Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
When he was a child, Angelo didn’t like to play football. That made him different from the other kids in Vigário Geral, but just a little. He did share with them poverty, broken homes, sporadic schooling, early jobs, and marginality. Vigário Geral is one of the 500 or 600 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Figures vary, but it is generally thought that one-fourth of the inhabitants of the Rio de Janeiro urban area - more than 3 million people - live in these slums. The age and level of development of the favelas in Rio fluctuates; Vigário Geral is over forty years old. It has sturdy houses, paved roads, and running water. Angelo didn’t like football, but he enjoyed playing and fighting in the street with the other kids. Only he didn’t have much time for that.
Angelo is the oldest of four children. In
1994, when he was eight, his father left. The
money his mother earned cleaning houses wasn’t enough to support the family, and
Angelo had to start working.
She didn’t make me, she didn’t say anything. But I saw our situation. Sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat and, since I was the oldest, I realised I had to do something.
Angelo found out where to buy candy and lollypops, and he started to sell them on buses, trains, and at traffic lights. He sometimes wondered why he had to do this when so many other kids didn’t have to work, but he couldn’t come up with an answer. Nor did he understand why there were people so rich, and why they didn’t do anything to help those who had nothing.
Now I think they are afraid of us. They believe black people from the favelas are dangerous, bad people.
Some days Angelo could go to school, but not always. But every day, he would say later, he had the satisfaction of seeing how his hard work helped his mother and siblings get by. Sometimes, though, temptation lurked.
In Vigário Geral temptation is always present.
Even today, drug dealers go down the street
showing off their expensive clothes, their name
brand sneakers, their big, gleaming weapons,
their pretty girls, and their impunity. When
Angelo was a teenager, many of his friends
wanted to be like them. Sometimes it seemed
like the only way out; all the city offered them
was rejection and marginality. But, like the other
kids in the favela, Angelo had also seen the dark
side of that life: the arrests, the shoot-outs, the
frequent deaths. That’s why every time a bandido – a neighbour, a friend– approached him with an offer, Angelo turned it down.
I knew that at first violence seems easy, a sort of game, a way of outsmarting the rest. But then you have to pay. Even if they don’t kill you, you are never at ease. You always have to be on the lookout; the threat is always around.
But sometimes, on those afternoons
selling candy beneath the implacable sun, on
those nights when there was little to eat, his conviction wavered. Until that day when he was thirteen, and he heard the AfroReggae boys for the first time.
AfroReggae was born out of chaos...
…says José Júnior, its founder. In 1993 José
Júnior was a DJ from a poor background
who had made a name for himself on the Rio music scene. Around that time, the police
had killed 21 young people in Vigário Geral. Many believed this was retaliation for the
murder of four military police officers killed by local drug dealers. When one thinks of
urban youth culture, one thinks of music; cities are the places where young people find
their own forms of expression, which often involve rhythm. Júnior was determined to use music to draw youth away from crime, drugs, and violence. First, he created a magazine that dealt with reggae, rap, hip-hop, and other black culture issues. The people involved in that project founded the first Núcleo Comunitário de Cultura -Culture Community Centre- in Vigário Geral. That was where the musicians of AfroReggae band -the most public side of the NGO- would be trained.
In the rapidly changing urban environment, young people learn much about what to expect and how to behave, from their peers, and increasingly from mass media
Now, the band gathers funding and gains visibility for its project by means of songs and shows about life in the favelas, violence, racism, police brutality –and possible alternatives. It has recorded several albums, toured the world, and received the support of major artists like Caetano Veloso and Regina Casé. José Júnior is proud:
Through our music, Vigário Geral went from the crime section to the culture section in the newspapers.
That evening, June of 1999, when Angelo
heard AfroReggae, he got excited and wanted
to be like them. Like them, he could make something of his life. When he returned to
his house, he began to bang on an old tin, and he found that he had rhythm in his body, “in his heart,” he would say later. Angelo was fascinated. He spent all of his free time banging on tins. When he thought he started to sound good, he invited three or four friends to play with him. The group started to take shape, and one day they decided they should give themselves a name.
