This year, samba, Brazil’s most iconic and widely acclaimed musical style, is celebrating its 100th birthday. About 100 years ago, it was persecuted and criminalised as the music of former slaves and their sons. In early 20th century, playing samba was synonymous with being a criminal, a “malandro”. Many “sambistas” were persecuted and arrested during the Vargas dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s.
Yet its rhythm was so captivating that despite the persecution, a stylised version of samba was played at parties of the “elite” which weren’t threatened by police raids. Over time, people forgot where this music came from and it became one of the most well-known and cherished symbols of Brazil.
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Today, another popular music style, Brazilian funk, is facing the risk of being criminalised in the same way. Just like samba, funk was born in the favelas. Although some songs praise crime and drug trafficking, especially those in the funk style known as “proibidao” (“strongly prohibited” in a literal translation), funk deals with a wide range of themes, from love to the struggles associated with the day-to-day life in the favelas and the desire to be rich and powerful. In many ways, it is similar to American hip-hop.
People who believe funk is dangerous for the Brazilian society have recently taken action to officially “ban” this popular music style. Members of a popular Facebook group called “Funk is garbage” collected more than 20,000 signatures and presented a bill to the Senate that would, if accepted, criminalise funk music.
Former football star and senator from the state of Rio de Janeiro, Romario Faria, was chosen as the rapporteur for the proposal. A public discussion on the issue, hosted by the Commission on Human Rights and Participatory Legislation (CDH) of the Senate, took place on September 13.
From the start the scope of the proposed ban was ambiguous. Nobody knew what opponents of this music style wanted to ban – funk parties, concerts or the sale of related material. The proposition only stated that the signatories are hoping to alert the Brazilian government to “the public health threat” funk music is allegedly posing to children, teenagers and families.
Senator Romario Faria concluded on September 14 that the criminalisation of the musical genre is not legally defensible “because of the right of free expression of thought, guaranteed by the Federal Constitution”. The other senators of the commission agreed with Romario and, unanimously, rejected the proposal to banish and criminalise funk on September 21.
Most people presumed the senate would never accept the proposal anyway, but they still spoke strongly against it, as they viewed this proposal as yet another racist attempt to criminalise the culture and lifestyle of those living in the favelas.
Danilo Cymrot, a doctor in criminology at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) explained in an interview with the BBC that he does not view the attempts to criminalise funk music as “arbitrary”.
“We previously witnessed other attempts to criminalise blacks, poor people and favela residents,” he said. “Sambistas were associated with vagrancy, they were called vagabonds.”
Anitta, considered to be the queen of Brazilian funk, said on her Twitter account that the supporters of the ban on Funk are “22 thousand uninformed people who need to leave the comfort of their homes to know a little more of our country”.
The controversy surrounding funk music did not come to an end with the rejection of the proposal.
Those opposing funk music still say that the style promotes the disintegration of the family and encourages drug trafficking. They argue that at “bailes funk” or street parties where funk music is played, drug consumption and irresponsible sexual encounters are prevalent. They say that minors freely attend these parties and get involved in criminal and immoral behaviour.
These parties do exist and some participants in them most certainly consume drugs. But this is also true for many other parties, raves and nightclubs. Drug consumption does not define funk music, which is one of the most diverse styles in the Brazilian music scene today.
Funk is indeed sensual. Many funk songs have lyrics that describe erotic encounters and funk enthusiasts participate in erotically charged dance moves. But, of course, the same can be said of several other musical styles, including samba, which many now consider to be Brazil’s national music style.
As journalist Thiago Cardim, writing for Judao, one of the leading arts and culture websites in Brazil, explained, funk is not that different from other musical styles known and loved all over the world. Just like American rap or Mexican narcocorrido, Brazilian funk also has a mainstream version and more controversial sub-genres.
It is worth remembering that rock music also faced prejudice and organised banning attempts in the past. Its fans were considered Satanists, outcasts or drug addicts.
Many music genres faced prejudice in their early years, but we need to understand that the campaign against funk in Brazil is something more sinister than a harmless conservative reaction to a new music style. It is yet another manifestation of racism against poor, black Brazilians living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
The racist attempts to ban and criminalise this music style and the Brazilians that enjoy it will most certainly continue in the future. But Brazilian funk, just like samba, is here to stay.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.