Murders, Gangs, and Hope: A Brief History of the Criminalization of Baile Funk in Brazil

From its beginnings, baile funk (more commonly known as funk in Brazil) has long been ostracized as a deviant and violent culture. Baile funk, influenced by American funk and soul, emerged in favelas during the 1980s under Brazil’s military dictatorship. Influenced by 1960s Black Rio/Black Soul, a Brazilian soul movement that enabled Brazilians to claim a black identity, the genre was soon suppressed by the dictatorship.

The Black Soul cultural and political movement in Brazil, primarily located in Rio and São Paulo, emerged after the U.S.-based Black is Beautiful movement. The first Black Soul party occurred in 1967 in Rio’s Zona Norte, a predominantly black and poor area of the city. These parties were a space for black Brazilians to develop a dialogue on racial and political identity while fostering a collective consciousness. Threatening the status quo and elite perspectives, the Black Soul movement was repressed through media criticism discrediting the movement, deeming it racist, anti-nationalist and too American. As repression continued, the Movimento Negro Unificado (MNU), an umbrella organization that focused on racial politics rose in the late 1970s.

In the 1980s, funk rose out of government suppression and resisted dominant culture while embracing its black origins. The genre was rooted in black consciousness, and back then, the baile funk parties were also a mechanism to control violence between rival gangs who were clashing over territories and power.

Yet the criminalization of the genre was always attributed to racial and socio-economic issues that arose as a result of the state’s refusal to recognize these communities. The criminalization of baile funk is a pattern the Brazilian government has repeated with other Afro-Brazilian forms of art, such as samba and capoeira. With police shutting down shows and the government passing laws banning the music and parties in the early 2000s, criminalization transformed from social to legal rejection.

It’s a pattern the government has repeated with other Afro-Brazilian forms of art, such as samba and capoeira.

However, after the dictatorship ended, façoes, or drug cartels, began taking over everything – even baile funk. So if someone wanted to buy drugs (no matter what race or class they belonged to), they’d go to baile funk parties to get them. But people didn’t really give credit to the political and social changes the cartels were making at the time. While the government completely ignored favelas and suburbios, traffickers were creating schools and bringing cleaner water into the slums. Funkeiros were creating music with a subtle political message, a language only those on the margins could understand. Baile funk parties were community spaces, and traficantes were only parroting what Getúlio Vargas, former dictator and president of Brazil, did with artists back in the 1920s: pay DJs to promote their message.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, laws were created (then revoked) to ban baile funk in Brazil. In 2000, Law 1392 created obstacles for the organization of baile funk parties in favelas. Organizers faced a slew of bureaucratic tasks and were forced to disclose every detail to the authorities before the event occurred. This type of surveillance allowed the police and military to take over the parties. In Rio, the military and police have a reputation for discriminating and even murdering black and brown poor Brazilians in favelas. The government only started protecting the baile funk movement in 2009, when Law 5543 was passed to prohibit any discrimination or prejudice against the genre.

Funkeiros were creating music with a subtle political message.

Today, a sub-genre called funk ostentação has taken over the mainstream funk scene, and it reflects the underclass’ newfound economic mobility. However, there has been an almost “elite-ization” of funk. Parties now have expensive covers, and many of the people who created the funk movement can no longer afford to attend. Funk production in actual favelas is diminishing, due to increasing police violence and militarization in these communities.

Homicides have been increasing throughout the last five years, targeting funkeiros. Earlier this year, MC Vitinho from São Paulo was killed. His ex-girlfriend believes he was murdered due to his anti-military police lyrics. Just two years ago, 20-year-old MC Daleste, a funk sensation from São Paulo, was killed on stage. The perpetrators still haven’t been found, but many attribute the homicide to the police.

These are just two examples of a growing wave of homicides against MCs, committed by unidentified people on motorcycles, from audiences, and in attacks following threats and other deaths in São Paulo. Tracking down the culprits is difficult when homicide units don’t respond to the crimes. Given that the military police has a long history of protecting the needs and values of the elite, it’s shouldn’t be that hard to pinpoint who committed the crimes. Young black funkeiros are dehumanized and seen as fungible, which has fundamentally influenced the lack of police attention and neglect given to these crimes. This isn’t just the reality for funkeiros – it rings true with most murders of young black men in Rio.

As criminalization seems to rise with huge events, such as the 2014 World Cup and upcoming 2016 World Olympics, how funkeiros and the baile funk movement will respond remains to be seen.