Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk



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The title of this study, “Machine Gun Voices,” came to me upon listening to what has become a funk standard, “Rap das Armas,” quoted at the beginning of this chapter, a song that is a protest about the problem of violence in society and a disclaimer of the culpability of favelas. Its lyrics form a rapid-fire poem listing the weapons that can be found in favelas. Written by Leonardo and Júnior, well-known brothers from the Valão area of Rocinha, the hit underwent a major process of vilification by the media in the mid-nineties connecting them to the drug underworld.9 As a result, the Rio police constantly harassed the brothers as they came in and out of the favela, despite the fact that their song was never intended to promote the drug gangs and that their own older brother is a police officer in the Polícia Militar. The refrain, sung by MCs Cidinho and Doca of the Cidade de Deus, is a series of syllables sung to imitate machine gun fire, “Pá parrá pá parrá pá parrá claque bum …” The refrain became a cliché in funk and the practice of singing off lists of weapons was quickly adopted as a typical feature of proibidão funk music, as was that of sampling machine gun bursts and other gunshots and explosions in funk music.

Listening to the song one day, it struck me that the practice of vocally and digitally imitating machine gun fire in funk lies at the core of hegemonic discursive struggle in Rio. As a media image, gunfire becomes an emblem of the “violence” and “barbarity” of the poor and the misery of their lives in favelas. By turning the gunfire into a voice of protest and solidarity, funk artists perform a densely suggestive semiotic inversion that subverts this dehumanizing association and opens possibilities for new meanings. Gunfire can be a lament of the conditions of life in favelas and their abandonment by mainstream society, it can be a roar glorifying the power of the favela and its drug lords, or it can be an ominous war cry warning those of the status quo that there is a storm rising. Furthermore, as a sign in dispute it becomes recognizable differently according to the listener’s particular social reality. The artistic representation of gunfire, self-consciously and ironically affirmed as emblematic of life in the favelas, may provoke sadness in some listeners and fans or make them indignant at the prevailing lack of social justice in Rio; it may make others feel proud to be from powerful and respected neighborhoods, and it may make still others even feel threatened and scared. Whatever the reaction of the individual listener may be, funk music has made the cadence of machine gun fire and the cult of arms almost as typical in its music as the thumping beats of hip-hop and techno have become to its rhythm. These musical gunshots have become as much a part of the landscape of funk as real gunshots are to the reality of the favelas and other poor neighborhoods of the city. Whether guns are seen as a problem or as a solution is a matter of debate and interpretation, but by pushing gunshots and other aspects of the violence in the lives of people in favelas to the forefront of artistic production, funk music serves to interrogate and denaturalize assumptions about the climate of violence in Rio de Janeiro.




Socio-Political Trends in Contemporary Brazilian Music

In order to further contextualize the practice of funk in Rio de Janeiro, I will to offer a brief discussion of some of the principal socio-political tendencies of Brazilian music since the dictatorship. An enormous variety of musical styles have developed in Brazil over the past century, styles which have been influenced by international music at the same time that they have had a tremendous impact on it. There is the Afro-Brazilian samba music of carnival, and the big band versions of samba in the thirties and forties which came about as samba was chosen to be the “authentic” national music of Brazil. Then there were the smooth sounds and poetic lyrics of bossa nova in the early sixties by such greats as João Gilberto, Tom Jobim and lyricist Vinícius de Morais. During the period of the military dictatorship in Brazil in the sixties and seventies, the great music festivals produced a new generation of talented progressive performers who questioned the legitimacy of the regime. Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil introduced the eclectic and iconoclastic troplicália movement, and other MPB (Música Popular Brasileira, a complex, eclectic style that mixes elements of jazz and other world currents with Brazilian styles like samba and bossa nova) artists such as Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento mixed social commentary with elements of Brazilian popular music and world musical currents.10


These developments in music came about in the context of the changes in the larger Brazilian socio-political landscape that were occurring during this period of the military dictatorship, changes which reflected the growing mobilization of local groups and minorities around particular causes and concerns. Several new forms of organization emerged in Brazil, such as the CEBs (Comunidades Eclesiásticas de Base, small, intimate bible study groups organized to apply the Gospel to social and political action) of the Catholic Church and the neighbors' associations of favelas, both of which focused on local forms of advancement and fighting the marginalization of the poor. Also, women's groups were created and the Movimento Negro arose for the first time since the Frente Negra Brasileira of the twenties and thirties. During this period, protest in music was extremely important, but tended to limit itself to criticism of the military regime. MPB itself became a primary platform for voicing opposition of the government and artists, such as Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Geraldo Vandré, were harassed, censured, forced into exile, sometimes being incarcerated and tortured for protesting against the regime.

