Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

Utopia and Entertainment in Funk

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Utopia and Entertainment in Funk

Art’s Utopia, the counterfactual yet-to-come, is draped in black. It goes on being a recollection of the possible with a critical edge against the real; it is a kind of imaginary restitution of that catastrophe which is world history; it is a freedom which did not pass under the spell of necessity and which may well not come to pass ever at all. -Theodor Adorno 4

Despite its apparent superficiality, entertainment, and indeed leisure activity in general, more often than not have a rather important function in human life. The somewhat somber quote above from Theodor Adorno is very appropriate to the question of the utopianism of funk music in Brazil because it highlights the fact that the utopian impulse is born of a radical dissatisfaction with the world as it is in the face of real history and everyday life. The advantage of opening the discussion of funk as entertainment on such a note is that in some ways it links the question to the issues addressed earlier in this study of the culture of funk and the power of the drug traffickers as an alternative and counter-hegemonic order. To a degree the question of utopia has been present in the discussion from the beginning, most obviously perhaps in the issue of the cult of the trafficker as social bandit and the quasi-messianic undertones and of some proibidão funk.

Perhaps it may at first seem strange to some critics of funk to talk about utopianism in a musical practice that is as controversial for being violent as is funk and that is considered by many to be at least pornographic, childish and lacking art. In the first place, I do not mean here the sort of utopia of theoretical plans for the creation of an ideal world, or even of a specific, conscious plan of how to transform society for the better. I am thinking instead of the sort of entertainment-based utopianism Richard Dyer describes in his study of American musicals in which he characterizes utopianism as the feeling of how it would be to live in an ideal world.

Entertainment does not, however, present models of utopian worlds, as in the classic utopias of Sir Thomas More, William Morris, et al. Rather the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized. It thus works at the level of sensibility, by which I mean an effective code that is characteristic of, and largely specific to, a given mode of cultural production. (373)

The “given mode of cultural production” Dyer most closely relates to utopian practices is music, which he claims to be the most “felt” performance medium. (373) The musical dimensions of practices like American musicals, the object of Dyer’s study, and Brazilian funk involve participants in an extra-rational, mostly emotional experience that embodies utopian feelings through a series of ‘non-representational’ signs. For Dyer, signs like “… colors, texture, movement, rhythm, melody…”(373) are even more fundamental to the utopian impulse of entertainment than the formal ‘representational’ ones, such as song lyrics and movie scripts.

The utopianism in entertainment is, according to Dyer’s argument, a sort of escapist flight from the stark inadequacies of real day-to-day life, inadequacies that correspond to the failed promises of patriarchal capitalism in America. Nonetheless, Dyer does not condemn this fugitive aspect of entertainment as necessarily breeding apathy but instead suggests that the flight from reality itself stems from some unconscious, revolutionary urge. He writes:

Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as “escape’ and as ‘wish fulfillment’, point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism. Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes and wishes- these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realized. (373)

Whether an entertainment culture be a movie, a show or a baile, the specific characteristics of the escapism it offers make up what its particular utopianism. By this I mean the ways in which a specific utopian form corresponds to the particular conditions and inadequacies of the society in which it arises and the ways in which it interacts with the means of ideological production of that society. For instance, American musicals, especially those of the 1930s, 40s and 50s analyzed by Dyer, relate to inadequacies perceived in real life vis-à-vis the presentation of the ‘American Dream’ by the media and popular culture of that period. In a similar way, the utopianism of funk meets specific demands of young people from favelas and other low-income areas in Rio in relation to what could be called the ‘Brazilian Dream.’

