The Deadly War on Brazilian Funk Music

In law enforcement and politics, an organized effort to silence a subculture continues

Rubber bullets fly, tear gas sprays — and just like that, a popular funk music street party in São Paulo becomes deadly.

It was the wee hours of December 1, 2019, when militarized police officers ambushed the well-known bash Baile da Dz7 in pursuit of two men who had opened fire on the officers then run into the party. According to a police report, officers used “chemical ammunition” to disperse the crowd, kettling partiers into narrow alleys of the city’s Paraisópolis community. Trapped on Street 17 (for which the party is named), some members of the 5,000-person crowd were trampled. Nine teenagers were killed. The youngest, Gustavo Cruz Xavier, was 14 years old.

While on its surface the tragic incident may seem like a police chase gone wrong, it was yet another episode in a decades-old systemic war on funk carioca, a rhythm birthed by Black youth living in Brazilian favelas. The sound, which gives a voice to the country’s downtrodden citizens, has seen worldwide success thanks to superstars like Anitta and cosigners like Diplo — yet in the poor communities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo where it was born, it continues to be criminalized.

According to MC Leonardo, a prominent funkeiro (funk DJ), police repression and pressure from authorities have reduced the number of funk parties, citing criminal ties and public disturbance. Baile funk has adapted by becoming an art of stealth. “Today we can never be sure the bailes will happen until minutes before,” says Leonardo, who is one half of the sibling funk duo MC Júnior e MC Leonardo. “We came out of a scenario of almost 800 bailes in 1995 to a little over 50 rolling sporadically. And sporadic bailes can’t sustain a market.”

Carlos Palombini, professor of musicology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), has been studying funk for decades, and has a simple explanation for why the style is so persecuted: “The short answer is racism.”

The longer answer, he explains, is that the history of Afro-Brazilian musical cultures shows a long tradition of persecution against musical styles, dances, religious expressions, Black artists, and even musical instruments. “MCs, DJs, and the ‘funk mass’ have been persecuted — and killed,” he says. “This persecution is part of a class war, with struggles to maintain a cultural hegemony.”

FFunk was born in the 1980s, a meld of musical styles like Miami bass, hip-hop, R&B, Afrobeat, samba, candomblé, and Latin music. Media and governmental authorities quickly criminalized the burgeoning genre — Rio de Janeiro’s city council even investigated alleged links between MCs and drug traffickers. By the late 1990s, bailes were banned and Rio de Janeiro’s legislative assembly (Alerj) began an investigation into the world of funk as a style made by and for criminals, a common perception of those in Rio’s impoverished, mostly Black, communities.

Rio’s police pacification program, launched in 2008, sought to improve relations between law enforcement and the community, but militarized forces continued to shut down bailes and destroy expensive sound equipment. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Summer Olympics and celebrated the festivities with a hype video soundtracked by a funk song. The following year, the lawmakers deliberated a bill that proposed a ban on baile funk, calling it a “public health threat.” While it was unanimously rejected, its introduction reflects overwhelming sentiment.

MC Leonardo explains that while some bailes are sanctioned by drug traffickers (an image that is propagated by the press), many are not. Ironically, he says, police cracking down on parties makes them more likely to take place in the underground, with involvement from those very same pushers. “How many opportunities and lives are interrupted because of the treatment given to this culture?” he asks.

That treatment is perhaps best typified by the legal furor surrounding funkeiro DJ Rennan da Penha, a case that has attracted the attention of Brazil and the world at large. Rennan, once promoter of Rio’s wildly popular (and now defunct) Baile da Gaiola, was arrested in March 2019 after he was seen on video greeting a drug trafficker from Complexo da Penha, where he lives. He supposedly used social media to warn traffickers that the police were carrying out an operation in the community. After a number of court proceedings, Rennan was released from custody as he awaits another trial.

“Funk goes through a process of hygienization. It is considered dirty — produced on the street, consumed in poor communities.”

“Whether they like it or not, cousins of mine have entered the life of crime,” Rennan explained in an interview with Folha de São Paulo, a local newspaper. “You end up meeting other bandits. You can’t say that you don’t know any bandits if you live in the favela.”

“The arrest of DJ Rennan says a lot about the cultural racism that exists in Rio de Janeiro,” says Yuri Eiras, a journalist and expert on funk and violence in Rio. “We are a very hypocritical city — we sell samba and funk abroad like the face of the country, but right here, in the cities and neighborhoods, 70 to 80 years ago samba was persecuted and sambistas were arrested. Today, the process that happens with funk is very similar: DJs and MCs are arrested simply for playing funk.”

What explains the success of some funkeiros but the criminalization of others?

“Funk goes through a process of hygienization,” says Eiras, comparing the genre’s development to hip-hop’s mainstreaming in the United States. “It is considered dirty — produced on the street, consumed in poor communities. It has explicit content about drugs, sex, bad language… it has to be whitewashed.” He notes that as their fame grows, funkeiros often drop the MC prefix from their names as a means of disassociating themselves from the movement — artists like Naldo, Ludmilla, and the aforementioned Anitta have all done so.

Yet, due in large part to the ongoing suppression, funk’s footprint in Brazil continues to shrink. “In the past there was a great success every 15 days; today there are few,” says Leonardo. “Only one or the other song playing on TV is not a market — it’s advertising.”

The alternative that has emerged, as with so many underground or under-supported genres in the past, is funkeiros turning their back on IRL art in favor of the internet. “Many young DJs want to become marketable from the beginning of their career,” says Eiras. “Playing at community bailes can attract money, but it doesn’t give stability.”

Palombini notes that the state’s persecution of bailes, MCs, and DJs has hampered Rio’s status as a cultural capital. In its place, hubs like São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, and Porto Alegre have established themselves as new centers for funk artists, despite some of the same hazards.

Still, due to the war on funk, even the most epic parties are in danger of ceasing to exist — much like what happened to Baile da Gaiola. “It vanishes from a certain place,” says Leonardo, “and you don’t know if it’ll ever happen again.”

Journalist, PhD in Human Rights (University of Deusto). MA in Communication Sciences, BA in International Relations. www.tsavkko.com.br

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