Brazil: Putting the funk back in favelas

A baile funk in Rio.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Brazilian funk music has long been associated with all-night dance parties thrown by drug traffickers, with weapons on display, drugs for sale and hypersexual lyrics.

Artists say baile funk is about much more than drugs and violence and that demonizing a whole genre of music, like hip-hop or rap in the U.S., is simply prejudice. But the police don't always see it that way.

As the Brazilian government tries to take control of the favelas from drug traffickers, the baile funk parties have become a front line in a new culture war between shantytown residents and the throngs of police sent to patrol their communities.

The captains in charge of units are finding themselves at odds with residents when they try to break up, regulate or ban the raucous dance parties.

For the first time since February, the Tabajaras favelas held a baile funk last weekend. Girls in curvy mini-dresses and stilettos sipped beer and downed hot dogs as uniformed police officers watched dancers file into the hall. A sign next to the drink-ticket stand reminded partygoers that minors were prohibited by law from buying alcohol

As a two-and-a-half year old policing program seeks to station permanent policing units —  called Units of Pacifying Police (UPPs) — in select favelas, funk performers are uncertain about whether they can regularly hold the parties.

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There is no blanket prohibition on baile funk nor do police commanders openly say they oppose the dance parties. Rather, few grant permission for it for reasons of noise and security.

Listen to a clean example of the genre.

“You have it one weekend and you don’t know if you can have it next week. You aren’t certain of your right the upcoming week,” said MC Leonardo, a famous local artist and president of Apafunk, a professional organization of funk musicians and promoters.

A baile funk on Sunday in the police-controlled favela of Turano, for example, ended with residents throwing throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police when they tried to disband the late-night dance. Three officers were injured.  

Tabajaras became famous last August by becoming the first favela with a police unit to host an authorized baile funk. But the parties stopped by February. 

Renato Senna, a police captain stationed in Tabajaras, said there were multiple security infractions, including allowing 1,000 dancers into a hall with a capacity for 500 and reports from residents that drugs and arms had made their way into the event.

Senna said he authorized the baile last Saturday after a new group of organizers presented security plans.

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“[Residents] spent years under the control of traffickers,” said Charbelly Estrella, a UPP communications officer. “The resident didn’t have the right to complain.”

But now that residents can speak up, Senna said he has received complaints from favela residents who prefer quiet in the hillside shantytown.

Col. Robson Rodrigues, who oversees the Rio de Janeiro pacification program, agrees that baile funk is a cultural manifestation that should be allowed. He says it will take time to figure out the role of the police in overseeing these types of parties.

The Saturday baile in Tabajaras was slow to fill up, with the DJ mixing local funk — like MC Kadu’s “Diexa a gatinha dançar” (“Let the hot girl dance”) — and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” Longtime Tabajaras resident Leonardo Sousa de Oliveira, for one, complained that it was less animated than bailes in the time of traffickers.

“Porra!” he says, using the crude but common equivalent of “dang!” “There didn’t used to be room to sit.”

But Ryann Silva, also a frequent baile guest, said he welcomed the new safety rules. “It’s better. ... There’s no more guns. There’s no more shootouts. There’s no more trafficking. There’s no more drugs.”

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