Five Defining Moments in the Career of Racionais MC’s, “Brazil’s Public Enemy”

The tumultuous history and enduring influence of São Paulo’s formidable rap quartet

Klaus Mitteldorf

If any city made sense as a landing point for hip-hop’s global migration from the South Bronx, it was São Paulo. The heaving metropolis, a savage city of contrasts, takes the notion of a concrete jungle to the extreme. The largest city in the Western Hemisphere, São Paulo’s 12 million people cram into a Manhattan-style vertical spread across a horizontal sprawl befitting Los Angeles, with high rises as far as the eye can see in any direction. The lighter-skinned rich sequester themselves in the choicest neighborhoods near downtown, an endless loop of gated condominiums, helipad-equipped office towers and luxury shopping malls. The darker-skinned poor endure grueling two-hour journeys from favelas on the outskirts of town to toil as waiters, parking valets and security guards. Frustration occasionally boils over in the semi-tropical heat, and overcrowded commuters torch buses to a char with alarming regularity. Not for nothing is Sampa, as it’s affectionately known, more brutally called the “city of walls.”

In 1988, Racionais MC’s stepped into this urban nightmare. Comprised of MCs Mano Brown, Ice Blue and Edi Rock alongside DJ KL Jay, the quartet from the rough hood of Capão Redondo on São Paulo’s south side came to call themselves “the four most dangerous black men in Brazil.” Inspired by early American rap imports like KRS-One and N.W.A, and nursed by ’70s Brazilian funk and soul legends like Jorge Ben and Tim Maia (whose 1975 LP Racional inspired their nom de guerre), Racionais – Rational – MC’s quickly emerged as luminaries of the nascent Brazilian rap scene, which had its home base on Sampa’s mean streets.

Racionais MC’s - Panico na Zona Sul

Appearing on the Brazilian rap breakout compilation Consciência Black as well as the lead single on their 1990 debut release Holocausto Urbano, “Pânico na Zona Sul” (Panic on the South Side) launched Racionais into the public consciousness. With a goal to “tell the reality of the streets,” the hit offered a localized interpretation of the social realism that infused American rap in the 1980s. In a society with ironclad myths of racial equality, Racionais MC’s’ embrace of US racial politics – that black people are oppressed by white supremacy – was controversial, if not heretical.

Nearly 30 years later, the group is older and wiser but still remarkably active. Between studio and live recordings, Racionais MC’s have seven albums under their belt. They continue to play live, and not just plush stadium gigs: In 2011, they rocked Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, at a concert paid for by notorious drug lord Nem. With millions of copies sold – numbers that easily quadruple if accounting for black market copies – Racionais MCs are unquestionably the most seminal figures in the history of Brazilian rap.

Their road to stardom was not without speedbumps. Racionais rose to prominence during the tumultuous 1990s, a decade marred by runaway inflation in the Brazilian economy, an impeached president and a gruesome prison riot. Along the way, they found their tell-it-like-it-is message of police brutality and racial prejudice created friction with the powers that be, even as it conquered the hearts of fans nationwide. What follows are five key moments on that trajectory.

From Public Enemy to Public Schools (1991-1992)

In September 1991, three São Paulo soundsystems, all promoters of so-called bailes black (black balls) that played predominantly US funk, soul and hip-hop, pooled their resources to bring Public Enemy to the city for their Brazilian debut. The New York rappers’ two-night stand generated major media coverage from the lighter-skinned establishment, especially since Brazilian music critics had declared the group racist in their reviews of Fear of a Black Planet a year earlier. As the daily newspaper of record, Folha de São Paulo, declared in its headline: “Public Enemy stages racist terror on new LP.” Upon arrival, the papers reported in bold print on details as mundane as the group’s decision to switch hotels for one with bigger beds. Flava Flav made headlines in a pre-show interview when he said that Brazil was no different than apartheid South Africa, and later called favela life “unbelievable” and much worse than US ghettos.

The idea of protesting against racial injustice came slowly, but the first step was when we began listening to Public Enemy.

