Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

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Utopia in the Baile Funk

While the individual motives that lead one person to enjoy funk while another person hates it are extremely complex, I feel it is safe to generalize and say that the fans in one way or another experience a sort of cultural preparation which enables them to enjoy funk. Dyer’s work on utopianism offers some basic strategies for understanding how this cultural preparation is related to the lived experiences of poor people in Rio and their frustrations with the inadequacies of their lives. (376) Earlier in this study, I suggested a reading of the baile funk, and in particular the baile de comunidade, as a platform for the staging of the power of the criminal factions in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Now I would like to offer some observations regarding the baile as the principal locus of the utopian dimensions of funk, according to the following characteristics of social tensions and utopian solutions suggest by Dyer:

Social tension/inadequacy/absence

  1. Scarcity (actual poverty in the society; poverty observable in the

surrounding societies, e.g., Third World); unequal distribution of wealth

B. Exhaustion (work as a grind, alienated labor, pressures of urban life)

C. Dreariness (monotony, predictability, instrumentality of the daily round)

D. Manipulation (advertising, bourgeois democracy, sex roles)

E. Fragmentation (job mobility, rehousing and development, high-rise flats, legislation against collective action)

Utopian solution

A. Abundance (elimination of poverty for self and others; equal distribution of wealth)

B. Energy (work and play synonymous), city dominated or pastoral return

C. Intensity (excitement, drama, affectivity of living)

D. Transparency (open, spontaneous, honest communications and relationships)

E. Community (all together in one place, communal interests, collective activity) (376)

Despite the great differences in the level of audience participation in the cultures of American musicals and funk, parts of Dyers analysis on the utopianism of musicals is still tremendously useful in understanding funk. In examining his definition of entertainment, it seems to me that his main point is that the purpose of entertainment is to produce pleasure and that the performance/audience dichotomy he suggests is secondary and even dispensable. For me, the main purpose of funk is the production of pleasure, despite the instances of consciousness-raising that occur within funk culture or even the use made of it by drug traffickers to naturalize their power. The high level of co-participation between the audience and the performance in funk only strengthens this tendency and makes funk more pleasurable for its fans. As was the case regarding the definition of entertainment used by Dyer in his study, so too will these categories need to be slightly adapted to match the characteristics of funk. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that any separation of the utopian impulse in terms of such categories is somewhat artificial since in reality they cross over into one another.

Abundance: While there are different types of bailes and different levels of actual wealth present in them, it is a common characteristic of the dance that it is a space of abundance. Perhaps it’s best to begin by describing this space of as one of consumption, not only of funk music but of a myriad of pleasure-and beauty-producing goods from drugs and alcohol to name-brand tennis shoes and clothing. The specific characteristics of abundance in funk do take on something of a ‘favela aesthetic’, as opposed to one of, say, a middle-class nightclub. In a sense, the space of the baile becomes the space of the favela itself transformed and elevated into a fantastic idealized stage in which the people and values of the community are preserved even as its fundamental poverty is overcome. Such a transformation occurs even at the seediest and most criminal dances, such as a Friday night dance along a large, open sewage drain at the bottom of a favela near Rocinha. The smell and unseemly sight of this sewage canal and the shack-like houses and shops that surround it reveal the reality of poverty in the favela as well as just about any other aspect of the physical neighborhood. The presence of the gangsters throughout the dance, mingling with their oversized weapons throughout the crowd, selling drugs and counting money on tables in the middle of the dance, is another stark symbol of the fact of the social exclusion of the community. Yet in the music and energy of the baile everything is transformed as people drink, laugh and dance, dressed in Gang pants and Bad Boy shirts, wearing Nike tennis shoes, eating hot dogs and grilled meat on long, thin sticks. The signs of poverty are present, they even become central tropes in the aesthetics of consumption in the baile, but it is an idealized poverty without hunger or inadequacies which is turned into a feast.

