Brazil’s Drumbeat




I

f
Brazil’s pulse were audible, it would be a drumbeat. Undoubtedly,
music breathes life into many of the country’s traditions:
there’s the percussive twang in the martial arts dance of


capoeira

,
the

batu- cada

drumming in the soccer stadiums, and the world-famous

samba

of carnival. But Rio de Janeiro’s Grupo Cultural
AfroReggae takes the concept of creating life through music to new
heights. 


“AfroReggae
was born out of chaos,” says José Júnior, the unassuming
founder of the group, which is now a full-fledged NGO. The chaos
he refers to is the violence of everyday life in Rio’s shantytowns,
known throughout Brazil as

favelas

, where drug gangs made
up of teenagers—some even younger—battle with semiautomatic
assault rifles in broad daylight. 


Júnior
grew up in a poor neighborhood and made a name for himself as a
DJ in Rio’s funk scene. He founded AfroReggae after police
massacred 21 people in the Rio

favela

of Vigário Geral
in 1993. Most residents suspect the massacre was in retaliation
for the murder of four military police officers by dealers allegedly
based in Vigário Geral. Júnior was determined to use what
he knew best—music—to draw youth away from crime, drugs,
and violence by introducing them to music, dance, and performance.
As George Yúdice, who examines the development of the group
in a section of his new book

The Expediency of Culture

, writes:
“At the heart of Júnior’s initiative was the idea
that music could serve as the platform on which

favela

youth
would be able to dialogue with their own community and the rest
of society.” 


The
most public face of the NGO is Banda AfroReggae, the group’s
flagship music group, whose members are drawn exclusively from some
of the first

favela

youth participants in the project. With
socially mindful and politically charged songs and performances,
Banda AfroReggae not only entertains, but also informs themselves
and others about

favela

life—their experiences, frustrations,
and outrage. One song addresses the miserable conditions in prison,
which they act out on stage with props resembling the bars of a
jail cell. Another performance dramatizes a war between Rio’s
two biggest drug gangs, the Red Command and the Third Command. Clad
in the colors of each gang, the performers battle it out as they
rap the lyrics. At the end of the song, no one wins, both sides
are defeated. A video they produced set to their music documents
police brutality all over Brazil. The video fades to black and text
appears: “Dedicated to all the good cops.” It’s a
sincere message, recognizing that not all cops are abusive. AfroReggae
presents reality as it is, not black and white, but gray. Whether
addressing police brutality, drug trafficking, or racism, the group
does not airbrush their subject matter and are unapologetic about
expressing the hardships of being young and poor in Brazil. 


The
social mission driving the work of AfroReggae is severing the symbiosis
between young people and narco-traffic. Severely lacking in opportunities
of any kind, “children turn to the gangs to make money, to
be part of a group, and to gain status,” says Júnior.
Pointing to a group of AfroReggae members probably in their late
teens or early twenties, he says, “None of these guys are young
enough to sell drugs with the gangs,” in part, because many
drug gang members don’t live beyond adolescence. Júnior
believes AfroReggae can show youth that alternatives to drug trafficking
do exist by giving them the opportunity to prove to society that
they are citizens, stewards of their communities and not criminals.
Getting

favela

youth to realize this for themselves is often
the biggest challenge, because daily events suggest otherwise. (In
mid-April, police in Rio launched an all-out offensive against the
city’s largest

favela

in an effort to curb drug trafficking
and defuse a war between rival drug gangs. Twelve people died in
one week of violence.) 


AfroReggae
first started in the drug-ridden

favela

of Vigário Geral,
the site of the 1993 massacre, but they now have projects in several
of Rio’s other poor communities, including Cidade de Deus,
the

favela

at the center of a book and a hit film by the
same name—

City of God

. The music and dance workshops
are what first gets young people’s foot in the door, but they
are then also taught about civic action, AIDS awareness, and human
rights. Favela youth receive instruction in everything from capoeira
and drumming to acrobatic performance and job training, making them
better equipped to find an existence outside the drug trade. 