KL Jay

The soundsystems were accustomed to taking over gymnasiums and rec centres for the bailes black, but for this attention-grabbing booking they set up a temporary stage on the track and field center in Parque Ibirapuera, something like São Paulo’s Central Park. The pair of weekend shows was a can’t-miss moment for the burgeoning rap scene in the city, which already counted on over 70 groups repping the city’s peripheral neighborhoods. “The entire universe of rap and hip-hop personalities in São Paulo was there for those two nights,” recalls Márcio Macedo, who attended the concert as a teenager and is now a sociologist who studies Afro-Brazilian culture.

No surprise, then, that Racionais MC’s was in the audience. In 2013, they told Rolling Stone Brasil that on the first night, Mano Brown hopped a fence to get closer to backstage. Before security could kick him out, he started rapping in earshot of Chuck D. With the help of an interpreter, the New York rapper realized he had a budding Brazilian talent in front of him, so he extended an impromptu invitation to open for them. Brown rallied the other three members and one of the most enduring legends of Racionais’ run was born when they opened for Public Enemy.

The onstage pairing earned them a designation as “Brazil’s Public Enemy,” a comparison that has endured throughout their career. When Spike Lee came to the country to film a documentary in 2014, he interviewed the group and made the same proclamation.

“The idea of protesting against racial injustice came slowly, but the first step was when we began listening to Public Enemy,” said KL Jay in a 1996 interview. “We read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. We began reflecting: Who is responsible for our problems? How did our people live in the past? We studied the history.”

The next year, Brazil was horrified by the Carandirú prison riot, where 111 inmates, mostly black and poor, were killed when police stormed the São Paulo penitentiary. The incident would haunt Racionais MC’s’ later work.

Racionais MC’s - Voz Ativa

Meanwhile, they released the EP Escolha o Seu Caminho (Choose Your Path), which further channeled Public Enemy. On the opening track, “Voz Ativa,” Mano Brown affirms that “the black youth now have an active voice.” Racionais’ connection with black youth also earned them a part in an experimental initiative by the city’s Department of Education. “RAPensando a Educação,” a play on words to suggest “rethinking education,” invited Racionais MC’s into public schools to talk about racism, police violence and the drug trade. While the topics were depressingly familiar to students in the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods, the effort showed that some mainstream forces in Brazilian society were willing to embrace a new form of cultural expression that the elite didn’t fully understand, much less appreciate.

Arrests at Rap no Vale (1994)

Four days before Christmas of 1993, Racionais MC’s finally dropped a proper full-length album, Raio X Brasil. Lead single “O Homem na Estrada” paid homage to Tim Maia, sampling “Ela Partiu,” a track on the album that served as the group’s namesake. But it also inflamed tension with security forces, especially with lyrics like “I don’t trust cops, fuck the police.”

Still, the album sold briskly, some 400,000 copies by the end of the year. Racionais MC’s were on a meteoric rise. Three singles were among the top ten most requested on São Paulo’s FM stations, when just three years earlier locally-made rap was so underground that it couldn’t be heard on the radio at all. In April, they landed on the cover of the weekend magazine published by Folha de São Paulo, which feted the group for having led rap’s crossover from São Paulo’s rough-and-tumble periphery to the chic clubs in the city center. In a lightning-round interview, Mano Brown’s response to the word “police” was: “If they do anything against Racionais, they’re messing with the masses.”

Racionais MC’s at Rap No Vale

That provocation got its test on November 26, when Racionais MC’s headlined the inaugural Rap no Vale, a first-of-its-kind rap festival in downtown São Paulo’s Vale do Anhangabaú, an outdoor plaza popular for concerts and demonstrations. As soon as the group launched into “O Homem na Estrada” and sang their Public Enemy-derived line, police officers mounted the stage, engaged in a tense standoff, and ultimately took the rappers away in handcuffs. They were accused of inciting crime and violence. The audience didn’t take the shutdown lightly and began throwing rocks at the cops onstage. A few shots were fired – it was unclear by whom – and five people were injured.

