Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

Conclusion Cuidado com a cuca

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Cuidado com a cuca

Que a cuca te pega

Te pega daqui te pega de lá

“Minha Eguinha Pocotó,” by MC Serginho


It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday night and the soccer court by the street known as Rua da Raia in the Cachopa area of Rocinha is bustling with activity. For the moment no one is playing soccer, although it is not unusual for soccer games to literally go on all night and for the cries of the players and the whistle of the referees to echo on into the morning. Space for leisure activities is a precious commodity in the favela of Rocinha, and this soccer court is almost always in use, either for actual soccer games, volleyball matches, capoeira classes, kids funk matinê dances, birthday parties, and even an occasional launching or two of a great big, beautiful balloon. Even though the court is just a patch of open concrete surrounded by four walls, some high fencing and two or three short rows of cement bleachers at one end, it is so incredibly in demand that gangsters in Cachopa have adopted it and made themselves responsible for its upkeep. Not long ago, in the early nineties, when Dudu was the boss of all of Rocinha and spent most of his time in Cachopa, the soccer court was in a sad state of neglect, a place where the gangsters would throw hand grenades for fun and where Dudu himself is said to have assassinated a former rival, Aranha, in cold blood. A few years ago, after Dudu had been captured and his reign of terror put to an end, the local boss of the boca-de-fumo of Cachopa ordered that the court be repainted and reformed and then placed one of his men in charge of all scheduling of events taking place there. Even since this man, nicknamed “da Rocinha,” was killed by police in an invasion in 2002, the Cachopa gang of Rocinha has found time to keep up the soccer court. It probably doesn’t hurt that it also makes a great vantage point to watch the steep ramp below for police or rival gangsters and light firecrackers to warn other drug traffickers. Then again, the gangsters also like it because it’s a convenient place to plug in a boom box, to socialize and to set up a fireworks stand at Christmas. I myself once bought a three-foot rocket there that shot some five hundred feet into the air! But tonight, there’s a birthday party in the soccer court for an eight year-old little girl named Daiane.

Leaning against a parked car on Rua da Raia just above the court, I can see the little girl in the crowd, running back and forth in her puffy blue satin dress, beaming happily amidst the hundred or so guests and the elaborate decorations. Running around with her are her three best friends, Kátia, Kelly and Uli, who all have ribbons in their hair and are all dressed up in the birthday party attire. On the table by the huge amplifiers is a big cake, lots of little salgadinho pastries and chocolate bonbons. A giant Styrofoam statue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast rises above the tables in the middle of a long cluster of matching gold and blue balloons. The people at the party are young and old alike, little old grandmas, middle-aged folks and teenagers who have come with the hoards of boys and girls. The music playing is a silly song by MC Serginho about running around with a little mare, “Minha Eguinha Pocotó,” one of those rare funk songs that has become a hit across Brazil. I wonder for a moment if the song can really be about a horse and watching out for the Boogeyman, or if it’s not all really some kind of sexual pun. “Pocotó pocotó pocotó pocotó, minha eguinha pocotó.” I decide it really must be a song about a horse. Just then, Daiane’s 19 year-old sister, Silvana, spots me and my friends leaning on the car and comes running up out of the party to offer us a tray of the little pastries. She gives all three of us kisses on both cheeks, asking us if we want cake, too, or if we’re coming down to join the party.

“I’ve gotta go to work.” Alex tosses a salgadinho into his mouth in one piece and wipes his hand. He is a waiter at the Hotel Intercontinental down below Rocinha on the beach in São Conrado. “I’m already late… Falou, pessoal!” he says as he clasps my hand and that of Nilton, the other friend that’s with us. Then, he takes Silvana’s hand gently in his own and thanks her warmly for the invitation. She blushes a little and smiles as he stares into her eyes.

“I’m taking off, too,” says Nilton. “My cousin’s waiting for me to go to work.” What Nilton refers to as “going to work,” however, is actually just breaking into houses in the Recreio neighborhood, far from Rocinha. Nilton and his cousin, a professional thief from the Rua Quatro area of favela, take a bus out to Recreio and come back by cab. Even though they are proud of robbing houses unarmed and Nilton has allegedly never hurt anyone or done any time, I have a feeling that he’s definitely going to get into trouble sooner or later. And to think that just a few years ago he was working for a firm in Niterói, taking night classes at college and working out regularly at the gym. Now he’s out of school and unemployed.

