Inside the Rio Rap Scene Calling Out Police Brutality

With the planet's gaze having moved on from the Olympics, Rio's neighborhood rap circles remain a vital venue for protesting police violence.
September 15, 2016, 5:35pm

Nyl MC, a veteran of Rio's roda de rima. All photos by Phil Clarke Hill

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Huddled near the shore of Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay, a dense crowd is chanting lyrics about life on the city's outskirts, swaying to a track called "Nowhere" by local up-and-coming MCs Pedro Ratão and Cortesia da Casa.

Here, no crime is said. Hold onto your police report. Your silence will be your manuscript.

Every Tuesday night in the city's emerging Botafogo neighborhood, aspiring rappers and fans gather for a roda de rima, literally a "rhyme wheel" but best understood as a cross-class rap cypher complete with rap battles, freestyles, and sometimes, bigger performances. As the night progresses, wannabe MCs saunter to a circle's center, hoping to make a name for themselves in the local hip-hop scene.

These public, usually free events aren't limited to one place, or time: Nearly every night of the week in Rio, a roda can be found, whether it's in the city's wealthier Zona Sul ("South Zone"), its often overlooked and crime-ridden Zona Norte ("North Zone"), and Zona Oeste ("West Zone"), or the favelas, the low-income hillside communities scattered in between. But while some circles consist of amateurish battles, replete with goofy braggadocio, the rodas represent what hip-hop has often been about from its very start in late 1970s New York City: an open cultural space for the marginalized to be heard.

For many rappers in Rio in 2016, especially now that the planet's gaze has moved on from the Olympics, the rodas are a vital venue for protesting police brutality.

Cacife Clandestino and Start Rap onstage for a larger show in the Meier neighborhood of Rio's Zona Norte

While police killings of people of color continue to ignite protests in the United States, the sheer number of human beings gunned down by cops in Brazil is staggering. By some estimates, the country's police kill at least 2,000 people a year, or roughly six per day; between 2008 and 2013, one report by the Brazilian Public Security Forum suggested police had killed more than 11,000 civilians. That's about the same number of people that American police killed in a roughly 30-year period between 1983 and 2012—despite having a population 50 percent larger than Brazil's.

And if police violence in Brazil can be considered an epidemic, Rio's residents represent a collective patient zero. According to Amnesty International, police and other security forces killed more than 2,500 people in the city between 2009, when the city was chosen to host the Olympics, and this past August, when the Games started. And as the Olympics approached, the pace seemed to only hasten, the human rights group said, with heavily militarized police—who also suffer high casualties in the line of duty—setting out to "secure" neighborhoods authorities described as dominated by gangs and deadly drug traffickers. During a two-week period at the height of the Games alone, at least eight people were reportedly killed.

As police violence has escalated, so too, has the popularity of the roda de rimas, which first got organized and won notice around 2010. To avoid overlapping events on the same night, various groups use Facebook and other social-media platforms to coordinate Rio's open-mic circuit.

Having performed in the scene for nearly a decade, Nyl MC, a well-known local rapper, believes rodas are more structured than they once were—that they're in their "second generation." Originally from the city's North Zone, the rapper said his music is meant to add depth to how people perceive his city.

"I identify with this narrative of being a young, black man from a periphery neighborhood," he told VICE. "Our neighborhoods appear in the media with high rates of violence and deaths, but they're treated as a locale that doesn't have anything more than that. [In my music] I talk about how there isn't just violence. Not one territory in Rio is just one thing."

With some measures suggesting 50 percent of Brazil's population define themselves as black or mixed race, the violence here has many of the same glaring contours of what Americans have been made to reckon with in recent years: According to Amnesty International, a majority of recent victims have been young, black men from impoverished communities. And tensions flare when an unarmed person is involved, or evidence of wrongdoing is shoddy.

