by Emma Sokoloff-Rubin:
The main entrance to Vigario Geral, a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro once known as the “Brazilian Bosnia,” is accessible only on foot. A narrow bridge arches over the highway separating the asphalto from the nao-asphalto, the paved streets of wealthy parts of Rio from the unpaved roads of Vigario Geral. The concrete wall surrounding Vigario makes the shantytown, or favela, invisible to the rest of the city.
When wars erupt between rival drug gangs, policemen sometimes block off Vigario’s entrance to keep the violence inside, and in the aftermath, victorious drug lords monitor who can enter and leave. Yet residents cross this threshold daily to work, to buy groceries, and now—as part of the Afro Reggae cultural group—to perform in Rio’s elite neighborhoods and at performance venues across the world.
In 1993, policemen stormed Vigario Geral and murdered 21 innocent people. A group of young men from Vigario and surrounding neighborhoods then took an unprecedented step: they decided to respond to violence with music. Thus began the Afro Reggae revolution. Leaders organized drumming workshops in a vacant lot. They then convinced outside musicians to venture into the favela to teach young people to sing and play the drums. drumming became a physical presence in the favela, first in the streets and then in a community center open 24-hours a day. Now, 15 years later, hundreds of young members from Vigario study dance, theater, and percussion. Afro Reggae bands have toured internationally, from Carnegie hall to European venues, playing a mix of funk, reggae, and rap. The movement’s leaders conduct workshops with policemen in Rio, sex workers in Calcutta, and at-risk students in London on how to confront violence with innovation. Leaders insist that in a place defined by violence and a flourishing drug trade, providing kids with alternative ways of living will create enduring change.
Language and Tin Cans
José Junior, a former cab driver who helped found Afro Reggae, and Anderson Sa, a singer in Afro Reggae’s main band, say building a movement is about language and persuasion. “It’s through sound that you bring kids into your world,” Junior explained. “What’s power today? Communication.” Kids in Vigario know that entry-level drug trafficking pays far more than the minimum wage of $176 per month, and the local drug gang provides a support network in a place too often ignored by the city government. The traffickers in Vigario offer protection from rival drug gangs and lend families money for medicine and emergencies.
Anderson and Junior took on a different form of leadership. They learned the language of the boardroom and of the street, managing to convince the Ford Foundation to give Afro Reggae money to get off the ground, while attracting kids’ attention by wearing expensive clothing and talking about music and cars.
“It’s about bringing kids into our group and taking them out of the favela,” Anderson explained. “The favela is a closed world. When you take them out of here, they discover new worlds.”
But the movement does not provide kids with fancy sneakers or a permanent path out of the favela. Leaders hope that by attracting seven-year-olds to drumming workshops and encouraging teenagers to stay and teach, they can change external perceptions of the favela while improving life inside. A drummer hired by O Rappa, a popular Brazilian band, returned to Vigario a few years later to start a band for younger kids. He called it Afro Lata—the tin can band—because kids learned to play on tin cans when there were not enough drums to go around. Through bands, dance classes, and a theater troupe that performs shows about violence and aids, Afro Reggae offers kids alternatives to drug trafficking and idleness as well as a safer, more reliable support network.
The Right to Come and Go
For Jonathan, the son of a drug trafficker, joining Afro Reggae immediately set him apart from his friends, many of whom are now dead or risking their lives daily in the drug trade. Afro Reggae requires its members to stay in school and gives them a sense of security beyond physical protection.
As Roseli, an animated young woman who was drawn to Afro Reggae after hearing the noise from the community center, recalled, “I used to spend a lot of time in the doorway. Now, I walk down the street and talk to anyone.” Although some teenagers receive stipends for teaching younger kids, Roseli does not talk about Afro Reggae as a job. She believes that belonging to Afro Reggae means having a place to go each afternoon and knowing where to run when violence erupts. It means venturing outside of her house and outside the favela and speaking with confidence and looking people in the eye.
“Before, we knew we had rights, but we didn’t fight for them,” Roseli said. “I mean our right to come and go, to go to a dance hall alongside the children of rich people. The right to go to the movies, to go to college. The right to have dignified work. The right not to be ashamed of the color of our skin. The right to know that if a policeman wants to beat me, it’s not okay. Why should he hit me? I don’t have any drugs.” When Afro Reggae performs in Vigario Geral, people from all parts of Rio come to see the show. Politicians in search of votes and publicity now cross the bridge into the community even policemen were once afraid to enter, and performers like Roseli have the confidence to leave.
Jeff Zimbalist, director of Favela Rising, an award-winning documentary on Afro Reggae, believes the difference between favelas where Afro Reggae is present and those where it is not is “literally the difference between color and black-and-white.” Still, it is hard to know how levels of violence have actually changed and how to reconcile Afro Reggae’s stunning performances and growing international acclaim with the favela’s persistent problems. A vibrant studio in the community center overlooks streets strewn with garbage and a community lacking sewage systems, reliable electricity, and potable water. Sometimes fear drowns out the color and sound that sets Vigario Geral apart from the barren favelas Zimbalist encounters in other parts of the city. “If there’s violence or shooting, everyone disappears,” he said.
Carlos Amauri, who first attended a drumming workshop when he was 12 and now leads the percussion program, watches kids who choose to work for the drug traffickers instead of joining Afro Reggae. He knows that for many of his friends, “the dream of the favela is to have a gun in your bag, lots of money and a woman by your side. That’s the dream.” Even as people in the favela are drawn to music, they are concerned about survival. Sustaining Carlos’s daily investment in Afro Reggae—in drumming, in community, in performance and dignity—will mean pushing beyond drum beats and using the movement to bring about measurable, if incremental, improvements in infrastructure and safety within the favela’s concrete walls.
When Afro Reggae leaders talk about bridging the gap between the asphalto and the nao-asphalto, they refer to a division that persists even as people on both sides interact in innovative ways. The movement that began as a daring hope for change continues to generate ideas and new projects, and its young members do the same. The kids in Afro Reggae invest in an alternative that does not put food on the table or guarantee a job. They invest in a movement that creates a safety net extending only so far, curbing violence but unable to do away with it.
Junior spoke with concern and pride when he notes that kids who grow up with Afro Reggae do not know violence as well as he and his friends did. “When they hear a gun shot, they’re scared,” he said. “We weren’t scared.”
As new leaders come on the scene and Afro Reggae gains international acclaim, the movement faces a challenge: it must find a way to celebrate its successes while continuing to address head-on the daily juxtaposition of vibrancy and violence its presence in Vigario Geral provokes.
Emma Sokoloff-Rubin ’11 is in Timothy Dwight College.