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Rap from Rio de Janeiro's favelas is causing a stir

Trap de cria is the fresh sound of Rio's favelas, an offshoot of Atlanta-style trap that speaks to day-to-day struggles

Vitor Oliveira, known as 'MC Piloto', right, reacts as Willian Santos 'DJWillTrap' edits one of his tracks at his recording studio in the Rocinha slum of Rio de Janeiro, Photo via AP
Vitor Oliveira, known as 'MC Piloto', right, reacts as Willian Santos 'DJWillTrap' edits one of his tracks at his recording studio in the Rocinha slum of Rio de Janeiro, Photo via AP

First, Vitor Oliveira sold the ground floor of the bare-bones brick building he constructed near the top of his sprawling favela in Rio de Janeiro. Then he sold one of two second-floor apartments. Then his car.

It’s all for the music—for trap de cria, a new kind of hip hop that evokes gang life in Rio’s favelas.

Oliveira, 31, plowed the proceeds into constructing a tiny recording studio and editing room in the building’s final apartment. He returns there from his job -- driving his motorcycle taxi up and down Rocinha, one of Latin America’s largest slums—to work at churning out 18 tracks and accompanying videos.

Trap de cria (rough translation: “homegrown trap”) is the fresh sound of this and other favelas, and remains largely unknown outside of them. Featuring a lyrical flow over synthesized drums, it is an offshoot of Atlanta-style trap and speaks to the day-to-day struggles of hardscrabble hoods.

Except most of these rappers aren’t actual gangsters, though their millions of YouTube viewers wouldn’t know it from their videos that show them flaunting what appear to be real guns in working-class neighborhoods dominated by drug traffickers.

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Homegrown trap’s bravado at times appears harmless dress-up, and at others aspirational glorification of a life in crime. The artists grew up beside boys who became lookouts, runners and enforcers for gangs. Some are still friendly.

“Our weapon is our voice, our ammunition is our lyrics,” Filipe Toledo, who raps as Lidinho 22, said as he popped a magazine into a plastic airsoft gun. Then he aimed its muzzle at the camera. “Boom.”

Not everyone is a fan. Last year, Rio police launched an investigation into a video by Marcos Borges and Ivens Santos, 22-year-olds rapping under the names MbNaVoz and Dom Melodia. Police are looking into how they obtained SUVs and whether real guns were used. The clip has been viewed 4 million times.

Brazil’s civil police said that Borges and Santos face accusations of inciting crime and association with drug trafficking, and could be indicted for illegally carrying firearms if it’s confirmed they were real.

“Freedom of expression has a limit, and the limit is when a crime is committed. We understand a crime was committed,” police detective Allan Duarte told television channel SBT. “We cannot let children idolize these people who carry guns and practice crimes.”

Borges looks the menacing part: He has an Uzi tattooed on his neck. But he dismisses official criticism.

“We have to portray what we live,” he said in an interview, as he smoked marijuana. “We can’t sing about a woman walking Copacabana’s sidewalk or skateboarding if we didn’t live that. I go out of my house and see crazy stuff all the time. You got me? That’s how it is in the favela.”

Borges said they organized the shoot the same day as an illegal street race, and participants loaned them cars. He said they used airsoft guns, and doing otherwise would be idiotic.

The Associated Press checked out guns used for music videos while reporting in six favelas over eight days, and all were airsofts, including the rifles Borges and Santos brandished for an April 11 shoot. It also featured wads of fake bills; together, the two make the equivalent of one minimum-wage income from YouTube.

They even changed the location of a shoot from a barbecue where they had planned to film, because they couldn’t afford to feed the traffickers who gathered there.

Gangs control many favelas that are home to 1.7 million people in Rio’s metro region, according to the 2010 census. Services are limited, as are chances of making it out of the favela.

“No one wants to hear kids are dying, young people are dying, that they didn’t give us opportunities,” said Thaina Denicia, 23, a former stripper who raps as Thai Flow.

Denicia doesn’t feature guns in her videos, nor judge those who do; her father was a trafficker and she grew up with crime inside her home. She wants to resonate in her cluster of favelas, Complexo do Alemao, and provide a window for outsiders who don’t know the first thing about their lives.

“I talk about the characters crime created, society created, and where we can go and who we can be,” she added.

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But popularity risks notoriety. Last year, when a rapper dissed city councilman Gabriel Monteiro, the former military police officer told his 6 million social media followers the “supposed artists” glorify crime and debase decent society. In February, a state lawmaker denounced homegrown trap’s malign influence, sharing a music video of motorcyclists brandishing rifles.

“Is this the culture you want for your children?” he asked on Instagram.

This isn’t the first music born of Rio’s majority Black and biracial communities to stir consternation. A century ago, police arrested samba musicians for as little as playing pandeiro, a hand drum.

In the 1990s, funk and hip-hop musicians had their turn. Lacking the means to record videos, musicians entertained at massive “funk dances” in the favelas, said Janaina Medeiros, a journalist who authored the book “Rio Funk: Crime or Culture?” As CDs of “prohibited funk” referencing gangs became popular, authorities cracked down on the dances.

“The whole movement was seen as an evil incarnation, like a big virus that was going to contaminate society, glamorize crime and kidnap good girls from their families,” Medeiros said.

Funk was the soundtrack of Vitor Oliveira’s adolescence, and he started making his own music. With homegrown trap, he discovered a genre more open to self-expression, and was hooked.

Not 100 feet from his studio, cocaine and marijuana are sold by young men ambling about with semi-automatics. Oliveira says he ran occasional errands for the gang, but only when desperate for cash.

There’s evidently good will. Before he shot a video on March 6, traffickers removed rings from their fingers and pulled heavy gold chains from their necks for Oliveira’s use.

Under the name MC Piloto, he has recorded 10 tracks and two videos for his 18-song project. Success can sometimes seem a distant dream, but he envisions himself dodging all pitfalls.

“You think (the state) isn’t going to worry seeing a Black man doing well in this life? Damn. It’s going to try to trip me up,” he said. “But I’m prepared to jump off.”

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