Of Musics and Bodies: Embodying the Brazilian Favela Funk

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Of Musics and Bodies: Embodying the Brazilian Favela Funk

Elena Tiis. Urban Studies MSc. Universiteit van Amsterdam.

‘Moral panics depend on the generation of diffuse normative concerns, while the successful creation of folk devils rests on their stereotypical portrayal as atypical actors against a background that is overtypical.’ (Cohen 1980: 61)

‘All across the favelas, few people listened to the music that outsiders think of as Brazilian. Everyone knows the samba, bossa nova, and Musica Popular Brasileira (MPB) hits. They’re the soundtrack of the telenovelas […]. But the mass of favela dwellers have embraced hard core rap and funk […] as their emblematic sound.’ (Neuwirth 2005: 39)

‘Parapapapapapapa/ Paparapapapapapa/ paraapapapapapa kla que bum/ parapapapapa’; the catchy, rhythmic refrain of ‘Rap das Armas’ (Rap of Weapons) song mimics the discharge of an automatic gun. The lyrics’ allusion to the everyday violence in the favelas (shantytowns/informal settlements) of Rio has given it the status of ‘proibidão’, or prohibited music, due to its alleged condoning of violence (see Yúdice). The debate whether this song condones violence or not (I believe it does not) is eclipsed by the more pertinent question of how and why it is possible for such a song to be written, performed and danced to at parties. The process by which drug violence and gun crime are prevalent enough phenomena to be sung about in the ‘public domain’ is an interesting and complex one.
Arguably, music is primarily a bodily relation. It is not merely the lyrics (if applicable) or the identity of the singer that is attractive in any given song but the things that the beat does to the human body which is a type of seduction. Hence, studying the dynamics and spatial politics of funk music in the favelas of Rio requires thinking in terms of bodies – to examine music as something which is predominately corporal and linked to bodily identity. This essay is only preliminary, little more than a few notes on the subject, and just a very small examination of the complex circumstances that intersect illegalities, criminalities as well as pleasures in the favelas. My aim is only to sketch an approach as concerns the expression of the everyday concerns of favela dwellers through music as well as acknowledge musical expressions as an important field of research.
Brazilian funk is often clearly marked a ‘lower’ status music, cheaply produced and enjoyed by predominately people from poorer, ‘blacker’ neighbourhoods (Caldeira 2000: 297; Yúdice 1994: 204). Funkeiros, or the people who enjoy this type of music, have been maligned in the popular press, especially during the early 90s (see Yúdice). My specifically body-relational reading will take on board the insights of Susan McClary who notes how the policing of music actually involves a polemic against the body which, in the case of favela funk, means that questions of racial identity in specifically Brazilian context come into play.
I will attempt analogical and relational ways of conceptualising the social dynamics of funk music, to which extent I will be using examples such as Teresa Caldeira’s book on policing and the contesting of access to city space in São Paulo and Patricia Marquez’s notions of the objectification of youth in the context of institutional responses to youth criminality in Caracas. These, as well as Tricia Rose’s highly contextualised consideration of the birth of hip hop in the context of the postindustrial city of New York, although far away geographically from my chosen context, offer some relevant theoretical import. Caldeira’s consideration of the privatisation and the shrinking of public space will be invested for the consideration of music as a type of public encounter, a type of resistance to privatising encroachments. In this context, Rose’s discussion of hip hop is interesting, because she considers that it replicates and reimagines experiences of urban life and thus symbolically appropriates urban space (1994: 71).

