Monday, November 13, 2006

Ready To Die

FAVELA: (Fa-vel-a) – in Brazil, an urban slum or ghetto; illegal squatter settlement.

Little known fact:
From 1987 to 2001, 467 minors died as a result of violence in Israel and Palestine. During the same time period 3937 minors were murdered in a single city on the other side of the world. That city is Rio de Janeiro, and unlike Israel, Brazil’s reign of violence and chaos has received little attention. Of course, when the conflict in the Middle East escalates, gas prices become unstable, and the victims are often middle class, educated whites. American media outlets take less interest in the poor, under-educated, mostly black victims of violence in Brazil, and these deaths never seem to have a direct effect on the American economy or way of life.
The conflict in Rio has taken place in the streets of the favelas (or ghettos) mostly as a result of drug trafficking and semi-organized crime. A corrupt and under-paid police force traffics both drugs and guns into the cities worst areas, and then they sit back and referee as the rival drug cartels battle one another for supremacy in the favelas. The drug lords and their small armies of teenaged gangsters have made the streets into a war zone, but as long as the only victims are drug dealers and other people from the favela, no one really cares. Of course when the violence spills over into the mainstream population (which not only threatens Rio’s middle class citizens, but also hurts their huge tourism industry), the police respond by imposing marshal law in the favelas and indiscriminately assaulting and murdering any one in their path, often children and women included. Conditions in the favelas are so desperate and hopeless, that drugs seem like the only escape, and the youth of the favela have few role models or organizations to identify with other than a corrupt and brutal police force and the drug cartels. It’s no wonder, that so many of the boys in the favelas are hoodlums before they are 12 years old, trying to prove themselves worthy of becoming a drug dealer.

Amidst all this suffering and chaos comes a very inspiring story about some young citizens of the favelas that decide they had seen enough drugs, violence, and police brutality. Describing themselves as “warriors for peace”, these young people are using non-violent demonstration mostly through music, dance, and other performing arts to show the youth of the favelas that there is an alternative to joining the drug cartels. The movie Favela Rising is a documentary that follows the “AfroReggae” movement and its impact on the Vigário Geral favela, one of Rio de Janeiro’s worst slums. The film makers tell most of the story from the perspective of one of AfroReggae’s biggest heroes, Anderson Sa, a young man who was fast on his way to becoming a drug dealer when he crossed paths with the then fledgling organiazation known as Grupo Cultural AfroReggae. The group had recently been started by a local DJ and resident of Anderson’s favela named Jose Junior after a terrible act of police brutality in Vigário Geral left the favela at the brink of cultural collapse. Citing the “Shiva Effect”, that out of chaos new life can be born, Grupo Cultural AfroReggae seized the moment and began using the one thing they understood, music, to recruit youth away from the suffering of the drug trade. They formed a music group called Banda AfroReggae that focused on drumming but also fused reggae, hip-hop, and the Brazilian genres of samba, carioca, funk, and axé, and primarily performed free concerts in the favelas. Shortly thereafter, Grupo Cultural AfroReggae started a newsletter that focused on music, but also talked about the social conditions in the favelas as well. I don’t want to give away the entire storyline of the movie, but needless to say, what started out as a handful of young men with no money, no resources, and no idea how to fight violence, has blossomed into a full fledged NGO with both intrinsic support from world tours and CD sales as well as extrinsic financial support from several private sector foundations and the Brazilian government. I HIGHLY recommend you rent/buy Favela Rising. It’s one of the most inspiring things I have seen in a long while.


After watching the movie, I have two brief commentaries to make.

First, I could not help but reflect on how powerful the medium of music is. Much of the music that Banda AfroReggae performs is political and social commentary told lyrically through the very fitting musical vehicle of rap and hip-hop. As I listened to these young men perform songs that express their experience of ghetto life as well as inspire young people to avoid the pitfalls of poverty, I was provoked to both awe and frustration. I’m awed by how influential their music is and what it has done for their community, but frustrated by what has become of American hip-hop, which by in large seems to have sold out for fame and money. Perhaps, I’m being hard on the American artists. It’s really what the radio stations promote, and who the record labels choose to invest in that dictates what becomes “popular” music. And record labels and radio station are in business to make money. Hip-hop went from being a genre of music to a culture, and as the dominant youth culture it has a tremendous effect on the consumer choices that American youth make. Twenty years ago, when Def Jam was just signing Public Enemy, hip-hop had a relatively small audience, and the artists who were socially conscious where some of the most popular in business. Today Def Jam is run by Sean Carter (aka Jay-Z), who is perhaps the quintessential commercial rapper. While his talent is undeniable, his songs and music videos often sound like a rapid fire product placement campaign, and last week I saw that he kicked off his “unretirement” album release with a new Budweiser commercial…afterall, it is the king of beers.
As I shake my head in disgust, I say to myself, how can we form a grassroots movement here in the US to help our youth to realize their potential. We have more financial resources for community programs than Brazil, so why can’t we see the value of captivating the hearts and minds of America’s youth by promoting artists that inspire kids to invest in themselves…not in consumer products. The sad fact is that this is a capitalistic society where sustaining consumerism is more important than sustaining civility, and many people benefit by keeping America’s youth ignorant and uninspired, as long as they remain good consumers of things they do not really need. The sad fact is many of these artists are endorsing consumerism and products for free. They don’t even realize they are being used. (In 50-Cent’s P.I.M.P. video, the opening scene features 50 scrolling through his Ipod for a song…probably an endorsement that he was not paid very much for, if at all. Makes you wonder exactly who is being pimped) So instead of having artist use their influence for social advancement, they use it to convince us all that we need jewelry, rims, champagne, trendy clothes, and sneakers. But hip-hop still has its edge, and if we attain all those things necessary to keep it real, we still must be ready to kill or die if someone disrespects us and steps on our sneakers.

