Dispatch from Rio
The day after the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics, I found myself in northern Rio’s Madureira Park – a place far away from the bright lights of the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. On weekends, it’s here that Cariocas from the surrounding favelas congregate to spend quality time with family and friends. As young and old gather in front of a stage on a hot Saturday night, what they are about to witness is the latest art form to come from the favela residents.
Passinho, or “little step”, is what breakdancing is to hip-hop. But on these shores, Brazilian kids dance to (the local version of) funk.
The dance mixes a number of genres such as samba, breakdancing, and forro. The moves have been a cultural staple of favela life for a generation, but only recently has it gone mainstream.
Stars such as Beyonce, Chris Brown and M.I.A have all used passinho – either on stage or in music videos. But it was last week’s Opening Ceremony that has given new hope to those steeped in the culture.
“We have been doing this for 12 years, but it’s only now we are starting to get the type of recognition other more traditional dances get,” Anderson Neemias told me backstage during the show in Madureira.
Born in Penha, a working-class neighborhood in northern Rio, the 23-year-old had a global audience, as he was one of the passinho dancers at the Maracanã the night before. When I spoke to him he still couldn’t believe he was actually there. Anderson told me how the event was not just the realisation of a personal dream, but also the culmination of years of hard work by a group of people still on the fringes of Brazilian society.
“It saved our lives. We could be doing all kinds of bad things right now had it not been for this,” he said, pointing to the stage where a girls-only passinho battle was about to get underway.
The genre, like other Brazilian art forms before it, has gone through a bumpy road. Over the years, police have placed major restrictions on the funk parties where the dancers can perform. The country’s media hasn’t been very supportive, either.
Government officials and law enforcement agents claim passinho glamorises and enables the lifestyle of the groups who control the drug trade inside Rio’s estimated 700 favelas.
MCs, dancers, and promoters dispute those assertions, however, saying the content of their songs are only a reflection of their surroundings.
“Funk MCs, just like musicians from other genres, sometimes talk about everyday life and unfortunately violence and crime is a reality where they come from,” says Emilio Domingos, director of the 2013 documentary, Passinho Dance Off, “The violence and crime are not passinho problems. They are problems of the state.”
It’s a story that reproduces itself. In the first decades of the 20th century, individuals who sang and danced to samba were also the target of police harassment. Samba musicians, mostly black and poor, used the music to talk about the harsh realities at the hands of a society unwilling to welcome them.
If Brazil is a country that gets to host events like the Olympics and the World Cup – celebrating its diversity for the amusement of international audiences – the truth is that those in power would prefer favela culture to remain out of sight.
“This is a fractured society in which the cultural elite chooses to identify itself more closely with what is created in the US than acknowledging a cultural heritage that is typically and genuinely Brazilian,” says Bernardo Conde, an Anthropology Professor at Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University.
For Professor Conde, there is a tiny – albeit extremely powerful and influential – group who still longs for Brazil’s post-colonial era, when fresh off the shackles of Portuguese rule, there was a concerted effort by the ruling class to ethnically and culturally shape the country in the mould of the superpowers of Europe.
“If we go back to the 19th century, it was clear that there was a project to ‘civilise’ the population, in which the goal was to make Brazil look like France,” he says. “And more than a century later, we are still trying to be Europeans, or Americans. Trying to be something we are not.”
And yet, in spite of the prejudices and pre-conceived notions of what is good and bad art, the future looks encouraging for passinho dancers and funk MCs.
“Passinho has the power to transform people,” Anderson tells me, just before he goes on stage. “Lots of kids who before looked up to drug dealers can now follow in our footsteps instead.”
For these passinho dancers, performing on the world’s biggest stage is certainly something to be proud of. But in a society with a well documented history of persecution of, and intolerance against, young black men, their journey towards acceptance is still far from over, according to Professor Conde.
“Funk and passinho at the Olympics is a small victory in a long journey”, he says. “The war is far from over.”
All photos by Emilio Domingos
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Felipe Araujo is a freelance news journalist based in London. He spent five years at CNN International and covered the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for Germany’s public broadcaster ZDF. He writes about race and minority issues, sports and culture. Twitter: @felipethejourno
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