Trouble Funk: The World Of Baile In The Favelas

If samba is the establishment-approved music of wealthy, clean, tourist-friendly Brazil, then baile funk is the more urgent sound of the favelas, a rallying cry for the nation’s young, poor and angry, many of whom are fiercely opposed to their country’s hosting of the World Cup. As the police crack down on criminality and dissent in preparation for the tournament, Esquire joins the flash mobs, the MCs and the dancers on the frontline of the fight for the right to party

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Batman, The Joker and Puta Cabral, a skinny transvestite in an orange dress and purple wig, were trying their best with the lacklustre crowd, but the protesters were too middle-class, few in number, and irredeemably white. The shopping mall was closed, the funk came out of a MacBook, and no one looked like getting teargassed. A few of the anarchists peeled off to hurl stones and insults at the governor’s house; someone from the Não Vai Ter Copa (“There’s Not Going to be a World Cup”) movement tried to light a fire in a flowerpot. Over the road, the local residents muttered about the rise of communism. The military police looked on, bored. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in Leblon, the Mayfair on Rio’s Monopoly board, and this rolezinho was rolling nowhere.

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Around 100 people loitered outside the mall that January day, far outnumbered by a media desperately waiting for something to happen. Over 9,000 had said they would go to the event on Facebook. Back in early December, the same kind of invitation had attracted 6,000 kids, mainly from the city’s poorer, blacker suburbs, to an impromptu gathering at the Metrô Itaquera Shopping Mall in eastern São Paulo. Shopkeepers called the police and three people were arrested for shoplifting, while the rest of them danced to funk ostentação (“bling funk”) in the car park.

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Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s most prestigious newspaper, reported the reaction of one frightened, anonymous witness: “A mall is a place for families, not for minors who want a drink. Some of them had bottles of whisky and they were smoking marijuana inside. Thank God nothing happened. Even locked inside the shop we were afraid. Imagine those families in the middle of it who had nowhere to run.” Over the next few days, tens of thousands watched the rolezinho (literally, “a little stroll”) on YouTube.

Other flash mobs followed. On 14 December, 23 teens were arrested on charges of “preparing to start” a riot as more than 2,000 kids burst into a mall in Garulhos, northern São Paulo, chanting the chorus of “Deixa eu ir” (Let me go), one of the last, unpublished recordings of MC Daleste, a baile funk MC who was shot dead on stage in July last year. “Fuck! What a smell of weed,” they sang as they marched through the mall. “The kids from the southern zone?/Like it more than lasagne/The kids from the northern zone?/Like it more than lasagne.”

On 4 January, Shopping Tucuruvi, another mall to the city’s north, shut three hours early after the military police were called to drive out 400 teenagers. A week later, at least six shopping malls in São Paulo obtained a loosely worded court order barring large youth gatherings. At the Itaquera mall, where organisers had attempted to repeat the original party, the police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and nightsticks.

Suddenly, the obnoxious teenagers had everyone’s attention. Átila Roque, the head of Amnesty International in Brazil, said the actions of police and mall administrators were discriminatory and racist. Not to be outdone, the minister for racial equality, Luiza Bairros, said the lairy teenagers were victims of “explicit racial discrimination”.

Fitful, but persistent, protests have taken place in São Paulo, Rio and other cities across Brazil since June last year. The demonstrations have been fuelled by the depth of Brazilians’ anger over the country’s rising cost of living; its poor quality of healthcare, education and transport; its terrifyingly high levels of violence and criminality; its brutal police; its unjust legal system; its sclerotic bureaucracy; its rising bus fares; and its corruption, endemic at all levels of government and made manifest by the sheer waste and incompetence revealed by its dysfunctional attempts to deliver 12 new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup. The rolezinhos dragged another of Brazil’s barely repressed traumas into the sunlight: racism.

Back outside the shopping mall in Rio, Batman, also known as Eron Logan Melo, a 32-year-old dental assistant who has attended every major protest since June, brandished a placard with the words: “Against Brazilian apartheid”. Finally, someone got the speaker connected to the laptop to work and the crowd were treated to a burst of MC Guimê’s “Plaque de 100” (Wad of 100s). “Counting our wads of hundreds, in the back of a Citroën…” The connection buzzed briefly, then failed, so the crowd made their own music, chanting over and over again: “Não Vai Ter Copa. Não Vai Ter Copa.”

