New Internationalist

Afroreggae Special: Culture Is Our Weapon & Favela Rising

June 2006

Rio is a city at war. Novelist Patrick Neate and Amnesty International researcher Damian Platt cite UN statistics – nearly 50,000 people were shot dead between 1980 and 2000, which is four times as many as have died in 50 years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The war, between the drugs factions who control different favelas, kills most of those involved before they are 25, and many others who aren’t involved at all.

A third of Rio’s population, some two million people, most of whom are black, live in the favelas. Although they are permanent settlements, many on the rocky outcrops throughout the city, they are illegal. Most pirate electricity from the national grid, schooling is poor or non-existent, and, in the absence of the state, the drug gangs reign supreme. Residents even have to avoid areas controlled by other factions or risk being shot.

Afroreggae emerged to offer an alternative. It’s best known as a hip-hop band, but it’s more than that. It started when people running a free newspaper, AfroReggae Noticias, focused on the Afro-Brazilian contribution to Brazilian culture, set up workshops in percussion and dance. It’s now an NGO running youth centres and literacy/technology training centres, and it’s an important intermediary between the factions – as well as between them, the police and favela residents.

Afroreggae has had a huge impact, not least on how people in the favelas see themselves, and how people outside see them. Neate and Platt’s portrait is vivid and highly readable, but it would have helped if they’d included basic information on its work as an NGO. For example, how many centres does it have, working with how many people? There’s a question for the future too. How does an organization, set up and run by a few charismatic people from the favelas, cope with success, even attracting funding from the Ford Foundation?

Favela Rising is a documentary film about the rise of Afroreggae and one of its charismatic founders, Anderson Sa, a one-time drugs soldier, now band vocalist, and – for a big man – wonderfully dynamic dancer. It’s not as focused as Culture is Our Weapon and, after Anderson breaks his neck in an accident, becomes adulatory. But it’s a stylish film, with a real feel for the city and its people. At only 80 minutes, we could have had more both of the main band and of their rousing drum workshops with kids banging all manner of cans and containers.

Culture is Our Weapon: Afroreggae in the Favelas of Rio

Favela Rising

Malcolm Lewis

This column was published in the June 2006 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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