There's no way to understand funk without seeking the roots of another Brazilian genre and culture. Samba emerged in the period immediately after the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, and was strongly associated with the marginalised Black population. Thousands of freed Black people built their homes outside the cities, in what became the favelas, and samba is indigenous to those communities. Almost predictably, samba was quickly frowned upon by the contemporary Brazilian, largely white, elites.
“Samba built around itself a certain association with mischievousness,” explains Gabriel Borges, a PhD student of literature, focusing on Brazilian music at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He says that being found on the street with a guitar was reason enough to be arrested, as was the practice of capoeira; closely linked to both samba and funk, the form of martial arts was also criminalised at the time.
Samba and funk have two main elements in common. There’s social revolt and sometimes even praise for crime, as a social response to exclusion. There’s also social elevation, a way for artists to use music as an attempt to integrate and succeed. As Borges explains, samba, as well as funk, represents “the aspirations of the Black population to integrate into [wider Brazilian] society, intending to overcome this marginalisation.” Antônio Spirito Santo, a musician and expert in the history of samba, summarises the relationship between samba and funk, and the elites, as “resilience”: neither a radical reaction, nor a complete integration.
DEVELOPMENT & CRIMINALISATION
DJ Marlboro explains that the music was produced in the favela, and that it was “sung on the asphalt (a term for those who live outside the favela), asking for peace.” But the wider success of funk started not in the streets of the favelas themselves, but in club dances, or bailes, throughout Rio de Janeiro. In the clubs, there was the ‘festival de galera’ (crowd festival), where groups would compete at dances to funk songs “in a style similar to Samba”, he says. Fights were forbidden in the bailes, and those involved were often kicked out. But fearing that they’d lose the loyal crowd by continuing to do so, promoters realised that “the dance that was a healthy competition began to be attended by those who wanted to fight,” DJ Marlboro says.
Over time, a culture known as bailes de corredor, or “corridor”, grew. Rival groups organised themselves on either side of the club: forming corridors, aka lines of people, linking arms, until it started to be seen “as a game, almost like [martial arts-style] capoeira”; not dissimilar to a mosh-pit in rock music, as dancers-as-fighters would sweep through the crowd.
The corridors gradually became less about personal fights or gang violence, and more a part of funk’s culture. DJ Marlboro even considered talking to the Brazilian Olympic Committee to transform the dances into a nationally recognised sport. The problem, he says, was that the police became aware of the bailes de corredor. “Not knowing how it worked, the authorities ordered all the dances in the favelas, in 1995-1996, to close,” he explains. “They ruined integration and confined [funk] only to the favela,” where criminal groups could exercise more control.
As funk was pushed back to the favelas, an intense media scrutiny furthered its criminalisation, says Professor Palombini. “A turning point [was] the so-called arrastões of 1992,” he explains, “exploited by [national TV network] Globo Network for electoral purposes.”
An arrastão is when a large group of people start carrying out robberies in the same location, in a coordinated and quick assault. The arrastões of 1991 and 1992 in particular were notable because they were the focus of intense media scrutiny and derision, linking the Black favela population to the robberies. In October 1991, the GLOBO newspaper reported on the arrastões with the headline “Beach rats drag fish and exchange shots in Ipanema”, a Rio de Janeiro beach.
Many within the funk scene argue that the media reporting of the early '90s arrastões is part of the history of the criminalisation of favela residents, and by extension funk music. They were "manipulated by the media, since there were no robberies, but ‘corredores’ [a violent act that doesn’t involve theft],” says DJ Marlboro. The presence of young, mostly Black favela kids on the beaches was framed as an attempt to occupy a space that the elites considered to be their own — an “invasion of barbarians” on “civilised” city life, says DJ Marlboro. When these kids fought each other on the beaches, the quick, palatable answer to the elites was to blame the favelas and criminalise their culture.
Throughout the 1990s, bills were presented in Rio de Janeiro seeking to investigate funk performers and ban events. In 1999, the CPI (Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry) was created in Rio de Janeiro’s State Legislative Assembly to investigate funk music and culture. One year later, a law was passed that forced promoters to (among other elements) install metal detectors and have military police guards at bailes, and get written permission from the government to host bailes. Most ominous, music that “promoted crime” was banned from being played at bailes, criminalising performers as well as promoters.
“The term ‘funkeiro’ became synonymous with ‘criminal’ in the media,” says Professor Palombini. “During the first decade of the 21st century, the same legislative assembly in Rio de Janeiro [enacted] no less than five laws to regulate balls,” Palombini explains. “Meanwhile, attacks by the Military Police on favela balls proliferate, and police inquiries like that [in] 2005 — with names and photos of MCs stamped on the covers of the tabloids.”
These laws flip-flopped throughout the ’00s. In late 2003, harsher elements of this law were repealed, deeming baile funk a “popular cultural activity”. This law was in turn revoked in 2008, with a new focus on criminalising larger raves, and then revoked again in 2009; law 5543 deemed funk performers as “agents of popular culture”, and that “any type of discrimination or prejudice, whether of a social, racial, cultural or administrative nature against the funk movement or its members, is prohibited".
The result of this policy of persecution, by the media, police and politicians, was that the bailes — already confined to the favelas — became more difficult to organise, until, ultimately, the Police Colonel had the power to decide whether or not a baile could take place in a favela at all. “Funk lives under dictatorship,” Palombini laments.
This phenomenon of criminalisation led to the emergence of a subculture (and sub-genre) known as “proibidão” (very prohibited), with lyrics that praised drug traffickers and crime, further contributing to the marginalisation of the genre. Funk touches on subjects that are taboo to a conservative society like Brazil: talking about sex in an often pornographic way, and portraying crime from the perspective of victim and perpetrator. As DJ Marlboro explains, funk is “the favela singing to the favela. Singing about its situation; be it violence, sexuality, exclusion... that’s where proibidão is born. It’s born because of the prohibition of funk in clubs.”