Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

Kiddy Funk at the Emotions Club

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Kiddy Funk at the Emotions Club

From high atop his father’s shoulders, a toddler in a tank-top sways to the pervasive beat of the music coming through the massive speaker stacks at the Clube do Emoções. It is Sunday evening in the summer and the matinê, or young people’s baile funk, is packed with kids eight to eighteen dancing amidst the swirl of lights and music that permeate the sweaty air of the enormous nightclub. They are dressed in close imitation of the slightly older crowd that will replace them here in a couple of hours. Girls wear tiny skirts, little bareback tops, skin tight stretchy jeans. Many boys are dressed in Bermuda surfer shorts, Gracie jiu-jitzu shirts and tennis shoes, some having close-shaved heads that are tinted a peroxide-blond or even light orange. Others among the young people in the club are more dressed-up, with long pants or pastel dresses. The bone-rattling volume of the funk music at Emoções limits most conversations to short phrases spoken up close to the ear, hand shaking and little kisses, as well as a good deal of eye-contact and flirting. The music is so loud as to be physical, a sort of sonic massage in which the base of the amps can be felt in the chest and the tiniest hairs on the body.

Despite the fact that Emoções is at the foot of the favela of Rocinha, it is crowded with people from other favelas and neighborhoods as well, such as nearby Vidigal on the other side of the Dois Irmãos mountain, Cidade de Deus and Rio das Pedras in Jacarepaguá. People mix about, greeting one another, seeing and being seen. Some dance, either in lines, pairs or groups of three, four, sometimes up to fifteen friends. Most keep to the large open space of the middle of the club, either on the dance floor or by the enormous bar, others move about on the top floor balcony areas, leaning against the railing and watching the crowd from above. More stand along the steep ramp leading down from the door and the group of security guards who are searching a group of kids coming in. Still others crowd around the vending carts on the outside of the street in the Estrada da Gávea, between a line of a hundred motorcycles and the heavy flow of traffic on Rocinha’s busiest street.

On stage is an MC in a camouflage shirt, baseball hat and a gold chain, a man commonly referred to as “the greatest all-time singer of funk.” He is black, in his mid-twenties, a local from Rocinha itself, and is a familiar presence at Emoções. He moves only very slightly as he holds the mike straight out from his mouth, rattling off his rhymes like machine gun fire. The MC is with the Comando Vermelho, the criminal faction that controls Rocinha and his message to the kids is exactly the same as the one he will sing at the adult dance later tonight. He sings with pride and love of the power and unity of the gang, of the power and unity of the community, of sorrow and death and of missing friends who are no longer here, of how not to get oneself killed or lost in a hard world of drugs, violence and poverty. He praises the local thieves who steal outside of the favela and laughs at the coke addicts who sell their Bermuda shorts for drugs. There by his side in front of the DJ, the MC’s beautiful wife stands on the stage in an aqua blouse and a skintight pair of Gang jeans, swaying modestly to the music, serenely proud of her famous and talented husband.

The sweatiness and smoke of the air intensify, the lights spin and electronic sounds pulsate and hum. A long train of teenage boys winds its way through the crowd of dancers in the middle of the hall. The toddler on his father’s shoulders moves his little body to the beat. He makes a gun with his thumb and fingers and gestures along with the MC’s music and the digital gunshots of the song- bang, bang, bang! 2

The Structure of Utopian Feeling in Funk

In the complicated knot of interdependencies connecting the space of the favela with the formal city, the balance of power between organized crime and the various levels of government is a subject of critical importance and one that lays at the very heart of the problem of social exclusion in Rio de Janeiro. Since the death of Tim Lopes in June of 2002, after he was discovered by drug traffickers as he secretly filmed their activities in a baile funk in the favela of Vila Cruzeiro in Rio, the climate of open warfare between the Comando Vermelho and the state has continued to worsen as the criminal faction has carried out an increasingly audacious strategy of terrorist guerrilla tactics. According to a recent article on page three of the New York Times, drug trafficking gangs in the favelas have been “ a serious problem” for a long time but “… in the last month the gangs have been attacking government buildings, shopping centers, hotels, buses and even the highways linking the city to the airport, virtually unchallenged, apparently in direct defiance of government authority.”3 The article quotes the superintendent of the Brazilian Federal Police in Rio, Marcelo Itagiba, as saying that, “The city is immersed in an urban guerrilla war, promoted by armed and organized terrorists groups.”(Rohter) Whatever may be said about such a characterization of the situation, it is clear that the problem of organized crime is critical and continues to be one of the great challenges in Brazilian society today.

