RIO DE JANEIRO - Rio de Janeiro's rich, oceanfront promenades have their own music, made immortal in Bossa Nova tunes such as "The Girl from Ipanema." Carioca funk, on the other hand, is the soundtrack to another city — the one that doesn't make it onto postcards. As one hit tells it, funk is "black music, music from the favelas."
Borrowing freely from Miami bass, rap, soul and other American genres, funk layers a frenetic rhythm with lyrics that describe the reality of Rio's working poor: low wages, packed buses, dead-end jobs, the everyday threat of violence.
Subgenres can glorify the lifestyle of drug dealers, much like Mexico's narco-corridos, or simply serve as a titillating escape from the workaday grind. Huge funk "bailes," or parties, go on past dawn, packed with shirtless young men or drug dealers sporting thick gold chains and semiautomatics in slums far from police control. Women in barely there spandex getups and towering platform heels dramatize sexually explicit lyrics with hard-core, full-contact antics.
For many in Rio's favelas and far-flung peripheries, funk is the only venue for their story, said Adriana Facina, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro who studies Rio's funk movement.
"All art is a form of communication, and funk allows the self-expression of a population that in a society like ours is oppressed and without a voice in the formal channels, the mainstream media," said Facina.
A few performers, such as M.C. Naldo and Buchecha, have broken onto major television channels, but many of the genre's performers and fans have been forced to battle in courts, streets and newspapers for respect, repeating the struggles of the pioneers of Rio's now-revered samba, the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira and Afro-Brazilian religions.
Funk's ability to weave other perspectives into the official narrative of Rio was clear on the November morning when police arrested the leading drug trafficker of Rocinha, a massive shantytown straddling two of Rio's wealthiest neighbourhoods.
Local news channels reported the news with glee, but not everyone was celebrating trafficker Antonio Bonfim Lopes' capture that November. Soon after the arrest, YouTube hits on a video featuring MC Godo's song "I Saved My Daughter" spiked. Against photos showing the renowned trafficker smiling with Rocinha residents, the lyrics portrayed Lopes not only as a gun-wielding drug lord but as a father pressed into the illicit trade to raise money for a daughter with a serious illness.
"People judge me but they don't know my story," go the lyrics. "Society only knows how to criticize, but it's easy to talk if you weren't in my place." He goes on to say, "I'm one more citizen who didn't have a choice."
In the last five years, the genre has expanded its reach and enjoyed more social acceptance, with the help of an association of funk artists and supporters, Apafunk, and the backing of liberal legislators. Its market potential has become hard to ignore: A recent survey by the Brazilian think-tank the Getulio Vargas Foundation revealed that funk disc jockeys, MCs and others generate about $720 million a month in revenue.
A 2007 law that had made it virtually impossible to hold the traditional open-air funk parties in favelas was repealed in 2009, and the musical genre was recognized as a "cultural movement." Dance face-offs between performers of "passinho," a type of breakdancing associated with Rio's funk scene, now come with corporate sponsorship.
"We're watching now the institutionalization of funk," said Julio Ludemir, a writer and cultural producer involved in the organization of passinho battles. "It's being accepted by the white elite. But it's very complicated; like with samba, you start by creating spaces for the middle class to come dance. Now, samba is no longer for the poor. It's for the middle class, tourists, people from Sao Paulo."
When police take over favelas to regain territorial control of areas long held by drug dealers, one of their first actions is to clamp down on the raucous bailes. Then police require residents apply for special permission to throw a funk party, said Ludemir. Such communities still represent a fraction of the nearly 1,000 favelas in Rio state, but the change is hard to miss.
"The baile loses its first characteristic, of being out in the open, for the whole community," Ludemir said. "The funk accepted by the police is a privatized funk; it's inside, you pay to get in, it's got a controlled schedule. It's the end of the fun for poor people."