Those who don’t know how to dance improvise

Hip-hop offers social existence to youngsters in poor suburbs

A rapper, who is as anonymous as he is wise, said that hip-hop was “the CNN of the outskirts” (despite the insistence of the media, especially in Brazil, to associate the movement with violence and crime); in other words, a way for people from the outskirts of the city to express their needs as the excluded classes. Hip-hop started in 1968 and was based on two movements: the way in which the culture of the American ghettos was transmitted in a popular dance of the time, which combined hopping with moving the hips, hence the name. When it reached Brazil in the eighties, the link between culture, dance and leisure became so tightly knit that it begged the question: is it a cultural or political movement? “Hip-hop means having the right to disagree with what you want/ up to a point it’s like being in politics/ not quietly accepting everything, but not developing a critical conscience, either/ the sound that analyses, criticizes, questions/ don’t forget that hip-hop is also a party/ rhythm and poetry is what characterizes us/ and those who don’t know how to dance improvise!”, is how the words of the song “Hip-Hop”, by Boss AC, accurately define it.

“It’s through song, dance and graffiti that hip-hoppers voice their political and ideological positions. For them, being actively involved in politics isn’t only reserved for those who specialize in this area. With their rap rhymes, their break dance steps   and the images in their drawings reproduced in their graffiti, they take a political stance and form an alliance with other forms of expression that are, at once, political, social and cultural”, explains João Batista de Jesus Felix, author of the Ph.D. thesis “Hip-Hop: culture and politics in the context of São Paulo”, prepared with the guidance of tutor  Lilia Schwarcz; the thesis was presented at the USP School of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences. For the researcher, hip-hop is a step up  by Brazil’s poor blacks, who rely on  leisure as a means of protesting against the violence and the conditions to which society submits them. “When they moved on from their dances onto the streets and public spaces, they broke the tenuous ‘Brazilian social pact’ . Their presence in public was an insult to our “cordial racism” and to the idea that demonstrations of this type are tolerated (or otherwise), in private”, commented the researcher, whose core concern was discovering what this social movement understands by politics and what was behind the controversial declarations, such as those of rapper Mano Brown, from the group Racionais MC’s, who summed up his work in a very unusual way: “I don’t do art. Artists do art; I make weapons. I’m a terrorist.”

Thus, understanding this divide or dialect is essential to understand hip-hop beyond that conveyed by the media. “The media have constructed images and representations of juvenile delinquents in a very negative way, as though they were a type of number one enemy in our cities”, is how matters are analyzed by Micael Herschmann, from UFRJ, author of O funk e o hip-hop invadem a cena [Funk and hip-hop take over the scene]. For the professor, the criminal bands that robbed people in Ipanema in Rio in 1992 and 1993 were the watershed for the movement. “As from that  time, with intense media coverage, hip-hop acquired a new dimension, generating a discussion about the ‘place of the poor’ in Brazil’s political and intellectual debate.”The scenes of conflict between youths and policemen aroused curiosity about the movements of young people from poor outlying neighborhoods and gave rise to social prejudice.” In many cases they chose fear, when the political aspect of hip-hop is raising awareness and creating alternatives for young people from the outskirts   not to drift into a life of crime and drugs.” Or, in the words of the anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, “hip-hop indicates a politicized peace, which affirms itself with critical aggression, in other words, with the affirmative style of reconquered pride”. For many, however, this radical posture meant that it was seen as violent.

“Hip-hop arrived in Brazil in stages; in other words,  its different elements were adopted by people who saw no particular connection with the dancing at their black dances, which before the movement hit the scenes adopted no explicit and challenging political position”, says Felix. “This does not mean that they were social actions simply for having fun, with no other consequence. At the end of the day, in Brazil, break and rap appeared in places of leisure and distraction for the poor black population, who went to them because they felt they were among equals and didn’t have to worry about being treated  by others as inferior.” This link between fun and questioning was fundamental for the rise of the black movement, whose roots go back to the Brazilian Black Front (FNB), founded in 1931, which advocated that “blacks should assume the behavioral labels of ‘good society’, which is the equivalent of saying ‘white’, so that they could be incorporated into Brazilian society”. The FNB dances, observes Felix, complemented the black community’s political advocacy, although they were seen as “appendices”, rather than tools for the construction of black identity. For them, leisure was not part of the struggle against discrimination.

