Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk

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1 The following translation is my own, as are all translations in this thesis unless otherwise noted:

My Brazil is a tropical country,

The land of funk, the land of Carnival,

My Rio de Janeiro is a postcard,

But I’m going to talk about a national problem

2 In a recent article in by Selma Schmidt in O Globo (“Estudo aponta mais 49 favelas na cidade- Novo levantamento aerofotogramétrico da prefeitura mostra que o Rio já tem 752 comunidades carentes”. O Globo, Second ed., Sunday April 20, 2003.), it was reported that the official number of favelas recognized by City Hall in Rio de Janeiro went up in 2003 from 603 to 752. The same article also cites the 2000 census conducted by the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística) in estimating the population of Rocinha at 56,000. It is worth mentioning that there is a great deal of disagreement about these statistics. The Associação de Moradores do Bairro de Barcelos, currently the most active neighbor’s association in the favela, estimates the population at around 160,000. The governmental Região Administrativa, a branch of City Hall, places it at 120,000. When I went to Rocinha in 1990, the president of the neighbors association, seu Pereira, a friend who greatly helped me with my initial research on organized crime in the favela who has since passed away, told me that there were 300,000 people in the neighborhood. With such a tradition of inflated numbers, Rocinha’s fabled size has become a part of its ambivalent mystique and consequently some people may be disappointed to hear that there are perhaps less residents than previously thought. No matter, the difficulty in assessing the size of the population in of itself is evidence of Rocinha’s nature as a partially informal geopolitical space. Whatever the population actually is, the relatively small physical space it occupies make it an extremely crowded community.

3 This initial research was conducted as an independent study under the direction of Herbert Braun of the University of Virginia. In addition to being my first chance to live in Rocinha, this research placed me in contact with the neighbor’s association, the União Pró-Melhoramentos, and its then president, Pereira. Aside from allowing me to observe and even participate in his daily negotiations at the Association, Pereira also put me in contact with members of the drug gang and took me to the principal boca-de-fumo to meet with bandits.

4 Here I am playing with the title of Yúdice’s article "The Funkification of Rio.”

5 One relevant book on the horrendous living conditions of favelas in Brazil, in particular those in the northeastern region, is Scheper-Hughes, Death Without Weepinp: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil.

6 The anthology Abalando os anos 90: funk, hip-hop: globalização, violência e estilo cultural, organized by Micael Herschmann, and O Funk e o Hip-Hop invadem a cena, written entirely by Herschmann, are examples of the tendency to conflate funk and hip-hop styles in Brazil. Despite their individual merits in bringing together a wide rang of critical perspectives about funk, neither actually treat the subject of Brazilian hip-hop to any significant degree. Abalando os anos 90 does include two articles about American hip-hop artists, a style even further removed from funk than Brazilian hip-hop. Perhaps this is something of a marketing strategy, as there are, of course, connections between Brazilian funk and world hip-hop and the second term is much more universally recognizable. Nonetheless, funk and hip-hop in Brazil do constitute two separate aesthetic styles and cultural practices.

7 On April 22, 2001 at the Second Annual Hip-Hop Generation conference here in Madison, Wisconsin, Vee Bravo, editor-in chief of the hip-hop magazine Stress, made some interesting comments to this effect. At the panel discussion on Latin American hip-hop, Vee Bravo showed clips from the film he is putting together on hip-hop in several Latin American countries. He praised hip-hop in Brazil for being the best in the world at present, saying that it is being created within a Brazilian reality comparable to the state of things in the South Bronx of the late 70’s that gave rise to American hip-hop. Unfortunately, he went on to argue quite vehemently that funk in Brazil is “bad.” Apparently, the fact that he only spent two weeks in Brazil and does not speak Portuguese was not an obstacle to knowing enough about funk to condemn it at a public conference, because the “pioneers” of Brazilian hip-hop, such as Mano Brown of São Paulo’s Racionais MCs and MV Bill in Rio had told his translators that funk was “bad”. Perhaps no larger rift between the hip-hop and funk has developed, in the fashion of the West Coast/East Coast rivalry of American hip-hop, because the two are so different. In fact, I have never heard any distaste for hip-hop expressed by funkeiros. On the contrary, Brazilian hip-hop itself is widely cannibalized by funk, which samples its music freely and even borrows from its lyrics and dress styles. Even large numbers of funkeiros who don’t possess a single album of Brazilian hip-hop often wear Racionais MCs shirts.

