Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

an omnivorous take on music of the beat-based variety and the urban spaces that nurture it

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Unlabeled: The Anonymous as Exotic in Presenting Proibidão

[Update: The folks at norient.com liked this paper enough to publish it. It's missing the hyperlinks from the blogaversion, but still nice to see it circulated it further afield.]

[The reason I went on down to New Orleans after all was for the BRASA conference, where I appeared on the panel: "Raps do Parapapá: Representations of Violence in Brazilian Funk Carioca," organized by Paul Sneed, of 2Bros fame. Below is the paper I presented, modified for the blogging public with some links &c]

The existence of this CD, Proibidão CV, the subject of my talk, is due in no small part to the efforts of American DJ Wesley Pentz, aka Diplo, who first brought funk to a certain kind of American audience: young, musically au courant, tapped into wider hip-hop and dance music scenes that include music from across the United States, Jamaica, other parts of the Caribbean, the UK, Latin America, and increasingly Africa. Beginning in 2003, he released two funk mixes, “Favela On Blast” and “Favela Strikes Back”, and included several funk tracks on his mixtape “Piracy Funds Terrorism,” which was a promotional tool for the Sri Lankan by way of London artist M.I.A., who in turn borrowed some aspects of funk to make a bricolage of global urban beats that catapulted her to pop stardom.

However, whether out of a desire to monopolize access to funk or simply out of carelessness or even ignorance, Diplo’s inaugural funk efforts were notoriously devoid of any contextual information. In particular, artist and track names are simply nonexistent. The two exclusively funk mixes do not come with track listings even though some tracks are by extremely well known artists like Bonde do Vinho. The mixtape, meanwhile, is more egregious. It features a mixture of commercial hip-hop, recordings of M.I.A., and funk. The latter, however, is listed only as “Baile Funk 1,” “Baile Funk 2,” “Baile Funk 3.” [I should add that “baile funk” has become the name for funk among non-Brazilians.]

Diplo was criticized somewhat for this disservice, although ultimately let off the hook. Music critic Nick Sylvester, reviewing Favela Strikes Back for Pitchfork Media in June 2005, argues “But 10 wrongs do make five rights, and if Diplo’s shtick is bringing this shanty to the world in a way they might respond to and ultimately might take vested interest in (read: $$$), then let’s drop the charges for now and indulge the music as wide-eyed as he does.” While I don’t share Sylvester’s laissez-faire attitude, I’ll nevertheless point out that Diplo has at least made recent efforts to act less like a “culture vulture,” including plans to open a branch of HeapsDecent, an NGO that offers music production workshops, in the favela of Cantagalo in the Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro. He is also working on a movie, Favela On Blast, that purports to put names, faces, and stories to what he had previously presented as anonymous.

Anonymity, however, is the order of the day in this recent release by the label Sublime Frequencies, Proibidão C.V.: Forbidden Gang Funk from Rio de Janeiro. Its liner notes, after providing a brief, simplified, and somewhat inaccurate explanation of proibidão, read: “Recorded and assembled by Carlos Casas. Courtesy of some anonymous MCs and DJs in different bailes along the favelas of Zona Sul, Rio de Janeiro during March-April 2003.” On the opposing page, it prominently states: “All artists are Anonymous. All tracks are Untitled.” It then lists the tracks as “Untitled Proibidao CV” numbers 1-17. [Italics are my own.] For the listener who doesn’t know any Portuguese that, unfortunately, is the end of it. However, a closer listen reveals a more complex CD than the providers are willing to admit, or perhaps are even aware of, in their liner notes.

To begin with, there is little indication that all of the tracks take place in the Zona Sul, as track 3 sings of “tranqulidade na Mangueira,” track 10 speaks of a “Festa da Jacaré” in addition to mentioning Vidigal, both 7 and 11 indicate that they are from “Borel”, and #2 perform the well-known trope of poetically listing a series of favelas from across the city. Conversely, Rocinha, the stated source of the photographs in the CD package, is not mentioned once. Instead, the photos, which do not document any act of criminal behavior to my eye, implicitly link favelas with the drug trade. It’s an unfair generalization — a CD of proibidão, therefore it needs photos of favelas no matter what they show.

The liner notes also mention “the explicit lyrics of apology to drug gangs and the violent content.” I will not dispute that this is present, as tracks 4 & 5 – which appear to be a continuation of the same live recording and not separate tracks – declare, “Hoje vai ter churrasco pra geral / só ninguém vai comer” when speaking of burnt bodies in a prison riot at Bangú 1. On the other hand, there is a more thoughtful view in track #15.

