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Silencing Brazil's baile funk

MCs, DJs and activists accuse Rio police of cracking down on popular music that 'put favela culture on the map'.

Last updated: 05 Jul 2014 13:38
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Funk supporters say the genre mirrors the realities of life in Brazil's favelas [AP]

Rio das Pedras, Brazil - Seven white and silver mini-buses pull up to a two-storey warehouse, one after the other. Smoking on the sidewalk of the pothole-ridden road, local teenagers and adults watch, bewildered, as dozens of Australian, German, British, American, and French tourists pile out.

For $50, World Cup tourists received a fluorescent green wristband - and access to one of Rio's best-known, yet increasingly elusive, events: baile funk.

Inside the party, two DJs spin heart-pounding, electronic beats. The sound pours out of massive speakers affixed to the walls, as hundreds of partiers dance, some in choreographed unison, under strobe lights. It's Sunday night in Rio das Pedras, a favela in western Rio that is controlled by ex- and off-duty cops. The party continues until the sun comes up.

"I think they like it," said one Brazilian tour guide, who didn't give Al Jazeera her name, about how residents feel about foreigners attending the baile funk [literally, funk ball]. While many local party-goers welcomed the foreigners, talking in a mixture of broken English and Portuguese, elsewhere, many familiar with Rio's funk scene feel concerned about what this type of event means for the genre's future.

The problem is that there has been a process … [of] 'elite-isation' of funk. It's becoming commodified.

- Mano Teko, Funk MC and activist

"The problem is that there has been a process … [of] 'elite-isation' of funk. It's becoming commodified. Even in certain places where people do host funk parties, these funk parties charge entrance fees," said Mano Teko, a funk MC and member of APAFunk, a grassroots group that links funk to social and political activism.

Teko said that the space for baile funk, and funk music as a whole, inside the favelas is rapidly shrinking due to the combination of an increased Brazilian police presence in these communities and the commercialisation of the genre.

Born in Rio's favelas in the 1980s and derived from Miami bass, funk fuses electronic dance music, deep African drumbeats, and samples of American songs. Through melody and rap, artists reflect on social issues and daily life in the favelas, while others [funk ostentacao, for example, a genre that is popular in Sao Paulo] focus on more mainstream themes: cars, women, money, and drugs.

"The problem is not having black culture represented; it's having black people represent black culture. The heart of the issue is that there are spaces for black culture to be manifested in Brazil, but the white, elitist institutions are appropriating [it]," Teko told Al Jazeera.

Police and other Brazilian authorities say funk glorifies violence and is linked to drug trafficking. For years, they have vilified the genre. "Those who defended the closing down of dances [and of all kinds of balls] oscillate between the argument that funk music, in addition to disturbing the neighbourhood with noise, is a threat to youth from 'good families' [read: middle class] who attend, since these parties generate clashes between gangs and a mixing with 'natives' connected with the world of narcotrafficking," wrote Freire Filho and Micael Herschmann in their essay, Funk Music Made in Brazil: Media and Moral Panic.

As funk gained popularity and mainstream prominence in the 1990s, Brazilian newspaper headlines created "an atmosphere of terror", the researchers found, with some reading: "Arrastoes Terrorise South Side", "Hordes on the Beach", "Funk Gangs Create Panic on Beaches", "Panic in Paradise", and "Funk Movement Leads to Despair."

"The speeches of government authorities and intellectuals against the genre began to focus in the late 1990s on the question of sexuality: Most emphatically condemned, was the supposedly exaggerated eroticism of the dances and the derogatory treatment of women in some songs," they wrote.

 A baile funk party in Rio das Pedras

[Jillian Kestler-D'Amours/Al Jazeera]

But funk supporters view the music as a healthy form of expression that mirrors the realities of favela life. It is also intimately tied to the country's Afro-Brazilian history, like many artistic expressions that came before it, including capoeira and samba.

"There was an influx of slaves in Brazil and with that came African culture, and a central part of that was music," said Rio-based anthropologist Adriana Facina. "These kinds of music have always been historically repressed, and funk is just another chapter in the story."