Far from the sea, in the broiling heat of Rio’s unloved Northern Zone, the sweet relief of air-conditioning and the mildly reassuring presence of sharp-suited security guards make the city’s shopping malls as much a part of Brazilian culture as the beach. In the food court of Shopping Carioca, a mall in the working-class neighbourhood of Vicente de Carvalho, I met Pamela Magno Braga, a 23-year-old student and journalist.

Her parents were born in the Complexo do Maré, one of Rio’s largest favelas, but like tens of millions of other working-class Brazilians, in recent years they had worked their way up and out, into the suburbs and the lower middle classes. But having some disposable income doesn’t necessarily make you welcome in the shopping malls of the city’s postcard Southern Zone.

“Whenever I go to those places, there are never any black people there,” she told me. “The only black people you see are the ones working there.” Pamela used to attend rolezinhos, back when they weren’t considered such a threat to national security. Someone would back up their car to the front of the mall, open the boot and turn up the funk. In the parts of the city with few safe public spaces, it was one of the only places to hang out, flirt and be a teenager.

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Even then, she says, the security guards and the shopkeepers treated the black kids differently. “There is discrimination in all kinds of places, not just the shopping malls. I don’t know whether it’s conscious or just something ingrained in our culture.”

More than half of Brazil’s population is of African descent, but Pamela said that on Brazilian TV you never see a black person, unless as a maid in a soap opera. Racism is just as common among the country’s black communities. Laughing, she told me that her own family cannot understand why she won’t straighten her son’s hair.

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Afros are not the only part of black culture viewed with suspicion. Funk, like samba, is everywhere in Rio. It’s the force that drives the gyrating bottoms on Sunday TV shows; the Boom-CHA, CHA-de-boom CHA-CHA bursting from car stereos; the black syncopated heart of a thousand favela parties. Like samba, it evolved in the city’s slums and has managed to survive repeated attempts at criminalisation. But while samba was adopted by the white elite and is now Brazil’s most notable cultural export, funk remains shut away, like Sloth in The Goonies: ugly and frightening, but family. Just.

“Samba, at the beginning, was considered degenerate. A music without value, a music for bums,” says Silvio Essinger, the author of Big Beat: A History of Funk. “Funk has the same problem. People think of it as the music of violence, of gangsters, criminals. But samba quickly became absorbed by the mainstream. Funk’s acceptance has been much slower.”

Heading north out of the centre of Rio de Janeiro, a choice of two arterial roads takes you through the city’s ugly breeze-block suburbs, to the international airport or the continental vastness beyond.

On the Linha Vermelha expressway, the city authorities have erected walls made of steel, acrylic and polystyrene either side of the road. The odd panel bears the inauthentic imprint of official attempts at street art, but for the most part not even the taggers have bothered claiming the space.

The mayor’s office claims the walls are there to reduce the roar of the traffic for the 144,000 residents who live in the favelas of Complexo do Maré, to the west of the highway; the residents say the mayor put up the walls to hide their poverty. Whatever the reason, they have at least reduced, but not eliminated, the chances of being hit by a stray bullet on your way to the airport.

Paramilitary police on an early morning patrol of Complexo da Maré

Avenida Brasil, the other road running north out of the city, has no such barriers. The 12-lane highway rises out of the old port area, and twists past the giant cemetery of Caju, through the slums of Manguinhos and Bonsucesso, until it runs alongside Maré. Unlike the picturesque hilltop favelas of Rio’s Southern Zone, Maré’s tight grid of narrow streets filled with one or two-storey concrete buildings squats across flat land.

Bounded by the Avenida Brasil and the Linha Vermelha, Maré’s bland topography makes it difficult for outsiders to see what is happening inside. For this, and other reasons, Maré is one of the most violent favelas in Rio. For this, and other reasons, it also hosts the best baile funks.

“Funk is protest music,” says Alessandro Kajão, 32, known as DJ Kajão. “It’s the voice of the favela.” He plays in the Parque União neighbourhood of Maré every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I spoke to him one Friday as he was setting up for the night.

Just outside the favela, a busy market sells clothes, bangles and pirated DVDs. A few young families wander about, hand-in-hand. I walk past an evangelical church in the midst of evening prayers and a freshly painted police station. There’s plenty of crack addicts, too, smoking and squabbling in the shadows by the side of the highway.

“[Funk] is a way of showing the people who live outside of the favela that not everything here is what it seems,” Kajão says. “It’s not just crime and trafficking. There are businesses and bars. There’s freedom here. The favela is an engine.”