Which brings me to my second comment. Hip-hop artists often claim that they are prepared to die. Both Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. are good examples of artists whose lives were intertwined with violence, but both stated that they were psychologically prepared to die. (Biggie’s first album was entitled Ready to Die.) The question is this: Ready to die for what? When watching Favela Rising, it becomes clear that the young people who stand up to drug dealers and the police on behalf of the community are placing themselves in harms way to be positive role models in their community, and it is clear that they are “ready to die”. But this is the ultimate act of love for your community, to risk your own money, time, and even your life to see things change for the better for your neighbors. On the contrary, our American hip-hop culture is training a generation to be prepared to suffer for no other reason than to “keep it real”. Instead of acts of love, hip-hop culture promotes acts of avarice. Young boys in Brazil are learning to measure themselves by social conscientiousness, responsibility, and artistic creativity. Meanwhile, our young boys are measuring themselves in don’t-give-a-fuck-ditude, irresponsibility, and all creativity is buried in the desire to achieve the carbon-copy image of urban success (i.e. does your chain hang low?).

I was so totally inspired by this film to see what happens when just a minority of individuals stands up for their beliefs. Instead of being ready to die on the streets selling drugs, these Brazilian “warriors for peace” are ready to die on the streets offering the gift of life and freedom from psychological enslavement. Even though conditions and circumstances seem impossibly desperate, they stood up and continue to stand for an ideal of peace and community that one day the favela can be a place where people want to live. They are ready to go to the grave, because they realize that the cause is bigger than their lives.

Maybe we in America could be as commited to an ideal as Grupo Cultural AfroReggae. Tupac said he was committed to thug-life to the grave, but was the “ideal” of thug life anything worth dying for. I fear that Tupac and many of America’s youth suffer from a misguided idealism that has caused them to strive for the very thing that keeps them enslaved mentally. Carter G. Woodson summed it up so eloquently in his book The Mis-Education of the Negro:
"If you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a person feel that he/she is inferior, you do not have to compel him/her to accept an inferior status, he/she will seek for it. If you make a person think he/she is a justly outcast, you do not have to order that person to the back door, that person will go without being told, and if there is no back door, the very nature of that person will demand one."

Many American youth today are demanding a back door. Their thinking is controlled and their imagination is held captive by forces that seek to keep them mentally imprisoned. They are perfect and predictable consumers who are ready to die to maintain their self-imposed slavery. They are ready to kill too, but there is no need to worry, because they will be too busy trying to kill each other…to ever stop to direct their violent tendencies toward their oppressor.

But Grupo Cultural AfroReggae shows that it does not have to be this way…A handful of young people were ready to die to make the favela a better place to live, and they have changed the course of history in Brazil. In the midst of chaos, the Shiva effect was witnessed as their movement rose out of death and destruction to form something new and beautiful like a phoenix rising from the ashes of the flame. Maybe there are a handful of young people here in America who are ready to die to see their “favela” rise too.

Your brother in life and death,

“To be ready to die, we have to be ready to live—to live with such care, humility, passion and fearlessness that the future disappears in the fullness of the eternal present. Only then will the precious time we have in this human form be able to make a real difference in this world.”
~Andrew Cohen


At Tue Nov 14, 08:39:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Wow. Well said. I'll be digesting this one for a while.

At Wed Nov 15, 07:24:00 PM, Blogger bombsoverbaghdad said...

Wow. Good stuff.

Deep stuff. You should check out TV de Gente in Brazil online. It is the first TV channel in Brazil directed towards the favelas. It just started last year.

Your other posts on spirituality are quite good as well.


At Thu Nov 30, 09:07:00 AM, Blogger Breeze said...

This definitely has me thinking this morning.


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