Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk



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Black Atlantic Utopia


Black music’s obstinate and consistent commitment to the idea of a better future is a puzzle to which the enforced separation of slaves from literacy and their compensatory refinement of musical art supplies less than half the answer. The power of music in developing black struggles by communicating information, organizing consciousness, and testing out or deploying the forms of subjectivity which are required by political agency, whether individual or collective, defensive or transformational, demands attention to both the formal attributes of this expressive culture and its distinctive moral basis. (Gilroy, 36)

The aggressive eclecticism of the subaltern, which Oswald de Andrade symbolized so brilliantly in his “Manifesto Antropófago,” is not peculiar to Brazilian modernismo, funk or even Brazilian culture in general but rather is something Paul Gilroy has defined as one of the most significant characteristics of the various African American cultures of the Diaspora. His seminal work, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, has become a constant reference for cultural critics dealing with issues of race in the West in general and scholars of Brazilian music in particular. 20 Although the study is dense and highly theoretic, it is thoroughly grounded in a broad range of examples from the vernacular of African American musical cultures from the time of slavery to world hip-hop today. His concept of the black Atlantic encompasses the Caribbean and Brazil, though the actual examples in the book tend to limit themselves somewhat to the English-speaking world. In The Black Atlantic, Gilroy dedicates a great deal of space to the discussion of American hip-hop as the quintessential form of the utopian character of African Diaspora cultures in contemporary society. Though he never mentions Brazilian funk directly in his study, a brief discussion of his ideas will show that funk, too, is a quintessentially ‘black Atlantic’ cultural form in the sense of Gilroy’s work and is indeed one of the most representative Brazilian cultural practices of the tendencies he identifies.

Basically, Gilroy identifies a fundamental duplicity in black Atlantic understanding of the nature of modernity that has resulted in the privileged place of musical culture in black identity construction, the transmission of wisdom, and the political dimensions of the utopianism of African Diaspora peoples. Gilroy also argues that the experience of slavery has given rise to a ‘double consciousness’ among them with regards to Western notions of rationalism and Progress. On the one hand, Enlightenment ideals such as liberty, equality and human rights have fueled the utopian impulse of the Diaspora experience and indeed exasperated the sense of the injustice of the world as it is. According to Gilroy, at the same time that some of the ideals of Western civilization may fuel the utopian impulse of these black Atlantic cultures, they are possessed of a ‘double consciousness’ that recognizes the complicity of these same ideals and modernism in general with institutionalized violence, racism and genocide that have characterized recent centuries.

For Gilroy, the double-consciousness of African Diaspora peoples has manifested itself as a black Atlantic counterculture for which the experience of slavery and the subsequent mixing together of diverse ethnic groups and cultures have left indelible marks. Under the oppression of slavery, music took the place of the written text of rationalist discourse as the principal form of identity construction and the transmission of wisdom. This has been the case because slaves and many of their descendents were largely deprived of written texts and because the people forced into slavery came from societies for which musical and oral cultural forms were already important. Furthermore, as Gilroy asserts in the quote at the beginning of this section, music is a powerful means of conveying a subversive utopianism that simultaneously rejects the world of the racist oppressor and conveys a feeling of what it would be like to live in a better one. Beyond the emotional nature of musical cultures, there is also a great deal of space in them for other creative and powerful means of resisting the dominant order through the use of humor, irony, double-entendre and the like. In this way, the utopian dimension of African Diaspora cultural forms entails significantly more than ‘escapism’ but rather a form of spiritualized power for resisting social injustice and reshaping the world. In the counterculture of black Atlantic peoples, the purposefully fragmentary dramaturgical dimension of representation becomes the main weapon of cultural resistance and the propagation of the utopian dream in the face of the intensely harsh realities of racial oppression and inequality.