A police representative told MTV Brasil, “It was because of the music he was singing, the lyrics,” adding, “The police is here to guarantee the show’s safety.” Released a few hours later, Mano Brown protested that the arrest “disrespected freedom of expression.” Leftists sprang to his defense, with columnist Maurício Styker citing the arrest as part of a wave of “neoconservatism” in São Paulo and city councilor Arselino Tatto calling it an example of “disrespecting constitutional rights.”

“Diário de um Detento” and Video Music Brasil (1997-1998)

The millennium was approaching its end and the situation in São Paulo remained grim. The city claimed the third worst homicide rate in the Americas and youth unemployment hovered at 30%. In Capão Redondo, Racionais MC’s stomping grounds, a resident was 12 times more likely to be murdered than in nicer parts of the city. Onto that tinderbox, Racionais MC’s threw a firebomb: Sobrevivendo no Inferno (Surviving in Hell).

Sobrevivendo no Inferno put Brazilian hip-hop into speakers, headphones and car stereos from the Amazon to the Argentine border.

Released in December 1997 on the group’s own label, Cosa Nostra, the album flew off shelves in Brazil, racking up 200,000 sales in the first month and going on to pass the 1.5 million mark. While Brazilian rap – with Racionais at the forefront – had penetrated a few barriers outside of São Paulo’s periphery, where it was rabidly popular, this album put Brazilian hip-hop into speakers, headphones and car stereos from the Amazon to the Argentine border. “Sobrevivendo was a record for the entire country,” KL Jay said in an interview on the album’s tenth anniversary.

While the album continued to mimic the boom-bap rhythm and funk and soul samples that defined ’90s hip-hop stateside, as with Raio X Brasil, Racionais slipped in a nod to their Brazilian elders. This time they paid their respects to Jorge Ben with a cover of his 1975 swelling, Salsoul-esque tune “Jorge da Capadócia,” while sampling the slick piano of Isaac Hayes’ “Ike’s Rap II.”

But the album’s showstopper resurrected the tragic memory of Carandirú and became a fixture on Brazilian radio. “Diário de um Detento” (Diary of a Detainee), co-authored with a survivor of the massacre, painted a portrait of the brutal conditions inside the prison that led to the riot and, by extension, indicted the country’s prison-industrial complex. The powerful eight-minute music video spliced archival images of the dead with footage from Nazi death camps.

Racionais MC’s at MTV Brasil Video Music Awards (1998)

In 1998, Racionais MC’s gave their first performance at the MTV Brasil Video Music Awards, where “Diário de um Detento” went on to win Audience Choice (equivalent to Artist of the Year). Racionais gave their acceptance speech, mostly shout-outs and thank yous, dressed in baggy streetwear. Halfway through, the show’s host, Bahian axé legend Carlinhos Brown, interrupted them. Outfitted in a carnivalesque red bodysuit with black feathered wings, he sang a few lines from one of Salvador’s bloco afros, a Carnival street band that emphasizes Afro-Brazilian heritage.

Brazilian anthropologist Ricardo Teperman analyzed the episode earlier this year in cultural magazine Serrote. He argued that it could be seen as a showdown between two different types of black pride, between Carlinhos Brown’s embrace of African-style percussion in Salvador’s Carnival parades – a fusion of the Old World with something unquestionably Brazilian – and Mano Brown’s embrace of New York and LA-style hip-hop, holding few Brazilian signifiers beyond lyrics in Portuguese. (Teperman also noted the similarity of both singers choosing the artistic surname “Brown,” à la brown skin and, of course, James Brown.)

“But the dispute between Brown and Brown at the MTV awards show can also be understood as the presence of a conflict that distinguishes the novelty of rap, made ‘by the poor for the poor,’ from the hegemonic tradition of Brazilian music, made ‘by all’ and ‘for all,’” Teperman concluded. In other words, Carlinhos Brown’s celebration of black heritage in Brazil is inclusive – witness the Brazilians of all colors who join the blocos afros in the streets of Salvador – while Mano Brown’s is more exclusive, drawn from a bleaker interpretation of Brazil’s social reality.

As Racionais sing on “Racistas Otários,” a track from their first album, “Brazil is a country with a tropical climate where the races mix naturally and there’s no racial prejudice.” The mockingly naive line is followed by a laugh, then the punchline: “Our reasons for fighting are still the same / Prejudice and contempt are still the same / We are black, we also have our ideals / Racist suckers leave us alone.”

