Striking chord with youths, Brazil rappers nudge reform

Rap singer Mano Brown strides onto the stage in his trademark cap and jeans, cursing in his So Paulo slang. Some 24,000 fans pack a steamy auditorium for 3,000.

This could be any rap music show, but in one of the world's most violent cities, Mr. Brown and his top-of-the-charts group, the Racionais (Rationals), are creating an unusual effect.

They are making young people think twice about pursuing an all-too-common life of self-destruction.

The lyrics of the Racionais' songs touch a chord because they speak directly to young people's daily lives.

The songs don't preach. They just describe conditions in the shantytowns and let the listener find the moral.

The narrator on their latest CD describes a robbery gone awry: "No, no, I'm going to stop, change my life, and go to another place with decent people, maybe go back to school."

Onstage vocalist Brown spouts lyrics about racist police violence, the plight of street kids, and the inhuman living conditions in the city's outlying "periphery" neighborhoods.

A few days before the stage show, 11 people were killed in a drug-related shootout close by. It was yet more bloodshed in a city of 17 million that counts 13 violent deaths a day.

Bestselling group

Snubbing the talk shows, record deals, and million-dollar handshakes that have catapulted the careers of other popular Brazilian singers, the Racionais have become the bestselling act in Brazil by word of mouth alone.

Their latest CD, "Surviving in Hell," sold 200,000 copies in two weeks - an unprecedented number in Brazil - after its quiet release last January on the group's own label, Cosa Nostra. Their rebellion against "success" contributed to their fame.

And the middle class is catching on.

"When this group came out with their first CD in '93, absolutely everybody had it. It was awesome," says Cassiano Novaes dos Santos, a college student from a middle-class neighborhood.

Walking by a car whose stereo is blasting rap music, Macios Santos Silva says he and his mates in Capo Redondo, considered the most dangerous part of the city, idolize the rap groups because they "tell it like it is."

"There are so many shootings on my street that people don't even bother to go outside to see what happened," he says.

Citing violence among a few trigger-happy fans at Racionais shows, critics say that rap groups are just fomenting rebellion. But rap groups say they are trying to give kids options other than guns and drugs by teaching them to express themselves with rap and dance.

"In the neighborhood I lived in, 90 percent of the friends I had were involved with crack," says MCA of the Dr. MCs, So Paulo's second most popular group. "If it weren't for rap, I would be one of those guys selling crack on the corner or dead."

"A lot of people come to us who used to rob cars and do drugs and say they have changed because of our songs," says DJ Kleber of the Racionais.

On an earlier CD, a song cites American black separatist leader Malcolm X: "We need a leader with popular credit like Malcolm X was in other times in America, who is black down to the bones - one of us - and reconstructs our pride in what was made from ruins. Our brothers are trapped between pleasure and money; disoriented."

Once 'ghetto music'

Rappers say that, a decade ago, radio stations wouldn't touch rap songs because they were considered "ghetto music." Record companies asked them to soften their lyrics. But then the antiestablishment rap group Public Enemy burst onto the American scene. It exhorted blacks to subvert authority in their song "Fight the Power" and to shut out the media in "Don't Believe the Hype."

That helped legitimize "gangster rap" in Brazil. "The Americans did it; we watched them on TV. We thought it was cool," says Ice Blue, a member of the Racionais.

Brazilian rap groups charged ahead, "exposing" everything from government neglect of the "periphery" to racist police attacks. Many violent deaths in So Paulo are attributed in the news to armed police raids on mostly black homes in the periphery.

Detective Dirceu Gonsalves, of the military police in Capo Redondo, says the rap groups are to blame for antiauthority tensions and race hatred in poor neighborhoods.

"They are denigrating our image. They are propagating distrust in police with their antipolice lyrics," Mr. Gonsalves says. "Violence is a social problem that we all share, since the government isn't improving education, providing jobs. We [the police] are also victims."

Rappers claim the lyrics simply reflect their own day-to-day experiences.

"People think blacks from the periphery are illiterate, stupid," says Thade, considered the father of the radical rap movement here. "But you can't say this about people who haven't had a chance in life. There are still streets in this city without asphalt, without electricity. We're saying, 'Let's stop this, we have to move forward.' "

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