8 This quote is taken from Fiske’s article “Popular Culture,” 325. He continues to say on page 331 that popular culture is always closely tied to mass culture, even though they are different. They exists in a constant dialectic in which mass culture appropriates, or incorporates, popular cultural artifacts for advertisement and other marketing purposes and people “constantly scan” mass culture to expropriates, or excorporates, some elements of it as resources for their own cultural purposes.

9 In her article, “Rap exalta lema do Comando Vermelho” (O Globo 22 Sept. 1995), Letícia Helena says, “Uma apologia ao Comando Vermelho é o sucesso do momento. Usando como refrão o lema da organização criminosa- “paz, justiça e liberdade”- os MCs Júnior e Leonardo estouraram nos bailes… com o “Rap das Armas”… o Comando Vermelho vem arregimentando menores nos bailes funk se valendo dos “raps de galera”- versões de música conhecidas nas quais as letras, modificadas, exaltam crimes e bandidos.”

10 A good overview of currents of protest in MPB can be found in chapter four of Charles Perrone, Seven Faces: Brazilian Poetry since Modernism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996)

11 For a more thorough overview of the tendencies of Brazilian music of the last four decades, see Charles Perrone and Christopher Dunn’s Brazilian Popular Music and Globalization.

12 For concise thorough information on the various musical styles of the abertura, consult Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha, The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil (New York: Billboard Books, 1991)

13 For a summary of Gilberto Gil's career, see David Hatfield Sparks, "Gilberto Gil: Praise Singer of the Gods," Afro-Hispanic Review 11.1-3 (1992) : 70-75.

14 For a more detailed history of the rise of Afro-Bahian music, there are several good sources, such as Barbara Browning, Samba: Resistance in Motion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995)

15 In the United States, it may be even more difficult for critics to appreciate the differences between what I am calling Brazilian funk and Brazilian hip-hop, especially as the result of the confusion as to just what even constitutes Brazilian hip-hop in the first place. For example, The Vibe History of Hip Hop, a comprehensive insider’s guide published in 1999, regrettably misses the mark on Brazil. In one of its articles, “Planet Rock: Hip-Hop Supa National,” Mark Schwartz claims that the growth of hip-hop in Brazil has been stunted by the fact that samba is king. Unfortunately, such an assertion shows quite emphatically just how little Schwartz knows about Brazilian music at all, as it is in no way dominated by samba. Schwartz mentions a handful of artists he considers representative of Brazilian hip-hop, artists who in fact have little or nothing to do with hip-hop in Brazil. First on his list is the brilliant Chico Science, killed in a car crash in 1997, and his group Nação Zumbi. Perhaps such an inclusion is symptomatic of “globalization” in its own way, in the sense that many forms of musical practice these days are exceedingly eclectic and hard to classify. In reality, Chico Science was about as “hip-hop” as João Gilberto, Tom Jobim or Michael Jackson. Even after his death, Chico Science continues to be one of the most fascinating figures in world music and one of the greatest Brazilian songwriters ever; he just was not hip-hop, but rather mangue bit (also known as “mangue beat”) from Recife, and in his case a sort of maracatu/rock fusion. If it sounds like he’s “rapping” sometimes in his music, it’s because Chico was heir to the embolada tradition of his native Northeastern region of Brazil, with its characteristically percussive vocal delivery that is, like that of rap, more spoken than sung. Next in his list of “Brazilian hip-hop,” Schwartz mentions Gabriel o Pensador, who at least could be described as a sort of Will Smith of hip-hop in Brazil, i.e. a slightly watered-down or pop version of hip-hop. Still, though Gabriel reveals much influence of American hip-hop in his pop music, and may even be a hip-hop artist of sorts, his is not what I would classify as “Brazilian hip-hop.” Edi Rock, one of the rappers of Racionais MCs, the first and best-known Brazilian hip-hop group, said in a recent interview, “A realidade do Gabriel é outra, mas ele rima muito bem. Eu não sou juíz para julgar ninguém, mas boy é boy e favela é favela. Cada um no seu lugar, cada um com a sua cara, ninguém ofende ninguém e tudo tá certo.”(3) The fact that Gabriel is a rich, white person who grew up in São Conrado and studied at PUC-Rio ultimately puts him in a different category from artists from the periphery and penitentiaries of São Paulo (even though Gabriel always spent a good deal of time in Rocinha, which is partially located within São Conrado). This doesn’t mean that his music is bad; in fact, he’s a gifted songwriter and performer; he’s just not Brazilian hip-hop, in the terms of the larger Brazilian “hip-hop Nation”, as the movement is called. Last but not least, Schwartz mentions another brilliant musician, Marcelo D2, of Planet Hemp. Planet Hemp, from Rio, is a bit like Pavilhão 9, of São Paulo, a mixture of heavy metal, hard core and hip-hop, a bit like Los Angeles’ Rage Against the Machine or even the Beastie Boys. While his group is a fascinating example of globalism and of the kind of funky, high powered and politically charged music that has come about in Brazil (such as Cidade Negra, O Rappa and Charlie Brown, JR), Planet Hemp, isn’t hip-hop. Marcelo D2’s solo album, released in 2000 with the Bronx’s Shabazz the Disciple, is hip-hop, though, like Gabriel o Pensador, it seems somehow to have evolved from sources other than the Brazilian national hip-hop movement.