As Nilton shakes my hand to leave, one of the local gangsters, André, walks over to our little group. Unlike some of the soldiers form the gang, who occasionally stroll by holding UZIs or AK-47s, André is unarmed. Instead he has a clipboard in his hand and is going over the schedules for a soccer tournament that is starting up tomorrow at the court. He shows the list to Nilton, one of the referees for some of the games, and the two nod their heads as they discuss which teams are coming in, from where and at what times. Silvana gives me a look of irritation and I know she wants to get away from André and back to the party. It doesn’t matter that André is personally a very likable guy or that the Cachopa gangsters are the people renting the soccer court to her family for the birthday party, Silvana has never particularly liked or trusted any of the people associated with the drug gangs. When she was a little girl, drug traffickers killed her father over a small amount of money he owed for drugs. Then again, when she was fifteen, the drug traffickers didn’t help her in a moment of need. It was the time when a drunken neighbor murdered her uncle in broad daylight after he had gone on his roof. Her uncle was looking for his little son’s kite, which had landed on the drunken neighbor’s roof, so he jumped the short wall between the houses to retrieve it. The neighbor picked a fight with him at the time and then later that day cut his jugular vein with a broken bottle. On her way home from school, Silvana found her uncle bleeding to death in the narrow alley way that led to her house. She put her hand over the cut to try and stop the blood, but it was messy and when her fingers would slip off blood would shoot out like the squirt from a water gun. Her uncle told Silvana to keep his little boy away from him as he lay there and slowly died. Despite the fact that Silvana had never liked the gangsters, she was so devastated and traumatized by the experience that she sought them out at the boca-de-fumo. She pleaded with them to punish the murderer, but they didn’t want to get involved and ended up saying it was not their problem. Soon after, the murderer moved away from Rocinha and was never heard from again.

Silvana goes back down to the party and I am left alone by the car. People walk to and fro and an occasional car or motorcycle taxi goes by. Coming up the ramp at the end of the Rua da Raia I see my old friend Apolônio, a mechanic from Minas Gerais who was a boxer in the sixties. He is bare-chested, with a fishing cap on his head and a bamboo fishing pole balanced over his shoulder as he makes his way home for the night. A few minutes later, seu José and his family come up the ramp from church. He and his wife, dona Josirene, stop to shake my hand and their little daughter Sara runs up and gives me a hug. Shortly after, their 19 year-old, Valda, passes by on the back of her boyfriend Igo’s motorcycle. He beeps and they wave to me as they go by, smiling in the warmth of another Rocinha night. At the party below, as MC Serginho’s other big hit of the year, “Vai Lacraia,” plays, the kids laugh and jump and dance like centipedes.

Killers and Heroes in the Utopianism of the Favela

Given the increasing tensions between the government and organized crime in Rio, the heightened fear of much of the population and the central place of a baile funk in the death of Tim Lopes, it seems particularly important to raise questions about the culture of the city’s favelas. I have presented my study, “Machine Gun Voices: Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk,” as a series of linked reflections on a common set of themes attempting to look at life in a favela in Brazil through the utopian urges of funk music. In chapter two, I provided background on the problem of violence in Rio and on the social organization of Rocinha, arguing against the notion that drug traffickers rule solely by the force of their arms and affirming that their power involves a culture of drug trafficking. In chapter three, I analyzed the features of the ideology of this power of organized crime and the ways it is negotiated through the medium of proibidão funk, especially regarding the construction of the drug trafficker as Hobsbawm’s ‘social bandit.’ In chapter four, I explored the utopian dimensions of funk, contrasting it to less participatory forms of utopian entertainment, like Hollywood musicals and the present culture of Carnival in Rio, giving emphasis to its nature as a form of subaltern popular culture and an African Diaspora practice. What remains to be done in this conclusion is to tie these essays together and explore what they have in common or what they suggest about one another. In particular, I will suggest some ways in which the construction of the drug trafficker as a social bandit can be understood in terms of the larger utopian tendencies characteristic of funk culture.

Back in college in 1991, I wrote my first paper on the question of the rule of drug traffickers in Rio, called “Between Killers and Heroes: The Struggle for Order in the Favela of Rocinha.” Although I have never particularly liked that title much since, some twelve years later it seems to me that it suggests something interesting about the fundamental ambivalence in the way in which drug traffickers in Rio de Janeiro are regarded by their favela communities. While many residents may fear and resent these drug traffickers, others feel a deep level of trust and admiration for them. Whatever the motives and intentions of individual drug traffickers, and however deplorable many of their actions might be, organized crime as such has somewhat effectively pandered to the view that gangsters are some kind of heroic and legitimate defenders of the people, at least in part by patronizing artistic forms like the baile funk and proibidão in favela communities. The figure of the gangster in the favelas of Rio is ambiguous, both in life and in its portrayal in funk music; neither is he a revolutionary, nor a traditional mafia boss, nor a cold, calculating businessperson who only thinks about money and pleasure. The nature of the drug trafficker is as fragmented and hybrid as the complex socio-historic terrain in which he has arisen; he is violent and religious, a bully and protector, a murderer and an avenger. In the vignette at the beginning of this conclusion, I tried to represent something of this ambiguous nature and to show the deep involvement of drug traffickers in so many facets of everyday life. Given the fact that they are not particularly competent in administering the needs of their communities, even when they indeed intend to do so, and that their economic base depends upon such dubious and harmful activities, it really is quite striking that so many people in favelas would accept their rule, trust in them and consider them to be the just and righteous leaders of their communities.

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