On Brazilian Hip-Hop

It’s an undeniable fact that, in the last 60 years, Brazilian music has become popular and made its effects felt both directly and indirectly, throughout the world. Bossa Nova made a major splash in the United States in the late-1950s and 1960s, as “The Girl from Ipanema” became a global hit and as Stan Getz joined with Brazilian musician João Gilberto to make the style popular in the United States. Musicians like David Byrne, Beck, Kurt Cobain, Devendra Banhart, and of Montreal have openly praised and paid homage to Tropicália both in interviews and in their own songs (indeed, one not need go much further than the title or the first 5 seconds of this Beck song to see Tropicália’s influence). And it is almost impossible to separate images of Carnaval from the samba that fuels the celebration.

Yet one of the most important, albeit not most popular, musical styles in Brazil has failed to catch on in an international setting: Brazilian hip-hop. The reasons it has not translated to a global audience in the way other Brazilian music forms have are not surprising; indeed, Brazilian hip-hop is as much a product and reflection of its social, economic, and cultural time as the “Golden Age” political hip-hop of Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy are, with lyrics closely tied to a particular place and society in the same way that the narratives of  NWA and Wu-Tang Clan verses  are.

It’s not just that the lyrical complexities, analogies in rhyme, and flow make Brazilian hip-hop a challenge to anybody unfamiliar with Portuguese; it’s that the realities expressed in hip-hop are foreign to many (including myself). Most hip-hop artists hail from the favelas, and they rap about their lived experiences. If Brazilian funk is the party-music of the favelas, hip-hop (pronounced “heeppee-hoppee” in Brazil) is the political music of the favelas. Certainly, there are exceptions – Marcelo D2’s samba-rap springs to mind. Yet much of Brazil’s hip-hop is as marginalized, yet as vital, as the favelas that it draws its inspiration from. Its lyrics are often dark, dealing with the violence its residents confront on a daily basis from both drug gangs and police forces; its narratives are rich and complex, with songs regularly lasting 5-7 minutes as the stories and challenges of life in the favelas unwind;  and its production values are often as rough as the lyrics, with gunshots echoing and sirens blaring. But this is not the glorification of gun culture that can be found in some types of hip-hop in the United States; it is the acknowledgement of guns as a real and ever-present threat to people in the favelas. Artists like Criolo, MV Bill, and Sabotagem (who was murdered in 2003) are perhaps better known, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Brazilians in the urban favelas of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and elsewhere whose work does a much better job explaining the realities and inequalities of urban society in Brazil better than most newspapers or journals ever could or would. And while not all the songs are depressing or negative, Brazilian hip-hop is very much a music of political consciousness and social awareness, just as much of the early hip-hop in the United States was in the 1980s.

These social qualities make Brazilian hip-hop foreign not just to people from outside of Brazil, but to many Brazilians themselves, who look down on hip-hop as “uncivilized” and “uncultured,” using much of the racially- and socially-charged language that they also use to describe Brazilian funk (pronounced “funky”). And Brazilian funk is undoubtedly more popular, serving as the party-yang to hip-hop’s yin. Hip-hop, along with Brazilian funk, has become one of the most important cultural expressions to emerge from the favelas in the last couple of decades, and while even a Californian can become a success in Brazilian funk, the lyrics and grittiness of hip-hop are much more difficult to replicate (and indeed, hollow attempts to replicate the earnestness and lived experiences expressed in Brazilian hip-hop would most likely come off as offensive). That said, hip-hop continues to be a vital, if under-appreciated, genre from Brazil’s rich and complex music culture, and I recommend checking out any of the artists here (or any other Brazilian hip-hop artists you can find).

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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