The Americas | November 7, 2012 at 4:08 pm

The Politics of Brazilian Hip-Hop

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Of the favelas, by the favelas

“A rua é nóiz”, meaning “the streets are ours!” is the persistent refrain of the catchy Triunfo, a musical creation of the artist Emicida, the figurehead for Brazil’s current rap scene. Born of the favelas, impoverished settlements on the fringes of Brazil’s cities, lyrics such as these are not uncommon in Brazilian hip-hop. Since the first compilation was released in 1988, Brazilian rap has consistently dealt with the socio-political issues facing its artists, with rappers such as Emicida and others recounting the realities of life on the outskirts of society without reservation. Unadulterated self-expression is the core of the genre.

Because of the nature of the music and its content, however, hip-hop in Brazil has historically received a relatively small amount of attention from popular radio stations and other mainstream publicity channels, causing most artists to turn to other conduits, such as social networking and the Internet, to gain recognition.

In 2003, a federal program mitigated some of the obstacles facing Brazilian hip-hop musicians. Almost a decade old now, the Culture Points initiative of the Brazilian Ministry of Culture gives grants to community groups to promote the arts and foster self-expression amongst the underserved, underprivileged portions of the populace. On the edges of Brazil’s cities, this has spurred the creation of several centers and projects dedicated to the development of hip-hop, giving the art form greater visibility and influence. In short, taxpayer money helps fund the rapping and break dancing of Brazil.

On the surface, this appears to be a relatively trivial use of government funds. Unlike food or medical care, hip-hop, ballet, and jazz do not concretely improve social welfare.  Humans lived perfectly content lives before the rise of these art forms and will continue to do so long after they become obsolete. For both a government and a family, the choice between a ticket to a Van Gogh exhibition or groceries for a week is a fairly obvious one. When that choice then becomes one between a teenage rap battle and groceries, it becomes meaningless.

Beyond art

However, the Culture Points program achieves more than just the appreciation or creation of art; it is democratizing Brazilian culture. The initiative gives a voice to an otherwise largely marginalized art form, placing it and the portion of society it represents on a somewhat more equal footing with mainstream Brazilian music and society. Furthermore, the program serves individuals to whom the opportunity for artistic expression might not otherwise be available, spreading forms of creativity and culture to a broader portion of the population.

Culture Points reiterates the fact that self-expression should not be a luxury. The opportunity to express oneself, whether through dance, music, or another medium, should not be restricted solely to those who can afford it. And moreover, the opportunity to experience the arts, whether hip-hop to opera, should not be limited exclusively to the upper echelons of society. Like the arts themselves, programs bringing various forms of cultural expressions to the people of a nation transcend the barriers of race, gender, and ethnicity we construct to divide ourselves. The gap between the individual and society is bridged, a crucial movement in a democracy.

In closing, consider the United States, where the National Endowment for the Arts has long stood as a means of supporting the arts in communities across America. As a result of the NEA, both rural and urban America has had the opportunity to engage with the arts, thereby shaping these groups as well. So, before we consider cutting these tiny programs in the name of fiscal responsibility, we should consider whether or not we truly understand the consequences of this sacrifice. Doing so could impact the very nature of our democracy.

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