bandit” and the more radical millenarian.



Although not all songs are such dense and complex discursive formulations as “Vamos Traficar Cultura,” most do present combinations and mixtures of various ideological strategies. In the remainder of this section, I will make some general comments about how funk’s discourse on the rule of the traffickers represents it as action-oriented and how it is rationalized, legitimated, universalized and naturalized in funk, categories borrowed from Eagleton’s work on ideology. (Eagelton, 47-61) Next I will look at strategies which present the power of the traffickers as that of the representatives of a unified community, another category suggested by Eagleton, the strategy perhaps most indicative of the deeper underlying ideology of their rule. Although such a discussion will be repetitive and hopefully somewhat superfluous at this point, the complexities of the social formation of the favela and its relationship with the dominant order, an order it depends upon even as it reacts against and resists it, merit the emphasis. In any event, the scope of such a discussion is big enough as to prevent anything more than an introductory attempt and I will have to be content to suggest some of the major features of that ideology,

Action-oriented- In the case of the favela it is fairly obvious that the principal activity of the drug traffickers is the actual trafficking of drugs. Residents know that these drug traffickers benefit from the sale of drugs and that, as residents, they had better not interfere with this activity. At the same time, the sale of drugs is seen by the population as somewhat of a necessary evil and that without it the traffickers would not be able to protect and help the community. As a result, many of the rules, motivations and prescriptions implicit in the rule of the traffickers are related to activities that are beyond the scope of selling drugs per se. These rules reflect the consensus on power that exists in the community, for example, that the traffickers must be the police, judicial branch, welfare services and recreational coordinators of the favela. This does not mean that churches, NGOs, businesses and even the government cannot provide these services as well, other than policing, that is, but that the traffickers are expected to perform actions in the interest of the community. In a similar way, the residents are expected to act within the same set of goals and rules, something which takes on a form somewhat similar to the “Ten Commandments of the Favela,” that ‘thou shall not inform the police’, ‘thou shall not steal’, ‘thou shall not rape’, ‘thou shall not murder’, etc. Other rules may be less dramatic but nevertheless still quite real: don’t play your music too loud too late on a weeknight, don’t be a deadbeat tenant, don’t stare at women in lewd ways, don’t punch another resident or throw a hotdog in a local vendor’s face. These rules are often made explicit in funk lyrics, as are the punitive activities of the drug traffickers in regards to infractors. In funk music, emphasizing the array of guns and other weapons in the possession of the traffickers is a form of evidence that they have the means to enforce their rules.

Rationalizing- It may seem that in the sad, tough reality of the favelas of Rio it would not be necessary to rationalize a social order built upon the sale of drugs. Certainly, the population would be inclined to accept any semblance of order over total chaos. Still, favelas are in many ways very conservative places and many residents oppose drug use and oppose the rule of drug traffickers of their communities; in fact, many people do not approve of legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes. I would say that as a result of this situation, a part of the rationalization of the power of the drug traffickers involves a separate rationalization of the use of drugs themselves. This rationalization is based on ideas that are not limited to the drug traffickers or Brazil but are rather widespread in contemporary international society. Part of this is the notion that using drugs is democratic and individualistic; the individual consumer should have the right to choose his or her own pleasure, just as with anything else in life. The individual in his or her efforts to live a good life becomes a consumer looking for a series of pleasurable moments and experiences that temporarily provide him or her with some degree or another of euphoria.21

Another rationalization of drug use that is important to the culture of drug trafficking is that drugs are not really so bad. According to this view, drugs can actually even be quite good, and the fact that they are illegal itself is hypocritical. After all, alcohol, a drug that can be just as dangerous as marijuana and cocaine, is legal. Furthermore, if an individual has a problem with drugs, it is his or her problem and it cannot really be blamed on the drug itself. Some would argue that using drugs is somehow a subversive act of rebellion against the values of the dominant order, it is part of a culture of brotherly love and anti-materialism, a culture quite contrary to the self-centered consumerism of the powers that be. Drug use is related to the artistic and creative side of people, it is a spiritual activity that can free the mind and help a person to think outside the box in ways which might make one a less passive subject for the traditional authorities.

In funk music, there are constant references to the use of drugs: “fui no Borel buscar uma trouxa,” “Confesso pra vocês que gosto de fumar um bagulho,” “Muita gente não sabia que no morro do Borel faço rap na maresia,” “Demorou formar o bonde do maconheiro,” “Demorou formar o bonde do rastafari,” etc. While many of these cast drug use, especially that of marijuana, in a positive light, there are also a great number that make fun of drug addicts, such as the “Bonde do che-cheiro,” which says, “A brizola faz a gente perder peso e não querer comer, mas depois vem aquela esticação, e quando ficar sem dinheiro vai ter que vender seu bermudão.” Such humor at the expense of the addict is not meant as a global condemnation of drug use in general, but rather actually deflects criticism about the evils of drug use by placing the blame on the individual abuser.