Kajão, who has been playing funk parties since he was 15, is starting to turn fat. Wearing a singlet, shorts and flip-flops, every now and then he scratches nervously at his goatee. As we talk, a group of younger men assembled the sound system in the street behind us.

Tonight I only see the one gun, a large black assault rifle resting across the lap of a teenager as he leans back on a chair placed at a crossroads a few blocks inside the favela.

“Playing in clubs is fine, but it’s not the same as playing in the community. You don’t get that same buzz from the crowd,” Kajão says. “But it’s getting harder. These days the bailes in the favelas are coming to an end.”

Acutely conscious of the global attention that will accompany the World Cup this year, and the Olympics in 2016, Rio’s security forces have been attempting to wrestle control of the city’s favelas from its drug gangs, under a process known as pacification. Accompanied by armoured personnel carriers, helicopters and blanket media coverage, special operations units move in on a predetermined date to scour selected favelas for guns, drugs and fugitives. Once cleared, they set up a police station.

Mostly, these events take place without violence, as the leaders of the criminal factions negotiate their departure well in advance. Sometimes, it goes wrong. In November 2010, at least 37 people were killed during the pacification of Complexo do Alemão. One byproduct of the pacifications is the closing down of the baile funks, which have often been funded by the gangs via the local residents’ association.

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“People are losing their jobs in the places that have been pacified,” Kajão tells me. “The stall-holders, the bar owners, the sound crews… they can’t make a living in the pacified favelas. Friday night here is one of the best baile funks in Rio. But now even this place is being threatened with pacification.”

Many of the walls in Complexo do Maré are scrawled with the letters “CV”. Long a stronghold of the Comando Vermelho (Red Command), the most powerful drug gang in the city, over the past five years of pacification many of its leaders from other, pacified areas of Rio have taken refuge here.

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Although in some pacified favelas police commanders have sanctioned the return of bailes, Kajão says it is not the same. “Last Saturday, I played Providencia [a pacified favela]. People don’t feel good there. You don’t have that same freedom. The dance starts at midnight and ends at 4am. It used to go on until eight or nine in the morning.”

Funk carioca, Rio funk, has always struggled to shake off its association with criminality. Its rise, from the Seventies funk parties of the city’s northern suburbs, with music by James Brown and Wilson Pickett, to its fusion with the Miami Bass sub-genre of hip-hop, to which was added the Brazilian rhythm of the tamborzão, has mirrored that of the city’s violent drug gangs.

After a wave of violent muggings in the Nineties, apparently planned at baile funks, the police started shutting them down. “They justified this because of alleged links between the owners of the sound systems and the drug traffickers,” Essinger says. “So they arrested the guys who owned the sound systems and shut down the clubs which played funk.”

The music survived in the unpoliced favelas. The lyrics became more explicit. Inside the favela, MCs wrote prohibidão (banned lyrics) consisting of funk da putaria (pornographic funk) or apologia (glorifying violence or gangs). If the song became a hit, they would later record radio-friendly mass consumer versions. Talented MCs from the favelas could always go mainstream. Ditching the references to anal sex or cop killing could land you a spot on Sunday afternoon TV.

With pacification, funk is again under pressure. “The UPPs [Police Pacification Units] ban funk parties in the favelas,” DJ Marlboro, one of the pioneers of funk carioca, told me. “It’s the culture of the favelas and they want to ban that culture even inside the favela.” Resolution 013, a law drafted to facilitate pacification, obliged organisers to fill out eight separate documents on health and safety questions, such as the number of chemical toilets available, and what measures were to be taken to ensure adequate trimming of local shrubbery. Some of the restrictions have been eased in a subsequent resolution but bailes can still be cancelled without notice at the whim of a UPP commander.

Still, funk isn’t everything. According to a recent survey, 78 per cent of residents who live in pacified favelas welcome the police presence – despite the failure of the city to deliver promised municipal services like rubbish collection or street lighting, and despite the almost weekly revelations of police brutality in pacified areas.
“There are still things that are fucked up but for the most part things aren’t that bad in the favelas any more,” Don Blanquito, a funk MC, tells me one morning at a café in Rio’s Southern Zone. “People don’t have the same sad stories they used to. People don’t have bullets hitting their kids any more, so funk’s message is changing. It’s not the same cry.”