It opens with a protest against stereotypes in a clever call and response: “Dizem que nós somos violentos / Mas desse jeito eu não aguento / Dizem que lá falta educação / Não é desse jeito não / Dizem que não temos competência / Mas isso sim que é violência / Que só sabemos fazer refrão.” (They say we're violent / But this shit I don't buy / They say we lack education / That's not it at all / They say we're not competent / But that right there is violence / That we only know how to cut refrains") Later, the MC sings affirmatively: “Nós temos escola / nós temos respeito” (We have schools / we have respect) and “cidadão brasileiro e tenho meu valor" (Brazilian citizen and I have my value). Such sentiments are hardly the one-dimensional view that the CD Proibidão CV presents. The prominent spelling of “Cidade de Deus” also makes it clear that this is another track not from the Zona Sul.

Likewise, something beyond apology for the drug trade is taking place in track #12. While the reference to the Comando Vermelho motto “Paz, Justiz, e Liberdade” would affirm its status as proibidão, the earlier lines are of considerable interest. “Eu sei que um dia a gente saí daqui / Não sei o dia e nem sei a hora. / Mas sei que um dia a gente vai embora.” There is an escapist, and I believe even utopian, impulse in these lines. Will “a gente” leave by escaping the cycle of violence, by leaving their community, by dying in a blaze of glory in a gun battle? This open-ended vision credits more toward the insightful analysis of Paul Sneed, who I’m sharing this table with, in his dissertation on proibidão: “Machine Gun Voices: Bandits, Favelas and Utopia in Brazilian Funk.”

Indeed, it is precisely a perspective like Paul’s this is lacking in Sublime Frequencies’ presentation of proibidão. They conclude in the liner notes, “This CD is in no way an apology for these groups, but a document to portray a moment in time in Rio de Janeiro musical and social history.” On their website, meanwhile, they declare the label’s mission: “SUBLIME FREQUENCIES is a collective of explorers dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies, and other forms of human and natural expression not documented sufficiently through all channels of academic research, the modern recording industry, media, or corporate foundations.”

Such rhetoric is a dodge. If indeed they are “explorers” on the “urban frontier” of Rio de Janeiro seeking to “portray” a particular “moment,” then they are uninformed explorers who make no effort to explain the parameters of that moment – where, when, why. Instead, they let the listener concoct his or her own vision of Rio’s favelas based on abrasive beats, gruff voices, and the sampled sound of gunshots.

Such a proposition – suggesting the violence of Rio’s favelas without fleshing that concept in with details – is reminiscent of the attitude that Alex Bellos takes in an article on proibidão for online music publication Blender. He opens the article, “Coke. Guns. Booty. Beats.” with the declaration that funk is “the most dangerous – and most exciting – underground club scene in the world.” The implicit link, however, is that it is the most exciting because it is the most dangerous. The same principle is at work in Proibidão C.V. – one doesn’t need to actually know what the songs are saying; rather, the music should be exciting simply because of its violent, dangerous context. In both cases, exciting is also a substitute for exotic, for the exotic is exciting as well because it intimates danger. I should add that Sublime Frequencies traffics principally in “exotic” locales like “Java, Bali, Sumatra, Burma, Morocco, Thailand, India, Mali, Syria, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal.”

Anonymity, then, is indeed the rub. I am certain that a lack of knowledge of Portuguese, both among foreigners like Diplo and among their audience, plays a role. However, I think there is a more sinister impulse at work as well. For anonymity ultimately implies unknowability. Radical urbanist Mike Davis provides a chilling account of the consequences of unknowability in Planet of Slums. He concludes the book by arguing that the Pentagon is the only global institution to take seriously the implications of rapid slum growth in large urban areas. He cites U.S. military tactics, which “assert that the ‘feral, failed cities’ of the Third World – especially their slum outskirts – will be the distinctive battlespace of the twenty-first century” and continues by quoting an Air Force theorist writing in the Aerospace Power Journal: “Rapid urbanization in developing countries results in a battlespace environment that is decreasingly knowable since it is increasingly unplanned.” But the attitude that slums are going to be the next global battleground, perhaps because of their unknowability, is not limited to the U.S. military. One only need look as far as a recent edition of O Globo to find the polícia civil or, in more extreme cases, the BOPE in blockbuster hit Tropa de elite, engaging in such tactics, trying to bring Rio’s favelas back under the city’s control. Unplanned favelas are unknowable spaces to the uninitiated. They are, moreover, soundtracked by proibidão. But when proibidão is presented as anonymous and unknowable, as in the case here, then it does nothing to increase knowledge – and knowability – about both the music and its environment. Instead, it only encourages the exoticization of both, a process whose consequences may be extremely dire.

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8 Comments:

At 4/24/2008 9:37 AM, Anonymous w&w said...

Nice work, Greg. Provocative, poignant stuff. I'd be curious to know how the conversation went at BRASA.