In addition to the fact that funk entertainment exists in a different socio-political and cultural context than American musicals, the much higher degree of co-participation between the performers and the audience in funk make it necessary to slightly revise or adapt Dyer’s notion of entertainment. For Dyer, entertainment is a commercial mode of cultural production that he contrasts with performances in other contexts, such as tribal, feudal or socialist. Entertainment is “…a type of performance produced for profit, performed before a generalized audience (the ‘public’) by a trained, paid group who do nothing else but produce performances which have the sole (conscious) aim of providing pleasure.” (372) In funk, however, especially in the space of the baile, the audience is made up of performers much in the way of the classic Carnival. Furthermore, the semi-ritualized space of the baile, from the “corridor of death”-type battles to rites of courtship and dance practices, aspects that have existed and been studied throughout the history of funk, indicate that at some level funk entails something more akin to ritual performance than pure entertainment.5 Nonetheless, for me the mixture of performance and audience does not lessen the force of the utopian urge in funk, but rather constitutes a fundamental aspect of its particular brand of ‘escapism’ as entertainment. In the end, this involvement of the fans as performers in funk makes up an important part of the ‘feeling’ of living in a better world accessible in the space of the dance as the individuals of the audience themselves are transformed into stars.

An application of the criteria set by Dyer in his study on the utopianism of American musical opens up relevant perspectives for the case of funk, as I will explain. But first, it is worth considering a bit more some of the fundamental differences between musicals as entertainment and the practice of funk. As I have pointed out, the infinitely higher level of active participation on the part of the audience in funk is the factor that most greatly separates it from forms of passive entertainment like musicals, which more conveniently fit into traditional notions of the circuit of production and consumption. Funk can easily be seen as an example of what Puerto Rican sociologist Ángel Quintero Rivera has called músicas mulatas and the tendencies of Afro-Caribbean culture with which he identifies them. Quintero Rivera identifies five major characteristics of músicas mulatas that make overturn traditional divisions between things like perfomance/audience and production/consumption. To begin with, the act of composition itself is done with the intention that space will be left for vocal and musical improvisation, improvisation that is understood as a vital part of the resulting communication between the performers and their audience. Second, the vocalist is expected to spontaneously add-lib additional lyrics, sounds and gestures in his personal interpretation of the original composition. Also, improvisational musical breaks, such as jam sessions or descargas, are built into the songs, and individual musicians of an extremely wide variety of instruments are given space to play and interact with the crowd and vocalist. Next, the public itself is an active participant in the performance of the music, clapping out syncopated beats with their hands, singing along with the songs (especially choruses), demanding energy from the stage and dancing. One final characteristic he highlights is what he calls the polivocalidad, or polivocality, of Afro-Caribbean musical forms through which an extreme hybridity is formed. According to Quintero Rivera, sounds and instruments are strategically borrowed from European, African and indigenous sources alike, and mixed with other elements appropriated from world popular and mass culture in a way that democratizes and overturns the hierarchy of instruments and voices.6 It is worth noting that these features, which Quintero Rivera identifies as typical of “tropical music,” are in fact also typical of Afro-American music, and indeed African music, in general, as can be seen in varying degrees in the traditions of forms like gospel, blues, jazz and hip-hop.7 According to Paul Gilroy, these tendencies are characteristic of the cultures of peoples of the African Diaspora in general, as I shall explore later in this chapter.

In the context of these observations, it is noteworthy that the baile funk is indeed a baile, or dance, and not a “funk show”, something that makes it fundamentally different from forms of entertainment such as musicals. It may be the case that Brazilians in particular like to participate actively in their entertainment, as is apparent, for instance, to anyone who has attended a soccer game in Brazil or watched the Brazilian national team in a World Cup match on TV and seen the large numbers of fans beating on drums and calling out chants. In the case of funk, I would say that in a sense “true funk” only exists in the space of the baile. Other instances of funk, such as listening to the music in the car or at home, are somewhat two-dimensional and crystallized moments of funk that tend to work in reference to the more quintessentially funk culture of the baile, live and improvised in a community of funkeiros who are as much a part of the spectacle as the paid performers. Indeed, this is one of the reasons I have referred to funk throughout this study as a ‘practice’ and a ‘culture’ and not just as ‘music’. Funk is an organic confluence of living signs, melding and mixing together in a flow of sights, smells, sounds and gestures. In this sense, the stage in funk ends up spilling out throughout the dance and among those in attendance, overturning traditional divisions between the spectacle and the spectators and between production and consumption. As a result, the central locus of the consumption of funk, the baile, is also the principal point of production of funk.

