A Brazilian Rapper Delivers a COVID Reality Check

Rio de Janeiro Favelas Zona Norte

Something a little different. The story of a Brazilian rapper who hunkered down and did what he’s always done: advocate for awareness of the precariousness of life in Brazil’s favelas.

MV Bill was born in City of God, a neighbourhood on the periphery of Rio de Janeiro. This favela is a 2-hour bus journey from the affluent quarters that line the beaches of Zona Sul. Over his life MV Bill, like hordes of rappers, has riddled his lyrics with political rebukes and outcries against the dangerous lives many favelados (favela resident) are destined to follow. In a recent interview he did, however, admit he’s not naming any names anymore… too many lawsuits.


Central Única das Favelas (CUFA)

I heard of the Brazilian rapper MV Bill from a director of an NGO called Central Única das Favelas (One Favela Center) also known as CUFA. In 1999, MV Bill co-founded CUFA to create a space for Black youths to express themselves and find a reason to live.

Once the COVID pandemic hit, CUFA began participating in the Favela Mothers (Mães da Favela) project that aims at providing support to women-led households whose income has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The project handed out R$240 per month (approx. US$50), which has helped over 1.3 million families struggling in Brazil. It’s something akin to the stimulus check, on a smaller scale. In Brazil R$600 a month has been handed out by the government to those eligible and able to sign up because of COVID. This is the equivalent of half the monthly minimum salary.

The issue in a COVID-plagued world is that those that live in favelas are offered little choice to socially distance and/or make money from home.

16% of Brazilians have fixed WIFI in house, compared to 40% in UK (ITU World Telecommunication/ICT Indicators Database). Considering some families share WIFI or use office space/ co-work options, in 2019 58% of Brazilians only accessed internet via their cellphones. Though this certainly changed in 2020, this still makes remote work impossible for many in Brazil.

On top of this, in the majority of favelas, 5 family members live in the same space, often without access to drinkable water. Favela life, which is made of an ingenious Lego blocks of houses, each that slot tightly into one another, is a ticking timebomb.

Where US billionaire wealth increased $1.3 trillion during the pandemic, up 44%, imagine what has happening in developing countries with even higher levels of inequality.


Trafficking Boys

After founding CUFA in 2006, MV Bill embarked on a creative and dangerous endeavor. Filming drug traffickers in the favelas. Falção: Meninos do Trafico tracks the beginnings of the drug careers of a handful of minors. They take the position of the falcão (falcon) who watches for law enforcement, rival traffickers and other strangers that encroach on the faction’s territory.

The audience sees a downward spiral from essentially message boys, to drug users, to punishing traitors, to gang members, to the traffickers themselves. It’s devastating and the point is that it’s inevitable.

Pair this environment with fewer service sector jobs because of COVID closures. Where there is a scarcity of resources, we’ll predictably see more favela youths turning to the only stable source of income around, drugs.  


9 Generations to Leave the Favela

According to OCDE (Organização para Cooperação e Desenvolvimento Econômico), it takes 9 generations for a family to leave poverty in Brazil. That’s 300 hundred years. Social mobility in Brazil moves at snail’s pace.

With social programs like Favela Mothers, there can be hope that some burdens heavily laid on the lower social classes may be alleviated in the short-term. But in the medium-term what they need is stable access to the internet and computers with adequate training, so that those in favelas may be able to piggyback on the digital revolution and not be left behind, again.

Before the pandemic crumbles any social advance we’ve seen in recent decades, access to a fixed internet line and computer needs to be made a human right. A government benefit. A priority.


In the Favela, COVID is Different

We leave on the lyrics of Brazilian rapper MV Bill’s latest record Quarantine (Quarantena)

The streets are empty 
As ruas estão vazias 

So it has to be 
Assim que tem que ser 

Schedule a season at home if you want to live 
Marcar uma temporada em casa se quiser viver 

Only go out in special situations 
Só sair em situações especiais 

To buy items considered essential 
Pra comprar itens considerados essenciais 

In the favela, for us, COVID is different
Na favela, pra nós a COVID é diferente

The houses are not big and usually there’s a lot of people 
As casas não são grande e geralmente muita gente 

Inevitable crowding 
Aglomeração inevitável 

Some places still lack drinking water 
Alguns lugares ainda não tem água potável 

Take care there 
Se cuida aí 

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