16 I have in mind here the book Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip-Hop and the Politics of Postmodernism, by Russell Potter. Another good study of American hip-hop is Tricia Rose’s Black Noise: Popular Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994).

17 In 1989, Alma Guillermoprieto spent a year living in the favela of Mangueira, accompanying the yearlong preparations for Carnival of the Mangueira samba school. Her wonderful book is a window into the everyday life of people in favelas, from the evangelical movement to Afro-Brazilian religions, violence and just basically the personalities of people in the favela. It was after reading her book as a student in Rio that I made the decision to move to Rocinha for the first time.

18 In this quote, on page 106, Vianna is comparing funk to the analysis of the culture of Carnival in Roberto da Matta’s article "Carnaval como Rito de Passagem," Ensaios de antropologia estrutural (Petrópolis: Editora Vozes, 1977).

19 Here I am referring to Scott’s Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance and the broader notion of “political” that he embraces against the tendency to:

...focus(es) on just the kinds of movements with which social scientists in the West were most familiar__ those with names, banners, tables of organization, and formal leadership.(xv)

Scott argues, quite convincingly, that such a perspective ignores the majority of real political activity, which is more subtle:

Most forms of peasant resistance stop well short of outright defiance. Here I have in mind the ordinary weapons of relatively powerless groups: foot dragging, dissimulation, desertion, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage and so on.(xvi)

20 Translation of Herschmann from page 163:

It can be affirmed that Brazil, in the nineties, witnessed the appearance of a new type of rhymed poetry, more spoken than sung, that has since influenced and been influenced by other musical rhythms. A form of music that mixes the live with the pre-recorded, the “new” with classic base beats, lyrics and songs, clearly constituting a sort of “intertextual artifact.” Its singers are a mixture of story tellers and chroniclers of the “hard reality of the streets”: the content of the music sometimes is an outcry and others is romantic or even playful. Besides this, the lyrics are a sort of business card for the MCs and their “communities.” In general, besides introducing themselves at the end of their songs, these singer/songwriters give homage to their home neighborhoods, transforming them into a central theme (or secondary one) of their raps. This type of procedure seems to indicate a clear desire for recognition, for the re-inscription of their friends, of their “world” in the city.

21 From Hebdige, “From Culture to Hegemony,” in Gender, Class and Race in Media, page 662.

Chapter 2: Funk, Favelas and Organized Crime

Bota o fuzil pa cantar!

-“Sou da Rocinha,” by MC Galo
Street Vigil

On the corner stands a group of four or five olheiros, or “watchers,” rubbing there eyes after an all night shift observing the little dirt street that runs between the houses and alleys of the Cachopa area of the favela of Rocinha, in Rio de Janeiro. The boys laugh, stretching shirtless in the calm, early hours of the morning as they chat with two girls on their way home from the funk dance at the bottom of the hill. The smell of bread just delivered hot out of the oven mixes with that of the cheap marijuana the small group of watchers is passing around. The olheiros are unarmed except for walkie-talkies and roman candles, two ways to signal to their “brothers” that another group of drug traffickers or the police is invading. Experience has taught them that if either were to make it this far up the hill, getting past the many other olheiros at lower positions along the favela, the police or gangsters might just open fire on them.

