How a Neighborhood in Rio’s Periphery of Duque de Caxias Is Reawakening Through Hip Hop

Família Lantapana, a monthly event in Duque de Caxias, promotes hip hop culture

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Originating among African-Americans in protest of the exclusion promoted by dominant economic and cultural systems, the hip hop movement easily won over Brazilian communities in the mid-1980s—ten years after taking off in South Central L.A. Each peripheral region had a group or solo artist who advocated for equality, freedom, and unity, as the “king of soul” James Brown would say. In its genesis, hip hop was protest music. It’s no coincidence that Chuck D, Public Enemy‘s messianic leader, labeled rap “The Black CNN.

As a form of artistic expression that typically combines urban fashion, graffiti, and rap performances (rap is an English acronym for “rhythm and poetry,” which over the years has gained a Portuguese adaptation, “rep” for “ritmo e poesia”), in addition to battles between MCs, hip hop has undergone several transformations. It acquired new clothing styles and musical textures, began to be consumed by all classes, came face-to-face with both Brazilian funk of humble origins and “ostentatious funk,” flirted with artists outside of the genre, and in the end, became a factory of hits. Hip hop now operates in a “new-old” context as yet another form of resistance—this time, back in its own communities (again).

The discussion group hosted by the Lanatanpa Family project, a monthly event in the Pantanal neighborhood in the periphery of Duque de Caxias, in Greater Rio’s Baixada Fluminense—is the second initiative of its kind. The first, in Lagoinha—in the periphery of Nova Iguaçu—was developed alongside martial arts and other sports programs to gain legitimacy due to a certain distaste on the part of the more conservative Pentecostal churches that believe that hip hop “is for criminals.”

“Here, we don’t have a problem with them [evangelicals], but I’ve heard disapproving comments about this type of music, the clothes and all. I would like for them to better understand what is happening, how the project works, and what our true intentions are. This is a cultural necessity—an exchange of information that we see as most urgent. It’s what young people wanted. It’s what the neighborhood needed,” says Juliana Maia, one of the founders of Lanatanpa.

Hip Hop Is Not a Crime

Indeed, there are efforts to demystify the prejudice surrounding young people who participate in the gatherings. For example, at events organized via social media, it is common for the organizers of Lanatanpa (an anagram of Pantanal) to explicitly position themselves against the consumption of illicit drugs, even creating memes for this purpose. There is a repurposed refrigerator that serves as a miniature library where the exchange of books is free and encouraged. Since its creation in 2015, the sociocultural project has sought to bridge health, education, art, and knowledge through hip hop. The group also collects donations such as clothes and nonperishable foods for some of the lowest-income residents in the area.

In a roundtable discussion tackling environmental issues, Diana Rodrigues—a literature teacher and trans woman—and Wallace Oliveira, an ethnic relations researcher at the Celso Suckow da Fonseca Federal Center for Technology Education (CEFET), explored contemporary issues that are central to the subject. One such issue, environmental racism, should feature more prominently in discussion in the near future—especially in view of the agenda of President Jair Bolsonaro, who appears to be attempting to morph environmental issues into ideologically slanted taboos.

Other discussion topics included green business, urban mobility, sustainable consumption, and organic and family farming. On the latter topic, Rodrigues admitted to being unfamiliar with local initiatives in the Baixada Fluminense, which is quite symptomatic of the issue at hand. The existence of the Farmers Market cooperative in Nova Iguaçu was brought up in conversation—a group formed exclusively by rural farmers and sponsored by the Pastoral Land Commission, an entity linked to the Catholic Church with a focus on rural areas. The largest environmental issue in Duque de Caxias—perhaps in all of the Baixada Fluminense—was also raised during the discussion: the Jardim Gramacho landfill, which continues to receive truckloads of waste even after being deactivated.

Where There’s Flow, There’s No Trap

After the group discussion, the time came to turn up the bass groove and fire up the music. DJ in position, it’s time to have fun. The crowd is diverse. There are graffiti artists, artisans, poets—and breakdancers, of course. The setting is Praça do Sossego, a lively place in the community on the weekends. Kiosks selling french fries, açaí, barbeque, and other treats skirt the surroundings. In the middle of the square, the scene is divided. On one side, the MCs warm up, spitting their rhymes. On the other side, a group of Catholics armed with microphones sing praises and hymns and announce evangelizing activities to the crowd.

We took the time to swap ideas with Anderson Maia, Lanatanpa Family’s intellectual mentor. A refrigeration technician by trade to make ends meet, he said he had the idea to create a cultural project along the lines of Livrar—an initiative by the artist MC Marechal, founder of Knowledge Battleswhich became an attraction at the Rio Museum of Art (MAR) in Praça Mauá, in the Port Region of the city. Different from traditional MC battles in which the exchange of versed “insults” on pre-recorded beats prevails, as a way to test participants’ ability to improvise (freestyle) and the creativity of their rhymes, in the Knowledge Battle, participants engage in a process of collective reflection as they tackle daily issues such as human rights, violence, racism, education, sexism, etc. In other words, the target of insults becomes the system itself.

Maia explains how this changed his life: “It affected me in such a way that I felt almost obligated to do something for my community. I was raised with hip hop and I wanted to share this with the young people of Pantanal. When we go to the North Zone or Lapa, we almost always need to worry about several things, including our safety. This distance mobilized me to create Lanatanpa Family.”

Who joins and helps to create the movement? We spoke to a few artists to hear their stories. One of them, MC Coman, says he was an avid evangelical churchgoer in the neighborhood. Due to a physical disability resulting from an accident, he tried to regain his self-esteem through faith but ended up disillusioned. “People from church started making fun of me. I knew there was an event called the 5th Rap Free Jazz Battle in Praça do Galo, over there in Parque Fluminense [in Duque de Caxias]. I already liked the style and there, I channeled all of my anger into rhymes. People saw that I was upset by what had happened and wanted to get to know me better. They called to find out how I was doing. I found a greater sense of belonging in the hip hop movement than in church,” said Coman.

He takes the opportunity to reveal a sort of artistic and conceptual fissure within several hip hop groups from abroad. Coman says there are two types of rappers: those who advocate for “flow”—that is, they are concerned with the fluidity with which the lyrics meld with the rhythm of each verse—and those who belong to the “trap” category, a less lyrical style in which musicality prevails over verbiage.

Marilza Barbos—an activist from the State Front for De-Incarceration, the Baixada Fluminense Network of Mothers and Relatives of Victims of State Violence, and Grita Baixada Forum, as well as a resident of Pantanal—says she is surprised by the results achieved by Lanatanpa Family thus far. She went from being an admirer to a supporter of the project: “I love the organization. They have an infrastructure, which comes from the collaboration of several local people. In a unique way, Lanatanpa helped occupy a space that always belonged to the church or pagode musicians. They demonstrate the importance of promoting and supporting cultural diversity. Hip hop is a [cultural] manifestation of the people!”

This article was written by Fabio Leon and produced in partnership between RioOnWatch and Fórum Grita Baixada. Leon is a journalist and human rights activist who works as communications officer for Fórum Grita Baixada. Grita Baixada is a forum of people and organizations working in and around the Baixada Fluminense, focusing on developing strategies and initiatives in the area of public security, which is considered a necessary requirement for citizenship and realizing the right to the city. Follow the Fórum Grita Baixada on Facebook here.