By Sibel Tinar, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Shootings related to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro are not unheard of, but the tragic incident that claimed the life of AfroReggae coordinator Evandro João da Silva last year had a completely different connection to the city’s favelas. His Grupo Cultural AfroReggae (AfroReggae Cultural Group) is a major non-governmental organization that promotes cultural and artistic endeavors in the favelas, with the objective of offering their underprivileged residents alternatives besides guns, drugs, and a life of crime, and as such his death grabbed all the headlines.
About 1.3 million people, or twenty percent of Rio’s population, reside in favelas, yet it is rare to hear the word uttered positively either in Brazil or abroad. They are the scenes for the city’s daily news stories that involve police operations, drug trafficking, shoot-outs, and corruption, selling papers and boosting ratings. Tourists and newcomers are advised to avoid the favelas, while organized tours increasingly satisfy the curiosity of the outsiders by offering just a glimpse into the lives of the thousands of residents.
AfroReggae, as an organization that believes in the transformative power of the arts, acknowledges this great divide between favelas and the rest of the city, and aims to achieve social equality by building positive bridges, largely via socio-cultural activities.
As the name suggests, it celebrates Afro-Brazilian culture and heritage, and primarily seeks to involve the young population of the communities, contributing to their development as citizens and helping them gain self-esteem and avoiding gang life.
AfroReggae started out in 1993 as AfroReggae Notícias (AfroReggae News), a not-for-profit newspaper designed to be a voice for black culture and the communities of the favelas. After a massacre that same year in Vigário Geral – a favela located in Zona Norte of Rio – claimed the lives of 21 innocent people, AfroReggae became a more tangible organization offering classes in percussion, capoeira, and African dance for its residents.
The 2005 documentary Favela Rising examines the origins and the work of AfroReggae, focusing on Anderson Sá, who helped establish the organization. Sá was once involved in drug trafficking himself, and in order to keep the favela youth away from drugs and gang violence, he saw it as essential to offer alternatives which would help them find an identity and ambition in life.
Since beginning 17 years ago, AfroReggae has reached into many other communities including Cantagalo-Pavão-Pavãozinho and Complexo do Alemão, as well as expanding its activities to include theater, graffiti, and circus arts, while keeping its main focus on the music. It has given rise to tens of bands, among which Banda AfroReggae, based in Vigário Geral, is the most well-known, and tens of thousands flock to see them every carnival.
Mixing reggae, hip-hop, and soul, Banda AfroReggae have released two CDs, enjoying great popularity after opening for The Rolling Stones in 2006 at Copacabana Beach in front of over a million people. Since then they have toured the world, carrying their ideology along with their instruments and creating partnerships and cultural exchange programs wherever they go. Now about to launch their third CD entitled Erga-se, the band continues to enjoy a full schedule including performances in Rio and around Brazil, which can be followed from their blog.
On May 26th, in a culmination of their recent work, AfroReggae will inaugurate the Centro Cultural Waly Salomão (Waly Salomão Cultural Center) in Vigário Geral, which features an auditorium, a high-tech library, numerous studios, rehearsal and workshop spaces. Crucially, the center will be open 24 hours a day, offering young favela residents free cultural activities around the clock in the hope of reducing incidence of violence and crime that tend to increase at night.