As the military regime adopted a less totalitarian stance in the late seventies and early eighties, the mobilization of minority and marginalized groups gained momentum, continuing to bring the question of citizenship to the forefront of socio-political debate. By the time civilian rule was restored in 1986, the problematic of citizenship was exacerbated by a state of crisis which overtook Brazil: inflation soared, corruption was prevalent, and a surge of violent crime pervaded urban centers. Throughout this conflictual period, discourses of resistance that had identified themselves in opposition to the military regime gave way to broader strategies which problematized racial inequality and the effective lack of citizenship of various groups of marginalized people. Reflecting these changes in this period many forms of music gained popularity for which the question of citizenship was a central theme.11

Localized Brazilian hybrids of world currents like rock and punk continued to grow in Brasília, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and acts like Legião Urbana and Cazuza gained wide audience. Legião is the all-time most popular Brazilian rock band and something of a cross between U2 and the Cure that combines themes of everydaylife with a quiet sense of spirituality and combative political commitment. Cazuza was a hugely successful pop rock singer who combined tremendous energy and pop sensibility with intelligent and socially conscious lyrics. Sadly, both Renato Russo, the lead singer of Legião Urbana, and Cazuza died of aids in the 1990’s. In Brasilia, as well as several other urban centers, Brazilian rock music boomed and such groups as Legião Urbana and Os Paralamas do Sucesso lamented social inequalities and their disillusionment with society in general.12 The Funk Movement of Rio de Janeiro, originating in the Black Pride soul music of Black-Rio, Black-Sampa and Black-Mineiro, moved away from the racially specificity of its early aesthetics, broadening the scope of its social criticism to the question the of the marginalization of the popular classes. The older artists of the MPB generation such as Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso also took up the problem of racial and class-based inequalities to a greater degree than before, focusing on, among other things, police violence, street children and the overcrowding of prisons.

During the eighties and nineties, citizenship related themes were often treated by interpreters of more traditional styles of Brazilian music as well, by artists such as the pagodeiro Bezerra da Silva of Rio de Janeiro, who performs a style of samba. Unquestionably, one of the most important new tendencies in Brazilian musical culture has been the rise of new black consciousness styles of Afro-Bahian music, and Brazilian music generally, a development that has had far reaching consequences throughout contemporary Brazil. It will be helpful to outline some of the major developments in this process in order to raise questions about racial identity in funk later in this study. During the seventies and eighties, Brazilian musical culture underwent a process of re-africanization as afoxés and blocos-afro like Ilê Ayê and Olodum were formed and popularized in Bahia. In the late nineteenth century some black Carnival associations were in existence, such as the Pândegos da ´Africa afoxé, or percussion and dance group which paraded through the streets during Carnival. These afoxés borrowed their rhythm and thematics from candomblé music, presenting in their Carnival parades representations of orixá deities. By the turn of the century, such organizations were prohibited and it was not until 1949 that a new afoxé was founded, the Filhos de Gandhi. The organization did not attain widespread popularity, however, until the nineteen seventies, and until that time Carnival celebrations in Salvador were characterized by other non-Afro-Bahian forms, such as the "trio elétrico".

In 1975 Gilberto Gil, a huge star of the tropicália movement and of MPB in general, became a member of Filhos de Gandhi.13 After returning from self-imposed exile in England in 1972, Gil's musical expression took a major turn towards the question of his own African roots and identity as an Afro-Bahian. Since the seventies Gil has been involved in many Afro-Bahian cultural and musical projects. In the 1976 Carnival he paraded with Filhos de Gandhi, revitalized in large measure by his own participation. In 1977 Gil participated in the International African Arts Festival in Lagos, Nigeria, as did several other Brazilian musicians, and thus was able to bring a broader Pan-African vision to the forum of Bahian music. Throughout the seventies and eighties dozens of afoxés, such as Olori and Oju-Obá, were organized across the city, bringing together thousands of participants from the city's poor black neighborhoods.

A wave of another kind of Carnival association also arose in the seventies. This was the "bloco afro", enormous groups which did not have the same connections to candomblé as the afoxés and that based their rhythm on a loose mixture of samba and reggae. Also, the theme of consciousness raising and challenges to the dominant order in general were much more openly expressed by the blocos afros. In 1974, the first bloco afro was founded, Ilê Aiyê. In addition to parading in Carnival as a bloco, and releasing albums as a smaller musical group, Ilê Aiyê undertook an educational mission which was to become characteristic of many of the blocos afros that followed. Charles Perrone describes this mission:

The group researches and represents the culture of a different African nation each year. The directors of Ilê Aiyê consider their educational work as part of a general movement of black advancement, while resisting affiliation with more militant political groups. (Perrone, 1992, 46)

