Culture Is Our Weapon
Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro
An inspiring mission to rescue young people from drugs and violence with music
At a time when interest in Brazilian culture has reached an all-time high, and the stories of one person's ability to improve the lives of others has captured so many hearts, this unique book takes readers to the frontlines of a battle raging over control of the nation's poorest areas. Culture Is Our Weapon tells the story of Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, a Rio-based organization employing music and an appreciation for black culture to inspire residents of the favelas, or shantytowns, to resist the drugs that are ruining their neighborhoods. This is an inspiring look at an artistic explosion and the best and worst of Brazilian society.
I am not from Rio de Janeiro originally but a from small town in Bahia, so I remember how, as a kid, we all used to look to this city for inspiration. It was, of course, the capital during the Empire and then the Republic, but it was also the cultural capital of Brazil. I remember going to the cinema in the 1950s and the images we’d see of the city: Copacabana beach, Sugarloaf, Christ the Redeemer, samba and Carnival. And, of course, the favelas.
It may seem hard to believe now but, traditionally, Rio is a city that has been proud of its favelas and all the cultural expressions that have emerged from them. São Paulo, for example, is different: the poor areas are a long way from the centre, so rich and poor don’t feel like they belong to the same town. But in Rio, many favelas are at the heart of the city and they’ve always been a source of pride for the whole population.
In my teens, I remember sambas praising the particular beauty and happiness of favela life and later, in the 1970s, I often used to visit favelas like Mangueira myself. Even now, you’ll find the richest and most chic families joining the samba parades because they’re Cariocas1 and they love to celebrate the culture. But these days something has changed.
Historically, the basic difficulty facing Brazil has always been the enormous disparity of wealth between rich and poor. All things considered Brazil is a very convivial country but this huge poverty gap is an invitation to violence. Now add drug trafficking to that situation and see what happens.
I’m not an expert but I guess it began in the early 1980s: people in the favelas began to deal cocaine and suddenly some of the poorest people became very rich and powerful. Suddenly they were dealing with large amounts of money and they were able to buy weapons, police, politicians, judges and lawyers. Of course, the irony is that it never secures these people a bourgeois lifestyle. They may be rich and powerful but they can’t leave the favelas for fear of their lives, and they usually die young. This is the reality.
In the past, even the criminals in the favela were seen as somehow charming. I recorded a version of the song ‘Charles Anjo 45’ and, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that this song is a landmark, a turning point. By the time we recorded ‘Charles Anjo 45’, he was already a character that was saluted with gunshots. You see, Jorge Ben (who wrote the song) is from Tijuca and that was precisely the kind of place where this new kind of criminality was beginning to spring up.
It is true that, even now, the gangsters in Rio have some kind of charm, but the levels of violence and fear have changed beyond recognition because of the drug trade. These days, I’m sorry to say, people are afraid and the face of the city has been transformed. Look at the way all the buildings in Zona Sul are guarded by barriers, security devices and armored cars. This situation of fear and violence is the one in which AfroReggae do their work.
I first came across AfroReggae when they were just kids playing percussion. I can’t remember exactly when it was nor who invited me, but I know it was 1993, because it was just after the police massacred 21 civilians in Vigário Geral and I knew this group had been put together in response to that horror. I saw them perform in a hotel not far from Ipanema and, on that first occasion, I was simply impressed by their innocence. At the time, they were just kids imitating percussion groups from Bahia; that’s what they did at the very beginning, and that’s how I got to know them.
Later, I discovered that it was Junior who’d put them together and that he’d done other work in these poor communities, including the newspaper AfroReggae Noticias. So I kept my eye on them and we began to interact and a little later they asked me to be their official godfather, with the actress Regina Casé as their godmother.
Over the years, I have seen the progress of AfroReggae, and their development has been unbelievable. They have worked incredibly hard and are very serious about what they do, but they also work joyfully. I don’t know much about the work of other NGOs, but I do know about music and they do it incredibly well.
There is still a lot of fabulous music coming from the favelas: samba, of course, but now funk and hip hop too. AfroReggae are closest to hip hop but they mix it with other things that other groups don’t. It’s not fusion; rather they put different styles side by side and create contrasts. I admire the way they compose their music, creating cuts and edits as in a movie. It’s beautiful and very modern. I believe AfroReggae are unique and I’m proud to be associated with them. To be honest, even if their ideology was wrong and they were not about helping people any more, they’d still be interesting because they’re an important band.
