The best place in the world is here & now

How can internet radio bring about positive change in Rio’s de Janeiro's shantytowns? In more ways that you would think, discovers Spannered.

By Ali Wade

'O melhor lugar do mundo é aqui e agora'
(The best place in the world is here and now)
Aqui & Agora by Gilberto Gil (1977)
The man who invented the world wide web may have much to answer for, but whatever annoyances and distractions we face as a consequence, the possibilities that exist to communicate, educate, inform and unite give good enough reason not to unplug the whole damned thing and go back to reading books, writing letters and — god forbid — talking face to face occasionally.

In 2004 that man, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, said he hoped that the world would learn to use the web for “working together and resolving misunderstandings on every scale". Internet radio embodies the web’s potential for such positive social impact; and Brazilian NGO AfroReggae is set to explore new possibilities with the medium by launching the first internet radio station to broadcast from one of Rio de Janeiro's favelas (shantytowns).

Through their long-running hip hop band and 2005’s film Favela Rising, news of AfroReggae’s activities in the favelas of Rio has spread worldwide. Stopping young people from becoming entangled in Rio’s spiralling drug war lies at the heart of their work. To understand the importance of their mission look no further than this statistic:

‘Between 1948 and 1999, an estimated 13,000 people were killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Between 1979 and 2000, more than 48,000 died from firearm-related injuries in the city of Rio.’ (Culture Is Our Weapon: AfroReggae in the Favelas of Rio)

Following the massacre of 21 innocent residents by a police death squad, AfroReggae established their first Núcleo Comunitário de Cultura (Community Nucleus for Culture) in 1993, in the favela of Vigário Geral. Through running workshops in percussion, dance and recycling, they opened up new opportunities to young people living in favelas; 14 years on and they operate more than 60 social projects throughout Rio’s shantytowns, and enjoy worldwide success with their various bands and performance groups.

Conceived and built in collaboration with UK-based NGO RadioActive, BBC producer Izzy Fairbairn and a handful of volunteers, AfroReggaeDigital will make its first live broadcast from AfroReggae’s ‘nucleus’ in the favela of Parada de Lucas on 30 April. Once trained, young people who live there will be running the show, producing their own programmes and those of local and international guests.

The Parada de Lucas favela is among the most notorious of Rio's slums, and AfroReggae's nucleus nestles just inside its perimeter. As I arrive there with the radio team in the morning sun, children are playing in the street and there is little indication that 500 metres away lies the frontline in a murderous turf war — an area known here as the 'Gaza Strip'.

AfroReggae's three-story building has the appearance of one huge graffiti piece. The buzz of activity crescendos as the day progresses; there are violin classes and IT workshops, and much milling about. The radio studio now soundproofed, volunteer techie Mark Benewith lies prostrate on the floor surrounded by computer components, tinkering with the workstations that will broadcast AfroReggaeDigital to the world. In the office across the hallway, nucleus coordinator Evandro João da Silva is discussing the workshop schedules with Max Graef of RadioActive, Izzy Fairbairn and translator Ritchie Nicola. Later that day, Evandro tells me of his hopes for the project:
“This was a very interesting proposal for AfroReggae; to disseminate the institution on a global level, to have a global audience,” he explains. “When we open up and put this on a worldwide network, all of the world — if it wants to — will access it, from any computer; that person will be with AfroReggae, participating, knowing what’s going on.”

Max Graef has spent the last few years building and supporting community radio stations across the world, from Palestine to Honduras. He saw AfroReggae’s flagship band perform in London last year, and on hearing about the organisation’s work asked if they had a community station, or wanted one.

“They came back a couple of months later,” explains Max, “and said ‘well, we can’t have an FM station because we’ve had bad experiences — and the drug gangs will probably take it over, even if just to play their own music... but what about an internet radio station?”’

“At first I was a bit disappointed,” he continues, “because an FM station will affect everyone in the community; it could provide everyone with information, education, and a means to communicate. But an online station doesn’t have that facility — I mean, how many people in the community can listen to it?”

