Street poetry groups fight prejudice about favelas in Rio de Janeiro

Marta Portocarrero
Marta Portocarrero

MC Martina fell in love with poetry when seeing Mel Duarte, a Brazilian poet, in an event in São Paulo. From then on, she understood that poetry could be an efficient way to give people a better insight into the reality of favelas in Rio de Janeiro.

At 19 years old, the braided beaming girl from Complexo do Alemão, one of the city’s largest complexes of favelas created Poetas Favelados, a collective of poets from several favelas who, for a year now, have been doing poetry slams all over Rio de Janeiro.

They act on the streets, as well as schools and public transports across the city. Through their rhymes, they unveil their daily struggles and fights against violence, racism, unemployment and inequality. By doing so, they are simultaneously portraying favelas and peripheral areas of Rio as important cultural hubs, where art is made by creative young people.

“When we get on a bus we want to show poetry to someone who doesn’t know what is a poetry evening, who’s never been to a poetry event”, says MC Martina. “We want to touch people, to wake them up. We have this motto that everyone can be an MC, they just need to wake up for poetry.”

Following the path of the Brazilian hip-hop wave of the 1990s, they are not acting alone. There are several other youth groups operating in Rio, forming a movement which has been growing in the city. The difference now, though, is that they act as leaders, a role that before was mainly reserved to older people or foreigners.

Marcus Faustini is the founder of Agencia Redes para a Juventude, a network that helps young people from favelas turn their ideas into impactful projects. Over the last 20 years, he’s witnessed a change in art interventions across the city.

“We are looking at the first generation of young leaders from peripheral areas who are taking hold of their territory.”, he said. “When occupying public squares and streets, they are vocal about current issues and break the stigma of the poor naive people they are usually described as.”

Andrea Bak, 17, started writing when she was a child. At first, they were love poems, until she saw the first poetry slam taking place on the street and decided to write her first militant lines.

Her friend Pedro Muniz, 20, lives in São João de Meriti, a favela in Baixada Fluminense, in Rio’s peripheria. He’s more into rap: “At around 15 years old, when I understood that poetry could also be rap, I started taking it more serious”, said the poet who organised poetry battles to bring culture to his fellow residents in São João.

Andrea, Pedro, Poetas Favelados, among others, can be everything but naive. Born and raised in a favela, they know its dynamics by heart, the internal and external conflicts, its residents’ worries and joys. They are proud of their origin.

Their rhymes are sharp, yet beautiful. They expose racist homicides, domestic violence, unemployment, elderly’s poor living conditions, casting a light on the data Brazil tries to hide.

Ecio Sales organised FLUPP, a literature festival for the peripheria of Brazil and worked closely with different poetry groups in Rio. He describes their poetry as “more comfortable” to hear than TV news on the same issues, therefore widely accepted.

“People like MC Martina are a reference in the street poetry scene in Rio. By organising poetry slams and competitions in public places they are disseminating knowledge”, he said.

“Brazil is an unusual country/ On the fashion runway Miss Brazil/ Below, misery”, reads one of their poems. Helped by social media, their message is powerful, with video views on Facebook hitting 100,000.

When invited to TV shows and different events in Rio, they have a chance to mingle with higher social classes and show that favelas’ residents are as capable as the rest of society.

Bringing culture to the favela

“The government says that we are nothing, that we don’t have potential to do anything”, said Al-Neg, who founded Poetas Favelados with MC Martina. “With our poetry interventions, we not only show the art of the favela to the outside world but we also show people from favelas that they can do something meaningful too”.

For Andrea, the best feeling about being a street poet is to witness a change within the favela: “It’s a great feeling to see people from the favela taking part in the slams and children starting to be more conscious about their surroundings and growing up to join our movement”.

For Jorge Barbosa, director of Observatório de Favelas, a social organisation dedicated to the political propositions on favelas, this narrative needs to be changed: “We can’t look at favelas from the perspective of the underprivileged, but rather as a place of great potential. [These young people] are valuable inputs to art and economy and they do it in deep unequal conditions.”

Taking the example of Complexo do Alemão, 20,000 of its 69,000 residents are young people aged 15-29 years old. According to a project started by Mr Barbosa that maps cultural organisations in favelas in Rio, in Alemão there are 110 organisations in which a lot of this youth are involved in. The majority relates to music, followed by cinema and audiovisual.

“These young people are invisible to our society, but they are doing amazing things. Art and culture are their way to claim the city and have their rights respected”, he said.

Breaking the stigma of violence in media

Numbers don’t lie. According to Fogo Cruzado, a digital platform that monitors shootouts in Rio de Janeiro, between July 2016 and June 2017 there were 5,345 shootings in the city. This represents an average of fourteen shootouts per day.

As a result, 1,425 people were wounded and 1,349 died, among civilians and police forces.

Rio de Janeiro is, in fact, a violent city, with favelas and peripheral areas registering a big part of the incidents.

However, despite being a reality, it seems to be a recurrent angle across media outlets.

“Poor people live and media write about it. It’s a commodity for Brazilian media to represent favelas as spaces of violence and lack of resources. International media buy into the same narrative”, said Mr Faustini.

Precisely to oppose this tendency, Lana Souza founded Papo Reto, a collective working to defend Alemão residents’ human rights and sharing accurate news from the favela.

Over the course of last year there were 227 shootings in Alemão, and in 20 of which someone died, according to Fogo Cruzado.

Having lived in Alemão for whole her life, Lana says that while shootouts are heard very regularly - there was exchange of fire on 71 of the first 90 days of 2017 -, they still feel unnatural for the residents of the favela.

“Sometimes you have big shootouts that force everything to stop, but the majority are smaller ones. We stop for ten or twenty minutes and then resume our daily lives, go to work or go to school”, she explains.

She thinks that media are exaggerating and, consequently, installing a narrative of fear that pushes people away from favelas.

“When media say that Complexo do Alemão is dangerous, they are talking to the outsiders, to the people who don’t travel around the city, because we know it’s not like that”, she said.

“These pieces [that portray violence] are often written by journalists who don’t live in this reality. They then need to listen to other sources, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they choose the right ones either”, she said adding that the favela is “as dangerous as any other part of the city.”

With his lyrics, Pedro tries to explain a complex social reality that is often associated with violence and drug trafficking: “A lot of people have a distorted idea of favelas, they think it’s all about drug trafficking.”

“There’s a lot of that, but not only. There are people who want to be poets, footballers, teachers, but sometimes they need to support their families and they have no other way of doing that but to deal drugs… because the access to education is also bad. We try to show all these dynamics.”

By portraying themselves as a powerful, Poetas Favelados are slowly breaking this narrative and helping change prejudices around favelas, line by line.

“These kids are good and know how to seduce their audiences”, said Mr Sales. “They might not solve the problem, but they are definitely strengthening the fight against the system. This movement is important.”