Of the many blocos afro that came afterwards, such as Ara Ketu, Malê-Debalê and Timbalada, the best known and most influential has been Olodum, founded in 1979. Of all the Afro-Bahian groups, Olodum has reached the largest audience, both in Brazil and internationally. A smaller group version of the Carnival bloco has toured the U.S. and Europe, as well as backing Paul Simon on his album Rhythm of the Saints. The music of Olodum, together with the Afro centric educational mission it carries out through lectures and discussions in poor communities throughout Salvador and Brazil, are means to achieve the goal of citizenship. The mixture of international Pan-African musical and cultural influences with traditional Brazilian ones, its appeal as a universal call against oppression and its beauty and communal nature as an expression of popular art have provided Olodum with a powerful means to raise the consciousness of millions of people with its message of Black Pride. Throughout the nineties and into the new millenium, these tendencies to highlight racial and class identities and a general frustration with the fruits of the restored democracy have been accompanied by a process of globalization and commercialization of popular culture in Brazil.14

Several important regional and commercial musical styles, have also come to dominate the scene, such as axé, pagode, forró, and sertanejo. At the same time, the number of alternative Brazilian musical practices and localized hybrids of world music continued to increase, in large part as oppositional practices denouncing the racism, poverty and violence that characterize the country’s social reality. Sepultura, which began as a typical American and European style death metal group, steadily evolved into a more socially conscious and anti-racist Brazilian style, blending heavy metal with Afro-Brazilian and indigenous musical elements and sometimes singing in Portuguese. In the northeastern city of Recife, Chico Science and his group Nação Zumbi, along with Fred Zero Quatro of Mundo Livre, S.A. and Mestre Ambrósio, popularized the eclectic and diverse sounds of the movimento mangue, or mangue bit, as it is sometimes called. An important reggae scene emerged in São Luís do Maranhão and Salvador. In Rio, groups like Planet Hemp, O Rappa and Cidade Negra created socially-conscious eclectic music borrowing from everything from reggae to hip-hop, hard-core and rock. The favelas and slums of Rio witnessed the rise of Brazilian funk and artists such as MC Galo and Catra. And in São Paulo, purist militant hip-hop groups like Racionais MCs, Xis and 509-E exploded in popularity as they brought about a RAP, “revolução através da palavra”, or “revolution through words.”15

Although all of these socially-conscious post-dictatorship musical styles have been important in the ever expanding landscape of Brazilian cultural activity, funk and hip-hop occupy a position of especially urgent relevance. Not only are these styles concerned with the plight of the poor, the victims of violence and racism, they are predominantly by and for people from the low-income social realities of favelas and other poor and working class neighborhoods. In light of recent arguments that tend to over-emphasize the “north/south” question and minimize the importance of class and racial nuances in the analysis of globalization in Brazilian music, it is important to bear in mind that musical practices in Brazil are not monolithic. In the practice of musical cultures, national identity is often a secondary concern and the identification with international musical styles based on racial and class affiliations is often primary. Despite the wealth of MPB, for instance, it is quite rare to hear Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque or Milton Nascimento in the favelas of Rio. In fact, it is also rare to hear much music from more contemporary, alternative artists such as Chico Science, Planet Hemp or Sepultura. Even relatively mainstream groups with a social consciousness like Cidade Negra, from the Belford Roxo municipality of the Baixada Fluminense, and O Rappa, remain the domain of a minority of culturally progressive residents of the low-income neighborhoods and the majority of poor youths are not likely to buy their albums. This is not to say that poor people are not involved in the production and consumption of all musical styles in Brazil. For instance, despite the mass commercialization and co-optation of samba, the so-called national music of the country, the music of carnival still carries to a degree some association with the popular classes. Furthermore, poor people in Brazil are a diverse group and have diverse interests in every style of music in their country, from rock to reggae and classical choral music to what is perhaps the most common musical practice in the popular classes, religious music. Certainly, forró and pagode tend to be produced and consumed by poor people. Still, funk and hip-hop are the only two musical styles that self-consciously embrace the reality of the daily lives of poor people in Brazil as their very essence.

As noted at the beginning of this chapter, Brazilian funk and hip-hop have evolved as largely separate musical practices, despite somewhat common musical and social roots. Hip-hop in Brazil tends to be a somewhat somber and militant movement of social protest and personal responsibility and is prevalent mostly throughout the periphery of São Paulo. The much smaller hip-hop scene that does exist in Rio tends to be less “Brazilian” hip-hop and somewhat more “world” hip-hop, following the more intellectual/cultural lead of Marcelo D2, of Planet Hemp. The only Carioca hip-hop artist of note who has recorded Paulista style hip-hop is MV Bill, from the infamous favela/projects called the Cidade de Deus. MV Bill, the Mensageiro da Verdade, or Messenger of Truth, has effectively combined the militancy of Paulista hip-hop with the social context of the drug traffickers of Rio. By contrast with the Paulista-style hip-hop, funk, a Carioca practice, tends to be playful, sensual and aggressive. Singers of funk have been known to rap, as do those of hip-hop, and funk music is an electronic blend of base beats, sound effects and samples. Still, where the Paulista hip-hop prefers the minimalist beats of old school West Coast gansta rap, funk tends to borrow beats from very early Afrika Bambaata tracks, Miami base and even techno. Rapping is actually rare in the raw, throaty yelling typical of funk vocal delivery, and songs are almost always sung, whether in imitation of current pop hits, samba and forró melodies or even the call and response chants heard at Brazilian soccer games.

