The air is moist and warm, filled with the odor of trash, cigarettes and car exhaust. At the top of the hill beyond the entrance to the Tabajaras slum, music blares from a nightclub. It’s close to midnight, but taxis are still bringing patrons dressed in their best night-out gear. Those in line outside the club are swaying and dancing.
Choo cha, cha ka doon choo cha. The rhythms from inside reach the sidewalk, loud enough to ring anyone’s eardrums.
Get ready for a uniquely Brazilian sound called funk carioca or Rio funk, pronounced “funky” in Portuguese. Born among the poor in Rio’s shantytowns and spread throughout the country, funk carioca brings with it messages of struggle, love and revolution.
Also known as baile funk, it appeared in Rio in the mid-1980s, right around the time that hip-hop took off in the U.S. It’s often described it as hip-hop’s Brazilian cousin – the voice of the young, unfortunate and rebellious throughout the country’s favelas (slums) and bashadas (ghettos).
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“Funk is associated with black movements, black music . . . black consciousness,” said Adriana Facina, a professor who studies funk at Rio’s Universidade Federal Fluminense.
“It’s hip-hop’s hyperactive cousin on Ritalin,” said Alex Cutler, a lanky, blond, fast-talking 30-year-old known to locals as Don Blanquito, which translates as “Sir White Boy.”
Don Blanquito is a rarity even among the strange assortment of artists who perform funk. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he ended up in Rio in 2008 looking for a job after completing his MBA in Barcelona, Spain. With some experience recording rap songs in Spanish, he was introduced to funk during the annual Carnaval.
“It’s a sound that’s not too foreign for the American people or for the Europeans to embrace,” he said. He became enveloped in the culture, learning enough Portuguese to perform funk songs live. He’d done some freestyle rapping back home. Before he knew it, he became a funkeiro, or funk artist, recording songs and promoting Don Blanquito with CDs, T-shirts and other items.
Funk songs are characterized by a catchy, funny hook or a command to the listener to dance or sing. Depending on how good the hook is, Cutler says, the song could “blow up through the hood.”
Cutler describes the funk scene in Rio’s neighborhoods as “cutthroat,” in that audiences won’t hesitate to express their sentiments if performers don’t come up with something special. He was at a concert once where an audience member threw a can at a young singer because he wasn’t impressed with her music.
In Rio’s poor neighborhoods, funk allows the young and disaffected to voice feelings about their lives and surroundings, even if the subject is something illegal, such as drug trafficking.
“The favela is told that they don’t get to talk, they don’t get to listen, and funk is a way to talk,” said famed funkeiro Leonardo Pereira Mota, known as MC Leonardo.
With the extreme poverty of many of the favelas – particularly those still controlled by gangs and torn by violence – songs with such content are considered red flags for law enforcement officials, and they often lead to arrests and imprisonment for artists.
In December 2008, the Brazilian government started the Favela Pacification Program to eliminate gangs and drug operations. Rio’s military police, known for their brutality, occupied the neighborhoods with tanks and guns. Along with this came attempts to restrict other outlets that authorities identified with violence and rebelliousness, such as funk. Government officials prohibited the music from being played in certain areas and attempted to shut down clubs and other establishments where it was played.
“It’s expressing how a favela itself sees crime, how it sees sexual issues. You’re reflecting what you see,” Mota said. “So it’s not the role of the police to repress it.”
Mota, 37, is best known for his contribution to funk’s early days with the song “Rap das Armas,” which he recorded with his brother, MC Junior, in 1994. It was used for the soundtrack of the 2007 film “Elite Squad.” Soon after, the song was pirated and a new version with different lyrics – glorifying crime – went viral. Although it caused a bit of controversy for Mota, he admitted that it also helped to spread the song, which gained global recognition as a Brazilian production.
In 2008, Mota founded a professional association for funkeiros and their supporters that aims to preserve funk as the people’s voice.
Facina said funk was associated with more than just hip-hop culture.
“Funk here in Rio is freedom for people. Why? Because poor, young black people don’t have the right to be young in the sense that they cannot be rebels,” Facina said.
“It’s because of that that the funkeiro said that funk is a necessity,” Facina said. “We are ghetto. Funk is ghetto.”
VIDEO: AN AMERICAN IN RIO'S FUNK MUSIC SCENE