Brazilian Funk Can Make a Political Difference

Corentin Cohen
Sciences Po, Paris
doi: 10.18278/aia.3.2.6

Brazilian hip-hop and funk music come from popular classes and neighborhoods but became mainstream musical styles. While they are still despised by upper classes and older generations they also became an international genre giving new visibility and a potentially powerful political tool for part of the population living in shanty town in one of the most unequal countries in the world. But as opposed to part of samba artists depicting social life or Brazilian popular music (« Música Popular Brasilieira », referred to as MPB) of the 1960s and 1970s who sang and played against the military regime (1964–1985) the funk artists have not been taking any stance in the political and social crisis Brazil has been crossing since 2014. After the Lava Jato (Car Wash) judiciary operation in 2015, the destitution of the president Dilma Roussef in August 2016 and the revelations of embezzlement of different political parties that only translated into judging left-wing political figures such as ex-president Lula, no major funk artists took part in the mobilizations in favor of democracy or human rights, still they can be a major factor in social change.

In 30 years, Brazilian funk, especially from Rio de Janeiro, mutated from a artisanal music style to an industry with world-class producers. In the 1980’s when it appeared in Rio de Janeiro, funk was a mix of American funk and hip-hop with the high BPM of imported drum machines. It was identified with favela and a form of counter-culture. There are many issues with funk: from the relation it has with women body and masculinity, the way it sometimes valorizes different ways of living to survive in a profoundly unequal society including promoting illegal activities (funk proibidão). It sometimes advertises consumerism and what it calls “ostentatiousness” as a reaction to the social inequalities and violence that define the reality of favelas and poor neighborhoods. Acknowledging their common roots, many rappers consider funk as too commercial, while they define their own style as less compromised with the “system”. The “system” here stands for the capitalist economy and star system used as a political mean of control to divert attention from socio-economic inequalities. To put it in a schematic way, while they have common roots funk is said to be included in the system while rap would be trying to change it. Even though it is materialistic, many people still see funk as a form of cultural resistance against a dominant culture’s good taste and reject the explicit references to sex or violence. As Bourdieu showed it, the elites define “good taste” as a way to distinguish themselves and to reject other cultural practices coming from lower social classes. But there is more politics behind it than good or bad taste and funk also have become a way to oppose the criminalization of the disadvantaged populations.

It is striking how this “marginalized culture” has earned its legitimacy abroad for a long. In Brazil, it has become very common for graduation parties of elite universities to welcome show of funk for the students. If you look at it from abroad, funk music encapsulates the images of Brazil. It echoes the global imaginary of favela that movies such as City of God or Elite Squad have contributed to create. It also echoes the colonial idea of an exotic and sensual Brazil. Funk is already an export product and funk bands now appear in all Latin America, in Africa, in Europe, and in the United States. I can provide an example from Paris: recently a few teenagers were having a party in my building and they were playing all the carioca funks “classics”. Even if they may not have understood the lyrics, they seemed to have enjoyed it. A music producer and Youtube portal called KondZilla hosting funk video had 36 million followers in June 2018, nearly 40 million followers in September 2018, much more than Beyonce or Rihanna[1]. KondZilla now ranks as the eighth most subscribed channel on the platform YouTube. To a certain extent it has come to be the new face of globalized Brazil and to contribute to an exotic image of it, with the dangerous, happy, and celebrating favela.

But there is more to funk than its commercial success or its ‘aesthetics’ and street style festivity. In the context of the military intervention happening in Rio de Janeiro and of political polarization in Brazil, using their global influence, funk artists could play a decisive role in the political, social, and economical crisis Brazil is crossing. Their lack of interest in politics shows the impact of the narrative of a generally corrupt political class. While most MPB artists take position against the far-right, funk artists stayed quiet. It echoes the idea that classical left/right politics is dead and has not managed to change the situation some communities experience. It also explains the appeal of authoritarian solutions through the figure of Jair Bolsonaro who will much likely be elected as Brazil’s next president. Paradoxically, funk artists will probably be the most affected and the population they claim to represent criminalized. But even if they do not believe in political change, they could develop a global industry that will bring opportunities for its creative youth. For what is commonly referred to as “the periphery” it could provide another opportunity of inclusion in globalization. It could also be a tool of social change making some of the communities funk says it represents more hearable inside and outside Brazil.

 

Corentin Cohen researches on culture and violence in Brazil and West Africa. Over the past years he has done ethnographic works on the role of pictures and videos of contemporary conflicts. Some of his latest researches focused on music and its relation with organized crime in Brazil.

 

Notes

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCffDXn7ycAzwL2LDlbyWOTw