Shut Down at Virada Cultural (2007)

Racionais MC’s rode the success of Sobrevivendo no Inferno and 2002’s Nada Como Um Dia Após o Outro Dia. By 2007, nearly any public performance, much less a free one in downtown São Paulo, was an unmissable event. In this case, the occasion was São Paulo’s Virada Cultural, or cultural all-nighter, an annual ritual borrowed from Paris’s Nuit Blanche, where the city programs music, dance, performance art and light shows across a broad swath of downtown. The highlight event on São Paulo’s cultural calendar is often a showcase for emerging music scenes from across Brazil, as well as a chance to see popular favorites for free.

On the night of Saturday, May 5 and into the early hours of Sunday, May 6, some three million people thronged downtown’s streets. While there are no estimates for how many waited in the vicinity of the stage where Racionais were set to perform, Senator Eduardo Suplicy, who appeared onstage a few hours prior, marveled, “I’ve never seen Sé Plaza so crowded.”

After repeated promises of “Up next, Racionais!” the group finally took the stage around 4:30 AM. Just 25 minutes into their set, some fans climbed onto a newspaper kiosk for a better view. The police demanded that they come down, which very quickly started an altercation. Mano Brown at first brushed off the situation from the stage, shouting, “We’re gonna ignore the police, the party is ours!”

Racionais MC’s at Virada Cultural (2007)

But before long, they couldn’t disregard the tumult in the audience, finally pulling the plug in the midst of their hit “Vida Loka,” which reportedly had the crowd in a frenzy. As the crowd spiraled out of control, the cops fired tear gas and rubber bullets while fans responded with bottles and rocks. By 5:30 AM, many had fled into the narrow side streets off the plaza, which quickly bottlenecked and created a panicked situation. As dawn emerged, ambulances made nonstop runs to pick up the injured – there were no deaths – and the scene in the plaza resembled a warzone. Cars had their windows smashed, phone booths were vandalized, portable toilets were knocked over and fences were torn down.

“You just have to look at the past history of Racionais,” a police lieutenant told the Folha de São Paulo. “It always ends this way. But we were prepared for this to happen.” Suplicy, a leftist politician and avowed Racionais fan, called the police action “exaggerated.”

Don’t Call It a Comeback (2012)

The six years leading up to 2012 were the longest drought that Racionais fans had suffered up to that point, with no new recordings, albums or music videos following the 2006 live DVD 1000 Trutas 1000 Tretas. Both Edi Rock and KL Jay had launched solo careers in the interim, and Rolling Stone Brasil had put the band on the cover of a 2009 issue, running a lengthy interview with Mano Brown that called him the éminence grise of Brazilian hip-hop. He hinted at a possible new album ahead of the 2010 World Cup, but it never materialized. Signs suggested that the group, already 20 years into its run, was winding things down.

Racionais MC’s - Mil Faces de Um Homem Leal

Then, in June 2012, Racionais surprised the nation and dropped a single, “Mil Faces de Um Homem Leal.” The accompanying music video was their most cinematic yet, dramatizing the guerrilla takeover of broadcaster Rádio Nacional in 1969 during the peak of Brazil’s military dictatorship. The song includes a long monologue by Carlos Marighella, a Marxist revolutionary who led the left’s armed struggle after the army instigated a coup d’état in 1964 – police ambushed and killed him in November 1969.

The innovative video took home honors at that year’s MTV Brasil Video Music Awards, which also featured Racionais performing live for the second time. 14 years after their debut, the nearly 40-minute show to close out the program was considered a rousing success, cementing the group’s comeback to the Brazilian music scene. In 2014, they parlayed that goodwill into their most recent record, Cores & Valores, which Rolling Stone Brasil called the country’s best album of the year. As of March 2017, the record was the most downloaded by Brazilians on Google Play, even beating out international contenders like Adele. Racionais’ ability to captivate the Brazilian music scene a quarter-century after their first recording is a testament to their powerful music, and an even more powerful message.

By Greg Scruggs on June 8, 2017

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