RIO DE JANEIRO — It was long past 3 a.m. and revelers were still trudging up and down the narrow steps and winding alleyways to what was essentially a hip-hop block party, in a Rio de Janeiro favela. The monthly event, called Black Santa, was staged near the summit of the Prazeres favela, on a hillside above central Rio.
At the party, Renato Cantanhede, 22, said he had dropped out of law school to concentrate on his burgeoning career as a rapper. “Today, hip-hop is what is happening in Rio,” he said.
This party was the visible evidence. When it began in Prazeres in 2012, just a few hundred gathered in a little square to watch local rappers and break dancers. At recent events, organizers said, 3,500 paid 65 cents to see DJs play hip-hop and soul music from Brazil and the United States.
Rio’s youth are increasingly looking to the most exportable American culture of recent decades: hip-hop. Across the city, amateur open-microphone sessions are staged most nights. YouTube videos by Rio rap artists such as the group Cartel MCs can attract millions of views. Adherents say this street culture, with its DJs, break dancing and graffiti, offers more outlets for expression than samba and bossa nova, which were created in Rio but offer little space for the anger and frustration that young rappers yearn to communicate.
“It is growing in Rio because of the idolizing of American rappers and wanting to look like them,” said Raysa Guerra, 20, an administrative technician with Black Santa. “All the sneakers, hair.”
Her friend Wesley Neiva, 28, a seven-a-side soccer player, said it was because hip-hop connected to Afro-Brazilians like them. “It is because of the black influence,” he said.
Despite its racial mix, Brazilian society is split along complex social and economic lines. Even the world-famous Carnival offers VIP areas for those who can afford them. Rio’s grass-roots hip-hop movement reverses that socially divisive logic. Black rappers who grew up in favelas such as Prazeres share stages with white Brazilians from the cocooned upper-middle classes. A black American culture is bringing a sort of unity to young Brazilians who rarely mingle so easily with one another.
Prazeres has an armed police base, installed under what the authorities call a “pacification” policy. Gunfights broke out in nearby pacified favelas in May as rival gangs battled one another. Diego Luniere, a member of a rap collective called Nectar Gang, was killed in the crossfire.
Black Santa’s organizers said the urban music makes sense in Brazilian “ghettos” such as this one. “We couldn’t understand why there was no hip-hop in the favela,” said Igor Amoro, 28, one of eight local men who organized the event.
Aspiring rappers said hip-hop offers them expression and the possibility of a career. “I live by rap. I sell CDs and do shows,” said Everson da Costa, 21, from nearby Belford Roxo. His lyrics, he said, reflect daily life in his suburb — a low-income, high-crime pocket on the edges of Rio’s endless urban sprawl. “Prejudice. I talk about politics. Drugs. The reality I live,” he said.
His friend Andre Felipe, 21, a rapper called MC Deek, said rap offers an “escape valve.”
“Rap shows a lot of reality — the bad reality — that samba does not show,” he said.
There were few women in the group. “A woman needs courage to stand up and take the mike,” said Mariana de Nazaré, 18. Her friend, rapper Talita Rocha, 17, said she had so far performed only one tiny “pocket show.”
“Rap is macho,” Rocha said.
Hip-hop first emerged in Brazil in the low-income outer suburbs of Sao Paulo in the 1980s. Rio produced its own rappers, but a definite groundswell of support for the music among Cariocas, as Rio natives are called, has been building in the past few years, just as the focus on Rio’s more famous urban music genre, called “funk,” has shifted to Sao Paulo.
A network called the Carioca Rhyme and Poetry circuit, which began organizing open-mike events in Rio in 2010, was a catalyst, and the music and style increasingly caught the imagination of Rio’s youth.
“It has become a fashion,” said Raphael Duarte, 25, a rapper who discovered hip-hop through break dancing and runs a weekly open-mike session in the Complexo do Alemao favela. Duarte cited the success of veteran Sao Paulo rapper Criolo, transformed into Brazil’s first mainstream hip-hop star by a 2011 hit album, as an inspiration. “For me, he is a musical reference,” Duarte said.
His favela was taken over in a military operation in 2010. But pacification is a tenuous concept, and violence repeatedly breaks out between the police and drug gangs.
“Sometimes you can’t have something here because a gunfight is happening,” Duarte said, talking in a small square on a recent evening. Three officers from Rio’s military, or street police, walked past, holding automatic rifles high. The drug trade continues, Duarte said, in nearby alleys. “The traffic is not good. The police are not good. What I can offer is something good — rap,” he said.
The cracks in Rio’s favela pacification policy are a recurring theme for the city’s rappers. Luis da Silva, 27, a rapper called MC Oz from the huge Rocinha favela in South Rio, used a cellphone chat application to share photos that were circulating in his community after a day of gun battles followed a recent police operation. One showed bullet casings piled in an alleyway; another, a grimacing teenage boy, holding a pistol, with a bullet wound in his belly.
The favela was supposedly pacified in 2011, but this had ended neither the drug trade nor the violence. “It is worse than it was before,” da Silva said. This directly affects the music he makes when not working as a sushi chef. “The way I throw poetry on the beat is almost always aggressive. I can’t dry out what I live, inside the community and outside.”
One attraction of the music is its sense of rebellion, another its profanity. “Rap does not need censorship. You can say what you want. You can talk about drugs, about sex, about anything openly,” said Bernardo Romero Neto, 32, a rapper called Ber MC with the Cartel MCs who previously studied law. “There are no rules.”
Hip-hop’s culture of transgression offers a career path to Brazilians like him, who can capitalize on another of the genre’s central creeds: that making money is good and success is to be celebrated.
“I did not go to university. I have a middle-class standard of living,” said Stephan Peixoto, 23, son of the Rio rapper Marcelo D2 and one of three rappers with the group Start Rap who have transformed a career as teenage rappers into adult success. Thousands turned up for an album launch show the group put on in April. But Peixoto wanted more. “Now I’m fine, but I want to do better," he said.