The power of black music for resisting oppression, from gospel and R&B to reggae and hip-hop, and the importance of black music in the American civil rights movement have attracted a great deal of attention by scholars. (Werner) Commentators of hip-hop have pointed to the ways in which hip-hop has empowered black youth by turning the circuit of production and consumption on its head. (Potter) The claim has been made that hip-hop is, “…unarguably the most culturally significant style in pop, the genre that speaks most directly to and for its audience…the single most creative, revolutionary approach to music and to music making that this generation has constructed.”(Light 897) Gilroy is similarly enthusiastic about hip-hop as a locus for the black utopian “politics of transfiguration” he associates with it, pointing to the “… deliberately fractured…” structure of its music. (104) He writes:

Acoustic and electric instruments are disorganically combined with digital sound synthesis, a variety of found sounds: typically screams, pointed fragments of speech or singing, and samples from earlier recordings- both vocal and instrumental- whose open textuality is raided in playful affirmations of the insubordinate spirit which ties this radical form to one important dimension of blackness. (104)

As does the cultural cannibal of Brazilian modernismo, the hip-hop artist subverts the authority of the dominant White European culture and constructs a fragmentary, countercultural identity through the use and ironic reinterpretation of these ‘found sounds’.

I consider funk in Rio de Janeiro today to be an offshoot of world hip-hop and a local hybrid of the international movement that began in the South Bronx in the late seventies and has since spread across the planet to innumerous countries. The open playfulness and irony of hip-hop, along with its force as a countercultural discourse to modernity, have made it very relevant to socially excluded communities in a variety of contexts. Furthermore, the American mass culture industry has guaranteed a high level of exposure for the hip-hop culture across the globe. Nonetheless, the fact that hip-hop is something of a parent of Brazilian funk does not mean that it is a purer form of African Diaspora culture. At present, due to a commercialization of mainstream American hip-hop that has rendered it somewhat trendy and compromised its initially subversive spirit, Brazilian funk is in some ways more representative of early hip-hop and of black Atlantic cultural practices. One could say that the ‘found sounds’ of the culture of hip-hop were eventually found and “eaten”, so to speak, by Brazilian funk. Musical production in funk is also “deliberately fractured” and involves all of the elements mentioned in the passage above, yet funk is not content merely to be or become another “hip-hop”. Instead of rapping, for example, one of the most fundamental aspects of the culture of hip-hop, funk MCs tend to sing. True, an MC may occasionally rap, as he or she might imitate a samba melody, but rapping is not an essential or even typical element of funk. More important than any particular formal difference between American hip-hop and funk, however, is the fact that people engaged in funk culture do not even identify it as a Brazilian hybrid of American hip-hop (as does Brazilian hip-hop, for instance), but rather as its own independent culture. Perhaps the fact that funk does not recognize that it is the musical offspring of hip-hop is a testimony to the openness of both styles. It demonstrates the relevance of hip-hop to marginalized communities as a source of countercultural resistance and its adaptability to local contexts, even as it shows the ability of people from Rio to mold international currents into a new hybridized local culture that is self-consciously independent from any of its parent tendencies.

Given the fact that Brazilian funk shares many of the same influences as early American hip-hop and has even borrowed so much from it, I find it interesting that a separate Brazilian hip-hop musical culture has also arisen. Various styles of American hip-hop have developed in different geographical locations throughout its history, such as the East Coast and West Coast rap styles, and Miami base, but they are all still identified as hip-hop. In Brazil, funk and Brazilian hip-hop are considered to be two different, if not opposing styles, even though both are powerful musical cultures which embody the kind of black Atlantic double-consciousness of Gilroy’s views. Earlier in this study, I applied the implications of Hobsbawm’s understanding of primitive rebels to the question of funk and hip-hop, exploring the differences between the two movements as differences in the degree of revolutionary consciousness possessed by each. At the heart of funk, I suggested, was a sort of “revolt” stemming from dissatisfaction with the dominant order in terms of the values of a traditional order. Brazilian hip-hop, I argued, possessed a more highly developed and radical revolutionary consciousness that made it a “Revolution through Words”, or “Revolução Através da Palavra” (RAP). It is interesting to note that even though Brazilian hip-hop is self-consciously “revolutionary” it has been far less demonized in Brazil than funk. Perhaps this is because the references to violence in Brazilian hip-hop are less explicit than those appearing in funk and are typically presented as part of a rather unambiguous critique of society. Furthermore, the sexuality of Brazilian hip-hop is not only less than that of funk, but it is considerably less than the sexuality of even mainstream Brazilian culture and musical expressions such as Carnival, axé music, and pop.

