In São Paulo, there’s a Christian funkeiro getting co-signs from the world’s biggest soccer stars – but the club kids whose favorite tracks are getting spliced with the rhymes of the viral hit “Ta Tranquilo Ta Favorável” wouldn’t know it. That baile funk artist is MC Bin Laden, a 22-year-old rapper whose videos boast cameos from Neymar and Ronaldinho. Along with fellow funkeiros like MC João and 14-year-old MC Brinquedo, Bin Laden is ushering in a new era of baile funk that has more to do with viral YouTube videos than Rio de Janeiro favelas.
There was a time when the reach of baile funk (or simply “funk,” as the genre is known in Brazil) was far less widespread. Decades ago, the music started in poor neighborhoods around the country, nurtured by DJs who picked up freestyle and bass records on crate digging trips to Miami. In the 1990s, the genre was denigrated in the mainstream Brazilian media for its lyrics. The usual suspects were the focus of the controversy: sex and violence. Lyrics depicting poverty and inequity in the favelas were interpreted as advertisements for vice by jumpy outsiders.
Nowadays, baile funk (the second word is pronounced “funky” in Brazilian Portuguese) is worldwide. And you’ve probably already heard a track or two from MC Bin Laden (aka Jefferson Cristian Do Santos de Lima), its man of the moment – even if you don’t know it. The rapper went viral with his 2014 single “Bololo Haha,” a raucous song that is like DJ catnip if you judge by how often it makes appearances on mixtapes. Bin Laden has remixed Kelela’s “Rewind” and taken a 15-year-old female fan on a surprise shopping trip. But his highest high so far has been “Ta Tranquilo Ta Favorável,” which at 67 million YouTube views could not be more popular.
Bin Laden challenges normative depictions of masculinity.
That count doesn’t include the hits reaped from a hilarious, higher budget re-do featuring singer and Crossfit enthusiast Lucas Lucco, who frolics with the MC in matching green swim trunks in the video’s beach scenes. Maybe this is meant to be a visual gag, because the two couldn’t have more different physiques. Lucco is rock hard (he even gives Crossfit a shoutout in his Instagram bio), while MC Bin Laden is pear-shaped, sporting braces and an adolescent two-tone hair dye job.
The two happily perform the dance from the video’s original version with “hang loose” hands, arms bent at the elbows. It’s the move that made Neymar and Ronaldinho fans. Neymar busts it out as a victory dance on the field and the two players appear in the Lucco version of the music video.
On social media, Do Santos de Lima is unapologetic about his body and the way he challenges normative depictions of masculinity. In a recent Facebook post, he celebrates his beautiful physique and addresses online trolls who see him as “just a fat, ugly, and weird guy.”
As a kid, Lima was ridiculed for his weight. But the bullying led the MC to defiantly embrace his eccentricities, half-shaved eyebrows, and offbeat hair and become a living, breathing meme.
In a Brazilian TV interview, the station plays a clip from the original video for “Ta Tranquilo” before chatting with Bin Laden. Do Santos de Lima’s man boobs are actually blurred out, while the rest of his stick-skinny crew roam, their images unencumbered by any censorship. When the show switches back to Bin Laden and the show’s host, the musician seems fine. He raises his T-shirt, attempts to rub his belly on that of the woman interviewing him. She shies away in discomfort and tries her best to steer them back on script.
In a world that usually celebrates alpha male physicality, Bin Laden uses his platform to spread body positivity, and that’s worth celebrating.
Back in baile funk’s early days, poor favela residents became so identified with the maligned party music that Rio de Janeiro passed an anti-discrimination law in 2009 that barred unfair treatment of funkeiros.
It would be wrong to say that MC Bin Laden has forgotten where he comes from.
MIA recorded her “Bucky Done Gun” single in 2005, and shortly after, her producer Diplo followed funk carioca back to Brazil to record a documentary on the scene there (then FADER editor Knox Robinson tagged along and wrote about one of the DJ’s first, confused journeys down south). Now people who have never come close to a baile funk function party to its beats. We live in a world where Seattle producer Sango named one of his baile funk mixtapes after the Rio de Janeiro favela Rocinha, a few months before he ever visited the famous cradle of history and culture that is sometimes credited with being the music’s birthplace.
The genre is no longer solely the territory of the working class, either — more upscale clubs have sprung up that, according to baile funk artists, lean towards the radio-ready, romantic version of the music palatable to the white and wealthy. That strain is often called “funky melody,” and depends on more computerized sounds than the lo-fi version of the genre. Other splinters from original stylings include ostentacão, whose lyrics deviate from baile funk’s early focus on reality rap to talk about cars, money, and bling. Funk ousadia, otherwise known as explicit funk, is the nasty cousin, while funk proibidão represents the true crime version of the rhythm.
It would be wrong to say that MC Bin Laden has forgotten where he comes from. His songs continue to be stripped down soundscapes that are as dependent on vocals as beats for their structure, and there’s no denying he’s stayed down to earth with his personal image, which he never seems to take anywhere near as seriously as the music.
“Before you had a Bin Laden of evil,” he once told a Brazilian interviewer. “Now you have a Bin Laden of good.” Despite his radical stage name, the MC is very public with his faith, which he has attributed to his ex-partner Maryellen. In the acknowledgments at the end of some of his music videos, he lists Jesus Christ alongside his friends and family.
In an interview with Boiler Room for their baile funk documentary, MC Bin Laden said the music is what allows him to support his family. For years, the MC sold water on the street and worked as a shoe salesman to get by. “Before funk, I had lived a life of crime. I was hungry, I didn’t have clothes, I didn’t have nothing to eat or drink.” And now he does, and he’s going to to eat and drink it, celebrating his gordura all the way to the top.