Los Angeles man making his mark in Brazilian funk music scene
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil –The air is moist and warm, filled with the odor of trash, cigarettes and car exhaust. At the top of the hill beyond the entrance to the slum area called Tabajaras, music blares from a nightclub. It is close to midnight, but taxis are still bringing patrons dressed in their best night-out gear. Those in line outside the club are swaying and dancing to the music before they are even inside.
Choo cha, cha ka doon choo cha, the rhythms from inside reach the sidewalk, loud enough to ring anyone’s ear drums.
Get ready for a uniquely Brazilian sound called funk carioca or Rio funk, pronounced “funky” in Portuguese. Born among the poor in Rio’s shantytowns and spread throughout the country, funk carioca brings with it messages of struggle, love, and revolution.
Also known as baile funk, it appeared in Rio in the mid-1980s, right around the time hip-hop took off in the U.S. It is often described it as the cousin to American hip-hop - the voice of the young, unfortunate and rebellious throughout the country’s favelas and bashadas, the slums or ghettos.
“Funk is associated with black movements, black music and all kinds of socialibities related to black conscious,” said Adriana Facina, a professor who studies funk at Rio’s Universidade Federal Fluminense. As other types of entertainment associated with blacks faded away, funk kept a presence.
“It’s hip-hop’s hyperactive cousin on Ritalin,” said Alex Cutler, a tall and lanky, blond-haired, fast-talking 30-year-old man better known to the locals as Don Blanquito, which translates as “Sir White Boy.”
Don Blanquito is a rarity even among the strange assortment of artists who perform funk. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he ended up in Rio in 2008 looking for a job after completing his MBA in Barcelona. With some experience recording rap songs in Spanish, he was first introduced to funk during Carnaval.
“It’s a sound that’s not too foreign for the American people or for the Europeans to embrace,” he said. He became enveloped in the culture, learning enough Portuguese to perform funk songs live. He had done some freestyle rapping back at home, which gave him some background. Before he knew it, he was recording songs and promoting Don Blanquito with CD’s, t-shirts and other miscellaneous items.
Funk songs are characterized by a catchy, funny hook - or an enticing command that tells people to do something like dance or sing. Depending on how good the hook is, Cutler says, it will “blow up through the hood” or gain widespread attention throughout the neighborhood.
Cutler describes the funk scene in Rio’s neighborhood as being “cutthroat,” in the sense that if performers don’t come up with something special, or as he puts it, “something really ill,” audiences won’t hesitate in expressing their sentiments. He cited an example: he was at a concert when a member of an audience threw a can at a young female singer because he wasn’t impressed with her music.
Part of the reason for funk’s popularity in Rio’s poor neighborhoods is that it allows the young and disaffected to voice their feelings about their lives or what is happening around them, even if it pertains to something illegal like drug trafficking.
“The favela is told that they don’t get to talk, they don’t get to listen, and funk is a way to talk yourself,” said famed funkeiro Leonardo Pereira Mota, otherwise known as MC Leonardo.
With the extreme poverty of many of the favelas - particularly those still controlled by gangs and torn by violence – songs with such content are considered red flags for law enforcement officials and often lead to arrests and imprisonment for artists.
In December 2008, the Brazilian government started the Favela Pacification Program to eliminate the gangs and drug operations that flourish in them. Rio’s Military Police, known for their brutality, occupied these neighborhoods with tanks and guns. But along with this came attempts to restrict other possible outlets of violence or sources that could evoke rebelliousness, like funk. Government officials would prohibit the music from being played in certain areas due to anti-police content and make attempts to shut down clubs and other establishments where it’s played.
“It’s expressing how a favela itself sees crime, how it sees sexual issues. You’re reflecting what you see,” said Mota. “So it’s not the role of the police to repress it.”
He thinks of funk as a question of rights about music, what a person can say, how to use the street and a way of expressing one’s culture.
“I understand that it’s not that music can change the world, but also the world will not change without music,” said Mota.
Mota, 37, is best known for his contribution to funk’s early days with the song “Rap das Armas,” which he recorded with his brother, MC Junior in 1994. It was used for the soundtrack of the 2007 film “Elite Squad.” Soon after, the original version was pirated and a new one with different lyrics – lyrics that glorified crime – went viral. Although it caused a bit of controversy for Mota, he admitted that it also helped to spread the song and gain global recognition as a Brazilian production.
Mota is the founder and president of APAFUNK (Associação dos Profissionais e Amigos do Funk, which means Association of Professionals and Friends of Funk), an organization started in 2008 intended to preserve funk as the people’s voice.
Facina said that funk is associated with more than just the hip-hop culture.
“Funk here in Rio is freedom for people. Why? Because poor young, black people don’t have the right to be young in the sense that they cannot be rebels,” Facina said. To them, society, prejudices and economical limitations inhibit them, along with forced restriction of funk performances in clubs.
“It’s because of that that the funkheiro said that funk is a necessity,” Facina said. “We are ghetto. Funk is ghetto.”
(Text by Kyra L. Nelson, video and photos by Kelley King)