If you’ve ever been on TikTok, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a viral Brazilian funk song. Usually accompanied by rapid, choreographed dancing, full swag and considerable skill, this music genre has a complicated history, rooted in Brazilian working-class Black communities.
The genre’s origins are in dispute, but most sources claim Brazilian funk arrived in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s, initially as a variation of American soul music that became popular in the South Zone of the city.
“It was in the late 1980s and ‘90s that the Brazilian funk we know today started being made in Rio’s favelas (working-class neighborhoods),” explains Raquel Moreira, assistant professor of Communication Studies at Southwestern University and author of the book “Bitches Unleashed: Performance and Embodied Politics in Favela Funk.”
Brazilian funk started changing in the late 1980s, eschewing it’s American soul roots and transforming into a fully Brazilian sound through sampling of Miami-based music. The introduction of electronic drums – key to the genre even today—by DJ Malboro in his 1989 album, “Funk Brasil,” consolidated the genre as a Brazilian sound. From then on, marginalized people, mostly working class, Black, and brown, commandeered the genre.
“Brazilian funk has gone through so many transformations, and now, it's not an imported beat anymore,” Moreira said. “It is fully hybrid, but also indigenous, and it’s an African diasporic genre.”
She added that tiny makeshift studios in Rio and other cities continued to insert variations to the genre depending on the region: São Paulo, Recife, and Rio de Janeiro all have their unique versions of Brazilian funk.
The 90s were golden years as acts like Claudinho and Bochecha dominated radio time. One song that signifies the spirit of Brazilian funk, and is still played today at funk parties in Rio, is Cidinho and Doca’s “Rap da Felicidade.” The song is a challenge to police brutality and surveillance in Rio de Janeiro, where young Black working-class people are still met with fatal police raids and violence. “Rap da Felicidade,” which translates to “Joy Rap,” demands the right to be happy and safe in the favelas and to experience peace and leisure in a working class, Black and brown space.
“Funk is political because in a (place) like Rio, where the safety and security of the white middle class comes at the expense of Black life, it’s political to respond to society with mockery, with joy, with dancing, breaking rules of propriety [and] gender and sexuality.”
Brazilian funk is a tool to communicate the desires, demands, and feelings of the Brazilian Black working class, but the genre is also a target of discrimination, stigma and criminalization. At the beginning of samba in the 1800s, police forbid Black people from playing the drums that were the foundation of the genre. Similarly, local authorities now forbid funk parties in some low-income communities. In the 1990s, police and media began associating the genre with drug trafficking, just like hip hop was stigmatized in the U.S.
“What few people understand about Brazilian funk is that, through this genre, artists talk about the reality of low-income communities in Brazil, one of the most vulnerable parts of the Brazilian population,” reveals an article on Nova Brasil FM. “Additionally, funk is a tool young people have found to talk about themselves, their desires, and their day-to-day lives.”
The history of Brazilian funk is a history of Black joy and how it challenges white supremacist systems in Brazil. Today, funk artists continue to make songs and videos about pleasure, leisure, and joy, and they use social media to spread their message. Music company, Heavy Baile, produces many visually stunning videos while keeping production close to the genre’s roots. The video for “Ciranda” by Leo Justi and Goes, for example, shows talented dancer Neguebites dancing to a Brazilian funk beat and lauding the streets of his favela—busy people, smiling faces, litter, and all.
“I think favela funk is an expression of Black joy and, I want to say, resilience, even though I dislike that word,” Moreira said. “Folks are creative, and they are self-reliant when it comes to producing art, and it's amazing that despite this context of violence, folks are still able to create and enjoy favela funk.”