The mixture of consumption and production in funk may be a good part of the reason it is so unpopular among people who have never gone to a baile, as it limits the ability of the traditional consumer to even understand funk. True, there has always been a funk song or two that gains national popularity, like MCs Leonardo and Junior’s “Rap do Centenário”, about the hundred years of the Flamengo soccer club; Claudinho and Buchecha’s ultra-smooth and romantic “Nosso Sonho”; Bonde do Tigrão’s raucous “Cerol na Mão” and Serginho’s “Pocotó”, a children’s song about a little horse that dominated Carnival across the nation in 2003. Still, access to these songs is not really access to funk, in the sense of the high level of audience participation that characterizes it. In truth, funk has never consistently maintained national or even city-wide popularity throughout the social classes in Rio. Even some poor people from neighborhoods other than favelas, such as the suburbs of the Baixada Fluminense, may have a more limited access to the complete culture of funk because, for one thing, the Proibidão-style songs about the drug gangs and criminal factions are not played on TV and radio and in fact are often not played in nightclubs outside of favelas. A person exposed to the forms of funk that are more easily marketed by the mass media in Rio and Brazil will experience only a limited brand of funk, one largely divorced from the improvised experience of the baile, and one which communicates the pleasure of the utopian dimension of funk to a much lesser degree.

This may offer some clues as to why, of all contemporary musical styles in Brazil, perhaps only sertanejo country music elicits anything like the degree of dislike, and even disgust, from non-fans as does funk. Sertanejo, in my opinion, is another example of utopian entertainment, one which projects an imagined simplicity of an idealized and noble rural life, implicitly contrasted to the noisy pace of modernized life. Sertanejo is another Brazilian musical style which has appropriated a considerable dose of American culture, that of country music, and a fairly unsophisticated level of musical virtuosity. This makes it somewhat unpleasant to a great many Brazilians who are not fans, yet, in terms of sales, sertanejo is indisputably one of the most popular styles in the country. I would argue that the appeal of sertanejo consists less in its musical merits than in the specific socio-historical and cultural context in which it is enjoyed, a sort of ‘pastoral return’, especially in a country characterized by fairly recent emigration from the countryside to the great urban centers and the accompanying fragmentation of the communities and values of rural life in the face of rapid modernization.

If sertanejo is a ‘pastoral return’, funk is the somewhat corresponding ‘city dominated’ utopian view. As is the case with sertanejo, in funk it is ironically their very participation that enables its fans to derive pleasure from it. Because of this participation, those same aspects of funk that make it intolerable to many non-fans, such as its multiple layers of violence, sexuality and playfulness, are experienced and interpreted differently by fans. The question of who ends up liking funk, and why, is very complex and certainly not merely a question of social class. Even people born and raised in the favela are likely to say, “I see absolutely no culture in funk.” Others, even people from wealthy, middle-class neighborhoods, may say, “Funk is a very sensual rhythm!” 8 Still others will say that funk is misogynist. Earlier I explained that of the reasons that I refer to funk as a ‘culture’ or ‘practice’, as opposed to merely a style of music, is the high level of audience participation in the production of funk as entertainment in the space of the baile. The other reason is that funk is closely related to and indeed dependent on the specific cultural and socio-historic context in which it exists. This is true both in terms of funk’s ties to the power of the drug traffickers and its relationship to the cultural legacy of poor people in Rio de Janeiro, a legacy closely tied to Carnival and globalization mediated by tendencies of cultural cannibalism and the musical survival tactics of the African Diaspora. Funk as a culture and practice is also related to the specific inadequacies in the lives of people in the socio-political terrain that is specific to poor people in Rio de Janeiro. Thus, the ‘culture’ of funk is not merely a question of a language or class barrier, strictly speaking, although in important ways language and social class are determining factors.

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