FEMINISM IS FUN

Singing of sex and life on the streets, Brazil’s female funk stars are fierce and feminist

With their frank lyrics, the pioneering women of Rio’s funk scene are redefining what feminism sounds like.

At first sight, there is seemingly nothing feminist about Carioca funk, the electronic dance music coming out of Rio de Janeiro’s poor favelas. Nearly all the songs sung by women are of the sexually explicit, sometimes violent funk putaria variety – hardly empowering.

At least, that’s what I thought when I began my post-doctoral research into the genre in 2008. From my white, middle-class perspective, the salacious lyrics were an expression of machismo, borne of Brazil’s patriarchal society. I understood this type of music, along with the artists’ suggestive performance styles and outfits, as objectification of women that further subjected them to male power.

I couldn’t have been more off base. In truth, by singing frankly about sex and life on the streets in the first person, Rio’s female funk singers are bringing the rough realities of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods to mainstream audiences and emboldening a new generation of young female artists.

The Rocinha neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro where favela life inspires funk lyrics. (Credit: Pilar Olivares / Reuters)
The Rocinha neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro where favela life inspires funk lyrics. (Credit: Pilar Olivares / Reuters)

Favela funk

I was at my first participant-observation session, attending a favela dance party, when I spotted the samba school rehearsal yard full of sound equipment. A woman’s voice blasted in my ears.

It was the group Gaiola das Popozudas, and the lead singer, Valesca, was wailing to the deep beat of the electronic drum: Come on love/beat on my case with your dick on my face.

I thought: it’s not by chance that this is the first sound I’m hearing on my very first day of fieldwork. There is something I have to learn from these women, certain personal certainties I need to deconstruct.

Valesca Popuzuda is the first Brazilian funk artist to publicly call herself a feminist. (Credit: Circuito Fora do Eixo/flickr, CC BY-SA)
Valesca Popuzuda is the first Brazilian funk artist to publicly call herself a feminist. (Credit: Circuito Fora do Eixo/flickr, CC BY-SA)

A product of Brazil’s African diaspora, funk music (which bears little resemblance to the more globally familiar George Clinton variety) began to appear in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1990s, with original lyrics written in Portuguese. Over the past decade, artists have taken to adapting foreign songs with invented new lyrics, rather than translating the original songs.

With the dawn of songwriting contests at funk parties, young fans became MCs, penning lyrics that talked about the slums where they’d grown up and declared their love for partying and for other pastimes available to poor black youth in Rio de Janeiro.

Back then, there were few women on the stage. When they did perform, female artists, such as the 1990s idol MC Cacau, often sang about love.

An important exception was MC Dandara, a black woman from the streets who saw breakout success with her politicised Rap de Benedita. This old-school rap centred on Benedita da Silva, a black favela resident who was elected to Congress as a Workers’ Party representative, only to be treated with massive prejudice by the mainstream press.

Play

Even Dandara’s stage name was deeply political: Dandara was a warrior woman who was one of the leaders of Brazil’s Quilombo dos Palmares runaway slave settlement, which in the 18th century grew into an abolitionist organisation.

By the turn of the 21st century, male dominance of funk was being challenged as more and more female MCs came onto the scene. The pioneer MC Deize Tigrona, who hailed from one of Rio’s best-known and most dangerous favelas, City of God, was a housemaid when she first made her name singing funk.

Her songs are erotic but jocular. One of Deize’s first hits was Injeção, in which a shot she gets at the doctor’s office becomes a ribald reference to anal sex (the refrain: it stings, but I can take it).

Around the same time in the early 2000s, another City of God resident found fame by singing about sex and pleasure from a woman’s standpoint. Tati Quebra Barraco was black, like Deize, and she challenged prevailing Brazilian beauty standards singing, I’m ugly, but I’m in style/I can pay a motel for a guy.

Funk goes feminist

Affirming fame, money and power, Tati became one of the most successful women in funk. Together, she and Deize ushered in what later became known as feminist funk, influencing a generation of budding female artists in the favelas.

Brazilian funk diva Tati Quebra-Barraco in 2005. (Credit: Paolo Whitaker / Reuters)
Brazilian funk diva Tati Quebra-Barraco in 2005. (Credit: Paolo Whitaker / Reuters)

Soon, the artist Valesca Popozuda became the first funk performer to publicly call herself a feminist. Valesca, who is white, picked the stage name Popozuda, which refers to a woman with a big behind (a physical trait much appreciated in Brazil).