Of (certain) bodies

Spaces and places need to be traversed by bodies – which acquires a special frisson when these spaces and places are sonic because certain symbolic contestations of space acquire an audible ‘materiality’. McClary’s work in this area is of interest: she notes that denouncements of music involve a response for a twin imagined threat – the subversion of authority and (bodily) seduction – which has recurred as a constant throughout music history (1994: 30). In an important reflexive turn for ethnomusicology, she highlights how there is something of the suspicion of music also discernible in the attempt of many popular culture scholars to marginalise the music itself (i.e. to focus on lyrics, politics, reception or culture industry) (ibid.). To this extent there are at least two reasons why music itself and its imagery needs to be figured into the cultural studies project: there is a need to, first, find ways in which to understand socially grounded rhetorical devices by means of which music creates its intersubjective effects and second, to have a sense of the shifting musical strategies and priorities which is important for the consideration of power issues (1994: 32). She contends that it is more productive to focus on music’s correspondence with bodies, because these always arrive already marked with histories which are patterned by class, gender and ethnicity – in this sense music provides for a terrain where competing notions of the body as a symbolic package vie for attention and influence (1994: 33). Indeed, in Brazil class has always operated in relation to various other determinants such as race (the poorest Brazilians tend to be darker) or violence, which disproportionally affects the poorer, younger and darker complexioned Brazilians (Moehn 2007: 187).
The effects of globalisation and culture industry play into a crucible of local concerns marked by its own conceptions about bodily identities, as opposed to the other way around. Livio Sansone, for instance, disagrees with the common position that the massification and homogenization of cultural forms are processes that develop steadily and according to the same principles whatever the country (2001: 136). He cites two misconceptions – first, the notion that music styles spread from the centre to the periphery, which portrays the globalisation of Western culture rather than how local young people reinterpret the symbols associated with global youth styles and second, an ethnomusicological bias that relates social identity to behaviour type which means that each gang/style/subculture becomes linked to a specific use of a single type of music in a very static way (2001: 137). Rather, it is a question of fusion, quotation and reflection in which funk becomes a transponder (or receiver and amplifier) of the globalisation process (2001: 138).
Funk, in this context, is a 1990s term which is used to refer to a variety of electronic musics associated with contemporary U.S-based black musics by most Brazilians (Sansone 2001: 139). Its meaning varies within Brazil – in São Paulo and the south it is basically hip hop which can be either local or imported while in Rio it is used to denominate mainly Brazilian-produced variations usually predicated on a combination of ‘two young working-class voices and a simple rhythm extracted from a cheap, pre-programmed beat box’ (ibid.), for instance that of ‘Rap das Armas’. Funk music itself is simple in terms of rhythm and it is hence dismissed by most music critics as a poor lower-class urban version of U.S. imports, yet it still reflects and redefines the divisions with the lower-class communities and frontiers between the community and the system (Sansone 2001: 139).
As McClary notes, music can be subversive because it contests assumptions about the body (1994: 33). The musical power of the disenfranchised lies more often their ability to articulate different ways of construing the body; since the historicity of musical styles is construed as the historicity of the body, it becomes pertinent to consider how our experiences of our own bodies are themselves often constituted through musical imagery (1994: 35). In favelas, the presence of funk in the alley ways forms a main part of the self-built community and does not characterise a subgroup or a style as such (Sansone 2001: 140). Furthermore, funk does not form a stable subculture, rather its circumstantial use as a divider – sometimes along ethnic lines (2001: 149) inscribes it as such. I think this leaves room for the conception of music as a type of public encounter between various types of bodies which is not strictly equalising but with the ability to efface some of the boundaries with which these bodies are customarily invested. Funk parties provide at least the possibility for the a type of benign encounter between different human bodies.
Sansone’s findings run counter to the common study tendencies he is reviewing. It is not the intrinsic quality of the music/lyrics but the position and consumption within relations of power and pleasure that transform style into an instrument of blackness or something seductive for non-blacks (2001: 155). It is important to note the resilience of territorialised musical traditions and tastes, and how different structural contexts contribute to the persistence of localisms (2001: 156); black youth musics are not necessarily based on similar cultural and structural conditions (2001: 158) and hence should not be theorised as such.