In the preceding chapters of this study, I have argued that the culture of funk in the favelas is a symbolic site for the hegemonic project of organized crime in those communities, in particular in the baile de comunidade and the sub-genre of funk music known as proibidão in which the power of the criminal factions is affirmed. Still, there are obviously many other aspects of funk that must be considered and many possible approaches for studying the practice of funk music in the context of the social formation of Rio’s favelas. Just as an individual MC must decide if he or she is going to “puxar o lado do crime”, or “push the part about organized crime” in funk, a critic must choose whether to focus on such things as drug traffickers and the “corridor of death” style gang fights in dances or other tendencies and themes. I am all too aware that by attempting an ideological formations critique of my earlier chapters on the power of organized crime in the favelas, I run the risk of further stigmatizing these communities and the people who live there. The fact is that funk is a musical culture and a form of entertainment, a pleasurable leisure activity for people who could be doing something else if they wanted, and as such it can be seen as somewhat of a coping mechanism that helps people in satisfying their needs to experience such things as joy and fellowship in the harsh reality of low-income neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro. By focusing on funk as entertainment, I can examine fundamental aspects of its practice as a dimension of the culture of favelas in Rio that go beyond questions of crime and violence, without ignoring the specific socio-political and historic contexts in which funk has arisen and which are indeed intrinsic to its essence both aesthetically and culturally.

In this chapter, I will de-emphasize the directly political dimensions and the role of drug traffickers in funk and instead discuss it in more aesthetic and cultural terms. The comments and observations I make throughout this section of my study have been inspired by years of participant observation in the world of funk and favelas, along with a framework of theory drawn from literary and cultural studies. It is not my intention to present these observations as science, per se, but rather as somewhat philosophical reflections on a complex and polemic issue. My hope is that through such an approach I will be able to suggest some new pathways for discussing funk and popular culture in Rio de Janeiro, and contribute to the discussion of funk by scholars who have helped to bring the issue beyond the facile condemnation often made of funk that it is violent, pornographic, infantile and artless. In part, such reactions are the inevitable result of the distance between musical educations of listeners, particularly those due to class divisions and such notions as high and low art. From a distance, funk may be indistinguishable from other massified and commercial forms of cultural production, especially since one of funk’s most basic characteristics is the unashamed appropriation it makes of other world musical styles, from movie soundtracks to country music. The low-cost production value of the music and the baile funk itself are fundamental to its aesthetic because it “brings it to the people,” making it more affordable to write, sing, listen to and dance to funk music. As a result, the musical education necessary to produce and consume funk is readily available to people from low-income communities in the experience of their day-to-day lives.

In order to understand what makes funk a meaningful and indeed pleasurable practice for its fans, I will consider the cultural specificity of funk as a form of culture from Rio de Janeiro, a city known for its Carnival, and as one that is most prevalent among young people from low-income neighborhoods. Next, I will examine funk as a utopian form of entertainment in the cultural space of the socially excluded in Rio de Janeiro. In order to do this, I will begin by discussing funk through a framework employed by Richard Dyer in his analysis of the utopian tendencies of the culture of American musicals, a suggestive point of departure but ultimately one involving revealing differences. The level of audience involvement in funk and the communication between the performers and dancers skew traditional notions of production and consumption in ways studied by Ángel Quintero Rivera in his work on the “tropical” music of Caribbean cultures. After exploring this added dimension of the utopianism of funk music in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, I will enter into a slightly more literary aside, one which attempts to characterize funk in terms of more general tendencies of 20th century Brazilian culture, such as Brazilian modernismo, and popular music. Tying these various lines of argument together, I will suggest that the utopian impulse at the heart of funk is a fundamental dimension of its roots and essence as a Black Atlantic cultural form, in the sense explored by Paul Gilroy in his work on the spirit of African Diaspora cultures. From this point of view, the practice of funk within the community of the favelas of Rio can be seen as an example of what Gilroy calls the “politics of transformation,” a counterculture in which politics are played, sung, danced and acted and new modes of friendship, happiness and solidarity are enacted that are “… consequent of the overcoming of racial oppression on which modernity and its antinomy of rational, western progress as excessive barbarity relied.” (Gilroy, 38) Whatever counter-discourse it may present, funk is principally a counterculture consisting in emotional and physical practices conjuring up and sustaining a politically charged and powerfully moral musical space through which the community of the baile funk is unified, emotionally lifted beyond the inadequacies of poverty and brought into a spiritual state that makes available the feeling of what it would be like to live in a better world.

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