Since leaving her band, Gaiola das Popozudas, to launch a solo career, Valesca has become known for explicit lyrics that outline what she likes to do in bed – and not just with men, either.

With songs that evince support for LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) people, among other marginalised communities, her defence of female autonomy is clearly political. In Sou Gay (I’m Gay), Valesca sings, I sweated, I kissed, I enjoyed, I came/I’m bi, I’m free, I’m tri, I’m gay.

Play

Valesca has become an icon of grassroots feminism for speaking out against prejudice of all stripes. On other tracks, she has spotlighted issues important to working-class and poor women in Rio de Janeiro.

Larguei Meu Marido, for example, tells the tale of a woman who leaves her abusive husband and finds that he suddenly wants her back now that she’s cheating on him (as he used to do to her). Live on stage, when Valesca calls herself a slut, the ladies in the crowd go wild.

Following in the footsteps of these pioneering artists, today many female funk artists sing about an ever-widening variety of topics. The industry still has gender issues, though. Women may have broken through as stage talent, but they are still scarce as funk DJs, entrepreneurs and producers. Men run things behind the scenes.

That will surely change, too. Nothing is impossible for these Brazilian women who, immersed in a deeply patriarchal society ruled by conservative Christian values, found the voice to scream to the world: this pussy is mine!, translating into the language of funk the core feminist slogan: my body, my choice.

Adriana Facina, Anthropology Professor, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Decoding the symbolic threads and badges of one of India’s oldest cavalry units

The untold story of The President’s Bodyguard.

The national emblem of India; an open parachute and crossed lances – this triad of symbols representing the nation, excellence in training and valor respectively are held together by an elite title in the Indian army – The President’s Bodyguard (PBG).

The PBG badge is worn by one of the oldest cavalry units in the India army. In 1773, Governor Warren Hastings, former Governor General of India, handpicked 50 troopers. Before independence, this unit was referred to by many titles including Troops of Horse Guards and Governor General’s Body Guards (GGBG). In 1950, the unit was named The President’s Bodyguard and can be seen embroidered in the curved maroon shoulder titles on their current uniforms.

The President’s Bodyguard’s uniform adorns itself with proud colours and symbols of its 245 year-old-legacy. Dating back to 1980, the ceremonial uniform consists of a bright red long coat with gold girdles and white breeches, a blue and gold ceremonial turban with a distinctive fan and Napoleon Boots with spurs. Each member of the mounted unit carries a special 3-meter-long bamboo cavalry lance, decorated by a red and white pennant. A sheathed cavalry sabre is carried in in the side of the saddle of each trooper.

While common perception is that the PBG mainly have ceremonial duties such as that of being the President’s escort during Republic Day parade, the fact is that the members of the PBG are highly trained. Handpicked by the President’s Secretariat from mainstream armored regiments, the unit assigns a task force regularly for Siachen and UN peace keeping operations. Moreover, the cavalry members are trained combat parachutists – thus decorating the PBG uniform with a scarlet Para Wings badge that signifies that these troopers are a part of the airborne battalion of the India Army.

Since their foundation, the President’s Guard has won many battle honors. In 1811, they won their first battle honor ‘Java’. In 1824, they sailed over Kalla Pani for the first Burmese War and earned the second battle honour ‘Ava’. The battle of Maharajapore in 1843 won them their third battle honor. Consequently, the PBG fought in the main battles of the First Sikh War and earned four battle honours. Post-independence, the PBG served the country in the 1962 Indo-China war and the 1965 Indo-Pak war.

The PBG, one of the senior most regiments of the Indian Army, is a unique unit. While the uniform is befitting of its traditional and ceremonial role, the badges that augment those threads, tell the story of its impressive history and victories.

How have they managed to maintain their customs for more than 2 centuries? A National Geographic exclusive captures the PBG’s untold story. The documentary series showcases the discipline that goes into making the ceremonial protectors of the supreme commander of the Indian Armed Forces.

Play

The National Geographic exclusive is a landmark in television and is being celebrated by the #untoldstory contest. The contest will give 5 lucky winners an exclusive pass to the pre-screening of the documentary with the Hon’ble President of India at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. You can also nominate someone you think deserves to be a part of the screening. Follow #UntoldStory on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to participate.

This article was produced by Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic and not by the Scroll editorial team.