The difference between the Brazilian hip-hop and funk is great enough that most fans of hip-hop, along with most Brazilians in general, see funk as violent, pornographic, commercial and lacking in “consciousness.” In fact, in light of the visceral reaction funk often produces in many intelligent people across class lines who have no problem with hip-hop, one sometimes wonders if funk simply is the worthless junk they find it to be or if it is in some ways actually more threatening to the dominant social order than Brazilian hip-hop. Though to answer this question would require a more thorough comparison than the present argument allows, for now, let us say that the difference in the social geography between São Paulo and Rio may explain why two separate derivatives of American hip-hop have taken hold in these two cities. It is tempting to suggest that the differences between Brazilian hip-hop and funk can be explained by the stereotypical image of São Paulo as a city of work and Rio as a city of play. The main factor, from my point of view, is the social organization of low-income areas in the two cities and the fact that funk in Rio, unlike hip-hop in São Paulo, comes from areas which are at least partially governed by drug trafficking. In any event, I will return to a slightly more in-depth comparison between funk and hip-hop in Brazil in chapter four of this study.


Studies of Brazilian Funk


While many of my comments regarding scholarship on funk will be presented in the context of my specific arguments throughout this study, it is worth briefly commenting at this time on some of the main tendencies that have characterized them. Despite the significance of funk in Brazil, only a relatively small body of academic work addresses it, even though most studies of topics like violence and citizenship in Rio nowadays do include articles on funk. Generally, researchers who have studied funk have typically done so from a social science perspective, conducting some field visits to bailes, surveying fans and interviewing key artists and industry personalities. While such approaches have provided some keen insights into the significance of funk, it’s not really possible to understand the practice of funk- with its lyrical irony, use of slang and underworld references- without a comprehensive, up-close understanding of the realities of daily life in the favelas. Recent studies of American hip-hop, for example, tackle it as a cultural practice with discernible ideological and aesthetic tendencies.16 Studies of other aspects of popular music in Brazil, including the musical cultures of favelas, have also been conducted in very intimate ways that give more voice to the everyday people. One example that directly inspired my early research is Alma Guillermoprieto’s Samba, a straightforward almost conversational piece written as an ethnographic study of the favela of Mangueira and its culture of carnaval.17 Barbara Browning, too, conducted her research on Afro-Brazilian popular culture of such forms as samba, capoeira and the religion candomblé, from a highly participatory approach. Unfortunately, scholarship about Brazilian funk is not typically carried out through such “bottom-up” strategies but rather tends to treat it somewhat paternalistically as if it were a simplistic and massified pseudo-musical form.

The tradition of scholarship specifically on funk in Brazil begins with Hermano Vianna’s book O mundo funk carioca, which provides a useful history of funk until 1988, the year in which the book was published. Vianna, who was a Master’s student in anthropology at the Museu Nacional in Rio at the time of his research, was a pioneer in the study of contemporary popular culture in Brazil who was able to recognize the significance of funk for Rio’s poor from quite early on. He attended dozens of dances, known as bailes funk, and distributed survey forms to the fans present. Also, he spent a great deal of time with DJ Marlboro, a pivotal figure in the history of funk. Unfortunately, Vianna did not attempt to integrate himself with other less conspicuous people in the funk community, familiarize himself with the conditions of their lives outside of funk dances or even interview them in the favelas and other poor neighborhoods from which they came. Furthermore, from my point of view, the way in which Vianna sought to respect the subjects of his study ultimately served to further distance him from them. He states in his work that as a white middle-class observer of funk it would have been ridiculous for him to try to become a funkeiro or even dance at a baile. Additionally, the fact that all the songs played at the bailes at the time of Vianna’s research were early hip-hop and techno in English, and therefore mostly unintelligible to the Brazilian funkeiros, led Vianna to conclude that there were no unifying articulable social concerns present in the movement which might serve as an ideological subtext. In his conclusion, Vianna makes various statements to this effect: “Ethnic identity? The ideas of black consciousness-raising that circulated in the funk world of Rio in the days of the group Black Rio no longer remain.” (105) He goes on to explain that the dances are popular: “...precisely because they are ephemeral, because in them nothing is produced, everything is pure expenditure.” In the next paragraph Vianna asserts that: “In the bailes, no social norms are contested. There is no inversion of roles or values, as is said in the case of Carnival.” 18