The Black Experimental Theater (TEN), which sprang up in the forties, was the opposite: it bet on bringing back the values of Black-African culture as a remedy for racism. It was in this spirit that in the sixties the Aristocrata Club, patronized by the black middle class, came onto the scene, as did Club 220, for workers and civil servants. “The fact that both the FNB and the Aristocrata and 220 Clubs included dances in their activities shows that leisure had a meaning for the black population and that the dances served as a vehicle for reflection, i.e., ‘they are good for thinking’, interesting components in the process of creating black identity”, explains the researcher. Another example of politically mobilized art was samba, whose nationalization, going against what was expected,  “was a process for manipulating the elite and relied on the participation of various ‘sambistas’ who were well aware of the social advantages they might achieve”. Thus, the elevation of samba to the throne of ‘national rhythm’ only occurred because it was part of the logic that there was, in fact, ‘racial democracy’ in Brazil.

Therefore, notes the researcher, if the use of Afro-Brazilian culture in political terms is not new in our recent history, hip-hop innovates in the form and the paradigm it began adopting in the black dances of the seventies. Many artists, such as Tim Maia and Jorge Benjor, after traveling to the USA and seeing how black singers took advantage of artistic demonstrations to “make speeches to their audience”, also started talking about racial issues, although they focused on milder themes than racism, such as black beauty, etc. “These spaces were places of political practice because there people could construct their identities, because, just by dancing and listening to music, they felt less discriminated against; this was an alternative to daily racism, because here they would not be subject to the racial hierarchy found in their day-to-day lives”, is the researcher’s analysis. According to Soares, at the start of the twenty-first century one can see that both samba and the international black music played at black dances  have helped to build a contemporary black identity among São Paulo youths. “At first, it seems that the public at black dances was totally alienated from the struggle for democratization in our society. A more painstaking analysis reveals that they tried, in other ways, to find ways to increase the inclusion of blacks in the same society.”

But it is not very easy to dance to this music, however good it sounds to the ears of the excluded. “It’s conflicting for a young person from the poor outlying neighborhoods to embrace the ‘conscious’ pacifist, anti-drugs discourse of hip-hop and live in real situations of extreme police violence, rubbing shoulders with drug-dealers and pure and simple existential despair”, states Arnaldo Contier, Professor of History from USP, in his article Brazilian rap and the Racionais MC’s. Contier recalls that hip-hop arrived in Brazil in the early eighties via break dance music, paradoxically brought here by social agents from the richest strata in society. “Some Brazilians who traveled abroad, when they returned to Brazil, introduced break dancing in the dance halls of the rich neighborhoods in São Paulo and this soon became fashionable among young middle class people”, he says. Subsequently, he continues, break dancing conquered the streets and the city’s excluded people through the establishment of dance groups that met in Ramos Square and later in the vicinity of the record stores of 24 de Maio street. The ideal of politicized rap was presented by the Racionais group in January 1988, in a show in Ibirapuera Park. The movement expanded throughout the city and in that year the first posse was formed in Roosevelt Square in the center of São Paulo.

The term  posse refers to organizations that bring together groups and people  engaging in one of the four elements of hip-hop: the presence of DJs, who are in charge of   the music, using old ‘pick-ups’ (the record-players rejected by the elite with the arrival of the CD); the MC, who recites or sings poetry (alongside the DJ, he develops the rap, an abbreviation of ‘rhythm and poetry’); the break, a dance inspired, so legend has it, in the movements of people that had been mutilated in the Vietnam war and that shows how those who engage in it ‘use their body as if it were their only cultural capital’, observes the researcher; and finally, graffiti, an explicit expression of street art, whose purpose is to disclose the movement’s ideas more broadly. The first posse was called the Black Union, which, says Felix, showed a more direct concern with the racial issue. “With the appearance of the Union, hip-hop in Brazil truly began. Previously, rap, break dancing and graffiti were only practiced when there was an organic link between them. The possibility of ‘bringing together’ these cultural expressions only arose with this first posse.”