Mixing martial arts, dance, and music, and seen as an expression of protest between Brazil's lower and ruling classes, capoeira was outlawed in the 1890s. According to anthropologist and historian Matthias Assuncao, the ruling class saw capoeira as "a hideous practice reflecting lower class, and particularly African barbarism", and the Brazilian government felt it "paramount to eliminate this obstacle to progress".

Samba shares underground roots in Brazil, long rejected by the country's elite and associated with outlawed religious ceremonies practiced by Afro-Brazilians, like those popular with followers of Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion. Today, however, both samba and capoeira are seen as national symbols of Brazil.

"I don't think [funk] will be integrated in the same way… Back in the 1930s, when samba and capoeira became national symbols, there was a communal national project to integrate Brazilian culture… Since this national project doesn't exist [today], it won't melt into a single culture," Facina told Al Jazeera.

"What really worries me is the actual creative space inside the favelas. The space for inspiration for the songs is really the baile funk… how do you take that away?"

In 2009, Rio passed a historic law (5543) that designated funk music as a "musical and cultural movement of popular character", and prohibited discrimination or prejudice against the funk movement and anyone associated with it.

Rio's state department of culture has also allocated $292,000 to fund 37 funk projects across the city, 18 of which are baile funk events. Each project is set to receive between approximately $6,200-$9,000. To be eligible for the funding, project organisers were asked to submit a series of documents to the department, including authorisation to use the voices, images, and names of funk artists in their materials.

Despite this step, funk supporters say it's not enough, and point to other legislation that makes holding spontaneous baile funk events nearly impossible.

This includes Law 1392, passed in 2000, which sets out a series of restrictions on funk parties in Rio de Janeiro state. The law requires organisers to inform the fire department, military, and civil police, and the public safety secretariat in writing of any funk party, at least eight days in advance. Each of these offices must then approve of the event, and police must maintain a presence throughout. It also stipulates that the police may outlaw funk parties if they encourage violence, eroticism and pornography, or if the songs celebrate crime.

Funk supporters say that Brazil's Police Pacifying Units, known as UPP, have used this to launch a crackdown on the parties in the so-called "pacified" favelas that they control. The UPP first moved into several Rio favelas in 2008. The government championed the programme as a way to root out drug gangs, stem violence, and protect local residents. Today, the UPP boasts having 38 units installed and a force of 9,543 trained officers, and says 1.5 million Brazilians benefit from the programme.

In Rocinha, Brazil's most populous favela, in Rio's south zone, the UPP commander overseeing the area cancelled funk parties, despite organisers having met the necessary requirements. The decision was eventually overturned because of community pressure.

The UPP officer responsible for Rocinha did not respond to repeated Al Jazeera requests for comment. In 2011, Colonel Robson Rodrigues, former head coordinator of the UPP, said: "We need to find new answers to these new realities, not just for the drugs, but for violence against gender, violence among family members, at cultural events, baile funk."

While no figures exist on the exact economic impact of baile funk, the parties do provide a boost to local communities, according to Dr Simone Pereira de Sa, a professor in the Media Studies Department at Federal Fluminense University in Rio.

She pointed to a 2008 survey conducted by the Fundacao Getulio Vargas, which found that 284 people worked as vendors each week during baile funk in the Rio metropolitan region alone. Waiters and security guards were also employed during the parties, and businesses near the venues also benefited from the events.

Local baile funk events generally charge small entry fees (ranging from $1-$5), the profits of which usually go to the music crews performing. Organisers of new, so-called "middle-class" baile funk, however, can charge party-goers as much as $30 to get in, and "favela residents can not afford to pay for it", De Sa said.

She added, however, that the youth find ways to attend the parties despite steep prices or UPP pressure. "Funk is a musical genre rooted in the [baile], whose aesthetic value must be enjoyed [on] the dance floor. It's a central place for the favela's sociability. And when UPP's local command closes a ball, the local young people look for another ball nearby," she told Al Jazeera.

MC Mano Teko agreed that baile funk would adapt to the many challenges it faces.

"It's hard to explain what funk is because it's like a river. It's ever-flowing and ever-changing and every obstacle that it comes across, it will always adapt to continue in its course," he said. "Now it's a reference point in all of Brazil for Rio de Janeiro favela culture. Funk has put favela culture on the map."

Mariana Simoes contributed reporting. Follow Jillian Kestler-D'Amours on Twitter 

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Al Jazeera
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