In his article “The Funkification of Rio,” which he dedicated to Vianna, George Yúdice makes a similar case for the idea that funk is apolitical. Throughout his piece, however, he seems to contradict this position by asserting that funk somehow represents the rejection by the poor of the status quo vision of racial democracy and social harmony in Brazil. I found this to be a more provocative line of argument, as was his suggestion that prior forms of Brazilian popular culture and musical expression, such as samba, capoeira and umbanda, have been co-opted by the dominant system and provide no means for the expression of discontent. I would not go so far as to say, as does Yúdice, that these other forms are completely rejected by the funkeiros along with the ideology that has co-opted them. According to Yúdice, such a collective rejection of the status quo ideology by of the funkeiros came to a head in the riotous arrastão attacks of 1992, in which swarms of poor youths fought along the beaches of Rio’s Zona Zul and robbed bystanders:

The arrastão, however, made it patently clear that the allegiance to funk implied opting out of other musics, particularly those identified with Brazilian nationalism, or, more locally, cultural citizenship in Rio de Janeiro (10).

From my point of view, there are two basic problems with this assessment. First, Yúdice offers insufficient evidence for his assumption that the arrastões were somehow related to funk. Second, while it is true that the arrastão did not take the form of a protest and the young people who participated in it did not articulate a specific call for any specific demands for governmental change, I would not go so far as to say that it was not political, but rather that it was an example of what James Scott refers to as “everyday forms of resistance.”19 In any event, by focusing on media events and the previous scholarship of Vianna, Yúdice makes two inaccurate claims about funk in 1994, stating that the lyrics of funk songs were still almost all in English and that funk was in total opposition with other forms of nationalist popular culture in Brazil. In fact, by 1994 a whole new movement had taken place within funk in which Portuguese lyrics had come to dominate the scene. Additionally, fans of funk by and large never rejected other “co-opted” forms like samba and capoeira but actually continued to actively engage in the spectrum of popular cultural practices existing in the favelas of Rio. Even some interesting collaborative projects have been carried out between many of the most famous MCs and sambistas. Despite these limitations, the strength of Yúdice’s article is his fundamental observation that funk is, in fact, something of a counter cultural practice.

The most comprehensive treatment of funk to date has been Micael Herschmann’s work in the area, whether as editor of the 1997 anthology, Abalando os anos 90: funk e hip-hop: globalização, violência e estilo cultural, or his 2000 book, O funk e o hip-hop invadem a cena. Despite the presence of hip-hop in both titles, these works actually treat hip-hop very little, dedicating much more space to the analysis of funk. Abalando os anos 90 contains a wide range of articles, including a rewriting of Vianna’s earlier work and a Portuguese translation of Yúdice’s article. It also contains an article by Hershmann, which would serve as the basis for his second book. The two articles related to hip-hop, one by Olívia Gomes da Cunha and the other by Tricia Rose, are more concerned with an American perspective. Livio Sansone’s article on Bahian funk is an interesting comparison of a separate style of music also called funk, from the Northeastern city of Salvador, with funk from Rio. Herschmann’s full-length book, O funk e o hip-hop invadem a cena is primarily a communications study of the process of the vilification of funk in Brazilian media sources. In the book, Herschman includes some interesting interviews with industry personalities such as funk mogul Rômulo Costa, of Furacão 2000, and DJ Marlboro. He also visited a variety of bailes in different neighborhoods across Rio and describes his observations of these dances. Perhaps the weak point of Herschmann’s book is that he does not often directly engage texts of funk that do not come from newspaper articles, such as lyrics of songs or testimonies of funkeiros. Despite the apparent distance between Herschman and the practice of funk at the street level, however, he does see it in a sympathetic light:

Pode-se afirmar que o Brasil, nos anos 90, assistiu ao aparecimento de um novo tipo de poesia rimada, mais falada do que cantada, que vem influenciando e é influenciada por outros ritmos musicais. Uma música que mescla o ao vivo e o gravado, o “novo” a bases, letras e músicas já consagradas, constituindo-se claramente em uma espécie de “artefato intertextual”. Seus cantores são um misto de contadores de histórias e cronistas do “cotidiano maldito”: o conteúdo das músicas traz ora um discurso de “denúncia,” ora um tom romântico ou brincalhão. Além disso, as próprias letras são uma espécie de cartão de visita dos MCs e de sua “comunidade”. Em geral, além de se apresentarem no final das músicas, esses cantores/compositores prestam também homenagem a seus locais de origem, transformando-os em tema central (ou secundário) do rap. Este tipo de procedimento parece indicar um claro desejo de reconhecimento, de reinscrição de seus amigos, de seu “mundo” na cidade.20

Herschman’s observation is a concise and intelligent summary of the basic thematics of funk aesthetics, and he is correct in identifying the tendency of funk MCs to pay homage to their neighborhoods, what he calls a type of “cartão de visita,” or business card, as a significant feature in the discursive struggle underlying funk, themes I, too, shall explore in the chapters that follow.

