Rio de Janeiro is known for many things; beaches, tropical sunshine, crime, Carnival and Samba – though probably not, hip-hop. The popularity of rap in Brazil is nothing new, in the 80’s and 90’s it was huge, particularly in Sao Paulo; though in the past, Rio never quite got it, preferring it’s own home-made musical styles; traditionally Samba, and in more recent years; Funk Carioca. But now, as the city prepares for the Olympics that are just around the corner, there’s something bubbling up, coming from the favelas and spreading throughout the ‘cidade marvelosa’ (marvellous city).
When you walk up the hundreds of steps to an open-air hip-hop show to ‘o morro’ (the hill), it feels a bit like you’re in the Bronx in the 80’s, but with a tropical twist: rap battles, free-styling, break-dancers and an undeniably imported American street dress sense, but like with most things in Brazil, once it arrives here, it gets ‘Brazil-ified’ – thrown into the mix of this diverse country. Rio artists like Start Rap, Cartel M.C.’s and Cacife Clasdetino mix elements of hip-hop, trap and dubstep to form a fresh sound that is uniquely Brazilian, with lyrics in Portuguese, so aimed directly at a local audience.
Every night of the week there are ‘Roda de rimas’ (rhyming circles) around the city. Some of these are large and organised events, others just a group of people in a public square or a skatepark, with some speakers and mics (hopefully), meeting up to rhyme or battle, just with lyrics and breakdancing. The democratization of the music industry and easier access to music making equipment in recent years has allowed artists such as those of the favelas of Rio, to get straight to their audience without a restrictive record contract, distributing independently through the internet, and performing constantly.
For many of the hundreds of young artists rapping around Rio, it serves as an opportunity for them to use music as an outlet for their creativity, and for some, become a realistic source of income. These communities for decades have been controlled by drug gangs, since the ‘Pacification Police Units’ have been installed gradually since 2008, the violence has continues; though it is reduced on the whole; deaths either at the hands of ‘faciones’ (gangs) or Police remain common. In a situation like that, being a musician or a b-boy is a different choice to getting into drugs, joining a gang or becoming a cop, it gives them an opportunity for recognition and respect from their peers, the political nature of many of the lyrics a chance to voice their social or political frustrations, and to show solidarity with others in a similar position.