There are two additional considerations that my shed some light on the reasons for which these two similar but separate practices have arisen. The first is the rather complicated matter of the degree to which both styles resist becoming what Gilroy calls ‘essentialist’, a tendency that narrowly defines and demarks the boundaries of a cultural practice and therefore weakens its power as a tactic in the politics of transformation. The second is the geo-cultural specificity of each and the fact that hip-hop is largely from São Paulo and funk from Rio. To put the matter of the “geo-cultural specificity” in somewhat simplistic terms, São Paulo has a far more fragmented cultural landscape in which racial dynamics are more similar to those of the United States and the presence of ethnic groups and youth tribes (from punks to skin heads and indeed fans of hip-hop) is more pronounced. Rio, on the other hand, is a culturally more homogenous space, despite the enormous racial miscegenation and stark differences in social class that characterize it. Also important is the fact that crime in São Paulo is less “organized” than in Rio and that its favelas are less likely to be controlled by criminal factions. This is a fundamental difference since musical practices are at least to some extent outgrowths of a particular social organization of their environments. This is one of the reasons Brazilian hip-hop artists do not tend to sing about the power and justice of criminal factions in favelas as do funk artists. São Paulo’s largest criminal faction, the Primeiro Comando da Capital, or PCC, is not typically mentioned in hip-hop songs as is the Comando Vermelho in funk. The sort of crime typically represented in hip-hop tends to be “unorganized crime”, stories of individual acts often recounted in a spirit of lamentation that portrays them as symptoms of the violence and failings of the larger system. Survival in hip-hop becomes something quite different from the “Ten Commandments of the Favela”, or the rules of organized crime in the favelas, and is more a question of individualist tales of survival, cunning and desperation in the no-man’s-land of the São Paulo periphery.

The utopian vision of Brazilian hip-hop, as a result, is not centered upon a performance place, such as the baile funk, but rather the spiritualized vision of the interior world of the hip-hop artist as it exist in a recorded album. The fact that much hip-hop is produced in and around prisons, as is the case of the albums of 509-E (recorded from inside the notorious Carandiru prison) and Escadinha (the infamous Rio crime boss turned hip-hop missionary who has been incarcerated since 1985), further emphasizes the distance between the impoverished physical reality of the rapper and his dream of a better world. The mind is the place of the utopian dimension of Brazilian hip-hop, a mind which nostalgically projects into the past and imagines what the world could be as the body endures the harshness of life in the present. The performance dimension of hip-hop becomes somewhat sacred in this context, and much less humorous, sensual and playful than funk. It is for this reason that Brazilian hip-hop is almost not even “entertainment,” in the sense that the dimension of pleasure in it is greatly de-emphasized. As the result of its hardcore, somewhat Manichean prison aesthetics which de-emphasize pleasure and spiritualize the utopian impulse, Brazilian hip-hop loses some of the playfulness, irony and the obstinate insistence of black Atlantic cultures to continue to enjoy life. This is not to say that pain and suffering have not always been a part of the Diaspora experience, nor that a powerful sense of brotherhood is not fundamental to Brazilian hip-hop. The fact remains, however, that Brazilian hip-hop is a much more self-contained and essentialist culture than either American hip-hop or Brazilian funk. It is a testimony to the cultural cannibalist nature of funk that the music of Brazilian hip-hop artists like Racionais MCs and MV Bill is played at the baile funk, and that their music is often sampled in funk recordings. On the other hand, Brazilian hip-hop tends to limit its beats and samples to itself and does not even sample American hip-hop songs very often. That funk has produced a figure like Mr. Catra, one of the greatest and most active MCs of funk, is also a testimony to the eclectic nature of funk. Catra is extremely versatile, performing songs that show an influence of several styles of black music, from R&B to gospel, and when he performs or records hip-hop, Catra is accepted by the hip-hop community as a legitimate member. In contrast, there is no major hip-hop artist who crosses the lines between styles in this way or plays with, or even samples them. In this sense, funk seems to me to be a better example of a non-essentialist, hybrid black Atlantic cultural practice than Brazilian hip-hop.