Start Rap backstage before a show in the Meier neighborhood

The April 2015 shooting of ten-year-old Eduardo de Jesus Ferreira set off protests in Brazil, after the boy's mother said she watched a cop shoot her son at the doorstep of their home, in Rio's Complexo do Alemão favela. A few months later, military police officers shot and killed five young people sitting in their car in the Morro da Lagartixa community. The police were later taken into custody after allegedly tampering with the crime scene to make the shooting look like self-defense (a practice well-documented by Human Rights Watch.)

"Brazil has a police force that wasn't put here to protect the population," Nyl continued, referring to the military dictatorship of the past. "It was meant to protect the state. So from there, it explains everything—it's one of the police forces that kills the most [people] in the world. We have numbers equivalent to war."

A breakdancing battle in Iraja in Rio's Zona Norte

With that in mind, Nyl stressed the significance of the rodas as an outlet for the youth. "The street is a space for everyone, and hip-hop started on the streets," he said. "There's nothing more natural than occupying them."

Rap's roots in Brazil go back to in São Paulo, sometime around the late 1980s, when the world was still getting to know American hip-hop. For years, the genre was largely relegated to the country's cultural outskirts, with samba and funk dominating the charts. But recently, the cultural energy devoted to hip-hop has intensified, and its epicenter has shifted, almost naturally, to class- and race-conscious Rio.

Fans look on at a show by Start Rap, Cacife Clandestino and Planet Hemp

It's something Gabriela Vieira, who currently goes by the name "NegaBi," has noticed since she started rapping at the rodas in 2011. "The rodas have been a huge presence here for us," she told VICE. "They are escapes."

But as a political and economic crisis in Brazil persists, NegaBi said she worries the city will revoke permits for the rodas. Already, she said, some have shut down due to finances, a loss that is consequential at this tumultuous moment in Rio, she argued, when police violence and other systemic issues do not seem to be letting up, even post-Olympics.

"If you take away the rodas, we're going to be stateless, without a location to have a voice," she said. "When people go to parties, they don't go to discuss. They go to dance. At the rodas, no; since it's on the street and something more simple, people stop to listen."

NegaBi performing at the Meier Roda de Rima

Like many rappers, NegaBi's music reflects her surroundings, growing up in the low-income neighborhood of Padre Miguel. She says she knows people who have died in the crossfire between police and assailants, or simply been killed by accident. "I'm tired of seeing this part of the community dying, and it's hard for you not to link together a preconception with the daily homicides we see," she said. "In rap, we talk a lot about this."

The elevated police presence in Rio stems from UPPs, or "pacifying police units," installed in the city's favelas in the late 2000s. Depending on whom you ask, and where they live, the program is seen as a successful operation—making once-dangerous favelas attractive to tourists—or a disastrous occupation leading to horrible violence on the streets.

The first favela to be "pacified" was Santa Marta, a community close to the beaches of Botafogo. On a recent night there, the neighborhood was celebrating the ten-year anniversary of "Hip-Hop Santa Marta." Attendees drank beers and kids ran through the square, while a handful of UPP officers patrolled the outdoor party, their hands affixed to their holsters.

When fans were ready to enter the samba school where the event was being held, the only entrance fee was a kilo of rice, beans, or pasta—a donation to the community. Inside, breakdancers faced off on a makeshift cardboard stage, while popular MCs performed throughout the night. The host, Big Papo Reto, rapped to the crowd, "They know what it's like to live in a war; you only have to open the window."

A breakdancing battle in Botafogo

Rogerius Rozendo, a member of the local rap group "Santa Máfia," said the night marked a decade of "resistance inside of this community," as well as eight years of what he considers to be a police occupation. "When they entered in 2008, they came to 'makeover' our community, but they did so with aggression," he argued.

This used to be a monthly gathering, but it's been less frequent since the UPP arrived, Rozendo explained. Luckily, he said, the platform that the roda offers has spread all over the city and cannot be contained. "When rap first came out, it was more popular in the lower-class areas," he said. "Now, it's mixed, and everyone comes to enjoy it. The favela on the mountainside is a continuation of a wealthier street down below and visa versa."

"That's the thing about the rodas—the idea of the street." Rozendo continued. "There's no difference between classes."

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