Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk



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Funk as a New Carnival


Over the years, there has been a great deal of research done on the subject of Carnival in general and the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro in particular. This research has been conducted from a variety of points of view, from anthropological ethnographies to literary and ideological studies of concepts such as resistance in Carnival.12 The potential of Carnival in Rio as a utopian practice and one involving poor people in particular is well documented. (da Matta) Still, as the result of a gradual but steady process of commercialization and status quo appropriation, Carnival presently occupies a position of diminished importance with regard to the lives of poor people in Rio. The ironic and subversive spirit of Carnival has been transferred to other cultural forms that have become the new spaces of the utopian impulse among the poor, spaces such as funk (and, I might suggest, the Pentecostal movement). While Carnival still has a degree of relevance for poor youths in Rio de Janeiro, funk culture has largely replaced the space of the Carnival in Rio as the principal leisure activity of poor youths both in content and form. Certainly, many of the observations made by Bahktin in his work on Carnival apply to the culture of funk, and it can be said that funk provides a place in which to express energies and needs suppressed in modernized life, displacing and inverting normal social hierarchies. Furthermore, applying Dyer’s categories listed above to contemporary Carnival, it is clear that it is no longer the defining musical form of social order of the favelas nor that of the identity of the poor youths in Rio. 13

Before entering into a discussion on changes in the utopian potential of the culture of Carnival in contemporary Brazil and comparing it to the practice of funk, I want to briefly explain a few things about my contact with this rich and beautiful culture. While I do not consider myself an expert on Carnival by any means, I am a fan and do have a fairly wide range of experience of Carnival culture and practices in Brazil. Ever since my first visit to Brazil in 1990, when I first read Alma Guillermoprieto’s book Samba and subsequently visited various samba schools, I have found Carnival to be a fascinating and suggestive facet of Brazilian society. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to participate in Carnival on several occasions, either watching the parades at the Sambódromo, a sort of stadium for the samba school’s in Rio, or on TV. I have also participated in many street events in Rio during Carnival, in Rocinha and other neighborhoods, and even recently had the chance to spend Carnival of 2003 in the small town in the interior of the state of Pará with my wife, Jeyla, and her family. In addition to reading scholarly work on samba and Carnival, I have also followed it closely in magazines and newspapers, as well as enjoyed friendships with people deeply involved in the culture of samba and the world of Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Finally, some of my impressions with regard to Carnival were formed in the classes I took with Professor Severino Albuquerque at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in particular one on Brazilian civilization in which the co-optation of forms of popular culture by the Brazilian status quo was a central theme.

This process of co-optation is one of the main reasons for the diminished importance of Carnival and samba in the lives of poor youths in Rio. Different from its beginnings as a marginalized and even illegal practice of mostly Afro-Brazilians, throughout the twentieth century the culture of Carnival has gradually become a status quo culture and today samba is the musical style most readily associated with the Brazilian national identity both at home and abroad. An important result of this has been that the space of the poor, although still acknowledged as the backbone and root of Carnival, has become increasingly limited in its de facto celebration. To a large degree, Carnival has been taken out of the street, contained and commodified. Anyone who has ever gone to the Sambódromo, a sort of street/stadium where the big parades are held, in Rio at Carnival has seen that wealthy people and tourists have the best seats, often in company box seats or along the actual avenue at the street level. While the cast of personalities present in the parades itself still includes many people from favelas or who are traditional figures of the world of samba, more and more attention has been focused on the white stars of the Globo and other Brazilian television networks, singers and musicians and the like. Carnival has become synonymous with the world of big Brazilian entertainment and is somewhat of a who’s who of the dominant Brazilian popular culture. Furthermore, stars of alternative cultural practices in Brazil, such as hip-hop singers or funkeiros, are not generally highlighted in Carnival and are unlikely to appear on top of a float in the parade. Perhaps the relatively newfound popularity of Carnival in the Northeastern city of Salvador over the past two decades has occurred as somewhat of a reaction to the commercialization of the Carnival, as the desire to bring Carnival back to the streets and back to the people. But by now the Bahian Carnival has become primarily another big entertainment culture and at this point most ordinary people still don’t have enough money to be in the parade of a bloco-afro, for example. In Rio de Janeiro, as is the case throughout the country, the culture of small street blocos has seen a significant rise in popularity in recent years in a similar effort to reclaim Carnival as a non-commercial practice, although these efforts seem to come as much from the middle-class as from poor people living in places like favelas.

Because a similar process of co-optation has not occurred in funk, and at least for the time being seems unlikely, the utopian dimensions once available to poor people in Carnival still exist in the practice of funk culture. The experience of watching unattainable beautiful and famous people enjoying themselves on the TV screen in Carnival or even live at the parades in the Sambódromo does of course offer some degree of escapism for the spectator, but this is infinitely less powerful than the chance to participate in the spectacle itself to the degree offered by a baile funk. As I argued above, in funk the audience becomes the stars, just as was once the case with Carnival; the audience becomes the destaque, as the people on the floats in the Carnival parades are called. The ‘abundance’ that is obviously present in Carnival is less powerful as a utopian symbol because it is fundamentally not an abundance of the poor. Instead, it may even serve to alienate people who are “not invited to the party”, so to speak. In a similar way, the ‘energy’ and ‘intensity’ offered in the experience of Carnival is considerably less for many poor people, because one has to be involved in the event to really feel these to any great degree. Indeed, the rigid codification of Carnival in the parades of the Sambódromo may in some ways cause it to be somewhat predictable. The fact that it is run and organized by official authorities and not that there are no gangsters brandishing guns in the middle of the performance also makes it a more mundane, safe space in which the rules of regular life are more applicable.

