The Rhythm of Favelas: Brazil’s Booming Funk Music Scene

Claire Baker

Any number of influences can be found in Brazil’s funk music, a diverse and dynamic genre which has become a cultural phenomenon and subsequently been adapted for contemporary western tastes by international artists such as M.I.A. But despite its vibrant history, firm foundations in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, and enduring spirit, the booming funk now faces the police and, possibly, criminalization.

Rio de Janiero

“Funk” is a term that has been used to denote many dance-inspiring styles of music or aesthetic expression through different cultures over the past 50 years. For those inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro who are not part of the bourgeoisie and whose reality unfolds in the adjacent favelas, funk signifies not only a music genre, but also a dance, a beat, and a way of talking about hardship.
Brazilian Funk music, also known as carioca within its country of origin, is a genre of dance music similar to and derived from Miami bass. Though the geographical distance from Rio to Miami is significant, the similarities between the rhythms and sounds of the two cities are obvious, explained by the regular stop-offs by Brazilian DJs in the U.S. coastal city and regular drop-off point for Latin law-breakers, immigrants, and dream-chasers. Records were brought back, played in clubs and then sampled in contemporary underground mixes with undertones of Afro-Brazilian sounds, all while retaining one of the umbrella terms for this type of music: funk.

Favelas, Brazil

To this day, the mixed layers of music on Brazilian funk records use existing tracks to drive their melodies, but are overlaid with lyrics which could by no means be mistaken for coming from anywhere but the Rio favelas. In no other music genre is there such an aggressive assertion of sexuality, masculinity, oppression, poverty and law-defying uprising. This is then counter-balanced by a humbling presence of lyrics focusing on black pride, dignity in the face of injustice and feminism (yes, feminism, even by artists whose name translates as “big-bottomed girls”).
Since its slow and somewhat blurry beginnings in the 1980s, the genre has taken on a magnitude that goes far beyond the favelas where it began. To begin with, since the early 2000s it has been officially recognized as a musical genre of international pertinence by foreign media. For the first 20 years of its existence, funk was the sole reserve of the bailes (dances) held in sports halls and community grounds in the favelas, and in the homes of the people who lived in the Rio slums. Recording their songs was not the main priority of funk DJs, as their main efforts went in the direction of getting people dancing to songs which, somewhat ironically, helped them to forget about their troubles by gyrating to tunes talking about those same troubles.

Piscinão de Ramos

The collaboration of British-Sri Lankan crossover artist M.I.A. and Brazilian producers on the 2005 track “Bucky Done Gun” was a turning point on Brazilian soil, for the release and popularity of this track by a well-known recording artist led to the first airing of such a Brazilian funk-inspired tune on international airwaves (but not, notably, a track by a Brazilian artist). However, despite the lack of a prioritized recording ritual amongst the DJ communities in the favelas, Brazilian funk is a perfect example of a minority music trend, which originated from the underprivileged working classes of a developing country’s capital, and which managed to travel across the globe. The music of the favelas has escaped, even if its inhabitants haven’t.

MIA, 2009

Of those who thrive off the weekly bailes, most of the prostitutes, unschooled working youngsters, struggling parents or members and leaders of criminal gangs don’t get to see the internet phenomena spurred by their favorite tracks. Rapid industrial growth and economic upturn in the country have admittedly led to a rise in internet use which undeniably deserves celebration, but, at time of writing, fewer than 50 percent of the population are active on the world wide web. Live bailes and mixes for the inhabitants of major slums such as Rocinha and the infamous Cidade de Deus (City of God) are therefore critical in their need for entertainment. Such opportunities to congregate around a common need for pleasure and physical venting are also vital for community togetherness and cultural identity.
The more upmarket Rio neighborhoods can make no claims to accommodating the roots to such music. Its existence can only be explained when due consideration is made to the conditions of the favelas, which are clearly reflected in the lyrics, more often than not gliding over women’s issues with a sexually violent paintbrush tinged with machismo and disregard for the listener’s sensibilities. Songs referring to cachorras (bitches), preparadas (ready, presumably for sex) and with frequent references to breasts and buttocks of exaggeratedly, and often unnaturally large proportions, are wildly popular.
Moreover, the criminal activities which are all too common in Rio’s favelas, and which are often romanticized in foreign popular culture, are prominent in the singers’ and producers’ dialogues. Another popular export from the genre is Cidinho e Doca’s international hit, “Rap das Armas,” which was originally banned on Brazilian airwaves in the 1990s, but which had Europeans dancing the night away at club nights for much of 2009 when it was remixed. With lyrics like, “If there’s a cop I won’t let him get away, I finish a bastard like this off, I shoot him,” it’s of little wonder that the authorities interpreted it as condoning crime and undermining law-enforcers.

More and more female funk artists are coming onto the scene and reclaiming the derogatory terms and expressions used to refer to their bodies. One popular singer calls herself Valesca Popozuda (big-bottomed Valesca) and has been composing and recording songs about revenge, womanhood, and infidelity for several years. And it’s not only women that have adapted funk to suit their needs: for better or for worse the burgeoning Brazilian middle classes also dance to funk and listen to (often somewhat tamer-phrased) records by artists who belong explicitly to the same musical movement whose main purpose was to reject any such involvement with the bourgeoisie. The crackdown on activities deemed immodest by the authorities in view of the upcoming World Cup and Rio Olympic Games has dealt a blow to the regular bailes.
To some, funk has lost its vitality; its unique role as an illicit and exclusive channel through which the black Brazilians of Rio de Janeiro’s poorest neighborhoods could express their frustrations and discrepancies between the fortunate few and the ostracized many of the bulging Brazilian capital. To others, it has taken on a new dimension, which allows for yet more people to hear the sound of the favelas and appreciate the struggles that those who produced them have been through.
What is undeniable is that M.I.A.’s funk-inspired sounds, and the tourist-oriented modern bailes in Rio de Janeiro are inevitable adaptations of a music which has sufficiently grown for it to become imitable; an example to be followed. New subgenres are already developing, which will continue to ensure that at any given time, where there is human existence and emotions, there is a music to match it.

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