I first heard of the Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, an NGO that uses culture to keep favela youth out of drug trafficking, when I saw the documentary Favela Rising before my first trip to Rio in '06. Why I didn't take the initiative to volunteer with them then is beyond me, but I've been an admirer ever since and have slowly managed to visit most of their outposts around Rio -- always located in the favelas that they serve, always upbeat, always brightly painted and well-maintained. Culture is our weapon indeed.
Their newest nucleus in the notorious Complexo do Alemão opened in the midst of a vicious police operation that was the talk of Rio. The national guard was still stationed at the entrance when I visited later in August.
AfroReggae was still unpacking when I dropped by, and most of my visit ended up being in the company of Flávia, a 1o-year-old girl whose mother cleans the building. Flávia kept pestering me to take pictures of her, and I was happy to oblige.
She told me that she hadn't been to the beach in the 3 years, that teenagers sell drugs outside of her school (but she knows drugs are stupid), that she can only play a few feet in front of her house, that school was canceled during the recent police blockade. And here she was turning cartwheels on the roof with Alemão all around her. I was reading a book at the time whose title couldn't be more appropriate -- Favela: Alegria e Dor na Cidade (Favela: Joy and Pain in the City).
I headed off with the goal of visiting AfroReggae Digital, their Internet radio station (tune in!), located in Parada de Lucas, in the Zona Norte (north side) at the border with the suburbs. Lucas was at war with neighboring Vigário Geral, where the founder of AfroReggae is from, for almost two decades. It was a big step, then, for VG-based AfroReggae to open a nucleus on the other side of the tracks (literally, the SuperVia rail line divides the two communities).
I didn't make it before leaving in August, but I was able to go earlier this week.
More than just a radio station that uses radio as an educational tool, it's a whole community center, serving a neighborhood of 20,000-25,000 . . . as the only NGO. In contrast, I've heard that Rocinha has more than 80 for a population of approximately 200,000. In other words, there are 10x more NGOs per resident in Rocinha than in Lucas. That, unfortunately, is part of the divide between the Zona Sul and Zona Norte, with the Zona Sul consistently getting more investment and attention.
It was here, though, that one of the AfroReggae Digital organizers told me about the new HQ going up in Vigário Geral to be inaugurated in April. It will be open 24/7 and has been described as the favela Guggenheim -- a curious comparison in light of other Guggen-de-Janeiro proposals I've commented on. I can't wait to see it the next time I come back.
Finally, yesterday I hit a third AfroReggae nucleus, back down on my end in the Zona Sul at Cantagalo, the favela between Ipanema and Copacabana. I've been to Cantagalo many, many times now for their baile funk and finally had the chance to return in the daytime. The prime location commands some great views . . .
That's the cidade partida (divided city) for you right there.
The Cantagalo operation teaches, of all things, the circus. Júnior, the founder, got connected with Cirque de Soleil and now it's part of the AfroReggae stew. I caught them rehearsing for a visit by representatives of the Barbican Centre, a London arts behemoth, where AfroReggae has performed before, and will be artists-in-residence or a similar arrangement later this year.
Their director made a very telling comment in my interview with him. He said he sees his AfroReggae t-shirt not a shield -- one that will let you pass between rival favelas as a neutral entity -- but as a passport -- one that enables you to enter them and mediate conflicts, which he saw as AfroReggae's main goal.
I got a shirt for my trouble (and in truth picked one up last year, so that makes two), so I'll be wearing my passport on Sunday when the Bloco AfroReggae does its Carnaval parade in Ipanema.