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The criminalisation of rap in Brazil is having fatal consequences

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For most people living in Zona Sul (South Zone), Rio de Janeiro, it would be a strange sight to see a car riddled with 111 bullet holes driving around the city during the day. A tourist hotspot – and home to Christ the Redeemer – the area is less accustomed to the violence that has become increasingly common elsewhere in the city. However, Brazilian rapper Dughettu felt otherwise after hearing of an incident in 2015, where Rio police shot 111 bullets at a Fiat Palio in the neighbourhood of Costa Barros, killing five young people, aged 16-25.

The 41st BPM, a battalion of the military police in Rio, which is said to be responsible for 20% of deaths resulting from police operations in the city, was behind the shooting. That same year they were the subject of a report from Amnesty International titled You Killed My Son, which detailed nine executions in the favela of Acari.

Dughettu, who runs the independent label Duto in Madureira, worked with creative agency CasaDigital to recreate the shot-up car and produce a song as part of a campaign that aimed to raise public awareness regarding police violence against Brazil’s marginalised communities. Driving a car riddled with bullets around the tropical landscape of Rio de Janeiro, Dughettu hoped to make others aware of what’s happening to Afro-Brazilians. Like most cases around the world, the police went unpunished and the campaign has now been taken down from YouTube. However, for Dughettu to even address the incident, in such a public and disruptive fashion, was to put a target on his own back.

Every year 30,000 young people are murdered in Brazil, 77% of them are black and, according to Amnesty International, only 8% of the cases go to trial. Since 2010, there have been a number of high profile deaths of MCs in Brazil, such as MC Daleste, MC Felipe Boladão and MC Primo, predominantly in the state of São Paulo.

Many in the funk community suggest that these deaths are linked to the growing suppression of Brazil’s baile funk scene, which has seen an explosion in popularity across the world in recent years, despite facing hostility at home. Born in Rio’s favelas, baile funk operates with an MC and DJ format, incorporating elements of afrobeats, rap, dancehall, samba and candomble, rising to popularity in the 80s following the funk and soul movements that preceded.

Censorship of baile funk across Brazil is of growing concern to residents and musicians alike. In São Paulo, a subgenre has emerged known simply as proibidão funk, meaning ‘prohibited funk’. Because of the ongoing criminalisation of the rap style particularly in favelas, it’s led to bailes – a type of rave where most funk parties are held – having to be held in the downtown areas of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Many describe the growing violence as “ethnic cleansing”, such as rapper King who believes that most Brazilians still don’t understand what’s happening. In the face of increased violence and oppression, she argues that the music created by black Brazilians is even more vital than before. “We are in a war, and the music is one of the few outlets we have to express ourselves. All we can do with it is empower our local communities to become more aware of these issues,” she explains. “We don’t have time to complain, we’ve just got to go out there and tell our story because people are dying every day. A lot of people get what’s happening, but I don’t think they really understand.”

In recent years, in response to the violence carried out by the Polícia Militar, the number of protests in Brazil has risen, particularly following the assassination of queer activist, Marielle Franco in 2018. “There’s a strange political moment right now because artists and intellectuals are being demonised by the government. It’s different now compared to five years ago when people were optimistic, and as a country, we were emerging,” says Felipe Chernicharo, a guitarist in Rio-based jazz group, AfroJazz.

Earlier this year, protests arose in Rio de Janeiro when 19-year-old emerging rapper Pedro Gonzaga died following injuries after being restrained by a security guard at a supermarket in the upscale neighbourhood of Barra da Tijuca. “They’re trying to get the mayor [Marcelo Crivella] impeached, but his views have led to violence, mainly toward black people. There’s a lot of black blood flowing in the streets, and after slavery, we were forgotten,” Chernicharo adds.

The deaths of these rappers mirror the reality in favelas where ‘death squads’ frequently storm poor neighbourhoods. They often result in the deaths of civilians with nowhere to hide when the police raid. While these raids were initially implemented to tackle the drug cartels, they have also been known to target residents in poor neighbourhoods, such as the five young people in Costa Barros. However, despite the rising death toll in the favelas, earlier this year Rio de Janeiro’s far-right governor Wilson Witzel promised to wipe out drug gangsters using helicopters and snipers. In Rio alone, the police killed 434 people in the first three months of this year.

While many hold the Brazilian police responsible for the level of violence, a large number of people in Brazil believe that baile funk is inherently violent and have sought to have it formally banned. In September 2017, a public discussion was hosted by the Commission on Human Rights and Participatory Legislation (CDH) of the Senate on a proposed ban on baile funk as it was considered a “public health threat.” The ban was initially proposed by a Facebook group called Funk Is Garbage which created a petition that received more than 20,000 signatures and presented the bill to the Senate.

Graffiti in Rio reading "black hair is beautiful but your prejudice is ugly," © Jesse Bernard

Ultimately Senator Romario Faria found that the criminalisation of the genre was not legally defensible “because of the right of free expression of thought, guaranteed by the Federal Constitution,” and the proposed ban was subsequently denied by the Brazilian government. However, it revealed the widespread attitude towards a genre largely made up of poor black people and how the attitudes of the wider population can enable the violence inflicted by the police.

Despite the marginalisation of Afro-Brazilians, the economic reality is that Brazil continues to profit from the popularity of baile funk. According to The Economist, three billion reais ($1.3bn) were spent on tickets sales and drinks at electronic music-based events in 2013 alone, with that figure growing since then. On the world stage, baile funk is being celebrated. Acts such as Diplo, who is known for his musical tourism, are considered ambassadors for the genre, both in Brazil and internationally, and applauded for shining a light on the sound.

Don’t expect to hear much about the police in the funk that’s promoted in the mainstream, however. “In the underground artists are inspired but the mainstream music here, you wouldn’t hear artists being political,” Chernicharo says. Efforts have been made by artists, activists groups and residents in favelas to raise public consciousness of the police violence that has plagued Brazil for decades, but under Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership, it appears to be getting worse.

As populism and right-wing nationalism grows, the international rap community is increasingly under threat from governments and state authorities. This is reflected in how the poorest and marginalised communities are treated with disregard. The censorship of black artists in Brazil has led to fatal consequences; however, it’s not only Brazil that musicians face violence and oppression from the government. Los Angeles rapper Drakeo The Ruler was recently acquitted of all charges during a murder trial where prosecutors went as far as to present lyrics and Instagram posts using the word ‘gang’ as evidence. In the UK, Smiley Culture was killed during a police raid in 2011 at his home. However, an inquest ruled that his death was a suicide, raising further questions as to why his home was raided.

A less fatal but still dangerous precedent was set when South London rapper Cashtastic was deported from the UK back to Jamaica in 2014. There has always been such a heavy drive to criminalise drill and trap with the likes of Skengdo & AM, K-Trap and previously Giggs finding themselves in the crosshairs of the police and government.

Despite the challenges they face, Brazil’s baile funk MCs are determined to carry on. “It’s important for the label to speak out against the violence that’s happening in our neighbourhood,” Dughettu says. “Even though there are risks, music is still vital to the daily lives of people – especially in a country that thrives on its music culture.”

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