While the musical personality of Brazilian hip-hop is certainly not as multifaceted as that of funk, and it is more self-consciously representative of ‘black music’, the essentialism it tends towards is not really racial. In other words, the racial make-up of the performers and fans of Brazilian hip-hop are not necessarily black, nor are they seen as less legitimate if they are not. The racial demographics of hip-hop in Brazil tend to reproduce those of poverty in Brazil in general, and a performer’s legitimacy is more dependent on a sort of ‘blackness by proxy’ granted him or her by virtue of being from a poor, urban background. The same is true for funk, though certainly blackness in funk is a less self-conscious dimension than in Brazilian hip-hop. Due to their hybrid nature and the high degree of the appropriation of world cultural currents evident in Brazilian hip-hop and funk, and this lack of racial essentialism, both have been at times considered to be foreign imports and criticized as less authentic forms of Brazilian culture. Looking at them in terms of Gilroy’s theories, on the other hand, the absence of racial essentialism in Brazilian hip-hop and funk becomes a sign of the vitality of these practices as black Atlantic cultural forms and of their capacity to offer avenues for the resistance of Diaspora peoples. He states:

My point here is that the unashamedly hybrid character of these black Atlantic cultures continually confounds any simplistic (essentialist or anti-essentialist) understanding of the relationship between racial identity and racial non-identity, between folk cultural authenticity and pop-cultural betrayal. (99)

In a sense, the absence of racial essentialism contributes to the power of Brazilian hip-hop and funk as cultural cannibals capable of identifying with and borrowing from other Diaspora styles representative of the duplicitous stance towards modernity. It helps them expose the class and racial fissures hidden by facile concepts such as “Brazilian music” and the north/south dichotomy and to find hope in identifying with other marginalized groups of the Diaspora, the poor and disenfranchised. In this way the non-essentialist character of these practices serves to further weaken the hegemony of both the local national dominant order and the culture of modernity in general.

The issue of essentialism, both racial and political, is extremely relevant to the debate about the political mobility of blacks in Brazil, and has important implications for the argument that the reliance on musical and cultural forms of organization and resistance over more explicitly political means has reduced the power of blacks in Brazil. (Hanchard) For me, the sort of overt political mobilization these critics wish to see among black and other marginalized populations is one that depends upon the sort of bourgeois ethos of an economically middle-class population of which poor black people in Brazil are unlikely to possess. The double-consciousness of modernity that Gilroy ascribes to African Diaspora cultures gives the poor residents of Rio’s favelas a duplicitous political soul which matches the duplicitous reality of state and criminal power in their communities. On the one hand, these people will vote, sue and participate in the bureaucratic functions of the formal democratic state, even as they depend upon the power of the bosses of criminal factions for protection, recreation and social welfare. More importantly, perhaps, is that they will act in ways that are less easily identifiable as “political” according to the Western rationalist understanding of the term, and often seemingly innocuous cultural activities like musical practices will embody powerful moral dimensions with real effects and consequences in political life. Gilroy describes these moral dimensions in terms of the utopian impulse that drives them:

In the simplest terms, by posing the world as it is against the world as the racially subordinated would like it to be, this musical culture supplies a great deal of courage required to go on living in the present. (36)

Perhaps black people and other poor people in Brazil, and other countries as well, have not managed to elect as many black politicians as some critics and intellectuals might like, nor sufficiently mobilized to change laws that would further advance the cause of equality. Nonetheless, through cultural practices African Diaspora groups such as those involved in funk and hip-hop in Brazil have managed to survive hundreds of years of violence and to preserve their fundamental humanity throughout a history of oppression.



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