Energy: Another key element of the baile that manifests itself in innumerable ways is the heightened level of energy in the space of the dance. The situation of the worker in Brazil is difficult and educational opportunities that could lead to an interesting job are limited. The result is that many poor people who are employed earn low wages and work long, hard hours. They face a tiring commute in crowded buses and trains and come home to noisy, overpopulated and dangerous neighborhoods. In contrast, the space of the baile transforms the world of the poor into one of energy and relaxation. Dances often start late, sometimes after one o’clock in the morning, and can go until dawn. Loud booming music, dancing, flirting and fighting are all energetic elements of funk dances, and despite the rigors of urban life, it is uncommon to see people yawning or even sitting down at a dance. In my opinion, a good deal of the energy in the funk dance comes from the music itself, not only rhythmically or even emotionally but from a sonic standpoint. In the music, the constant chaotic and individual sounds of the city and the favela are drowned out by the wall of speakers and melded into one unifying harmonious flow of music. The music is so loud that it becomes a physical presence as the booming sound waves massage the mass of bodies before the amps as each hair on them vibrates to the beat. This sonic wall provides a certain peace in the baile, a utopian mysticism that joins together with the threat of violence or the hope of sensual contact as the participants let go and allow themselves to be swept away.

Intensity: In almost all dances there are some sort of flashing lights, smoke machines and pyrotechnics, and the use of alcohol and drugs further intensifies the experience, making it drastically different from the dreariness and predictability of everyday life outside the baile funk. In general, the dances follow certain basic scripts as to the order of performances, beginning with the DJ, followed by the lesser well known singer/dance groups (such as Bonde das Louras or Os Carrascos), and finishing with big-name MCs who sing for about a half hour. Still, an individual fan doesn’t really know what is going to happen at a baile since he or she could end up kissing someone, witness a fight or even be involved in one. The loudness of the music itself is exciting and the bass of the amps can be felt like an exaggerated heartbeat in the chests of the fans. In dances taking place outside of clubs, in the streets of favelas, the presence of armed drug traffickers further adds an air of excitement and danger to the atmosphere of the dance. Even people who hate funk dances seldom list boredom as a factor for not liking them. In bailes taking place in clubs, where fights sometimes break out, the security guards regularly eject hotheaded young men who get into altercations, causing people nearby to stop and pay attention. Every now and then, these fights explode into mob scenes that can bring the music to a halt. More often, the MC keeps singing, telling the people to stop fighting as he or she performs. In the dances outside of favelas where semi-ritualized gang fighting is a part of the spectacle, such as the infamous and now defunct dance at the Country Club in Jacarepaguá, the gradual rise of intensity leading up to the combat is part of the script.

Transparency: Certainly one of the most striking aspects of the culture of funk is the blatant sexuality evident in so many of its aspects. Lyrics of songs are often explicitly, if playfully, sexual. The song “Vai, Serginho”, by MC Serginho, in which the MC describes a slow descent of kisses starting at the woman’s mouth and ending at her vagina, is an infamous example of this tendency.9 The sexuality of funk goes far beyond the lyrics of funk songs into the suggestiveness of the dance moves, courtship practices and generally sensual atmosphere of the baile funk. Indeed, there is something almost orgiastic in the funk dance, as crowds of people hug, kiss and rub up against one another in clothing that is often very tight, shiny and small. The loudness of the music itself forces people to talk right up into the ear of the other person, bringing people into even closer contact. Also, dance steps and choreographies may imitate sex acts, as lines of people of both sexes grind against each other to the music with their hands on their knees or make other pumping and thrusting gestures. The aggressive style of flirting, in which both women and men approach one another, is another aspect of the prevalence of sexuality in the baile. It is not uncommon for a man or woman to kiss various partners in one dance, sometimes kissing people he or she did not previously know, and such behavior on the part of either is not generally considered reprehensible in funk culture. In this sense it is difficult to imagine a better example than the baile funk of the flight from bourgeois values, a flight Dyer characterizes as one of “open, spontaneous, honest communications and relationships.”

While some people who are not fans of funk consider it misogynist, I found in interviewing female fans of funk that they did not agree. Despite words like cachorra, which means a female dog (but which does not transmit the same as the American slang, “bitch”, in its connotation as a mean, unpleasant woman), the female fans of funk that I interviewed generally found funk to be fairly egalitarian in regards to gender. Both sexes are somewhat objectified in funk, a fact that leads some women to feel empowered and placed at the same level as the men.10 Funk transforms women too into hunters and aggressors, so to speak, who have the same right as a man to view a member of the opposite sex as an object of consumption to be obtained. It’s not difficult to understand why people would accuse funk of being misogynist, with MCs like Serginho singing that what he really wants to do is to “morder o seu grelinho” or “bite your little clit.” On the other hand, Tati Quebra-Barraco, whose name roughly translates as “Tati Screw Me”, expresses a similar attitude in dealing with men. She sings that she doesn’t like “little dicks, “Não gosto de piru pequeno,” and graphically describes what she does to the men she catches. She is perhaps the most enduring and widely known female entertainer in funk and almost all of her songs play with the objectification of men and the liberation of the female libido.