We weren’t sure. We thought of several possible
names and finally we came up with AfroLata. Afro
because we are afro, that’s where we come from, we
have it in our blood. And Lata (tin) because that’s
what we played. I mean, we did the same thing as
AfroReggae, but since we didn’t have money to buy real instruments, we made do with old tins.
Angelo and his friends had turned trash into musical instruments and precariousness into art. AfroLata became a part of the AfroReggae project. In addition to the main band, the NGO has a dozen groups of young people who are involved in music, dance, capoeira, theatre, and circus. Angelo and his mates began to play in different places, first around the city, then around Brazil. They were even invited to a festival in the Netherlands. Angelo stopped selling candy on the street; AfroReggae had gotten him a grant that allowed him to concentrate on rehearsing and playing with AfroLata and another young band, Makala, and on teaching percussion.
It’s good to teach music and dance to the kids from the neighbourhood. We give them something to be interested in, and they spend less time on the street. They are less vulnerable to the temptation of drugs and crime, and they study. You should see them. When they come to us, the kids change; they are transformed. And it makes us proud to think that these kids are not going to be hoods, that they are going to make something of their lives.
AfroReggae has opened Culture Community
Centres in four other favelas in Rio. So far, they
have carried out sixty projects involving 2,000
young people and, between employees and
grantees, they employ 175 people. But their
main centre is still in Vigário Geral, where
they are building a million-dollar, three-storey
building -the biggest one in the neighbourhood with
the support of several sponsors. They
hope to open it in January 2008, when the
spaces for rehearsals, recording, computers,
meetings, and administration are finished, along
with the auditorium on the deck. Currently,
in the building that has been loaned to them,
some 400 young people participate in their
activities. In an 8,000-person community, that is a significant number. Vitor, who is in charge of the Vigário Geral Centre, knows that given the magnitude of the problem, it’s still very little – but that doing nothing would be worse:
Some say that it is a drop of water in the ocean, that for every kid we offer an alternative to crime there are ten more who still want to go down the wrong path. Sometimes that seems true, but for us it’s important to try, to help even just one kid, and to make our problem visible in places where it was once ignored.
Angelo thinks that it is almost a matter of survival:
The world is very unfair, and they want to push us aside as if we didn’t exist. They only remember us when there is crime, violence. What we do shows white people, rich people that black people who live in the favelas are not all outcasts, criminals, that we can also do good things, create, bring peace wherever we go. If people realise this, they might start to treat us differently.
Whenever he can, Angelo goes to school
at night. He is about to finish grade school;
AfroReggae insists that its members keep studying. Now, Angelo earns US$150 per
month – plus a small bonus for each time he performs. It isn’t always enough to support
his family. Angelo is a picture of stability. At the age of 20 or 22 , several of his band
mates already have two or three children by different women. Angelo started dating a girl seven years ago; he moved in with her three years ago; and they had their first child one year ago.
I am very careful. I use rubbers. I care. When we finally had a child, it was because we wanted to.
Do young people today have fewer kids than before?
No, just the opposite. This place is full of babies. Before, women didn’t have children so young, but now, with so much alcohol and drugs and all…
Angelo’s hands are full of calluses from so much banging on drums and tins, and he is quick with a smile. Angelo has always lived in Vigário. He loves his community and works for it, but he says that he would like to leave, to take his family away, that he would not stop working with AfroReggae and the kids, but he would rather live elsewhere:
Here there is a lot of danger: shoot-outs, fights between hoods. It is a hard place to live. I hope we can leave and have a better life.
What would a better life be like?
I hope my son doesn’t have to go out to work, that he can have the things I wanted but couldn’t have.
I don’t know… a car. I always wanted to have a car and a computer. But my greatest dream is for my whole family to be all right, to be together. I imagine us in a nice house, eating next to a pool. Now that would be a good life…
…says Angelo, his eyes sparkling.
And do you think that music will make that possible?
Sure, I hope so. That’s what I am working for. But even if I don’t make it, I feel good. When I am up there playing, I feel so good. I feel a carnival inside, a whole world. I remember all the people I love, my friends, my family, living and dead, everyone. When I am up there banging on the drum, I feel like a king.