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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.