The most satisfying treatment of the political dimensions of the practice of funk to date, in my opinion, appears in Zuenir Ventura’s excellent book Cidade partida, written in 1994 and mentioned above, even though funk remains in the background. As a means of underscoring his thesis that there is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor in Rio de Janeiro, Ventura contrasts middle-class images of funk with a very different image revealed by funkeiros. Contrary to its reputation, certain segments of the funk world of 1993 seen in Cidade partida were possessed of a highly developed level of political self-consciousness. The composers of funk Ventura spoke with in his frequent trips to the favela of Vigário Geral, in the wake of the massacre that occurred there in August, 1993 in which some 30 police randomly shot to death 21 victims, were explicitly aligned to and active in grass-roots youth and social organizations and recognized their music as a means to educate and uplift the working class youth and to curb violence. One female funk singer says openly, “We don’t like the political parties, but we know that we are political even when we are not.” (60) Another singer, from the group "As Damas do Rap", tells him that her music is:

...a protest against everything that's wrong in the country and sometimes even what's wrong in the world: corruption, political abuse, war and violence. (60)

In Cidade partida, Ventura goes to great pains to show funk composers as an important part of the alternative intellectual community of the working class, one in close contact with educators and social activists from the favelas. Instead of simply visiting some dances and talking to a few funkeiros, Ventura studied the socio-political context of the massacres of street kids at Candelária and residents of Vigário Geral and was thus able to identify the significance of funk as a cultural practice within the conditions of the social formation of Rio’s poor communities.

Notes on Methodology


In my study, I attempt to identify some of the ideological features of the culture of funk as a counter cultural practice interacting with the multifarious status quo orders in Brazil. While I do not wish to seem overly optimistic about the ability of funk to immediately improve the political situation of poor people in Rio de Janeiro, I do see it as a largely counter-hegemonic struggle against the conditions of social injustice and inequality in the city and an active attempt to interrogate existing notions of class, race and gender in Brazil. Similarly, in attempting to explore the complexities of the culture of drug trafficking in Rio’s favelas, I do not wish to seem romantic as to either their actual intentions or their power to improve the lives of the residents of poor communities. Nor do I wish to overemphasize their importance in either favelas or funk. The question of organized crime is without a doubt one of the most relevant issues facing Brazilian society today and I hope that my analysis of proibidão style funk as the principal medium expression of their power will contribute to the debate that surrounds it. Even so, the world of funk and the favelas in which it has grown are infinitely larger and greater than drug traffickers or the crisis of violence in Rio. I hope, therefore, that my work can offer some glimpses beyond this issue, one so omnipresent in both media representations about the poor in Brazil and the reality of the streets, into some more positive aspects of the culture and creativity of residents of favelas.

The tradition of cultural studies offers an ample array of conceptual frameworks through which to conduct a meaningful study of funk in Brazil. The general tendency of cultural studies, like many other branches of contemporary scholarship, has been to operate from a broad understanding of “politics” that moves beyond overtly political organizations, such as parties, governments and unions, to include the practice of everyday life and the symbolic/semantic context in which it occurs. In many ways the legacy of Gramsci’s understanding of the cultural process and his notion of “hegemony,” such a broad notion has made it possible to analyze the relationships between dominant and subordinate groups in society in new ways. The ideas of Raymond Williams have been important for me in my attempt to grasp the nuances of this ideological interaction, helping me to explore the ideological dominance of elites over subordinate groups while paying attention to the influence of oppositional cultural practices on the hegemonic process as well. Williams understands this process as one in which discourses of the dominant order and oppositional ones are synthesized as its tenents are reformulated to lessen or absorb oppositional challenges. Although this implies the ability of the dominant national discourse to co-opt popular cultural forms of protest, it also ascribes subaltern voices with the power to pull the hegemonic process in their direction and force changes in the dominant order.

Additionally, semiotics-based analyses can help us move away from interpretations based on the intentions of authors towards an understanding of the role of the audience in the communication process. Dick Hebdige, in his study of youth subcultures has pointed to the applicability of semiotics to the study of oppositional popular culture, writing that:

Style in subculture is, then, pregnant with significance. Its transformations go ‘against nature’, interrupting the process of ‘normalization’. As such, they are gestures, movements towards a speech which offends the ‘silent majority’, which challenge the principal of unity and cohesion, which contradicts the myth of consensus. Our task becomes, like Barthes, to discern the hidden messages inscribed in code on the glossy surface of style to trace them out as ‘maps of meaning’ which obscurely re-present the very contradictions they are designed to conceal.21

An example of this sort of “hidden message” is the semiotic inversion of the term “machine gun” occurring throughout funk, discussed above, in which a pejorative meaning as a sign of barbaric, animal criminality is replaced and transformed into one of solidarity, consciousness and power.