Júnior
likes to tell the story of a teen who said he was leaving the group
to go back to selling drugs: “At that moment, an older dealer
was walking by and told the kid, ‘Don’t be dumb. If I
would’ve had the chance to get out and do what you’re
doing, I’d have done it in a second.’” He relishes
the anecdote, because the boy stayed and is now a performer with
the Canadian-based Cirque du Soleil. Another alumnus is now with
Ringling Brothers. 


AfroReggae’s
main impetus, however, remains music. Drawing on Brazil’s rich
musical tradition, the organization educates youth in various instruments,
particularly drumming, with a wide array of genres—reggae,
hip-hop, and the Brazilian genres of samba, carioca funk, and axé.
The “educators” that facilitate the workshops are almost
entirely drawn from

favela

communities and AfroReggae veterans—basically,
people who have lived the same experiences as the youths they try
to attract. The workshops also feed a number of AfroReggae-affiliated
bands: Banda AfroReggae, Banda AfroReggae II, and some made up exclusively
of younger participants—Afro Lata (10-15-year-olds) and Afro
Samba (7-12-year-olds). 


Although
mostly black and male, AfroReggae always tries to gain members of
other underrepresented groups. Júnior points out that women
hold many of the highest positions in the group. Although he admits
the significant gender imbalance, he says: “We would never
try to gain members for the sake of fulfilling some kind of quota.”
Plus, he argues, “We are trying to get people out of drug trafficking
and it happens to be dominated by males.” Gay males are joining
the group as well. “Being black is hard enough, but being black
and gay in a

favela

, now that must be tough,” says Anderson
Sá, one of Banda AfroReggae’s lead vocalists. 


The
entire AfroReggae endeavor is financially sustained by its ability
to generate revenue through both local and international performances
that combine music, dance, capoeira, circus acts, and theater. “We
are our third largest funder, after foundations and the government,”
boasts Júnior. Banda AfroReggae released their debut album
for a major label in 2001. They titled it

Nova Cara

, meaning
“new face,” as in the new face of the

favela

. MTV
Brazil and radio programs gave the album well-deserved attention
in their rotation. 


Increasingly,
AfroReggae receives significant financial support from national
and transnational funding agencies helping them to expand. The Ford
Foundation in Brazil approached Júnior to see if AfroReggae
would be interested in leading a police oversight project for

favelas

.
But according to Elizabeth Leeds, Ford’s representative in
Brazil, “He (Júnior) knew this would create conflict with
the police, so—in his very typical way—he turned the entire
idea on its head.” He proposed AfroReggae work with the police,
build relationships with them, and “pretty much do with them
what we do in the

favelas

,” according to Júnior.
Júnior believes garnering the support of funding agencies and
high-profile stars like Brazilian music legends Caetano Veloso and
Regina Casé was instrumental in providing them with the credibility
they needed to impress on the city that what they do is not only
important, but that it works. The release of the new album, and
a visit to the

favela

by Veloso, marked the first instance
that, as Júnior puts it, “Vigário Geral went from
the crime section to the culture section in the newspapers.” 


The
success of AfroReggae is rooted in their ability to function within
the

favelas

as a legitimate, native, non-aligned positive
force. Although their work seeks to draw youth away from the drug
trade, they are non-confrontational with the gangs. Júnior
characterizes their relationship with the gangs as a “dialogue.”
Finding out that a gang leader from a neighboring

favela

had issued a threat on his life, Júnior confronted the dealer.
The threat turned out to be false, but he used the opportunity to
speak candidly with the dealer about an ongoing war between rival
gangs of the two

favelas



As
part of their philosophy, Yúdice explains that AfroReggae believes
“a community’s resistance and survival don’t always
come ‘spontaneously.’ According to Júnior, ‘specific
initiatives have to be devised for that purpose.’” Likewise,
in the song “Sounds of V.G.” Banda AfroReggae says, 



Through
music and culture 



this is one more
movement 



that struggles
for peace, believe it 



bang, bang, bang,
bang 



that’s my
message, a message from Vigário Geral. 




AfroReggae
is changing the face of Rio’s

favelas

, not just by changing
the slums’ image, but by giving youth a chance at life. 





Teo Ballvé
is an associate editor of the



NACLA Report on the Americas



.