While the subject of sexuality in funk is deserving of a separate study, it seems to me that the sexuality in funk is more a question of the rejection of bourgeois values than mere hedonism and misogyny. John Fisk has suggested that excessive elements in popular culture are often vehicles for contradicting and drawing attention to largely unseen features of dominant ideologies:

Popular culture is often excessive, and is frequently criticized by those who do not understand it for being “sensational.” Excessiveness, sensationalism, and exaggeration are stylistic devices of contradiction, and, as I have argued, the contradictory is characteristic of popular culture. Each of these devices takes ideological norms and then exceeds them, magnifies them so that their normality is brought to our attention and is not allowed to continue its ideological work unseen: its powerful position of the “taken for granted” is thus disturbed. They promote a norm and then exceed it, spilling over beyond its ideological containment. This excess then becomes a resource that people can use to interrogate or contradict the norm, the excessive is meaning that has escaped the control of the norm. (328)

In any event, the blatant sexualization of funk is not constructed in the sort of “battle of the sexes” that appears in American hip-hop and its characteristic negative portrayal of women is not typical of funk. In addition, there is a certain androgynous sexuality in funk reminiscent of MPB, or the Brazilian Popular Music of performers like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and axé music of such groups as É o Tchan do Brasil from Bahia. This is evident in the dance styles used by men and women both, dance moves that are quite often directly influenced by axé music, a much less polemic style that is also highly sexualized. MC Serginho’s enormously popular dancer Lacraia is a good example of the playfulness with which gender roles are treated in funk. Lacraia is a transvestite who dances in a frenetic centipede-like fashion, as her Lacraia name entails, and who became something of a national celebrity in 2003 who became more famous than MC Serginho himself. This serves to illustrate that the non-representational level of cultural practice can often be more powerful than the formal level of such things as lyrics. Not surprisingly, proibidão, however, does not share this androgynous nature and there are no major female MCs that sing about the power of drug gangs and criminal factions.

Beyond the “bathroom humor” of the lewd and childish rhymes often heard in funk music, there is a further ‘infantilization’ of the space of the baile in which the spheres of adult life and and childhood ambiguously mix together. This is another dimension of the transparency and openness in relationship in funk, for the childlike expression of emotions and desires is much less restricted by the bourgeois idea of acting like a grown-up. This attitude may reflect the inadequacies of childhood itself among many poor people in Brazil, people who have to grow up fast relative to their middle-class and elite counterparts, either because they do not have as much time and space for recreation, or because they are exposed to the harshness of reality on a daily basis in the violence and poverty of the favelas. At the same time, this ‘infantilization’ works both ways and the space of the baile and culture of funk offer a more typically adult experience to the children that are in contact with it. The participation of children in funk is striking and is not limited to hearing and writing songs on the block or even the matinê dances. Even kids who live in the most stable and affluent homes of the favela are likely to pass through dances in the street, or hear the music booming through the walls of their houses at all hours of the night. Furthermore, the poorest kids in the neighborhood are often found at the adult community dances that take place in the streets. These kids may be street kids who come into the favela for protection, or they may be the children of the least stable families of the community who often receive very little attention, guidance or material support from their parents. More often than not they are the same ones that work selling things at stoplights or painting their faces and juggling in traffic. In a sense, they are children and grown-ups at the same time who mostly work and barely go to school, if at all. With very little parental supervision, or none at all, these kids sometimes engage in sexual relationships and in criminal activities such as drug delivery and prostitution. In the space of the community dance, the expectations and experience these grown-up kids have are not very different from those of their older counterparts.