As a platform for the presentation of the spectacle of the world of Brazilian entertainment, Carnival is full of marketing images and advertising to such a degree as to be manipulative and consumerist and has thus become considerably less ‘transparent’ than funk. Also, while there is a good dose of playfulness in regards to gender roles and sexuality present in Carnival that may in some ways rub against the grain of bourgeois values, it has become overshadowed by the somewhat hedonistic objectification of women. Carnival does not generally transform the woman into a hunter in the way funk does, and her sexuality generally consists in a femininity understood as the ability to provide pleasure for males. I do not want to overemphasize this point because there is still in Carnival a powerful level of transgender and homosexual play which, although less often emphasized than the level of pretty models in feathers and glitter, is still an important part of the irony and indeed utopia of Carnival. Additionally, despite the co-optation of Carnival by the status quo and mass media, and the enormous amount of money spent on advertising in Carnival, it is an extremely rich and powerful cultural form and one that continues to offer at least some space for subversive ideas and the contestation of social values. My point here is that Carnival has become so generally neutral in terms of race and class through this process of appropriation that its utopian dimension is severely restricted with regard to the poor.

Furthermore, the dimension of ‘community’ in Carnival has changed considerably as it has become a form of the dominant culture in Rio. Particular noticeable is the “whitening” of Carnival as the rich and famous have appropriated it. Despite its clear roots as a form of African Diaspora culture, the capacity for Carnival to transmit or preserve any sort of connotation of racial community has become so thoroughly diluted as to be practically impossible. Instead, a clear hierarchy of race is evident in Carnival more attuned to the actual racial dynamics in Brazil than to the imagined racial dynamics of a baile funk. Carnival is just multi-racial enough to appear to represent the sort of racial harmony or racial democracy that is so fundamental to the Brazilian national ideology. All the shades of brown are visible in Carnival, from the Indian to the mulatto to Italian immigrants, and many Afro-centric and indigenous themes continue to be chosen by the samba schools for their yearly parades. Nevertheless, the representation of race in Carnival often occurs in a hierarchical sense in which whiteness becomes associated with progress and civilization and blackness with a somewhat folkloric musicality and primitive sexuality. Despite the formal content of the parades, as a sort of subversive text, the commercialization of Carnival ends up whitening the whole event in a de facto sense at the informal, non-representational level of the performance. In other words, even though the composers and organizers of the various samba schools do come up with some very subversive and powerfully ironic parades each year, much of their power as a utopian culture is lost and overcome by the less textual dimension of carnival as a media and advertising event of the dominant white order in Brazil.

In the light of this discussion, it is interesting to consider the samba music and parades of contemporary Carnival culture in terms of the five characteristics suggested by Quintero Rivera of “tropical” Caribbean music discussed at the beginning of the chapter. In most ways, this culture can be seen as an example of the sort of música mulata he describes, but the high degree of audience passivity inherent in the growing divide between performer and audience occurring in the commercialization of Carnival has somewhat distanced it from these forms. On the one hand, the composition is still made to allow for improvisation and the singer still seeks to spontaneously improvise and interact with his or her audience, as do the musicians (and particularly the percussion drum line). Also, the music is still extraordinarily polivocal in the sense described by Quintero Rivera, and multiple levels of what he calls timbres, or “tone-colors,” do intermix in the rich musical play typical of the sambas of Carnival and indeed the images with which they are presented in the actual parades. Still, the level of interaction and real communication between the public and the spectacle is clearly reduced in the modern massified Carnival. Even if one is not watching the parades of the Rio’s big samba schools on TV, as does the great majority of people in the Carnival audience, and one does go to Rio’s Sambódromo, for example, one tends to be somewhat removed in the bleachers. People do sing and even dance a bit, but anyone expecting the sort of high degree of participation typical of street Carnival celebrations will be disappointed. On the other end of the spectacle, the emphasis on attractive and/or famous people on floats also restricts communication, which typically is limited to smiles, waves of the hand, jumping up and down or dancing. Due to the increasing divide between the public and the performance that has occurred in the evolution of the practice of Carnival over the course of the 20th century, it has become somewhat less of one Quintero Rivera’s músicas mulatas and instead more similar to the culture of American musicals studied by Richard Dyer.

In any event, the problem of mass commercialization and co-optation is much smaller in the culture of funk, even though money is being made in funk and inevitably some of the larger society’s racial hierarchy is bound to infect it in some ways. Still, funk is by and large offensive to middle-class sensibilities and has thus far been spared anything but momentary flashes of status quo appropriations (such as the presence of DJ Marlboro on Xuxa’s Saturday morning program Xuxa Hits during the mid-nineties). As a result, funk remains principally a space for the poor people and the black people who inhabit Rio’s favelas and low-income areas. The baile funk is generally very cheap or even free in the case of the community dances, and it is a party to which everyone is invited, even the rich and white people living in elite neighborhoods (“bairros nobres”) of the Zona Sul. Whereas Carnival appears to be the realization of a culture of racial democracy, funk culture presently offers its fans a much more intense utopian feeling of what it would be like to live in a world of racial harmony. The community created in the space of the baile is not one of any essentialist definition of ‘blackness’, even though as a form of Diaspora culture it performs something of “blackening” of racial identity on this community. Still, the practice of funk is presently something much more counter cultural than that of Carnival and the community created in the baile funk is a quintessential space of cultural inversions, turning taboos into totems as it raises up the space of the favela to the realization of the Brazil of the dream of racial and class inclusion.






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