Born in the late 1980s, "funk carioca" serves as the soundtrack of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and as an anthem for favela youth, most of whom are poor and black and face violence and discrimination. This musical genre, which is a blend of electro and hip-hop, is often played at the big street parties organised in the favelas. However, Brazilian police have been using armoured vehicles to break up these parties, claiming that they disturb public order. Our Observer documented this repression in 2017.
On March 17, 2017, residents of Barrio Carioca – a neighbourhood in the north of the Brazilian capital – set up a stage and chairs for a concert in a public square. But at one point during the evening, after the party had already started, police officers deliberately drove an armoured vehicle into the stage. Several people caught the incident on film.
In a report on the SBT television channel, a journalist explains that the police claimed that they intervened because it was an unauthorised "baile funk" (“funk ball”).
The DefeZap collective, which documents police violence in Rio de Janeiro, has received dozens of videos showing incidents like this. Each time, the police use the same method. They use an armoured vehicle – known in Brazil as a "caveirão" – to ram the audio equipment. The police usually offer the same explanation, claiming that these gatherings are full of criminals and that they threaten public order.
Video documentation of a longstanding problem
Our Observer Guilherme Pimentel, a lawyer and a coordinator of DefeZap, has been working for a long time on the topic of police repression of "baile funk" in urban neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro. In 2015, he started collecting videos and testimonies documenting these abuses in collaboration with an association called Professionals and Friends of Funk (Apafunk).
"To my knowledge, this is the first time these abuses have been examined in court”
Starting last year, we got together with a group including funk party organisers, artists and activists to seek a solution. Up until now, even though people within the scene denounced this police violence, it was an invisible problem to the rest of the world.
Through DefeZap, we launched several appeals for people to report these abuses using our platform, where you can upload videos securely. People who hadn’t dared to report these incidents in the past suddenly started sending us proof of violent police interventions.
We investigated seven different incidents, all of which were caught on camera. We reached out to the government, giving them the information we had gathered about the time and date of these interventions as well as the names of the police officers involved and the license plate number of the armoured car if it is visible in the footage we recovered. The government has, so far, launched five investigations. To my knowledge, this is the very first time that these abuses have been examined in court.
This is all the more important because what the police are doing is illegal. In Brazil, police have no legal right to ban a cultural event.
An armoured car destroys sound equipment in Parque das Missões, located in the Duque de Caxias municipality. (Photo: screengrab, Defezap).
A law to criminalise “bailes funk"?
The authorities seem to look favourably upon this repression. Last July, the Brazilian Senate even examined a bill that would make funk music a crime against “the public health of children, teenagers and families”. According to the daily newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo, the bill claimed that the funk balls were full of debauchery and a place where “criminals, rapists and paedophiles” engaged in “selling and using drugs and alcohol”, “sexual explorations”, “theft” and even “kidnapping”.
Our Observer says that the conflation of "funk" and "criminality" isn’t new.
There’s a lot of criticism of a certain sub-genre of funk called "proibidão" – "prohibited funk" – which recounts criminal life in the favelas.
Many people thought funk singers were being apologists for the favela gangs. It’s true that there are funk songs with very crude and sometimes misogynistic lyrics. And a lot of songs talk about themes like drugs, violence and weapons. But it is a musical style that comes from the favelas and that is inspired by daily life in these neighbourhoods. We can’t ask funk singers to talk about the sea, sand and love like "bossa nova", which is a genre of music from bourgeois neighbourhoods like Copacabana or Ipanema.
Many people also denounce the presence of armed men at funk balls, but these parties take place in the favelas, where it is just a fact that many people carry weapons. That is a security issue that isn’t directly related to funk.
This "proibidão" funk song is from the early 2000s. The refrain says, "Our life is a criminal’s life and our game is brutal / Today we are partying but, tomorrow, we’ll be fighting / The armoured car doesn’t scare me, we don’t flee conflict / We are also armoured with the blood of Jesus Christ."
A Senate commission ultimately said that the bill seeking to criminalise funk music was unconstitutional and rejected it in September 2017. In its response, the commission said the bill was an echo of previous efforts to ban other genres like samba and jazz, which are now iconic.
The commission didn’t mention it, but, in the past, there were also efforts to suppress capoeira. Before slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, this dance and martial art was banned for fear that it would encourage slaves to rebel.
"The problem is really that society criminalises people who are poor and black”
Dennis Novaes is an anthropologist and the author of a thesis on the banning of funk. He thinks this is just another chapter in an ongoing repression of “black” culture in Brazil.
“In the past two decades, the favelas have become a “danger” that needs to be fought or even, as a last resort, exterminated. As repressive policies against drug trafficking have intensified, these neighbourhoods have actually gotten more violent.
Funk responds to this and includes descriptions of the challenges of life marked by endemic violence. The media rails against the violence of funk lyrics but not about the reality that these lyrics represent. We are scandalised by funk singers who defy the authorities, but less so when a child gets shot in a firefight."
In the past two decades, the favelas have become a “danger” that needs to be fought or even, as a last resort, exterminated. As repressive policies against drug trafficking have intensified, these neighbourhoods have actually gotten more violent.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: Fighting police violence in Brazil, one amateur video at a time
Funk responds to this and includes descriptions of the challenges of life marked by endemic violence. The media rails against the violence of funk lyrics but not about the reality that these lyrics represent. We are scandalised by funk singers who defy the authorities, but less so when a child gets shot in a firefight.
This song, one of the most popular funk songs of the 1990s, is now considered a “hymn” for the genre. The singers talk about daily life in the favelas, without calling for violence : "I just want to be happy / Walking leisurely in the favela where I was born / And to be proud of it /And to be aware that the people have their place." Then, the second singer joins in: "With so much violence, I’m afraid to live / Because, in the favela, I’m not respected / Sadness and joy come together/ I pray for a guardian angel / But I’m interrupted by bursts of gunfire."
A long history of banning and protecting funk
Dance parties, called “balls” or, in Brazilian Portuguese, “bailes”, first began in the 1980s. At first, people at these parties danced to a soundtrack of American funk, electro and hip-hop.
Novaes says that it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Brazil’s own style of Portuguese-language funk – “funk carioca” – was born. In 1992, funk fans were held responsible for a brawl on Rio de Janeiro’s Arpoador Beach. At the same time, the media was roundly criticising the organisation of the first balls knows as "Lado A, Lado B" ("Camp A, Camp B") where rival gangs would face off.
As funk parties became more and more associated with urban violence and drug trafficking, they disappeared from clubs in the centre of Rio de Janeiro and migrated almost exclusively to the favelas. Even though they were no longer in the centre of town, the authorities kept an eye on them. Between 2000 and 2009, a series of laws was passed either regulating or deregulating these parties.>> WATCH ON THE OBSERVERS: Brazil, citizen video against police brutality