Of all the aspects of Rio’s well-received Olympics opening ceremony, it was its nod to the emergence of the favelas that Brazilians feel most ambivalent about. If, on the one hand, favelas are where Rio’s most violent criminals operate, on the other they are also where some of the most creative minds in the country reside.
A day after the ceremony, I found myself in northern Rio’s Madureira Park – a place far away from the bright lights of Copacabana and Ipanema beach. On weekends, it’s here that Cariocas from the surrounding favelas congregate to spend quality time with family and friends.
The park is one of the greatest infrastructure legacies of almost a decade of the city hosting major international events. Two years ago this place was nothing more than scrubland.
As young and old gather in front of a stage on a hot Saturday night, what they are about to witness is the latest art form to come out of the favelas.
Passinho, or “little step”, is what breakdancing is to hip-hop. Only in these parts, Brazilian kids dance to funk – the local version of it.
The dance mixes a number of genres such as samba, breakdancing, forró, and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. The bodies of the dancers pop, turn, twist and lock – all with a typical Brazilian flavour.
Video: Felipe Araujo
The moves have been a cultural staple of favela life for the good part of this century, but it is only recently that they have gone pop.
Stars such as Beyoncé, Chris Brown and MIA have all danced to passinho – either on stage or in music videos. But it was last week’s opening ceremony of the Olympics that has given new hope to those steeped in the culture.
“We have been doing this for 12 years, but it’s only now we are starting to get the type of recognition other more traditional dances get,” Anderson Neemias tells me backstage during the show in Madureira.
Born in Penha, a working-class neighbourhood in northern Rio, the 23-year-old was one of the Olympic opening ceremony’s passinho dancers at the Maracanã the night before. When I speak to him, he still can’t believe he was actually there.
Anderson tells me how the event was not just the realisation of a personal dream, but also the culmination of years of hard work by a group of people still on the fringes of Brazilian society.
“It saved our lives. We could be doing all kinds of bad things right now had it not been for this,” he says, pointing to the stage where a girls-only passinho battle is about to get underway.
There are a number of stories in regards to how passinho first started, but my favourite version is the one involving a drug trafficker and a group of gay men. According to legend, in 2001, the leader of one of Rio’s most notorious favelas, Jacarezinho, was proud of the fact that gay men came regularly to his funk parties. The gay guys, with their flamboyant and outlandish ways, brought with them a different kind of energy to the place, the favela boss thought.
And so one night, with the spot completely packed and music blasting, the drug kingpin – who was also a keen dancer – forgot for a moment that he was a sought-after criminal, put his machine gun to the side, and started mimicking the fast moves the gay men did with their feet. Local kids, for whom the trafficker was a God-like figure, took notice and started emulating his steps. Passinho was, apparently, born.
The genre, just like other Brazilian art forms before it, has been on a bumpy road. Over the years, police have put in major restrictions on the funk parties where dancers perform their moves. The country’s media hasn’t been very supportive either.
Government officials and law enforcement agents claim passinho glamourises and, at times, enables the lifestyle of the groups who control the drug trade inside Rio’s estimated 700 favelas.
MCs, dancers and promoters dispute those assertions, however, saying the content of their songs is only a reflection of their surroundings.
“Funk MCs, just like musicians from other genres, sometimes talk about everyday life and unfortunately violence and crime is a reality where they come from,” says Emilio Domingos, director of the 2013 documentary Passinho Dance Off. “The violence and crime are not passinho problems. They are problems of the state.”
Video: Emilio Domingos
It’s a story that repeats itself. In the first decades of the 20th century individuals who sang and danced to samba were also the target of constant police harassment . Samba musicians, mostly black and poor, used the music to talk about the harsh realities at the hands of a society unwilling to welcome them.
In his film, Emilio set out to talk to those at the forefront of the Passinho movement — most of them teenage boys with dreams of Youtube superstardom and of being able to make a living out of what they do best.
“Doing the film I realised there is a whole generation of Brazilian kids who are not really expected to do much with their lives,” he told me over the phone.
“But those assumptions are based on society’s prejudices because they exude creativity and they work very hard.”
If today Brazil is a country that hosts events like the Olympics and World Cup – celebrating its diversity for the entertainment of international audiences in the process – the truth is that those in power would rather favela culture remained out of sight.
“This is a fractured society in which the cultural elite chooses to identify itself more closely with what is created in the US than acknowledging a cultural heritage that is typically and genuinely Brazilian,” says Bernardo Conde, an anthropology professor at Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University.
For Professor Conde, there is a tiny — albeit extremely powerful and influential — group that still longs for Brazil’s post-colonial era, when, fresh from the shackles of Portuguese rule, there was a concerted effort by the ruling class to ethnically and culturally shape the country after the European super-powers of the time.
“If we go back to the 19th century it was clear that there was a project to ‘civilise’ the population, in which the goal was to make Brazil look like France,” he says. “And more than a century later, we are still trying to be Europeans, or Americans. Trying to be something we are not.”
And yet, in spite of the prejudices and preconceptions about what is good and bad art, the future looks bright for passinho dancers and funk MCs.
“Passinho has the power to transform people,” Anderson tells me, as he is about to get on stage. “Lots of kids who before looked up to drug dealers can now follow in our footsteps instead.”
For Rio passinho dancers, performing on the world’s biggest stage is certainly something to be proud about. But in a society with a well-documented history of persecution and intolerance of young black men, their journey towards acceptance is still far from over, according to Professor Conde.
“Funk and passinho at the Olympics is a small victory in a long journey. The war is far from over.”