The funk dance was good, the girls report; singers Galo, Dolores and Fornalha really got the crowd going. Several of the senior drug traffickers put in an appearance, armed with more than phones and fire crackers. Throughout the night, groups of gangsters called bondes, representing the several areas of Rocinha, had come through the dance. Brandishing AK-47s, M-16s, AR-15s, UZIs and the like, they had waded through the crowds of the packed Via Ápia street past the long row of amps and speakers. The olheiros know that many of the more powerful gangsters can’t ever leave the protection of the morrão, or “big hill,” as they call Rocinha, because they are wanted men, and that for these gangsters the funk dances are one of the only options of night life their situation allows. Maybe that is why the higher ups in the comando, as the gang is called, pay for the enormous bailes funk, which are attended by thousands of young people every week.

One olheiro, a skinny, black kid of 17 with brown eyes, heavy eyelashes and big forward pointing ears, says he can’t wait for the day when he’ll be one of those big shots with a gun in his hands. Another, a fourteen year-old with shiny, straight black hair to his shoulders, would rather just go to the beach and meet some girls. They turn up the boom box in between them and sing along with the words of a favorite song about Rocinha from a proibidão funk CD they’ve been playing all night:

A Via Ápia, a Paula Brito, Cachopa,

Fundação, Terreirão,

Os bondes prontão, sempre de AK na mão,

boladão, observando a sua vacilação,

fé em Deus para o Comando Vermelhão1
Funk Music and the Legitimacy of Organized Crime

Throughout the eighties and nineties, long before Tim Lopes was murdered, funk had been controversial and often criticized as violent, pornographic and thematically trivial, a sort of musical bread and circus for the masses of residents of Rio’s favelas and low-income suburbs. Despite an occasional flash of national visibility and partial acceptance by the media in Brazil, funk has continued to be principally a musical practice of poor youths in Rio and has neither undergone a full-scale process of commercialization nor one of appropriation by the status quo. Certainly the type of funk known as proibidão, a sort of “prohibited,” underground style of illegal gangster funk performed live at funk dances and found on pirated recordings available only in favelas, has never been embraced by the media and is little understood by outside observers. In any event, funk is unquestionably one of the most significant cultural expressions of the reality and identity of poor people in Rio and the largely marginalized existence they live across the city. Funk is enormously popular across town in places like the sprawling favela of Rocinha, home of funk’s greatest singer, MC Galo, as well as Dolores, Marquinhos, Leonardo and Junior, Fornalha, Gorila and Preto, and Neném. Its heavy bass sound can be heard in the Tijucan favelas of the Zona Norte, such as Borel and Formiga, where the raspy voiced Duda and Catra are from; it booms away by the seaside mountain favela of Vidigal, home of Mascote; and in the Cidade de Deus in Jacarepaguá in the Zona Oeste, where MCs Cidinho and Doca live. In a city with hundreds of favelas, funk is the loudest and most prevalent musical style in places like Vigário Geral, Acari and the neighborhoods of some of the most famous samba schools, such as Mangueira and Salgueiro, as well as the favelas of Niterói and São Gonçalo.

The culture of funk music is one of the principal ways through which the legitimacy of the drug traffickers is produced and lived in the partially alternative social order of Rio’s favelas. By “partially alternative,” I mean to suggest that rule of the traffickers is ambiguous, in some ways representing a challenge to the legitimacy of the status quo order and in others resting upon some of the same ideological foundations. In this sense, funk is a fundamental discursive site in the Brazilian hegemonic process and is uniquely situated to reflect the convergences and incongruencies in the dynamics of power between the status quo order and the rule of the traffickers. For this reason, funk is much more than a “youth style” or a form of “popular music;” it is a fundamental cultural dimension of a society in which drug traffickers control and defend areas under siege in a war of social exclusion and class disparity. It is my hope to neither condemn nor romanticize the drug traffickers and their governance, nor the music of funk that legitimizes them, but rather to map out the ideological formation of a Brazilian subculture of favelas that has developed in a crisis of violence, poverty and social exclusion.2 As stated in chapter one, I will focus on the practices of funk and drug trafficking in the favela of Rocinha, situated in Gávea and São Conrado, in the Zona Sul of Rio, considered to be one of the largest and most heavily armed favelas in the city and the one with the highest rate of sales of drugs.3 In order to provide a context for this analysis, I will discuss the crisis of urban violence in Brazil and some of the basic tendencies of the culture of drug trafficking in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. I will also explain the ways in which the baile funk in the favela has become a sort of ritual staging of the power of the drug traffickers and the ways in which funk is supported by them more generally.

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