The kids on the rolezinhos prefer funk ostentação, the music from São Paulo that sings of cash, cars and champagne rather than the traditional virtues of sex and violence that predominate in funk carioca. One of its biggest stars right now is MC Guimê. Born Guilherme Aparecido Dantas, his hit “Plaque de 100”, with its video of tumbling piles of cash, roll-call of brands, and mixed-race hero fondling a white, blonde girl (much to the chagrin of her conservative father) has had over 45m views on YouTube.

São Paulo MCs still struggle to break into the Rio scene, so I had to travel to the far end of Rio state to meet him at a small club in the dismal fishing village-cum-holiday-camp of Farol de São Thomé. It was around 1am by the time he turned up. It was the end of summer, and the club felt only half full. Guimê, a slight figure in a baseball cap and sunglasses, hopped out of the van as it pulled up to an outhouse at the back of the club. His PR asked me to wait a minute while he had something to eat. When I eventually went in the air stank of weed, but he spoke remarkably quickly.

His two dancers, Anna and Andrea, one blonde, one brunette, sat on a wooden bench to one side playing, unsmiling, with their mobile phones. It was night, and we were inside, but Guimê didn’t take off his sunglasses. Born in a working-class suburb of São Paulo, Guimê started to rap at school. In his teens, he would earn more performing in one night than his father would in a week. At first, he would sing about social issues, but when he started earning serious money, it became all about the bling.

In contrast to the harsh croaks of many carioca funk MCs, Guimê’s voice is smoother, softer. I asked him if he thought there was any disconnect between the banal celebration of consumerism in his lyrics and the lives of most of his fans.

“Funk is a cry of freedom,” he told me. “Not because we talk about clothes or brands. It’s about how we always wanted that latest car, that latest bike, and now funk has helped us do that.” MC Guimê, who earns up to R$1.4m (£350,000) a month with his shows, argued his music is about overcoming obstacles, earning success. “That’s the reality of 21st-century Brazil. Lots of us from poor backgrounds can live like that now.”

Marcelo Freixo’s office provides a few clues as to his political leanings. Below the photograph of Che Guevara, is another of Rosa Luxemburg. One of the stickers on the Rio state deputy’s noticeboard laments the privatisation of the Maracanã, the stadium that will host the World Cup Final. I went to see Freixo to discuss his work in drafting the Lei do funk (funk law) in 2009. The legislation itself was largely symbolic, stating merely that “funk is culture”, but it has helped reduce some of the automatic discrimination against baile funks.

“The sound crews are still being persecuted,” Freixo said. “But at least the law meant the guys from government, many of whom actually like funk, met the guys who are making the music.” The law passed unanimously in the state parliament.

Freixo told me he remembered seeing DJ Marlboro play in a public square in the early Nineties. “When they shut down those parties, funk moved to those areas of the city that were dominated by crime. Obviously, the MCs in the favelas are going to sing about the reality of life in those places.”

I caught Freixo at the end of a bad week. He has been one of the city’s most vocal supporters of the Não Vai Ter Copa protest movement. A few days earlier, a TV cameraman was killed by a piece of shrapnel from a home-made firecracker, lit by one of the protesters. One of the suspects under arrest told journalists he was paid to attend the protests by Freixo’s political party: a claim the state deputy strongly denies."

rolezinho protest in Rio's Plaza NiteróI shopping mall

I asked him if he thought funk is protest music. “Funk is an expression of culture. Full stop. Music does not have to be revolutionary. It can be contemplative. It can be amorous. It can be consumerist. Funk is only a rhythm. Just because it’s associated with poor people doesn’t mean it has to be revolutionary.”

Whatever style of music they favour, many Brazilians are losing their enthusiasm for this summer’s World Cup. In November 2008, 79 per cent welcomed the tournament; in March this year that number had dwindled to 52 per cent. A majority would not support a bid for the World Cup if it were launched today.

Still, even the There’s Not Going to be a World Cup movement knows there is going to be a World Cup. That doesn’t mean the kids from the rolezinhos won’t use the occasion to make their voices heard. If Brazil exit the tournament early, maybe they will be listened to.

In the favelas and elsewhere, people are getting nervous. In late March, the governor of Rio ordered the army into Complexo do Maré, following a wave of attacks on nearby police stations. The night before they moved in, I went there to see Kajão. In the busy street I’d walked down a month or so before, the shops were shuttered. “There’s not going to be a baile tonight,” he told me. “The police are in here.” He was shaking, and when someone walked past muttering something, he said we should leave.


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