A rationalization that is more specifically related to the actual rule of the traffickers is the notion that, since the government doesn’t have a strong presence in the favelas, some local power must step in and provide the necessary services for the community. The selling of drugs is a necessary evil that benefits the residents of the favela. Anyway, the drugs are less often sold to residents than to mostly to wealthy people from outside of the community. These are generally the same people who benefit from the fact of economic disparity in the first place and don’t do much to alleviate the problem. I think that a very important aspect of the acceptance of the power of the drug traffickers by the communities they rule is a certain fatalism, or at least a deep sense of frustration, in regards to the notion of power in general. Poor people in Brazil often do not have high expectations from government and are indeed very much used to corruption and violent abuse from the “authorities.” There is a common notion among poor people in Brazil that the great majority of wealth and power in the country has been acquired through dirty dealings of one kind or another. From this point of view, the notion that the local power of the favela is built upon the sales of illegal and potentially dangerous substances is not so different. In other words, the illegitimacy of power in Brazil historically helps to legitimize the power of the drug traffickers in the specific case of their rule of the favelas.



Legitimating- By discussing above the ways in which an MC gives advice to gangsters and makes fun of them, I have already touched upon some important features of the legitimating ideological strategy in funk. The goal of this strategy is to get the public, understood as bandits and non-bandits alike, to begin to measure and judge itself according to the internal value system of the consensus on power and the rule of the drug traffickers. For example, if a person refrains from informing on the police not out of fear of the violent reaction of the boca but because he or she thinks it is morally wrong, the order has effectively legitimated itself with that person. Of course, all these ideological strategies are interdependent on the others, to some degree; it would be hard to get people to internalize the value system of the rule of the drug traffickers without also getting them to accept the notion as to the actions that orient the community, or without them seeing the order of the gangsters as being natural and rooted in universal values. The discourse on power in funk does not condemn a person for being a thief in Barra da Tijuca and Ipanema, for example, rich neighborhoods not under the rule of the drug gangs, whereas robbing within the favela is clearly prohibited. One funk song from Rocinha is even dedicated to the thieves of the community and celebrates their thievery across the wealthy neighborhoods of the Zona Sul. No mention is made in the song of the prohibition against stealing within the community, something that is widely understood anyway and is indeed mentioned in many other songs, such as “The Ten Commandments of the Favela.” Even besides the “rules” of the neighborhood, other cultural tendencies are constantly reinforced and presented in funk that can potentially become a part of the identity of people in the favela, be they gangster, funkeiro or otherwise. In any event, in order to effectively legitimize the discourse of the power of the traffickers, the rules it presents must apply to everyone, whether he or she is a trafficker or another resident.

Universalizing- In proibidão a religious sentiment is consistently expressed that connects the governance of the drug traffickers to notions of love, faith, peace, justice and liberty, higher principles which are seen as guiding all of human life both in and outside of the social order of the favela. Even though the specific phrase “paz, justiça e liberdade” is a slogan of the Comando Vermelho, the words still carry meaning as references to a notion of some universal human good. Humility is also frequently evoked as a necessary quality in the drug trafficker himself, a quality seen as giving him both the power and wisdom to survive and to help the community. Humility can also mean the idea that one must not forget who one is and where one comes from and that one must place loyalty to the community over personal interests. This emphasis on humility can be seen as a way of affirming the value of the people of favelas, gangsters and otherwise, and implicitly contrasting it with the stereotype common among Rio’s poor that middle and upper-class people are arrogant. In this sense, the frequent declarations about the humility of the drug traffickers can be seen as a means of constructing them as Hobsbawm’s social bandits who have been forced into being outlaws by the hypocrisy of the system. In any event, the rules of the favela are presented as being related to a higher authority based on the divine order of things that is applicable to all people at all times.

