Cross posted from California Pirate Party.
One of the most volatile and apparent results of extreme socioeconomic disparity is happening in the big, bright tourist towns of Brazil, invisible to the eyes of many (if not most) Americans. Rio de Janeiro, a city famous for its beautiful beaches populated by beautiful people, tries to hide its dirty secret: its extreme levels of poverty, misallocation of wealth and power, and silent racism, all of which are visible in the numerous favelas towering in the hills above the rest of the city. These favelas, or “slums” as many Westerners call them, house the majority of Rio de Janeiro’s population in very small areas with dense housing. The favelas contain key elements of the quintessential “ghetto”, including corruption involving local police and politicians, curfews, restrictions on mobility, and lack of physical space (Carvalho 2007:111). Alex Bellos notes that “in thefavelas, the city police have effectively relinquished control to armed drugs factions, who run their territory according to their own strict codes” and mentions that “estimates put the number of young men involved in drug trafficking at between 20,000 and 100,000” (2005).
The most notable feature of the favela is its relative location to the upper-class neighborhoods of Rio. The division of wealth in the city is apparent, marking undertones of racism that most Brazilians claim does not exist in their country. Sherriff notes, “Brazil’s distribution of wealth is one of the most inequitable in the world, and it follows a racially bifurcated pattern. People of color remain concentrated at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy; they suffer higher rates of unemployment and underemployment, higher rates of disease and infant mortality, lower levels of education” (2000). It would seem as though the results of this inequality would be impossible to ignore. However, De Carvalho explains that “while favela residents have extensive spatial and human presence, Brazilian society and the Brazilian government have not recognized them as legitimate inhabitants of the city, maintaining their invisibility, often without necessary public resources for education, health and employment” (2007:111).
Aesthetic representations, such as music and film, of these extremely harsh conditions, experienced by most of the Brazilian population, are more than simply mechanisms for coping with trauma. The violence of poverty and corruption that is written on the bodies of favela residents is staggering. Carvalho explains that “we can find the same relationship between State violence and poverty, and their effects on selves and bodies” (2007:111). In this way, these representations of favela life, especiallyfunk carioca, help create memories of a time that disproportionately affected those at the bottom of the economic strata, memories that the residents of the favelas wear on their bodies as they perform. Not only does this create a lasting way to pass the memory on to future generations who may forget the physical pain that can accompany economic disparity, but it may also serve as a way to eventually transport this memory to others in the world.
For example, there is a type of funk carioca “known as proibidão…in which homage is paid to favela gangsters and their acts and power are glorified” (Sneed 2007:222). These lyrics create a memory for a reality that is unknown by many and speak the materiality of extreme corruption in the favelas (2007). The information embedded within the music not only becomes public when sung by the MC or lyricist, but also as it is shared amongst fans and listeners.
The state, however, can easily mask memories that it finds unfavorable, such as those shared through proibidão music. For an example in our own backyard, let’s revisit 2 Live Crew, a popular Miami bass group who is a major influence in funk carioca. In the 1990s, 2 Live Crew found themselves surrounded by intense public criticism as well as by legal action for their sexually explicit lyrics and were ultimately censored by the Parents Music Resource Center, founded by four powerful upper-class women including Tipper Gore, wife of former Senator and Vice President Al Gore. The PMRC pushed for the Recording Industry Association of America to create the “explicit lyrics” sticker now found on any record containing lyrics the RIAA determines to be sexually explicit, overly violent, or praising the use of drugs (Cutietta 1986). Less than a decade later, gangsta rap was censored not only by the RIAA’s explicit lyrics ratings system, but also censored as a result of extreme criticism from popular media and academia, including boycotts of any music with explicit depictions of the real experiences of inner-city African and Latin American communities, by both black and white scholars.
In Brazil, there are no “explicit lyrics” stickers, yet the censorship of undesirable memories is even more extreme. Sneed explains, “Proibidão songs are literally “prohibited” and not available in stores nor played on the radio since they are in violation of two laws of the Brazilian Penal Code: Article 286, which makes it illegal to incite people to violence; and Article 287, which prohibits making an apology of crime” (2007:222). This is not only an example of the extreme use of censorship by the state to mask undesirable aspects of society, but also one of the main reasons why the bailes, or dance balls in Rio, are so important, since they act not only as a party but as one of the only places where prohibited memories can exist. With the official censorship of this music, these stories are exported to the West predominantly by “illegal” file sharing. Without this sharing, these narratives would be shut down at the source, allowing only the state-sanctioned images of beautiful beaches and “racial equality” to become the hegemonic and widespread narrative of Brazilian life.
In addition to the sharing of these stories, the modes of music production themselves are also important for favela expression. Rollefson notes that “in 1928, the Brazilian modernist poet Oswald de Andrade published a widely influential declaration of anti-colonial principles under the title Manifesto Antropófago”, roughly translated as the Cannibalist Manifesto, which argued that Brazilians should “rise up, wrest the technological and institutional control from the hands of the colonizers, and appropriate—or devour—their modernity to harness the power of their oppressors” (2007:306). This form of cannibalism opened an avenue to create memories that would otherwise be suppressed, as they took on the form of seemingly harmless works of Western inspired art and music while incorporating uniquely Brazilian influence. This devouring creates an end product that remembers a certain type of experience associated with disruptive colonialism that cannot simply be told via narrative, but must take other aesthetic forms to be communicated. Music and art provided an exceptional outlet for this memory, and many types of Brazilian music adopted this cannibalism, some deliberately and others unintentionally. Tom Ze, a popular Brazilian musician, notes that this artistic cannibalism “will recycle an alphabet of emotions contained in songs and musical symbols of the First World” and that “this deliberate practice unleashes an esthetic of plagiarism, an esthetic ofarrastão that ambushes the universe of the well-known and traditional music” (Rollefson 2007:314).
