'Only hip-hop can save us'
Will Hodgkinson talks to the Brazilian rapper who is helping the City of God escape its cycle of violence
In 2000, the rapper MV Bill embarked on a tour of Brazil's shantytowns. A resident of the notoriously violent Cidade de Deus ("City of God") favela on the outskirts of Rio, Bill spent the next two years talking to teenagers from the slums about their hopes and frustrations. Out of the hundreds he spoke to, 16 stood out as being particularly articulate and interesting. Bill shot documentary footage of each one and collected their stories for a book on favela life, called Pig Head. Today, all 16 of those teenagers are dead.
"I was doing something no reporter could ever do," says Bill - whose real name is Alexandre Barreto - when I call him at his flat at the City of God. Bill's community was made famous by the 2002 film of the same name, which catalogued the increasingly violent effects the emerging drugs trade had on Brazil's shanty-dwelling poor through the 1960s and 70s. "When I go to the shantytowns to speak to the kids, I'm one of them, so they are completely honest with me. What struck me most was the hope that they all had. I had barely got back to Rio when I started receiving calls from the mothers of the teenagers to tell me that their children had been killed. My next project was to film all of the funerals. How can I be just another rapper going 'yo yo yo' after that?"
At a time when American hip-hop is becoming a spent force, the rest of the world is waking up to the transforming power of rap. "In the beginning, American hip-hop was great," says Bill, who started rapping in 1988 aged 12 after seeing the LA gangs drama Colors. "But because record companies were scared of the political content and ghetto commentary of bands like NWA and Public Enemy, they injected rappers with so much money that all they can talk about now is money - or female degradation. The record industry has emasculated hip-hop in America. But at the same time, hip-hop has become the art form for the underdogs of the world."
It's certainly hard to imagine an American rapper putting most of his time and money into setting up shantytown youth clubs, as Bill has done. His Cufa organisation has provided basketball courts, computers and audio-visual equipment to give favela-dwelling teenagers an alternative to drug dealing. The guest lecturers at the City of God's Cufa headquarters include the football legend Ronaldo, who has pledged half of his earnings for key matches to the initiative, and the music superstar Caetano Veloso, who spent last Christmas giving talks on how to make soundtracks for films.
Bill is both a ghetto hero and an establishment threat in Brazil. His first single, 2000's Soldiers of the Favela, came with a video that featured Bill standing alongside well-known drug dealers, and he was prosecuted for "publicly condoning crime" as a result. At a festival in 2004 he produced a gun on stage, before laying it down on a table and covering it with a towel to represent the fact that people inside the favelas want an end to violence as much as those outside of them.
"In the beginning, it was very difficult because people didn't understand what I was doing," he says. "I was dismissed as just another favela thug."
To understand Bill, one has to come to grips with the desperate situation in Brazilian society. It is one of the most racially mixed countries in the world, yet 90% of the people killed through drugs-associated violence are black. On the beaches of Rio people of all colours and backgrounds intermingle, but the favelas throughout the city are no-go zones for non-residents. In 2004 a bill was proposed in parliament to put up a wall around one of the biggest favelas in Rio, so that the stray bullets from the gang fights would not pose a threat to the wealthy inhabitants of nearby condominiums. And the violence gets more severe each year.
Paradoxically, Bill believes that the film that brought the world's attention to the crisis in the Brazilian favelas has made the situation worse. "City of God didn't portray life here properly," says Bill. "Most people in the community did not see the film because they can't afford the cinema, and the ones that did see it didn't like the fact that it showed only the negative side of life. It suggested that everyone in the favelas is black, violent and ready to be judged."
The film also did irreparable damage to the community because of the associations it brought. "After the film came out, people from City of God would go into town for their jobs as maids and cleaners as usual," says Bill. "Their bosses would sack them when they discovered that they were from somewhere so horrible." Bill's first assignment for the attendants of Cufa's audio-visual club was to borrow some cameras and make films about their lives, and he shows excerpts from these as a backdrop to his performances. "I'm not a film critic, but I can see a reality in them that I didn't see in City of God," he says.
The savagery of the deaths of Bill's teenage interviewees brings home the fact that Brazil is a country slipping into civil war, with young, nihilistic and increasingly powerful drug traffickers in control of the favelas on one side and a corrupt, underfunded police force on the other. Bill believes that it is only when the violence goes beyond the ghetto and into middle class life, as it has been doing in Rio, that authorities take note.
Meanwhile, with two albums under his belt, dates around the world and a tour with the Fugees, MV Bill is becoming a spokesman for the very people who pose a problem for Brazil's authorities.
"The people are crying out for a change in their circumstances, and yet all the authorities can talk about is restoring order," says Bill. The community needs rebuilding over long periods of time, and people in the shantytowns need to be given opportunities. For people without education such as ourselves, only hip-hop has the power to transform our situation."
· For more information on MV Bill visit realhiphop.com.br/mvbill/