Naturalizing- In funk, the community of the favela and its drug trafficker leadership are consistently represented as being a family. The traffickers are not an invading force of people unconnected to the kinship ties and other social networks of the community, but are instead “cria,” or locals brought up in the favela; they represent the community and know it as intimately as everybody else living there. A typical funk song refers to the “manos,” or brothers, in the gangs and will often mention “cria”, such as in the line, “É o bonde só de cria que só tem destruidor.” The notion of brotherhood is also important, but more than a real kinship based on actual blood relations, the tribal family of the favela is formed on the basis of racial, class and geographical identities. This favela identity, standing in contrast to that of the Brazil of the “asphalt,” is something that involves other ideological strategies besides naturalizing, in particular the strategy of unifying. This may be one of the reasons that funk songs have always included rhymed lists of the names of favelas or areas of favelas that are considered “good.” For example, in the song “Rap da Rocinha,” by MC Galo, he sings, “Galera da Cruzada, Santa Marta e o Pavão, Tabajara, Mineira e a Providência é sangue bom, Cidade Alta, Juramento, Catete e Vidigal,” and so forth. Perhaps emphasizing the paternalistic structure of the traffickers’ governance is another aspect of the naturalizing strategy in funk, a paternalism which easily translates to the traditional tribal notion of power based on interpersonal relations mentioned as a part of the universalizing strategy. Also, the constant mention and showing of weapons can be seen as a naturalizing gesture in a society in which the weak are so used to being dominated by the strong that a show of strength makes the rulers seem natural.

Unifying- One of the most important features of the ideology of the rule of the drug traffickers present in funk is the way in which it builds some common identity of people in the favela. In reality, the demographics of favelas are extremely diverse and includes people with great differences in such aspects as race, class, gender, age, religious views and profession. In funk, one of the strongest characteristics of the unity of the people living under the rule of the drug traffickers is, not surprisingly, their common geographic identity. No matter what region one is from, or what color or sex a person may be, the fact that he or she lives in a favela makes that person a part of the family of the favela. As I mentioned in my comments on the naturalizing strategy above, this is one reason it is so typical to find lengthy lists of the names of favelas included in funk songs, lists that almost never include any wealthy neighborhoods. The physical space of the favela is elevated over the space of the asphalt in funk in a sort of semiotic inversion of the geo-political map of the city of Rio de Janeiro. In the case of Rocinha, which is enormous and includes several smaller areas within its space, the lists of the areas and their inclusion in the song strengthen the notion that Rocinha is one giant family, just as do the frequent boasts that it is that “biggest favela” in Latin America that occur both within funk and without. The demarcation of territory and the notion of belonging to the family of the favela ultimately depend on the fact that the favela is a mostly informal system within a largely hostile formal system. The racism and class-based discrimination felt by the people of favelas as lived experience helps to unify them. If residents did not feel excluded from and discriminated against by the larger society in important ways, if the government “authorities” were not viewed as incompetent or unconcerned with their lives, if innocent people were not killed by the police, the traffickers would have a much smaller chance of gaining legitimacy, no matter how fearsome they themselves might appear to be.

The importance placed upon geographic space in the discourse of funk calls to mind the “divided city” model put forth by Zuenir Ventura in his book Cidade Partida, a poignant study of the question of citizenship and changes in the concept of the "other", and has important implications for the larger Brazilian society. The focus of the book is the 1993 massacre by police of twenty one innocent people in Vigário Geral, a favela in Rio, and the anti-violence social movement "Viva Rio" which grew out of it, a movement which has grown since that time into a very important, very large group of NGOs in Rio. Ventura’s basic thesis is that Rio's society is undergoing an ever increasing polarization into rich and poor groups: the rich are becoming more and more terrified of the poor; the poor, on the other hand, are becoming increasingly frustrated as the result of the lack of effective participation in society with which they are faced. Ventura eloquently states the urgency of the problem of citizenship, connecting it with the growing level of violence in Rio. Ventura's reading of the socio-political climate of the late twentieth century is strikingly reminiscent of the classic study of the Brazil of the "litoral" versus the Brazil of the “arid hinterland” in Os Sertões, by Euclides da Cunha. In his analysis, da Cunha associated the coastal regions and the Republic with European influences and the notion of “progress,” while the backlands people were presented as racially inferior and backwards, a dichotomy da Cunha ambiguously supported even as he came to lament it and eventually denounce it. Ventura's model of the "dividing city" points out a similar tendency on the part of the elites of Rio to see themselves, as did those of the "litoral" perspective, as the white heirs of superior European culture, while viewing the favelas and other working-class neighborhoods as a "backlands" of black racially inferior barbarians.22