But AfroReggae are about helping people. As I got to know them, so I got to know their community. They took me to Vigário Geral and I learned a lot about the environment in which they work, and the war culture that is nurtured by the drug trade. I have seen for myself very young children handling heavy weapons and it’s still unbelievable to me. But AfroReggae? These guys teach younger children how to play and, in doing so, they keep them out of the trafficking. They have built houses of culture and music right in the middle of all this violence.
There are not many reasons to be optimistic in Rio right now. It is a complex situation in which violence and fear are on the rise and nobody seems to have a solution. But even amidst all these difficulties you can find some examples of beauty and excellence that give us all hope. This is what AfroReggae represent.
Rio De Janeiro, November 2005
Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from CULTURE IS OUR WEAPON by Patrick Neate and Damian Platt
Copyright © 2006 Patrick Neate and Damian Platt"Examines the music and cultural tumult of the Brazilian favelas with a clear eye. ... Neate and Platt bring a deeply curious outsider's perspective to Rio, and the book moves easily from cocktails on elite balconies to government offices to the dangerous favela streets. ... [They] tackle complex political issues without it ever feeling like they're delivering a lecture, partly because they weave in the voices of people involved."
-Los Angeles Times
"What makes the AfroReggae story compelling is the blend of idealism and realism that Jose Junior, the founder, must have to work in his environment: the idealist view that culture can actually provide the first rung or two on a ladder that will help kids escape the violence and poverty of these slums, and the realistic assessment of what needs to be done to make that happen."
-John Schaefer, WNYC Music Hub
"The stories depicted here are suspenseful and horrifying, but more importantly, inspirational, as one group strives to bring peace to what is otherwise a war zone."
-Weekly Dig (Boston)
"Neate and Platt do an excellent job of capturing the captivating energy and many conflicting emotions of the favela communities through first-person accounts."
"As the book weaves through both the culturally rich and violent realities of Brazil, the reader in turn oscillates between admiration and absolute horror. ... [Culture Is Our Weapon] offers a rich background on the corrupt, political reality in the country-it explores the way in which music in general has played a role in Brazilian's lives and delves into the individual lives of favela residents, giving a unique perspective on the way social classes function."
"Platt and Neate ask people internationally to think about the images and stories we hear about Brazil, not just the poverty and oppression, but the stories that are often hidden beneath the surface. Those stories are of the social revolutions that the people of these communities are creating, and the ways they are finding success."
"The work of AfroReggae of changing a community through the arts is inspirational. ... When I finished this book there is no doubt in my mind that the arts can save a community."
-Reading in Color
"An inspiring book about the good things happening through Grupo Cultural AfreReggae. ... [A] tale of the people of Rio and the power of music to celebrate ethnic diversity, level social inequality, and provide hope for the oppressed community."
-Mom Most Traveled
An Interview with Damian Platt
How did you first become involved with AfroReggae?
I first heard about AfroReggae through a friend who played me their CD, their first album. It’s called Nova Cara “A New Face”. I was on a research trip to Brazil for Amnesty International at the time. One of the cases that we worked on was the Vigario Geral massacre, the killing of 21 civilians by police, so I already knew the favela where AfroReggae worked and was interested to hear about a group working with culture and music there. I really liked this album and got in touch with Junior, the coordinator of AfroReggae. Through some stuff that happened while I was working for Amnesty we became friends. I helped out with some connections for the first tour of AfroReggae to the UK and Junior invited me and Patrick Neate to come and write the book. That was in 2005, and I ended up working for AfroReggae for 3 years and stayed in Rio!
What are you doing in Rio now?
I work on a variety of projects. I’m coordinating a research project that the London School of Economics is carrying out with AfroReggae and CUFA, an organization set up by the rapper MV Bill. It’s a partnership between these organizations as well as UNESCO and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. I’m setting up a cultural centre in the first favela in Rio de Janeiro, Morro da Providência, with the French artist JR and Mauricio Hora, a photographer born and raised in the community. During 2009 I worked with JR and Mauricio on the Brazilian leg of JR’s international project “Women”. JR is a friend who I met in 2006 while working at AfroReggae. I took him to visit to the Complexo do Alemao, one of the biggest favelas in Brazil, during a time when it was under constant police attack, and he took the photo that is on the back of the book. I also work as a consultant for NGOs and news outlets such as the BBC and Channel 4 and write for magazines such as The Stool Pigeon and The New Statesman.