Anthropophagically, the movement with its American roots gained a new spirit in Brazil. “In the USA, hip-hop sprang up in city neighborhoods and, later took over more upscale areas, whereas in São Paulo the opposite occurred: first it started happening on the poor outskirts, then it became organized downtown, and finally it went to the various neighborhoods, where it grew and achieved its social and political legitimacy. Currently, it is increasingly gaining ground among the middle and upper classes. “Hip-hop also innovates in the way in which it tries to break paradigms.” Once the ‘generation shock’ was overcome and the ‘rebels without a cause’ had been pacified by the temptations of the consumer society, they rose up to present to the world a new agenda of demands that they want to see materialize immediately”, observes historian, Rafael Lopes de Sousa, who is finishing his Ph.D. about the “Republic of Bros”, at Unicamp. “To demand immediate changes requires organization and thinking about the models to be followed. But in the case of hip-hop, the engagement was not sponsored by any central model, but on the contrary by the art of dispersion and the capacity to undo the appearances that young people created in their demonstrations in order to escape from control.” Thus, it is precisely social isolation that paradoxically has  been transformed into a powerful stimulant for unrestricted creativity without precedent on the outskirts of São Paulo.

“If in the seventies young groups were divided between those who were politically engaged and the spontaneity of hippy communities, in both cases young people from the middle classes, with hip-hop the desire for change, in opposition to the political dimensions that guided previous generations, are centered on spectacular appearance in public, involving a shock strategy through the presentation of the unusual and through aggression”, he observes. The historian notes that a new type of resistance among individuals has developed, people who, skeptical of utopia and free of any civic participation, forge practices that deviate and “subvert the paths proposed for social integration. It is the legitimate social anger that sings and demands changes, demands a response”, notes Micael Herschmann, the anger that “abandons customary Brazilian cordiality”. They are young, it is true, but they are not typical adolescents. “These experiences of young people organizing social movements goes against the idea of adolescence as a rebellious phase, which precedes entry into the adult world. In the case of the ‘bros’, they are educational and formative experiences, like many others that the subjects experience in the course of their lives”, explains Rosangela Carrilo Moreno, from the Group for Research into Schools and Family Organizations at the School of Education at Unicamp, and author of the article The practice of educational protest  in adolescence.

‘Bros’ were  united in creativity tribes. “Starting with hip-hop, the ‘culture of the slums’ appears not only as a sub-product of social violence in the country, but as production and discourse  capable not only of reflecting the harsh truth, but also the claim for extending citizenship to the social segment  living in these urban areas”, observe Ivana Bentes and Micael Herschmann, both from UFRJ, in their article The spectacle of the counter-discourse. Spectacle? “From fashion to activism, from attitude to music and to socio-political discourse, we are seeing new  subjects emerge that leave the stigmatized territories of the city and ascend to the sphere of the media, bringing with them a renewed discourse, far from the traditional political institutions and close to the sphere of culture. “You need to appear, in order to present, as the name of rapper MV (Messenger of the Truth) Bill says. “After the crisis of the artistic and intellectual forerunners of the seventies, the main hip-hop characters have emerged as the new local organic intellectuals, forged throughout the eighties and especially in the nineties, at the height of a popular or minority culture no longer idealized by its forerunners and with greater autonomy”, say the authors. In short, they note, we are witnessing the emergence of a social-political discourse coming from the very culture of the outskirts and increasingly “hawked” throughout the market.

“This manifestation has a political character, because it is thanks to it that  youth from the poor outskirts show themselves and it represents, discursively, the way in which it is seen and the reality in which it lives. Therefore, it removes countless young people from public invisibility, people ‘looked at, without being seen’ as ‘dangerous’ “, says the Ph.D. in linguistics from Unicamp, Adriana Carvalho Lopes in her article The transgression of the racialized subject in the discourse of Brazilian hip-hop.  For Lopes, this inability to ‘be seen’ is based on an argument whose main argument is ‘skin color’. “Hip-hop reinvents blackness, transgresses the oppressive images attributed by society to the young from the poor suburbs and therefore offers them the possibility of social existence. Thus, the movement’s objective is the symbolic transformation of society, to change some of the representations that define social reality and the subjects that form part of it. “The offer cannot be refused: new possibilities of interpreting the world and identities and  citizenship achieved through one’s own efforts; all the result of a notable alliance between culture and politics. “Seek your own peace. Don’t get used to daily violence, because that’s not my life and that’s not your life. I’ve reached 27; I’m a survivor. Twenty seven years confusing the statistics”, warns Mano Brown in the magic formula for peace. Those who don’t know how to dance, improvise.