The anonymous-as-exotic, as you imply but don't make terribly explicit, is the modus operandi for Sublime Frequencies. Their Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern releases are equally, if not as explicitly, lacking info on artists, song titles, and more specific whens & wheres.

 
At 4/25/2008 3:53 PM, Anonymous DLD said...

I'm right there with you on much of this topic.

If the artists themselves are going to be anonymous then why bother accrediting the musician/organizers of the music in the liner notes?

For me, though, the primary factor at play with the Proibidão comp is that they are not only marketing this material as anonymous + exotic, but as VIOLENTLY anonymous + exotic...which is doubley problematic.

 
At 4/25/2008 9:17 PM, Anonymous n-ron said...

I don't really see how diplo's perception of a genre that had already blown up in Rio since 1996 has anything to do with anonymity beyond the fact that he didn't (doesn't??) speak portuguese and didn't put in the effort.

Beyond that, as far as I know, people (myself included) had been spinning baile funk in the US before 2000, and I don't know why it should matter that Diplo made it famous for grigos.

Also, I am shocked that you don't mention the most important text, O Mundo Funk Carioca, one which has never been translated, and sold out many times over, by Hermano Viana, the ethnomusicologist. HE is the one brought marlboro his first sampler back in 1989!

Let's be honest, everyone, myself included, is just beginning to try to keep up with funkeiros...who only remain anonymous due to linguistic irresponsibility and the desire to maintain control of any capital that might circulate as the result of the funkeiro labor by local and global imperialists...

 
At 4/28/2008 2:29 AM, Anonymous Thomas Burkhalter said...

Hi Greg
Its an interesting article you wrote on the Brazil Funk CD! We have this independent network called www.norient.com and I would like to ask you if we could upload your article there? Maybe you even have some pictures to put with it.
It would be nice to hearing from you

Best

Thomas

Thomas

 
At 4/30/2008 12:07 AM, Blogger gregzinho said...

N-Ron,

Whether intentional (as I suspect SF is) or simply born out of laziness/apathy (Diplo), to start calling tracks "Proibidão CV 1, 2, 3," or "Baile Funk 1, 2, 3" is to put them under the veil of anonymity. I obviously think doing it intentionally is worse than being laziness, which is why the paper was about SF's CD and the Diplo mixtapes are there to provide some background. They're relevant because they're the first major U.S. releases of funk.

If you'd made a mixtape in 2000 that got lots of press and did the same thing, then I guess I'd be fingering you!

 
At 5/01/2008 3:08 PM, Blogger gregzinho said...

p.s. I didn't mention "O Mundo Funk Carioca" because it wasn't relevant to my topic: proibidão presented as anonymous. Vianna's excellent book pre-dates the existence of proibidão, for one thing, and for another is interested in funk within the context of Rio, not stripped outside of its context abroad.

The fact that it hasn't been translated from Portuguese is lamentable, but that doesn't make the work anonymous. You can download it here for free, made available by the author: http://www.overmundo.com.br/banco/o-baile-funk-carioca-hermano-vianna

 
At 6/11/2008 4:13 AM, Anonymous Ricardo said...

I would suggest doing a little bit of research into copyright law and music piracy. It's pretty obvious that funk involves a massive amount of sampling, which if you want to release commercially involves clearing the rights to the samples. Unfortunately, the funk artists who live in favelas don't really have access to copyright lawyers and music industry collection agencies such as ASCAP and BMI to trace down the copyright owners. Perhaps another reason names aren't released is because the artists/labels aren't willing to incur a massive fine for violating copyright law. Also, 'Proibidao' funk is actually illegal in Brasil and artists a often apprehensive about releasing their names to the public. A simple Wiki search should have revealed some of these issues.

 
At 6/16/2008 1:00 AM, Blogger gregzinho said...

Ricardo,

I don't believe a concern about the legality of samples was a major factor in SF's decision to release the CD with anonymous artists -- the funk CD that I helped engineer for Flamin Hotz Records is chock full of samples, but when you're doing a small run (2,000 or less) the big fish generally don't feel the need to cause trouble. SF is in the same boat as FHZ, in other words.

Having talked with MCs about their own choices regarding proibidão, it is clearly a thorny issue, and I would have respected SF's attempt to get artists to associate their names to this music, but they did not mention anywhere in their liner notes that they had taken this approach.

Finally, many artists, including those who live in favelas, register their compositions with the appropriate Brazilian copyright department. While still lax by American standards, funk does enter into the legal framework, albeit sparingly and haphazardly.

I'm aware of the concerns you brought up having done a considerable amount of research in Rio de Janeiro on all these topics. They just weren't terribly relevant to the matter at hand -- SF didn't purport to have made them the issue in their declaration of anonymity.

 

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