It is interesting to note that arrastãos, small urban looting operations, are commonly attributed not only to the youth of the favelas, but specifically associated with funkeiros, a term for those who attend the bailes funk. The youth are then criticized for their involvement in the arrastãos by popular media, who in turn contrast them with other “positive” middle-class youth movements attempting to end visible governmental corruption. Since the poor youth of the favelas are consistently placed in the role of the hoodlum or troublemaker, it fits well for them to utilize the concept of arrastão as a way to remember the apparent racism associated with class status. Physically, arrastão is a means of survival for many in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, while aesthetically, arrastão creates a space to appropriate memories from colonizers. The concept of cannibalist art and the aesthetics of plagiarism allow Brazilians to “rob the so-called ‘intellectual property’ of the First World media conglomerates like a thief running through the city streets” (Rollefson 2007:315).
We can envision the pirate embodying this aesthetic of arrastão, especially within the context of mash-up or sample based music production. The funkeiros are devouring African-American artistic expression like that of Afrika Bambaata and 2 Live Crew (Stam, Robert. ”Tropical Detritus: Terra em transe, Tropicália and the Aesthetics of Garbage.” Studies in Latin American Popular Culture (2000), 19:91n3, 92.). Like much of modern hip-hop music, funk carioca utilizes samples of other songs, predominantly American electro funk and Miami Bass as well as samples of pre-existent Brazilian funk music. Sneed writes, “Rhythmically, Brazilian funk is comprised of a heavy, bass-driven electronic blend of beats, sound effects, and samples, often borrowing beats from Miami bass, techno, and early hip hop” (2007:221).
There is a problem, however, with the way the memories of funk carioca are interpreted. In the same way gangsta rap was initially perceived by most of the upper and middle class American public, funk carioca is seen simply as a glorification and purporter of drugs, gangs, and violence. R.A.T. Judy notes that when a “genealogy”, a Foucauldian term for a deep history, “traces the development of gangster rap”, one can see that the images depicted in gangsta rap are found in a “moral malaise engendered by the conditions of capitalism’s hegemony over all aspects of life” (1994:216). Since the socioeconomic disparity in Brazil is even worse than it is in the United States, it is easy to make the correlation between the representations of favela life in funk carioca and the conditions, intrinsic to capitalism, that create favela life itself.
Hip hop and funk carioca are inextricably tied to each other, both sharing similar foundations as they both use the popular electro funk breakbeat as their base. Proibidão and gangsta rap in particular operate on similar levels. They both include aspects of what Eithne Quinn considers to be definitive of gangsta rap: “rich, dramatic storytelling in the first person”, “an ethic of survivalist individualism”, “potent social commentary”, and “playful, robust humor” (2005:6). The favela memory embodied through the music of funk carioca operates in a similar way as gangsta rap, telling a story that the perpetrators of socioeconomic injustice would rather not have heard by the middle class. Although ugly, gritty, lewd, and often advocating depraved moral values, these conditions exist both physically, as seen from the geography of the dense favelas and the gun violence that occurs daily, as well as socially, as a sort of social colonization that is inseparable from colonial expansionism.
bell hooks discusses her experiences with media as gangsta rap gained popularity in America, explaining that she found herself bombarded for interviews on the subject due to her position as a well known black feminist scholar. Expecting a hardcore feminist “trashing” of gangsta rap and its embodied values, she states that “when [the media] encounter instead the hardcore critique of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, they lose interest” (1994:134). She importantly notes that “gangsta rap does not appear in a cultural vacuum, that it is not a product created in isolation within a segregated black world but is rather expressive of the cultural crossing, mixings, and engagement of black youth culture with the value, attitudes, and concerns of the white majority” (1994:135).
Pirates are not simply plundering media for entertainment, though this is a worthwhile goal in light of the fact that the state continues to commodify enjoyment. Rather, pirates are spreading stories of discrimination and igniting campaigns for social justice. The sounds and symbols associated with funk carioca have finally become widespread after nearly thirty years of existence, accompanied by the memories of the incredible life lead by those in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Their music tells a new story and provides a new way to remember life in Brazil. This is only one example of how modes of production and distribution beyond those sanctioned or “allowed” by the government are moving us towards a more just world. Who knew that pirates could be so powerful?
Writer, Musician, Teacher
Access Stephanie’s Funk Carioca mix on SoundCloud
This post is an excerpt from a larger peer reviewed article. The full text is available at:
Eisenberg, S. (2009). Memórias Proibidão: Funk Carioca and Favela Memory.
 Miami bass, popular in the mid 1980s and early 1990s, is famous both for using the electro funk 808 produced breakbeat and for featuring extremely sexually explicit lyrics. While MC ADE is often recognized as producing the first Miami bass record to gain notable popularity, this genre is indubitably most associated with the rap group 2 Live Crew who became famous for their use of sexually explicit lyrics.