Community: The dimension of the creation of community in the culture of funk and the space of the baile is one of the most complex aspects of its culture. Before I discuss the racial dimension of the community of the baile funk as a quintessentially Brazilian form of African Diaspora cultures in the next section, I want to mention some of the other aspects of the community that is created in the baile funk. One of the most important attributes of the performance space of funk is that it is a “dance” and not a “show.” This is not merely a question of semantics. That the baile is a dance and not a show makes it a mobile community in which there are no seats, or at most a very few situated in some remote locations, and no territory is staked out in any permanent way. In a show, even in one of general admission in which there are no assigned seats, people tend to stay in the same spot. Fans of funk usually attend certain bailes regularly enough that they may have favorite areas within the space of the dance, a good vantage point or one where many people can pass through, for example, but the crowd remains fluid with groups of friends constantly streaming through in long lines. This means that the baile funk is a place in which the division between audience and performance is significantly reduced, as is that of production and consumption, and indeed the dancing, flirting, fighting and general socializing of the audience is as big a part of the show, and the utopian experience, than the performers on stage.

The repetitive nature of the dances is another aspect of the imagined community of the baile as a utopian space. As the fans get comfortable with the setting of a particular dance over a period of months or years, it becomes something like the square of a small town in the interior of the country. Indeed, in communities like favelas that rarely have any central square in which people from all over the neighborhood can come and socialize, the space of the bailes has become one of the most important alternatives, especially for the young people who attend them. In the case of Rocinha, for example, it could be argued that the beach in São Conrado has this function and that many courtship and friendship ties are developed and maintained on the beach. In fact, the population of Rocinha has virtually taken over both São Conrado and Pepino beaches and the middle-class people from the neighborhood are much less evident there, other than those involved in the hang gliding circles towards the far end of the beach. At night, the beach is less popular and the people of Rocinha meet in thousands of other smaller places throughout the favela. There are some small plazas and parks, but normally nothing brings together as many people as the baile, be it the somewhat upscale one at Emoções (which can bring together as many as 4,000) or the street dances in the Via Ápia, especially during Carnvival. (in which upwards of 20,000 people can crowd the relatively small street).

In addition to what might be called the formal aspects of community formation, as those which can be inferred from Dyer’s utopian criteria mentioned above (all together in one place, communal interests, collective activity), a significant aspect of the community which is given life in the dance is one of racial dynamics. While it is clear that the baile and indeed funk culture in general are associated with blackness and low-income communities, there is an anti-essentialism in them that embraces the characteristically Brazilian dream of racial harmony and democracy to a striking degree. While I will discuss this situation at greater length in my comments on the implications of Gilroy’s ‘black Atlantic’ for funk, here I want to make the argument that within the space of the dance the feeling is created of what it would be like to live in a society free of racism and class warfare. The baile is one of the few places in Carioca society where middle-class and rich young people, who are almost exclusively white, can have extensive contact with young people from favelas and other low-income neighborhoods on a somewhat equal footing. I would argue that the desire of many of Rio’s wealthier adolescents and young adults to frequent the baile funk, while a complex subject, is in some way representative of their own desire to transcend the class and race differences that are so blatantly omnipresent in their daily lives. While the skin-tone of the crowd in the baile is likely to be varying shades of brown, MCs, DJs and dancers are, like the fans, of a variety of colors ranging from black to white. Even the music played is non-essentialist; in most bailes blocks of other styles of urban music are played in addition to funk, such as hip-hop, pagode and even hard rock, and whatever class and racial connotations these styles might have tend to be ignored. This does not mean that a black racial identity is lost in funk, just that it eschews any facile dichotomy and presents itself, in a sense, as the realization of the Brazilian cosmic race. 11

Another very important dimension of the community that is created in the experience of the dance is its elevation to the status of a fantastic or idealized version of the space of the favela, discussed above in my comments on ‘abundance’. When one stops to consider the notion of community constructed in prohibition so fundamental to the hegemony of the drug traffickers, the sort of ‘we of the favela’ versus the ‘them of the asphalt’ discussed in chapter three, it is clear that the construction of this idealized utopian community in funk is convenient to the social order of organized crime. In the end, such a construction greatly intensifies any sort of messianic intensity implicit in funk in general and proibidão in particular.

Besides the distinctive inadequacies evident in people’s lives in any given socio-historical context, another fundamental aspect of the specificity of utopia is the culture of the group seeking to escape the world as it is. In the case of funk, I have discussed at length the presence of the culture of drug traffickers in many of the principal communities where funk is practiced. What remains is to explore the specific cultural dimensions of funk in terms of local Carioca Carnival, the legacy of cultural cannibalism in national Brazilian civilization and the international tendencies of the double-consciousness of modernity in the African Diaspora. Such is no small task and I will content myself to make some general comments and observations to this effect.

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