Of (certain) contexts

More nuanced (academic) understandings of youth cultures have been present since the 80s and 90s. They stress the complex intersections of music and specific location (Shuker 2008: 195), emphasising the concept of a scene which is ‘a specific kind of urban cultural context and practice of spatial coding’ (Stahl in Shuker 2008: 199). The state has regulatory power which shapes local music scenes due to policy on the level of international community (market access and copyrights), nation state (e.g. broadcast rights, content quotas, censorship) as well as regional and local governmental levels (which affect venue access and the policing of public spaces) (2008: 205). More often than not, governmental attitudes tend to reflect conservative views of culture, justifying non-intervention in commercial sphere which exists in tension with the concern to regulate a medium when it is associated with a threat to social order (2008: 207).
George Yúdice offers a more militant reading of favela funk as a type of music which – although occupying the same physical space as samba – questions the fantasy of access to social space for the underprivileged (1994: 197) and the more convivial image that those in power wish to propagate of Brazil. To him, Brazilian funk is a challenge to the ownership of the city space by the middle classes, a claim to it that seeks to establish new forms of identity (ibid.). Ademir Lemos’s ‘Rap do Arrastão’, for instance, deals with everyday violence in the favelas – poor youth have little rights to speak of, and they are subject to police harassment and social and geographical segregation. The multiple spaces of new megacities are not traversable by everyone and the poor tend to be prisoners in their own neighbourhoods (Santos in Yúdice 1994: 204). Yúdice contends that ‘funkeiro culture’ has ‘resisted the terms of participation’ which grant cultural representation but no access to goods and services like in the case of other subaltern cultural forms, as such the political significance of funk must be construed otherwise (1994: 208). I think this point stands best if allied with and moderated by McClary’s notion that music itself, especially as it intersects with the body and destabilizes accepted norms of subjectivity is where musical politics resides which is why, even if yoked to an explicitly political agenda, music often proves anomalous (1994: 32-33). Cultural audibility does not automatically imply social power yet it can participate in an attempt to change social formations (1994: 34).
The very meaning of songs is imbricated in a certain type of reading, and these are nothing if not multiple. Meaning is ultimately dependent and produced due to the associations listeners attach to a work of art and the period in which these renditions are situated (Shuker 2008: 101). The same popular culture ‘texts’ can be heard in varying ways and for different purposes, and they can be misconstrued (104). As Stanley Cohen (who first coiled the term ‘moral panic’ in conjunction with studying media reports of disturbances relating to Mods and Rockers in England in the 1970s) notes, mass communication of stereotypes depends on the symbolic power of words and images by which neutral words can be made to symbolise complex ideas and emotions (1980: 40). This is why some songs enter lists of prohibited music. Most importantly, this is where music intersects most potently with the reality of bodies. How music and special types of lyrics intersect with human actors become a point of concern for many. As such it is surprising that the effects and the interpretations of this perplexing physicality of music are often elided in academic discussion and writing about music.
To this extent, I will backtrack a little, and bring writing on the contextualised dimension of music into play. Tricia Rose’s consideration of hip hop’s origins in the postindustrial conditions of New York City in the late 1970s is an important analogy for how music and its accompanying culture emerge from an intersection of lack and desire in the postindustrial city, managing the contradictions of social alienation and hope. Speaking of New York, she writes that since the 1970s global forces have had a direct and sustained impact on urban job opportunity structures and exacerbated racial and gendered forms of discrimination, aided by the diminishing funds allocated to social services (1994: 73-74). Shifts in economic conditions, access to housing, demographics and communication networks crucial to the formation of the conditions which nurtured the cultural hybrids and socio-political tenor of hip hop (1994: 73). Such a description offers a clear parallel to the situation in Rio although it acquires an unmistakeably local tenor; economic restructuring according to the neoliberal model since the late 1970s has further marginalised the marginalised in Brazil as well as the U.S. but the structure, extent and culture of the favelas forms its own special case. Rose notes that societal ‘transformation [is the] basis for digital imaginations all over the world’ (1994: 71) to which extent hip hop makes urban terrain work on behalf of the dispossessed (1994: 72). Funk acts in largely similar ways, offering a type of access to the city for people whom it is usually (more or less overtly) denied.

Of (certain types of) violence

For the purpose of examining the criminality and insecurity that the most explicit lyrics relate,
Caldeira’s studies are informative. She notes that official crime statistics overrepresent upper-class victims and underrepresent working class victims, which is why they reflect conditions other than crime (2000: 112). They are a good indication of the Brazilian conception of individual rights and an embedded disregard for them (2000: 115). This has the effect of making structural reasons opaque: wrongly individualising perpetrators and, then again, wrongly grouping people into manageable, homogenised units when this is for the purposes of construing this group negatively. Poverty and criminality correlate because they are a process of the reproduction of the victimization and criminalisation of the poor (2000: 137) – the correspondence is not essential in any way. Most importantly, Caldeira focuses on discourses of violence and notes that violent acts have their significatory as well as their symbolic dimension. The talk of crime organises the structure of meaning and counteracts the disruption caused by the experiences of violence (2000: 28), making them comprehensible. Violence, a part from being something physical perpetrated on the body of someone, is involved with ways of talking, thinking and feeling.
Furthermore, if the fear of crime and crime are supplying the language with which to talk and think about many destabilising processes, also a much more segregated city space is taking place (2000: 40) – with the retreat of the elites behind walls the spaces for public encounters between different social groups are shrinking (2000: 297). Different social groups experience transformed public spaces in contradictory ways: middle-class as well as working-class young people connect to the global youth through symbols and trends but they physically occupy different spaces in Brazil (ibid.). Working-class youth cannot avoid public spaces, as such their styles and experiences are structured differently – themes such as police abuse and disrespect are more alien to middle-class existence (ibid; Yúdice 1994: 204).
This circumscribed public encounter between people of different class and identity is well interrogated by Caldeira’s concept of ‘unbounded body’ (a body that is considered permeable, or open to intervention and manipulation by authority) (2000: 368). It draws attention to the ways in which institutional and repressive apparatuses of the state operate on bodies. Caldeira contends that the circumstantial creation of unbounded bodies derives from analogical ways and terms of thinking as when the issue is capital punishment and the beating/disciplining of children. Both are considered pedagogic, making an example and setting limits; pain is used as an instrument of authority that induces submission and compliance in the disciplining of ‘weak’ people (2000: 365-66). As a side note which however corroborates this effect, it seems beneficial to briefly detail Patricia Marquez’s study of street children who are in state care in Caracas, Venezuela. She notes how state institutions develop constructions of deviancy that are isolated from the reality of the environment (the life on the streets, abusive familial relations, material lack) the children are responding to (1999: 112) to which extent this, coupled with serious disinvestment into providing care for street children, results in the reification (or objectification) of children as a series of antisocial acts (1999: 138). The state assumes tutelage of young persons using negative constructions of crime/youth/mental/social health as a result of which the social, cultural, economic and political contexts of acts are ignored and the transgressors get labelled with psychosocial clichés (1999: 139-44).
The point of bringing such an example into play is how it highlights how institutional effects are actually power games on the bodies of the dominated which, in the Brazilian context, Caldeira contends are a facet of Brazilian ‘disjunctive democracy’ (a democracy which deligimates civil citizenship and civil rights in many respects) which is not the same cultural and political logic which creates bounded individuals in the tradition of citizenship (2000: 372) which means that egalitarian legal protection of citizens and the right to decent living conditions have actually become even less accessible for many citizens (Moehn 2007: 186). Music, in its innocuous way, is involved in a conflict of valuations taking place in public spheres, which couples with power structures and institutional forces as well as issues of class and racial stratification. Marquez’s study of the institutional responses to youth crime in Venezuela exposes how young people are reified as ‘minors’ (1999: 129) and dismantled as a series of antisocial acts in stead of being apprehended as beings acting in a social, cultural, economic and political contexts (1999: 138-139). This has the effect of wrongly individualising young people (young bodies) when they commit crimes and wrongly making them part of a group when one can be identified, e.g. ‘all funkeiros are the same’.


