Sound System

By Sharmaine Reid

favela-rising-matt-mochary-jeff-zimbalist-1.jpgFavela Rising, 2005

Culture is seeking positive outcomes in the troubled favelas of Brazil


I first discovered AfroReggae whilst attending the literary night Book Slam at Cherry Jam, West London. I’d come initially to hear Patrick Neate read from his new book Culture is Our Weapon, co-authored with Damian Platt. Neate, who hosts the monthly night, introduced the eclectic literary crowd to three members of AfroReggae. At first the trio seemed nervous, but they soon calmed as their stories of life within the favelas (slums) of Rio began to unfold. Despite speaking through a translator the impact was still forceful.

Stories of drug trafficking, crime, factions and torrents of horrific violence filled the room; you could feel the murmurs of shock and regret at the severity of the situation. Whilst in London, the group had been attending many activities, from dates at the Barbican to outreach work with kids from schools in Hackney and Manchester, teaching them to make art out of their graffiti. The volunteers from some of the most deprived areas in South America had found that the situation in Hackney was very similar to that in Rio, with people living in abject poverty in close proximity to the wealthy and not having a voice or recognition from those within the wider community.

A few days later, I attended the launch of the film Favela Rising at the ICA. Having started the book, I was eager to watch the adaptation and felt I needed to see images of a world so far away from my own but clearly part of it. The film, directed by American filmmakers Fred Zimbalist and Matt Mochary, with a strong score by Brooklyn based Force Theory, is an explosive account of life within the shanties of Rio. However, rather than exposing the brutal reality of the area as City of God did, the film charts the positive aspects of life in the ghetto and follows the work of the NGO AfroReggae, focusing on the story of Anderson Sá, one of its founding members. While the film does not shy away from the brutalities of life in the slums- Sá’s earliest memories are of falling asleep to gunshots rather than his mothers’ lullabys- and the lure of a life of crime, this is by no means the focus. Instead, these tales form a backdrop to a story of creativity and expression in the most adverse circumstances. After a police massacre in which Sá’s innocent brother was killed, Sá vowed to fight for justice for his family and community and against the wave of crime that is strangling the neighbourhoods.

favela-rising-matt-mochary-jeff-zimbalist-2.jpgFavela Rising, 2005

With his friend DJ Jose Junior (Junior), Anderson founded AfroReggae in 1993. He decided first to start a newspaper, which would report on music such as reggae, funk, soul and hip-hop, with the aim of inspiring young people within the favela to take positive action against the situation that was tearing their community apart. The proceeds from the paper enabled the group to set up a community centre, where young people were able to learn skills in music, percussion and recycling scrap into instruments. The aim then, as it is today, was to ‘take young people out of the drugs trade through arts based activity’. Their passion and belief is that the sound of music played by and for the people of the community could bring peace. As well as workshops, the group held large funk parties, which attracted people from all over the favelas into the area and, during these periods, communities bonded and bloodshed was replaced with dancing and a celebration of life.

Likewise, the film explores and shatters the myths of the favelas. Many people in Brazil believe that the favelas are filled with criminals but the reality is that, in most, as little as 1% of the community is actually involved in the crime. But the effects render everyone helpless; the drug lords reigning over them dictate their moves, causing situations where people were unable to visit family and friends who live in other favelas for fear of being shot in gang confrontations. Members of the community are restricted by what colour swimming costumes they can wear, for risk that they may accidentally be supporting another favela’s rival drug faction. This is the reality for so many that live in the rundown mazes a stone’s throw from some of the world’s most desirable locations.

The film documents these incidents and delivers incredibly intimate footage by giving children from Vigário Geral video cameras and allowing them to record their own lives. It adds an important dynamic to the film, allowing the viewer real closeness to the events, which no outsider would be able to capture, showing the blatant corruption of the police and the reality of the invisible line between life and death. Importantly, from this perspective we are able to see the work of AfroReggae in action and follow Anderson’s journey.

favela-rising-matt-mochary-jeff-zimbalist-3.jpgFavela Rising, 2005

In this regard, reflections at Cherry Jam on the work of AfroReggae by one of its members became more resonant. He stated that AfroReggae is not interested in the McDonaldization of their work and each community has to find their own voice in order for the work to be effective. However, members of AfroReggae often travel to consult with other such communities around the world to create similar but locally specific projects. All over the world there are many cultural schemes imposed on often marginalised members of society with the premise that, by exposing people to ‘higher forms’ of culture, it will enable them to lead a better life. This is not a new concept; there have been many prison rehabilitation programmes based on poetry and art and similar. In a parallel development, London Underground has started to pipe classical music through some North London tube stations in the hope that the works of Schubert, Mozart and Chopin will calm the commuters and discourage antisocial behaviour; while in Argentina literary classics such as Don Quixote have been distributed through the police force, by order of the government, the idea being that it would help officers consider their role in society and the way they carry out their civic duties (critics commented that perhaps a pay rise and less rigorous hours would have been more welcome and effective).

What we see from these types of initiatives is an appropriation from one culture to another, but we need to be aware that this may create hostility and alienation if misguided. I believe we need to focus on our local communities and provide support rather than imposing solutions. Effectively, in the right hands, in the hands of the communities that need it, rather than the hands of government bureaucrats, culture can be an effective weapon against crime.


Favela Rising is on DVD from July 24.

Sharmaine Reid is an editor on Stimulus Respond (.com) and works at the London Review Bookshop.