While Ventura’s work does suggest race nuances in his class-divided city concept, as did the work of da Cunha a hundred years ago, it never really explores the possibility that racial identity may also be becoming more polarized in Rio. Problems such as racism and the social exclusion of the poor are not new, nor are they limited to the lives of people living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, but rather they are a fundamental part of the 500 years of history since the first Portuguese began arriving on Brazilian soil. The slavery and genocide of African and indigenous peoples so important in the history of Brazilian civilization has resulted in a highly complex racial make-up in the country and an equally complicated racism. There is an extensive tradition of thinking about the question of race in Brazil that is crucial for the consideration of this issue in the culture of the favela and I could not hope to do justice to a discussion of the topic in the present study. 23 The racial component of the identity of the people of favelas is one that cannot be overstressed, though as a part of Brazilian racial identity it is as complicated as one would expect, and the culture of funk may yield some clues. Certainly, in the case of the ideology of the rule of the favelas by traffickers in funk, race and class do seem to be conflated in what one could term a process of “blackening” of racial identity. This may explain in part why efforts at consciousness-raising by the Black Movement in Brazil have not found greater acceptance in favelas. Still, if the construction of the identity of the favela resident is in some ways typical of freyrian notions of “racial democracy,” it is made in contrast to a parallel construct of “whitened” racial identity of the asphalt.24 In other words, though the favela may be projected in funk as a non-white and indeed “brown” space, the middle and upper-classes tend to be portrayed as “white.” In the case of funk and the identity of people in favelas, communities in which a widely mixed group of people of different racial types lives in close proximity, it is not surprising that race and class should be conflated as they are in the following refrain from a song by MCs Júnior and Leonardo, MCs who themselves are not black, “Eu quero mais paz e amor, justiça, liberdade para o pobre, para o negro.”

Each favela has a unique history and there is a wide variety of demographic make-ups in various favelas, often related to the age of the community. Also, since most favelas have sprung up and/or exploded in size within the last 40 or 50 years, the question of where people came from originally or where their parents came from originally is often an important part of an individual’s identity and must also be accounted for in the unifying process. Older favelas, like Mangueira, for example, tend to have more black residents, in part because the population is comprised of people who have histories in Rio and in part due to the immigration of large segments of people from Bahia in the late 19th and early 20th century. Newer favelas, such as Rocinha and the sprawling Rio das Pedras, in Jacarepaguá, have boomed amidst the massive immigration of people from other places in the Northeast, usually from the dry region of the sertão in states like Ceará and Paraíba, that has occurred in more recent decades. Further complicating the racial identity of favleas is the fact that the favelas tend to be looked upon by the middle and upper-classes as spaces of racially inferior “non-white” people. Of course, racism does exist in the favelas, too. For example, many Northeastern immigrants look down on blacks and even those who are very dark indeed are likely to consider themselves as white, or at least pardo, or brown. As a consequence, some residents of favelas like Rio das Pedras and Rocinha might think their favelas are better than other favelas having more blacks.

If we think of the space of the favela as a hybrid space of overlapping levels of pre-modern and post-industrial consciousness in which past Brazilian ideologies still hold their ground and share space with more recent ideological features, it seems possible that both the classic “whitening” influence and the freyrian “racial democracy”-type thought could exist, despite the fact that they are largely antithetical. In other words, while it is important for the notion of the unity of the people of favelas as a group of mostly non-white people who are oppressed and discriminated against by the larger society, in reality many negative racial stereotypes continue to operate within the social order of favelas. In Rocinha, for example, though it is common to find black people in the gangs, the majority of higher ups tend to be lighter in color. This reminds me a bit of Brazilian soccer, which could be pointed to as an example of Brazilian “racial democracy” in action, except that most coaches are white and most players have white wives and girlfriends, two details very relevant to the subtleties of race relations and racial hierarchies in Brazil. If a person wants to win a soccer game, or win a gun battle against the police, it is advantageous to field all the best players, regardless of race. Still, hierarchies do exist, and whereas a black person might be socialized to be a basic soldier or striker, society may teach him that he lacks the intelligence or moral authority to lead. If the Black Movement in Brazil has had trouble getting people to see the racial dimensions of Brazilian society, this may be in part because many of the poor non-white people in Brazil live in communities such as the favelas of Rio where the myth of racial democracy is still effective, even if that racial democracy is seen as being limited to the world of the favela itself and not as a real part of the larger system. Still, in the assimilation project of the drug traffickers, in which they attempt to smooth over differences between individuals members of the community, emphasis is given to the “browness” of the favela and used to solidify the allegiance of the population against the white dominant social groups. In any event, the construction of a racial and class identity in the favela is a complex topic that will be better left to the next and last chapter of this study, a chapter that explores the favela as a Diaspora community.
Conclusion: Rebels and Businessmen in the Backlands of the City

