AfroReggae: Brazil's Drumbeat

by Teo Ballvé

Z Magazine, Feature, Jun 01, 2004

If 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 ofcapoeira, thebatu- cadadrumming in the soccer stadiums, and the world-famoussambaof 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 asfavelas, 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 Riofavelaof 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 bookThe Expediency of Culture, writes: “At the heart of Júnior’s initiative was the idea that music could serve as the platform on whichfavelayouth 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 firstfavelayouth participants in the project. With socially mindful and politically charged songs and performances, Banda AfroReggae not only entertains, but also informs themselves and others aboutfavelalife—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. Gettingfavelayouth 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 largestfavelain 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-riddenfavelaof 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, thefavelaat 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 fromfavelacommunities 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 afavela, 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 itNova Cara, meaning “new face,” as in the new face of thefavela. 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 forfavelas. 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 thefavelas,” 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 thefavelaby 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 thefavelasas 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 neighboringfavelahad 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 twofavelas.

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

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