AfroReggae

If Rage Against the Machine could drum like Ozomatli, dance like the Black-Eyed Peas and sing exuberant samba melodies and reggae tunes, America might have something like AfroReggae. -- The New York Times

AfroReggae Amidst the turbulence, the massacre, my connection to the cartel, I started to think of a better life. -- Anderson Sa

We're a group of destroyed people infected by idealism. -- Jose Junior

Through music we changed our reality. -- Anderson Sa

AfroReggae was born out of chaos. -- Jose Junior

I first came across AfroReggae at the BeyondTV International Film Festival held in Swansea, December 2006.

No, not literally, we were not that lucky to have them perform, although the night before, at a party at the Monkey Café, a café cum nightclub, Swansea's alternative music scene, we did have Llwybr Llaethog, Wales top hip-hop band perform.

No, AfroReggae were featured in a film, Favela Rising.

BeyondTV 2006, was the best film festival yet, due to the hard work put in by the guys and girls at Undercurrents. A whole series of excellent films were shown, and topping the bill Saturday night at the Dylan Thomas Centre, the climax to a week of films, was Favela Rising.

When we think of Rio in Brazil, we think of the beach, the surf, the music, the girls, what we don't tend to think of are the slums on the surrounding hills, the favelas.

There are over 600 favelas in Rio, the most notorious, Vigario Geral. It is considered the Brazilian Bosnia. Instead of falling to sleep with their mothers singing them to sleep, children fall to sleep to the sound of violence, to the sound of gunshots, of people screaming.

The favelas are a place of grinding poverty, drug dealing, violent death. For many citizens of Rio, this is their daily existence.

Between the years 1987 and 2001, 467 minors were murdered in Israel and Palestine. During the same period, in one city in Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, 3,937 were murdered.

According to UN statistics, nearly 50,000 people were shot dead between 1980 and 2000, which is four times as many as have died in 50 years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The war, between the drugs factions who control different favelas, kills most of those involved before they are 25, and many others who arenít involved at all.

A third of Rioís population, some two million people, most of whom are black, live in the favelas. Although they are permanent settlements, many on the rocky outcrops throughout the city, they are illegal. The majority pirate electricity from the national grid, schooling is bad or non-existent, and, in the absence of the state, the drug gangs reign supreme. Residents who wish to meet friends and family who live in areas controlled by other drug dealers, have to meet outside the favela, as to do otherwise is to risk being killed.

Drug dealers control the favelas. Kids look up to the narco-traffickers. It gives them a sense of belonging, status, money.

The average age of death for drug soldiers is 14 to 25 years old.

With the average wage for a poor Black Brazilian at $13/week, drug dealers are making $650/week.

Anderson Sa, founder of AfroReggae, was a minor drug dealer, educated on the streets. He witnessed drug deals, torture and killings.

The turning point in Vigario Gera was when a corrupt police chief and three of his policemen were gunned down outside a church. The military police carried out a revenge attack and massacred 21 innocent people, including friends and family of Anderson Sa.

Violence begets violence. The favela could have retaliated with revenge attacks. How was this cycle of violence to be ended? That was the dilemma that faced Anderson Sa.

It was out of this pain, that AfroReggae was born. Anderson Sa fought back with music, with culture.

At first they had nothing, no food, no money, no musical instruments. They lacked even the basic ability to play music, and had to engage the help of others to teach them how to play.

Anderson Sa turned to Jose Junior, now executive director of Grupo Afro Reggae, for help.

Initially, Grupo Afro Reggae was not a music group at all, it was a newspaper, Afro Reggae Notícias (Afro Reggae Newspaper, dedicated to black music and politics), seeking solutions, but with the intention of not engaging in violence, not seeking revenge. The newspaper relied on donations and goodwill. They had no idea what an NGO was, what a social movement was.

The music grew out of the newspaper, to use music and Afro-Brazilian culture as an instrument of social change. Because through music, you reach everyone.

The music of AfroReggae is a cross-over of reggae, Latin and hip hop, the lyrics highly political.

AfroReggae ran school benefit concerts, workshops for kids.

The workshops for the kids gave the kids a sense of belonging, the success of AfroReggae showed the kids you could aspire to something, be someone, without being a drug dealer. Funding came from an American foundation.