Ah, essa noite começou com tiroteio

Favela tava cercada não dava pra sair

E a criançada tava com desespero

Pelo amor de Deus, papai, tira a gente daqui

E aí então uma lágrima desceu

E vi que as minhas forças vinham das forças de Deus

Só peço àquele moço antes de apertar o gatilho

Que pense em seus filhos antes de matar os meus

Mas eu só quero entrar na minha casa, seu moço, seu moço,

E dar um beijo nas criança, beijar minha patroa

Ter o pão de cada dia, eu só quero é ser feliz 25

Whatever the motives of individual drug traffickers may or may not be, be they greedy or revolutionary, they do work within the culture of the favelas to legitimize their de facto governance.26 Although the illicit nature of their activities necessarily places the rule of the drug traffickers outside of the formal system, they would never be able to legitimize their control of the favelas if they were entirely oppositional to the status quo. By this I am not referring to the de facto involvement of the police in drug trafficking, or that of elites at the highest levels of organized crime. Though these two realities do work to reinforce the legitimacy of the drug traffickers, they are largely incidental to the actual hegemony of organized crime in the favelas. That is not to say that the drug traffickers of Rio de Janeiro could maintain their power without the complicity of state agents like police and politicians, or at least that they would be considerably less powerful without the cooperation of these agents. Additionally, the incompetence and corruption of state agents do serve to further legitimize the traffickers and in such ways as those suggested in the opening passage of this chapter, through their abusive treatment of people living in favelas. What I do mean is that the hegemony of drug traffickers depends upon the success of their ideological project and its relationship with the culture of favelas. As I have suggested above, this culture of the favela is an extremely hybrid one in which many forms of consciousness overlap and intermix. As a result, the leadership of the favela, especially that of the drug traffickers, employs ideological strategies involving elements of pre-modern and post-industrial societies. So no matter how “revolutionary” they may seem, the rule of the drug traffickers is mostly, as Hobsbawm might say, reformist and actually operates principally within a very traditionally Brazilian ideological framework. In fact, in some ways many constructs of Brazilian identity are even more deeply engrained in the minds of their residents than in people of the middle and upper-classes and the social formation of the favela is a microcosm of extremely conservative ideas of religion, race, class and gender. In the end, the ideological foundation of the rule of the drug traffickers ends up being ambiguous, at once reinforcing the national hegemony even as it challenges and undermines it.

On the one hand, it may be for this reason that the middle- and upper-classes have been able to live with the reality of the ‘favelification’ of their country for so long; the favelas have not been the breeding grounds for revolutionaries. Ironically, the revolutionary spirit of Brazilian hip-hop, notwithstanding Tema’s comments above, does not seem to evoke the kind of visceral response funk does amongst people of the Brazilian middle- and upper-classes. Perhaps the liberal ideals of hip-hop in Brazil, ideas that call for a complete restructuring of society, are modern enough to make sense to the status quo. Being a “revolution through words,” it is likely to be even less scary; in many ways, Brazilian hip-hop is something quite democratic and modern. Not so funk, which is infinitely less theoretical and future oriented. In the end, funk is not really a “revolt through words,” as I suggested earlier, but much more the musical expression of the reality of a present and ongoing “revolt through firearms.” Ultimately, however, the same non-revolutionary spirit that made the favelas tolerable for so long for the middle- and upper-classes is what is making them increasingly intolerable. Elites in Brazil can only tolerate the ‘favelification’ of the country as long as it does not spill over too much into their lives, as long as those ‘crimes of legitimate self-defense’ don’t become too rampant. This is because underneath the status quo attitude of looking the other way is a fear far greater than that of revolution; the fear of barbarism and the revolt of some pre-modern unconscious masses of backlands fanatics and cold-blooded gunmen.

The drug traffickers of the hills and favelas of Rio de Janeiro: demonized and romanticized, pre-modern and post-modern, social bandits who are oddly millenarian even as they are anti-revolutionary, the fear, neglect and complicity of the middle- and upper-classes have allowed them to come to power and helped them to stay there. The poor have made them their champions, albeit reluctantly, and they have come to occupy a crucial role in the administration of power in the larger Brazilian social order. It could be said that the War of Canudos, fought between federal troops and the followers of Antônio Conselheiro in the 1890’s, was the great challenge after the monarchy for the Brazil of the First Republic. Now, the “divided city” is the great challenge for the restored democracy in Brazil in the years after the military dictatorship. This brings to mind a line from perhaps the all-time most popular song of the funk movement, the “Rap da Felicidade,” recorded in 1995 by Cidinho and Doca, was sung as a letter to the authorities in Brazil. The song captures this sense of the poor people wanting justice and decent lives in the new democratic order, even as it implies the threat that if justice does not come from above, they will make it happen from below:

Sofri na tempestade agora eu quero a bonança.

Povo tenha força, só precisa descobrir

se eles lá não fazem nada faremos tudo daqui27






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