Being a part of the Latin diaspora is a strange thing. We’re known for being outgoing and unflappable, yet our home countries are frequently in some form of crisis. At the time of this writing, much of Puerto Rico is still without power, Venezuela has been submerged in deadly protests for a year, and Brazil is anticipating a crucial federal election that will likely leave the country in the hands of either centre-left politicians or any number of far right-wing agitators eager to violently undo liberal policies. Given that recent history and the western world’s renewed love affair with white pride, it’s somewhat ironic that Latin music is starting to become a go-to party soundtrack for escapists in not only North America but across the entire globe. 2017 saw reggaeton crossover hits make enormous dents in the Billboard and Spotify charts, an organic trend seemingly removed from “Gasolina” nostalgia (though that may play a part). The love of rowdy Latin bangers is welcome, and may be about to be transferred to another marginalized music.
Funk carioca, otherwise known as baile funk or just “funk” to Brazilians, might be the next non-American dance subgenre to break out into a worldwide market. Built on repetitive, addictive percussive loops and featuring bare-bones lyrics largely about having a good time, it slots easy into any party playlist, especially rap-oriented ones. Funk is currently undergoing the beginnings of a moment thanks to “Vai Malandra,” a posse cut helmed by Brazilian pop superstar Anitta that became the first Brazilian song (and the first Portuguese-language song, period) to place on Spotify’s Global Top 50 charts this past December. It’s the most visible vanguard, but funk is infiltrating in other ways.
Singer and drag queen Pabllo Vittar’s guest spot on Charli XCX’s hard-as-diamonds “I Got It,” a highlight on the monumental Pop 2 mixtape, is marked by a full-on beat switch to the characteristic tamborzão rhythm of modern funk, as though the song has to accommodate the sheer Brasileira factor Vittar brings. On “Fresh Air” from last year’s HNDRXX, Future also rode a tamborzão, lifted from MC Pocahontas’ “Mulher do Poder.” He was evidently so taken with the sound that he jumped on a remix of MC Fiotl’s “Bum Bum Tam Tam” in December, around the same time “Vai Malandra” took off.
While neither “I Got It” and the remix of “Bum Bum Tam Tam” have been enormous hits, this cross-pollination and willingness by western artists to delve into funk is promising. Brazil has long been hyped as a cultural exporter on the same level as a China or South Korea, but so far the country’s biggest worldwide pop crossover in recent years was Michel Teló’s “Ai Se Eu Te Pego” in 2011 and 2012, which… hey, at least it got a Pitbull remix! Funk is also miles removed from the cloying and ubiquitous sertanejo music (a sort of Brazilian country-pop but way less cool than that sounds) that Teló’s hit epitomizes, as it’s grimy and vital with the tenacity of the low-income favelas it started in. Exposing that background to a worldwide audience, however, has already proven to be a cultural can of worms for Brazilians.
The music video for “Vai Malandra,” shot in the Rio de Janeiro favela of Vidigal, has come under fire from Brazilian commentators for many reasons (her cellulite being the most prominent, but this piece will give no serious critical weight to that bit of tabloid fodder) but among them is Anitta wearing her hair in braids. Anitta, who is half-black, got her start making funk before pivoting to more mainstream pop in Spanish and English. The move came with accusations of skin-whitening and other procedures to make her look less mixed or morena and more white, thus allowing her to be more appealing to a mass Brazilian audience. As the writer and architect Stephanie Ribeiro puts it in an article for Marie Claire, “to be seen as black… is to carry a mark” in Brazilian society and mixed-race people will pick identifying as white at most times, unless it’s convenient for them to do otherwise. As a result, primetime telenovelas and other media portray a country that looks whiter than it actually it is. Anitta reconnecting to her blacker, poorer roots through “Vai Malandra” after reaping the benefits of being able to pass for white is a problem, though she made sure to bring out actual funkeiros and funkeiras from Rio for cameos in the song’s video, which does count for something.
More broadly, there are many Brazilians who believe that having "Vai Malandra" and funk in general serve as a cultural and musical ambassador for Brazil worldwide would be embarrassing, which brings to the limelight the class schism that’s dominated the country’s history for more than half a decade. Thanks to a disparity of wealth, Brazil’s middle class live next to both sprawling favelas riddled with gang violence and the hilltop mansions of oil tycoons. To these ostensibly well-to-do people, funk is permanently associated with the drug dealers and criminals that sometimes give Brazil a bad reputation among westerners. Of course, most westerners think that we speak Spanish and not Portuguese, so their opinions are largely irrelevant in the first place. In any case, an increased global visibility for funk would possibly result in a perpetuating of the stereotype that Brazil is just its favelas, which means guns, drugs, and gyrating buttocks. It’s an extremely harmful and reductive image when applied to the country as a whole but it's also representative of groups that actually exist and deserve to be critiqued rather than merely ignored or pushed aside.
Plus, you can interpret a feminist bent to “Vai Malandra,” as malandra is the feminine form of malandro, the word for a charismatic hustler and archetype that is often celebrated in Brazilian culture (the song’s title can be loosely translated to “Go, Bad Girl”). Songs like this and the aforementioned “Mulher no Poder” (literally, “Women in Power”) aren’t too different from something like “Bodak Yellow” in terms of equivocating rags-to-riches narratives with marginalized female empowerment, and these girl-power anthems do indeed have a strong tradition in funk, even when it's adapted by non-Brazilians. Then again, alleged sexual assaulter Terry Richardson directed the “Vai Malandra” clip, so the troubles may never end for this song or for funk itself. However, if it keeps getting bigger, it wouldn’t just be Brazil weighing in on the discussion, which—much like everything else about this—isn’t a resolute "good" or "bad," just more complicated baggage attached to a growing, fascinating culture deserving of recognition.
Phil is on Twitter.