Another attractive aspect of cultural studies for the present work is the wide range of disciplines and strategies it encompasses, particularly those which contribute to strengthen the sort of “bottom up” approach I see as fundamental to an understanding of funk in Brazil. Ethnographic research, including extensive fieldwork and interviews, can provide the contextualization of this practice in the social formation of the favela and familiarity with its cultural landscape. Ultimately, funk really only exists as a cultural practice, not as a series of isolated “texts” and songs, and one can hope to understand it only by paying attention to the perspectives of its diverse actors, including everyone from fans to composers, producers, dancers and DJs, men, women and kids, rich and poor, black and white. In many ways, people’s understanding of their own culture is the significance of their practices, not some “objective” significance ascribed to them by an observer. This does not mean that close-readings of song lyrics or bailes funk will be absent from my analysis; in fact I have attempted to do a good bit of both in the following chapters; but that these readings will be carried out in a manner that contextualizes them to the greatest extent possible within the culture of the favela and the perspectives of everyday people.

Despite the fact that prior to beginning the research for this study I had already spent some years living and working in Rocinha, the prospect of carrying out actual ethnographic fieldwork posed some special challenges. Throughout the time I had spent in Rocinha, I had come to know a great number of people and had been listening to funk quite extensively, buying CDs and going to the various dances around the neighborhood. As a result, although I had a pretty good idea about how things worked in Rocinha at an intuitive level, and with funk and gangsters, I needed to take a step back and gain a more critical perspective. Even though I had done two short stints of rather informal research in Rocinha, in 1990 and 1996, prior to becoming involved with Two Brothers, I had always managed to keep as low a profile as possible and had shied away from recording formal interviews. In order to do the research for the present study in 2001-2002, I decided to make something of a fresh start and to conduct research as anybody else would who was coming to the community for the first time. Besides reading a great deal of new material, this also meant that I would conduct more formal research practices, such as recording interviews, taking field notes on bailes and the dealings of drug traffickers, and carefully transcribing the lyrics of songs. At first, it was a little embarrassing for me to ask people, especially those I knew, to let me interview them and to switch roles from neighbor to researcher. I think this embarrassment stemmed from the way this new role highlighted basic class differences between me and other residents of Rocinha. I didn’t want to jeopardize my status as an “adopted son” of the community and be viewed as an outsider, nor did I wish to be seen as an informant or a threat of any kind to the drug gangs. Despite my reticence, the response of people in Rocinha to my research was extremely positive and in a short time I became excited by the possibility to interact with them in this new way.

From January to April of 2002, I conducted the interviews for this study, choosing as subjects a somewhat representative selection of people connected in some ways to funk. Although I did interview some MCs, composers, a DJ, a professional dancer and the owner of the Emoções Club, people who I see as more closely related to the production and performance side of funk, I made an attempt to focus equally on everyday people involved in the consumption of funk- people who attend funk dances, buy funk albums and listen to funk songs. Oftentimes, members of this second group did not define themselves as funkeiros per se, but living in Rocinha in of itself gave them ample experience with funk. For example, one of my favorite interviews was of three ten-and eleven-year-old boys who had never bought a funk album or intentionally gone to a dance. I say intentionally because they had all walked through various bailes funk in the streets of Rocinha, coming home from church events or birthday parties and the like, and had been constantly exposed to the funk music that boomed from the windows of neighbors’ houses in the tight confines of the alleyways in which they lived. Even though these boys may not be exactly funkeiros, they do have a valid experience of funk, as well as knowing the words to almost all of the songs, and even write some of their own funk lyrics. Others, like a teenage girl from the state of Ceará in the Northeast, went to funk dances almost every week, not out of any particular fondness for funk, but because they were the popular places to go on certain nights. The majority of people I interviewed were from fourteen to twenty four, both male and female, and people who actively identified themselves as fans of funk. I also interviewed two middle-class women from outside of Rocinha, one nineteen and one twenty one, who had both gone to hundreds of dances and dated gangsters. My intimate relationship to people in Rocinha also enabled me to talk extensively with some gangsters from the Comando Vermelho and other independent criminals who acted outside of the favela, though I never did this as formal interviews or recorded the conversations.