‘In the postindustrial urban context of dwindling low-income housing, a trickle of meaningless jobs for young people, mounting police brutality and increasingly demonic depictions of young inner-city residents, hip hop style is black urban renewal.’ (Rose 1994: 85)

During the course of this essay, I have tried to chart some of the ways in which bodies (as complex systems which unite symbolic meanings invested in race, culture, citizenship and authority structures) interact in city spaces through the medium of different types of musics. The deeply embodied dimension of music attains its most radical dimension in discourse. If theories position the physicality of music in opposition to political substance, they have the effect of reinscribing the polemics against the body that characterises attempts at policing music (McClary 1994: 33). To combat this, it is necessary to embody music, or to trace its effects on different kinds of bodies. Music is as well an issue of space. At issue is the contestation of cultural meaning and access to physical urban realm for which music often acts as proxy.
I have involved three different examinations of three different cities – Rose of New York, Caldeira’s of São Paulo, and Marquez of Caracas – in order to highlight some theoretically important analogies and aspects of studying contested musics. Although these examinations are based on different contexts, some of their notions are appropriate and illuminate my chosen context. Nevertheless, it is still important to keep in touch with the specific local flavour of funk, and its embeddedness in the local context of Rio for which many more on-the-ground studies should be conducted (e.g. Moehn 2007). Funk, exactly because it is not exactly artistically grand or in any way specifically inventive (it does not develop the impressive Brazilian tradition of percussion for instance) or even politically conscious, manages to create a ‘space’ for many underprivileged young people. In this way, funk music can be seen as a way of contesting and appropriating (symbolic) access to city space – even if it only offers access by proxy.


Caldeira, T. R. R. (2000) City of Walls: Crime, Segregation and Citizenship in São Paulo. University of California Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles & London.
Cohen, S. (1980) Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. Martin Robertson: Oxford.
Marquez, P. (1999) ‘Guerra Contra el Hampa: Control through Media, Law and the State’. The Street is My Home: Youth and Violence in Caracas. Stanford University Press: Stanford.
McClary, S. (1994) ‘Same As It Ever Was: Youth Culture and Music’. In Ross, A. & Rose, T., Microphone Fiends: youth music and youth culture. Routledge: London & New York.
Moehn, F. (2007) ‘Music, Citizenship, and Violence in Postdictatorship Brazil’. Latin American Music Review. Vol. 28, Number 2.
Neuwirth, R. (2005) Shadow Cities: A billion squatters, a new urban world. Routledge: London & New York.
Rose, T. (1994) ‘A Style Nobody Can Deal With: Politics, Style and the Postindustrial City in Hip Hop’. In Ross, A. & Rose, T., Microphone Fiends: youth music and youth culture. Routledge: London & New York.
Sansone, L. (2001) ‘The Localization of Global Funk in Bahia and in Rio’. In (eds.) Perrone, C.A & Dunn, C., Brazilian Popular Music and Globalization. University Press of Florida: Gainesville.
Shuker, R. (2008) Understanding Popular Music Culture. Third ed. Routledge: London & New York.
Yúdice, G. (1994) ‘The Funkification of Rio’. In Ross, A. & Rose, T., Microphone Fiends: youth music and youth culture. Routledge: London & New York.

Sung by MCs Junior and Leonardo in the 1990s and publicised especially with the appearance of the MCs Cidinho and Doca version on the soundtrack of Tropa de Elite (2007) film.

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