By Gabriel Woll
It’s a cold, grey morning in June – mid-winter in Rio de Janeiro – and the group of about 30 teenage boys sitting on the bare concrete slabs shiver in their faded blue sweatsuits, sulking with their arms crossed, and their eyes downward. The boys have just been marched from their cells to this bare, graffiti-covered courtyard in Instituto Padre Severino, a notoriously harsh youth rehabilitation center on Ilha de Governador in Rio de Janeiro.
These boys were sent to Padre Severino for violent and sometimes shocking crimes, and almost all are residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, the squatter settlements that dot every visible hillside in city. They are accustomed to strict lectures from the prison administration, and frequent harassment from the guards; they listen warily to the two young men, only a few years older than their audience, who stand in front of them wearing expensive jeans and Nike sneakers.
The young men in the brand-name clothes are LG and Hermano, members of Banda AfroReggae, an internationally acclaimed hip-hop group. They are also favela residents who, even with their fame and financial success, have chosen to live and work in their home communities. In spite of full schedules that include frequent rehearsals, public concerts, and occasional visits to Brasilia to consult with Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil, Hermano and LG have come to Padre Severino to teach a 3-month long percussion workshop to the young inmates. They have come not only as celebrities, but also as role models; not only as percussion teachers, but also as symbols of hope.
On August 29, 1993, tragedy struck Vigário Geral. The vast favela at the edge of Rio de Janeiro’s primarily poor zona norte had long been accustomed to violence, but that day’s events were unlike anything the community had ever experienced. In supposed retaliation for the murder of a colleague, the “Running Horses” (Carvalhos Corredores) – a group of renegade off-duty police officers – ransacked the favela, killing 21 community members, including children and senior citizens.
José Junior, a community activist working in Vigário, had launched Grupo Cultural AfroReggae (GCAR) as a small nongovernmental organization earlier that year, but it was the August massacre that illustrated the need and provided the incentive to turn his arts organization into a major social force. Junior selected a small group of teenagers — many of whom had been connected to gangs, and all of whom had lost friends and relatives to the “Running Horses” – and organized an intensive arts education program for them, drawing on a variety of disciplines including percussion, Afro-Brazilian dance, hip-hop, and capoeira.
Junior’s educational initiative caught on, and AfroReggae quickly expanded to include ever-increasing numbers of youth from Vigário Geral. As the number of participants grew, so did the services provided by GCAR. Today, the group includes hundreds of young members, who, in addition to classes, participate in several educational theatre groups, bands, dance ensembles, and visual arts groups.
At the epicenter of GCAR is Banda AfroReggae, a hip-hop ensemble whose members include many of the teens who began working with Junior in 1993. It’s almost impossible to keep up with the members of Banda AfroReggae. In addition to their frequent performances and their constant outreach in the community, the group maintains a fast-paced touring schedule, visiting cities throughout Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. In 2004, Banda AfroReggae made its United States debut at Carnegie Hall as guests of Caetano Veloso, who introduced the band and later appeared to sing backing vocals for their cover of “A Luz da Tieta,” one of his most renowned hits.
José Junior and AfroReggae establish a strict code of conduct for their participants, from band members to new workshop students. The youth associated with AfroReggae are forbidden to smoke, drink, or use drugs. They are also forbidden to own firearms or to associate themselves with violent activity of any kind.
The members of Banda AfroReggae act as cultural ambassadors against violence, speaking at venues ranging from youth prisons to academic symposia. Band members encourage Rio’s young people, especially those from poor communities, to find opportunities for themselves outside of the world of crime and gang violence.
Most importantly, AfroReggae provides these opportunities, and continues to provide more: the group has recently expanded to include projects in 6 other favelas. Band members boast that AfroReggae is the only group to have set foot inside every favela in Rio de Janeiro.
Art has always been an important instrument for social progress in Rio de Janeiro. In recent decades, however – especially since the end of the 21-year military dictatorship in 1985 – progressive artistic programs have flourished throughout the city, using theatre, dance, and music to confront social problems directly, and to provide peaceful models of expression, selfvalorization, and community. AfroReggae is at the forefront of this new movement; it is one of the largest non-governmental organizations in Rio de Janeiro, and one of the most visible and best regarded in Brazil.
Banda AfroReggae’s performances have become a staple of “Criança Esperança,” a national television event that raises awareness of problems faced by Brazil’s children. “Conexões Urbanas,” their monthly free concert series, is invariably one of the defining musical events every month in Rio de Janeiro, featuring prominent guest artists like O Rappa, MV Bill, and Gabriel O Pensador. And AfroReggage’s influence is not limited to a national stage; the 2005 Brazilian documentary “Favela Rising,” a portrait of Banda AfroReggae’s lead singer Anderson de Sá, has won awards at film festivals throughout the United States, the UK, and Brazil.***
In the first workshop group of the day, there is a problem. Prison and reformatory populations in Rio de Janeiro are almost always segregated by gang affiliation, and the young inmates in the group were all arrested as members of the Terceiro Comando, one of Rio’s notorious drug cartels. AfroReggae, however, is based in Vigário Geral, where the ruling cartel is the Comando Vermelho, a bitter rival.
LG and Hermano explain that, as musicians, they are not bound by the rules or affiliation any gang. “Ours is a different war,” (“A nossa guerra é outra”) says LG, explaining that they are at war with violence, but not with any particular group of people. Hermano tells the boys bluntly that AfroReggae works in communities regardless of cartel affiliation: AfroReggae’s work, he says, is part of a mission of peace. He points out that AfroReggae regularly works in Parada de Lucas, where the ruling drug gang has been at war with Vigário Geral since 1985. AfroReggae’s involvement marks the first time in almost twenty years that youth from Vigário Geral and Parada de Lucas have been brought together in the interest of peace and social progress.
The inmates’ body language changes visibly as LG and Hermano explain the difference between musicians and gang members. Before, the boys had slouched, staring at the ground; now, they sit up, looking at one another. Finally, they start making eye contact with LG and Hermano. They begin to ask questions, which the musicians answer patiently. LG and Hermano explain that as teenagers, they had friends arrested for gang violence, but that AfroReggae has provided them with an alternative.
AfroReggae’s slogan, “From the favela to the world” (Da favela ao mundo), not only highlights the group’s improbable rise to fame, but also underscores their belief that better and stronger things than violence can come out of Rio’s favelas. Through their music, AfroReggae shows that the favelas are filled with creative energy, talent, and hope. The message seems to be working: on this cold morning in June, thirty boys who had sat slumped and disinterested thirty minutes before are on their feet, laughing and chatting with LG and Hermano, and waiting excitedly for their turn on the drums.
For more information about Grupo Cultural AfroReggae and Banda AfroReggae, see www.afroreggae.com.br (site is in Portuguese).
Gabriel Woll is an American writer, performer, educator, and translator.