AfroReggae’s argument was pragmatic, giving three clear reasons for wanting it. Firstly the station would offer training and hands-on experience in radio broadcasting and internet technology; secondly, it would raise awareness of AfroReggae’s work and facilitate spreading the word of the communities in which they operate; thirdly, it would support AfroReggae’s efforts to build bridges between different favela communities, as Max explains:

“AfroReggae have four community centres in different favelas, and the favelas are in different parts of the city. Two of them happen to be next to each other: here in Parada de Lucas we’re next to Vigário Geral, and there the favela is run by a different drug gang.”

A bloody 20-year war has vetoed most of the interaction between Lucas and Vigário, with children from each community growing up with ingrained distrust of their neighbours. So, how could internet radio improve the situation? Max continues:

“One of AfroReggae’s aims is to rear a generation who are free from that sense of the other kids being enemies. So although they can’t just walk across into the other favela, they will be able to listen to kids here telling stories — and also they can come in and participate in a workshop in a studio, do something with these kids from here and think ‘Hey, I’m from Vigário, you’re from Lucas, and we’re going to make a radio show together’. Building links in a way that sidesteps the drug gangs — it’s through the internet that that can happen.”

With AfroReggae at the helm, the worth of the project was always destined to be greater than the sum of its computer parts. Known for making a little money go a long way, AfroReggae only undertake new ventures after carefully considering their long-term value.

But what of the station’s listening demographic? Will the friends and families of those running the station actually be able to tune in? Izzy Fairbairn, who joined forces with RadioActive to plan the project, believes so.

“There are internet centres around most of the favelas now,” she explains, “but the main way we envisage radio programmes going out to the community is via mobile phone technology. Many of the kids have phones, but don’t have the funds to use them. They can’t make calls; they can’t text or do anything like that. So they use it as a way of listening to music, just like kids in London listen to grime on the back of the bus. So we hope that by downloading content onto someone else’s phone, they will take it to a street corner where everyone sits around and listens, and via Bluetooth they can disseminate the audio.”
The project has already attracted support from DJs and musicians around the world — many high-profile guests performed for free at the AfroReggaeDigital fundraisers in London — and the team hopes international artists will regularly be joining local acts and members of the AfroReggae family in presenting weekly shows. However, the station's daily programming will remain very much rooted in the local community, relaying favela life to the world and promoting a much-needed interchange of ideas and perspectives.

Nucleus coordinator Evandro has always lived in Lucas. He seems reluctant to talk about negative aspects concerning favela communities — something Brazil’s media finds little difficulty in doing. I ask about the war with Vigário, and if he thinks there will ever be a solution. He tells me how, for 18 days in 2004, AfroReggae instigated a ceasefire and staged Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, plus films, capoeira and other activities on the Gaza Strip “to break the ice a bit”.

“If we managed to do this over those 18 days, we can do more,” Evandro says, “I think that further ahead, with efforts from here and from there, talking to one another — I think we can do it. Today we go there, people from there come here — we already have some access.”

The ceasefire typifies how AfroReggae use their respected position within Rio’s complex social system to forge crucial channels of communication between the favela communities, criminal factions, police, politicians and media. Through diplomacy, discussion, training and education they are able to break down some of the barriers that keep the city fiercely divided. But connecting favela communities with society outside in the asfalto [Rio’s paved ‘non-favela’ areas] and vice-versa is not easy when a mutual fear of the unknown exists.

“In the minds of those who do not know the outside, everything there is dangerous,” says Evandro. “The different signifies danger, so it is more comfortable to keep within one’s own community.”

Although other NGOs operate within Rio’s favelas, Evandro believes that none have AfroReggae’s strength and resolve to achieve better social integration.

“We have this mission to build a bridge between the favela and the asfalto, the asfalto and the favela, of promoting an integration between these two poles — because the world is not only here, there is a world outside as well. There are spaces that we can explore; there are libraries, cultural spaces, there are cinemas, there’s art, there’s culture; another universe exists beyond this one.”

Now with AfroReggaeDigital offering Lucas a permanent link to the rest of the world, a new force exists to bring these universes closer together.

 Footnote: It is with huge sadness that we have learned of the death of Evandro João da Silva. Evandro was the victim of a violent mugging in Rio's central district in October 2009. Our deepest sympathies go out to Evandro's family and friends, and all those who worked alongside him through AfroReggae.
carlos c.h posted 29 April 2007 (05:40:05)
interessante, valeu!! c
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