Since I had already been actively involved in the Rocinha nightlife for some years, it was easy enough in September of 2001 to begin taking field notes after musical events. Prior to this, in 1996, I had started going to bailes funk, pagodes and forró venues with my friend Charlys, who later became a somewhat famous singer in Brazil known as “Charlys da Rocinha,” and his younger brother Alan. Both were, and continue to be, very well known and liked people on the social scene in Rocinha and they introduced me to a great many good people. At that time, a young MC named Moreno, who sold bootleg recordings at the foot of the favela, also helped me considerably with his knowledge of the history of funk music. Once I began to work with Two Brothers in 1998, I became even more active in the Rocinha social scene, particularly with the group of students and volunteers that grew up around the organization. For eight or nine months in the year 2000, my office was in the back room of the PizzaLit restaurant, one of the busiest, most popular spots in Rocinha and a place that is open until five or six in the morning every day. This put me in regular contact with many of the more socially active members of the community that frequented the pizzeria and made it easy to find people to go out with. In 2001 and 2002, I attended every baile I could, bailes for “adults” and the matinês, as the kids’ dances are called, put on by different equipes, or sound teams, such as Curtissom Rio, Pipo’s, Furacão 2000 and A Criatura. I went to dances throughout Rocinha, in the street in the Valão, Curva do S or Via Ápia, and at the Emoções Club, the practice halls of the Acadêmicos da Rocinha samba school and the soccer court across from my house in Cachopa. I also attended the famous baile at Castelo das Pedras, an enormous dance club in Jacarepaguá known for its loud, elaborate and somewhat middle-class baile. It was not my practice to take notes at the dances; I usually waited until later that morning or the next day; instead I danced and socialized with friends. I sometimes did seek out people I wanted to interview and make contacts. Additionally, the composer and DJ Renato Moreno, a friend of mine for many years who wrote some of the earliest funk hits, spent a great deal of time talking with me in his CD store about the funk industry. He was also kind enough to have me as a live studio guest on his forró radio show.

In addition to attending bailes funk, I also made an attempt to go to other musical and cultural events in Rocinha as a means of further contextualizing the place of funk within the community. I went to the street pagode on Rua Um, on Sunday nights at the top of the hill, and forró dances at the Varandão and Cabaré do Barata, as well as innumerous late night cookouts and birthday parties across the neighborhood. I went to some special events, like the Talento da Rocinha party at Emoções, the O Rappa concert fundraiser for the Casa da Cultura da Rocinha, and a similar event on Christmas day 2001 in the Cidade de Deus, featuring hip-hop legend MV Bill, Áfro-Reggae do Vigário Geral, Gabriel o Pensador, Fernanda Abreu and Caetano Veloso. I went to the Via Sacra on Good Friday three years in a row and other community theater performances, practices of the samba school and its parade at Carnival at the Sambódromo. Additionally, I attended a new type of event has become popular in Rocinha over the last few years, one that reflects the interconnectedness of musical cultures in the favela. At these parties, a higher price is charged at the door and a person can drink, and sometimes eat, all they want for the rest of the night. Several different musical styles are played at these events, typically rock, pop, funk, hip-hop and pagode. The first was called 100% Bagunça, something that could perhaps be translated as 100% Mess, or 100% Craziness, followed by other parties VIP Nites and Na Gandaia. Once in December of 2001, I attended such an event put on in a relatively small and immensely crowded soccer court halfway up the hill in the favela. The street above the court had been blocked off and right in the middle of it was a long table of beautifully catered food for the gangsters. As the night went on and the party became even more crowded, the heavily armed drug traffickers began drifting in, smiling and shaking hands as they picked at the food. My friends and I were asked to move away from the area, where we had been leaning on a car talking.

In March of 2003, I mentioned to three friends in Rocinha that I regularly went to dances with, Alan, Orlando and Victor, that I would pay them to help me transcribe the lyrics of the underground proibidão-style songs only available on pirated tapes and CDs. Though all three were very excited to help with the project and refused payment, Orlando, in particular got interested and began helping me. I gave up paying him after mentioning it several times during the days we worked together. We spent countless hours together carefully going over the often hard to understand words of the bootleg recordings, writing them down in notebooks or typing them into my laptop. Orlando also helped me select songs and took many of the CDs to his home in the Cachopa area of Rocinha, where he typed them in by himself on his own computer. Working with him was invaluable, as I realized there were still references and slang expressions in proibidão that I did not know or understand, even after living in the favela and having made it a point to ask about several of them to the people I had interviewed.

My study is intended to be an interdisciplinary, cultural studies-type approach to the practice of funk music in Rocinha, combining social science methods such as ethnographic field work and interviews with studies of music, literary criticism, and theories of popular culture. It is my hope that my closeness to the subject, along with the active formal research I have done both in the field and in the library, has not obscured my views on funk but has instead allowed me to understand funk in a more intimate way. Many of the conclusions and observations that follow in the remainder of this study are certainly debatable, but it is my hope that they may at least suggest some unique perspectives in the work of placing drug traffickers, favelas and funk in Rio de Janeiro in a cultural context.






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