The city authorities asked AfroReggae to start similar projects in the other favelas, but AfroReggae said no. They said the solutions had to come from within, could not be imposed from outside. Each favela had to find their own solutions.

AfroReggae do not confront either the narco-traffickers or the police, they believe in dialogue and understanding.

AfroReggae were approached by the Ford Foundation in Brazil to see if they would be interested in leading a police oversight project for favelas. They turned it down and said no, as they knew it would cause conflict with the police. But it was not a complete no, they suggested instead that AfroReggae work with the police, build relationships with them, and in essence duplicate what they do in the favelas.

In the favelas, AfroReggae stress that they are on no-ones side, that they work with everyone. Although the work of AfroReggae in the favelas is to draw the kids away from the drug gangs, their relationship with the gangs is non-confrontational. They prefer dialogue.

On learning that a gang leader from a neighboring favela had issued a threat on his life, Jose Junior confronted the dealer. The threat turned out to be false, but he used the opportunity to speak candidly with the dealer about an ongoing war between rival gangs of the two favelas.

Universal signed Banda AfroReggae to an international record deal. AfroReggae vowed to plough all the money they earned back into their projects in the favela. 2000, Universal Latino released their first album Nova Cara.

To date AfroReggae have released two albums, Nova Cara and Nenhum Motivo Explica a Guerra.

AfroReggae shot to international fame when they fronted the Rolling Stones in their live concert on Copacabana beach, the start of the Stones world tour (February 2006). Two days later, AfroReggae were in England.

Following their fronting of the Stones concert, AfroReggae went on their own world tour, starting with three dates in England, two nights at the Barbican in London, then a night in Oxford and two nights at the Contact Theatre, Manchester (March 2006).

The tour coincided with the launch of AfroReggae's second album Nenhum Motivo Explica a Guerra.

Whilst on tour, AfroReggae took the opportunity to run workshops with local kids.

In Hackney, AfroReggae worked with the local kids to show them through their own experience that respect and achievement are not gained through guns and crime, but through hard work, self-respect and confidence in your own abilities.

Altair Martins of AfroReggae: 'Through these workshops, we declared war on violence, but instead of using guns, our weapons were music, arts and culture.'

Helga Da Cunha, year 10, Hackney Free and Parochial School: 'Being involved in Afro Reggae was more than I expected. At first I thought it was just going to be dancing and stuff, then I found out there was more to it, that their roots were involved in gun crime, and they were coming here to give us advice, and that there is a way out of such things, and that we mustn't let the situation here in Hackney get as bad as in Vigario Geral.'

The work in Hackney was coordinated by Amnesty International, and they hope to use the experience gained to run workshops worldwide as part of their gun control campaign.

At the end of the workshops, the kids staged a concert at Amnesty's Human Rights Action Centre in London to demonstrate their new found skills in drumming, theatre and acrobatics in front of parents and guests from the local area. Their performances were intermixed with talks and short films from Amnesty making the links between local gun crime and the Control Arms campaign.

The event was a huge success, the performances from the young people were stunning and it was clear that they had understood the local and the global message when, at the end of the event, they added their faces to the Control Arms million faces petition.

What AfroReggae demonstrate, is that if you want change, you do not look to the state, you look to yourselves, you do it yourselves, you control your own destiny. The state is corrupt, the politicians are corrupt, the agents of the state are corrupt. As people all over Latin America are discovering, you take control of your own destiny. [see A sense of the masses - a manifesto for the new revolution]

Anderson Sa, Jose Junior, life in the favela, the work of AfroReggae, are featured in the film Favela Rising. Favela Rising, a real life City of God, is an extremely grim film, featuring extreme violence. Out of adversity grew hope. A very moving film.

Culture is Our Weapon: Afroreggae in the Favelas of Rio by Patrick Neate and Damian Platt (Latin American Bureau) gives an insight into the work of AfroReggae and life in the favelas. A readable compliment to Favela Rising.

BeyondTV is an annual film festival held in Swansea on the south coast in Wales hosted by Undercurrents featuring the very best in activism and alternative culture.


Music
(c) Keith Parkins 2006-2007 -- March 2007 rev 3