What changes have you seen AfroReggae make in the lives of favela residents?
I have seen AfroReggae change the lives of many individual favela residents. AfroReggae brings hope and activity to communities where guns and crime are the day to day. These communities have been closed off to the outside world for many years. AfroReggae has also changed the way that viewers from the outside see favela residents. Because of AfroReggae and its relations with the Brazilian media, specifically TV Globo, there have been changes in the way favelas and young black people are represented.
How has AfroReggae expanded its influence over the years?
AfroReggae has achieved great international exposure through tours and films such as Favela Rising and internally in Brazil, principally through Globo TV and more recently a weekly TV program hosted by José Junior. The program has a unique ability to dialogue and work with partners from all sectors of Brazilian society, especially businesses.
What have been some obstacles to growth? What support have they gotten in the process?
At the beginning AfroReggae started with nothing and had to fight for space and recognition amid the risks of working in such a violent environment. AfroReggae is a grassroots organization that achieved huge growth in a short period of time. AfroReggae has grown with the support of organizations like the Ford Foundation, UNESCO, Amnesty International, the Barbican Centre, and through the film Favela Rising.
How does the Brazilian government view AfroReggae and other non-profits?
The Brazilian government has a positive relationship with cultural organizations such as AfroReggae since they promote a positive story in the news. It has a less constructive relationship with human rights organizations that directly challenge issues such as prisons and police violence.
What drew you to Brazil/Rio/the favelas?
I first came to Brazil in 1994 and made friends in Rio I was affected by the way everything seemed back to front. I had a problem with the police and people who had nothing to gain were very kind to me. I came back to Brazil in 1996 and worked in the North of the country with Catholic missionaries who used Liberation theology, a form of Christian teaching that is based upon political conscientization – an exploration of social and political contradictions – as well as the “option for the poor” that Jesus Christ showed in his life. The MST (landless movement) and other important organizations grew out of the structures established by liberation theologists. An Italian catholic priest from this background was very influential on AfroReggae in its early years.
What was most surprising to you as you got to know life in Brazil?
Ah Brazil is full of surprises! It’s a multifaceted, multiracial society where there is always something going on.
What do you think would surprise most outsiders?
Everyone has their own Brazil. There are many different ways of interpreting Brazil. But I think what might surprise outsiders would be the concentration of political power and wealth in the hands of so few, considering the size and importance of the country.
Can you discuss how race plays a role in Brazilian life in general and in the favelas in particular?
Race is an issue that goes largely un-discussed and has a lot to do with the heritage of slavery. However in Brazil not all poor people are black and not all black people are poor. There are white people and many mixed race people in favelas too. There are many difficulties faced in Brazil by black people that they are better qualified to talk about than me.
Have you noticed any changes in Rio/the favelas, since the city was named the host of both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016?
A lot of people were surprised when Rio got the Olympics. There is concern about where and how the money will be spent, but also great hope that this will be a chance to turn a page in the city’s history. For once the authorities are going to have to think beyond the short term. There are signs that the city’s politicians are working together in a way that they have not done in the past.
In Culture Is Our Weapon, there is a section on how African-American music and the African-American experience speaks to the kids in the favelas. How do other cultures factor into AfroReggae’s work and what makes them relevant?
Well hip hop for instance is a universal language and art form that has as much influence in Rio as it does in Copenhagen and Soweto. AfroReggae itself is influenced by other culture, through travel, and religions as well. Brazil is a very spiritual country and this is reflected in day-to-day life and the work of institutions like AfroReggae.
What would you like people to know about Brazil/Rio/the favelas?
What I would like people to know is in the book. Brazil is too big and diverse a country to be easily deciphered. In terms of Rio, people should understand that one of the world’s most beautiful cities is also one of the most violent, and that this violence is about control of territories inhabited by the least privileged residents in the city, that they suffer human rights abuses and despotism at the hands of armed groups and the police. That certain parts of the city live an armed conflict that affects the lives of millions of people every day, and that it is a conflict of political and economic interests.
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