“There must be something wrong with our society,” affirms Luís Roberto Pires Ferreira, or Beto, as the CEO of AfroReggae is more popularly known. “Rio de Janeiro’s children aren’t born natural killers, but somehow they end up dealing drugs and committing murders.”
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City), is home to more than 600 favelas, or slums, with a combined population estimated anywhere between 3 to 6 million people.
Favelas are also home to Rio’s heavily armed drug gangs – among them the notorious Comando Vermelho“City of God”. portrayed in Fernando Meirelles
For the most part, the government is an unseen presence. As many communities lack schools, parks, pools, community centers, sanitation, hospitals, clinics, banks, post-offices…and the list could go on.
Residents are held hostage between the incompetent – and often oppressive – police, the neglectful authorities and the vicious drug barons.
On September 21, Beto came to SIPA to present the work done by the Grupo Cultural AfroReggae (AfroReggae Cultural Group), a non-governmental organization based in Rio de Janeiro.
AfroReggae was born in Vigário Geral, in January 1993, out of the desire to counteract the violent drug industry and the police oppression pervasive in the city.
The goal was to reduce the distance separating Rio’s whites and blacks, rich and poor, favelas and asphalt, so as to connect the different sectors of society.
AR would soon become a means through which favela residents of Vigário Geral, Parada de Lucas, Complexo do Alemão, Cantagalo and Nova Era – some of Rio’s most violent slums – would use their culture as a forum for expression.
The group may be more popularly known for its world-famous band, AfroReggae, which has opened concerts for celebrities like the Rolling Stones, Madonna and Beyoncé. But its work is much bigger than that.
For seventeen years, AfroReggae has been working in what Beto describes as “complex environments” – as complex as life in Rio de Janeiro can be – to bring an alternative to communities affected by poverty and violence.
The idea is to attract people to the culture of culture instead of the culture of drugs and violence.
AR started by seeking to attract favelas’ youth, offering educational workshops in the popular musical genres – soul, reggae, rap, hip-hop, funk and samba – and programs focused on dance, acting, graffiti, recycling, capoeira, soccer, percussion and more.
AfroReggae tries to “sell the reality of a long life”, showing children and adolescents they can live past their 17th birthday – an age where many have died or lost friends to drug related violence – and working to (re)build their self-esteem.
Beto tells us about one 11-year-old child, member of a drug gang, who when asked whether he was afraid to die simply responded, “No, it’s okay, they [gang leaders] will find someone to replace me really soon.”
When asked again about whether he feared being killed, the young boy replied, “If I am dead, I am dead. It cannot be worse than being here.”
from favela to the world
Amongst its many accomplishments, AR has developed projects and partnerships in all corners of the world – Colombia, UK, Germany, Portugal, India, South Africa, China, United States and Canada – always seeking to promote art as a means towards social justice, and promoting socio-cultural exchanges.
As a carioca – a native of Rio de Janeiro – it was inspiring to see how many SIPA students engaged in the discussion and later approached Beto to request his contact information. At least four said they were “very interested in getting involved with AfroReggae’s work.”
“We want to tell these people’s stories,” said Beto. “But another story, not that which is commonly portrayed by the media, as the story of criminals. We want to show that more than 99% of those who live in the favelas are citizens like you and me. And we want to show how some of the most important parts of Brazilian culture – such as soccer, samba, hip-hop and funk – were born in or out of the favelas.”
I invite you all to visit the organization’s website.
Must watch: “Favela Rising”
A version of this article was written for and published by Columbia University's Communique, on October 14th, 2010.