From Favela to Fame
How did a song from the favelas make it into the advertising spot for the new Mercedes Benz luxury car? A surprising story from Rio's suburbs on how the Internet has made favela culture mainstream. Read More
The famous favela song
In April of last year, a heated discussion broke out on Brazilian social media channels: Car maker Mercedes Benz had chosen a song from a favela for the advertising campaign for its new Class A cars. The net community was stunned: is a song from a favela really the right one to sell luxury automobiles?
At least Mercedes Benz seems to have been thinking that it is.
People in Brazil live in different spheres. Those who inhabit in the richer neighbourhoods dress differently, listen to different music and shop in different places than those from the poorer areas. But the song chosen by Mercedes, “Passinho do Volante”, had overcome all these social barriers.
The first official music video by the funk band Mc Federado e os Leleks wasn’t even that successful. It was recorded with a cell phone and only got about 2 million views on YouTube, with probably most of the views coming from favela inhabitants. But that was enough to make the band become a bit more famous. With a higher budget they recorded a second video: it shows all their friends and neighbours singing and dancing behind them, in the streets of the favela – and this new music clip suddenly went viral! With almost 40 million views on YouTube by now, it was an absolute breakthrough.
Later in 2013, Beyoncé came to Rock in Rio. The concert attracted 100,000 people and was broadcast live on TV. Right in the middle of the concert, in the heated party atmosphere, Beyoncé suddenly turned around and shouted: “I got something special for you!” When she then started to perform the Passinho do Volante the audience went wild:
Favela style had gone mainstream.
How could a song from the favelas reach so many people?
The answer is simple: the Internet came to the favelas. But let me tell you the whole story.
Watch the videos on the next page!
Watch the videos: MC Federado e os Leleques - Passinho do volante
When the Internet came to the favelas
First of all, I want to take you to my home, to Rio’s Madureira suburb. It is one of the most popular residential neighbourhoods in Rio; it is two hours away from Copacabana beach and has an exciting musical life. Madureira hosts two major samba clubs and is even known as the place where the samba was born. At night, people flock to the popular black music nights and gay nights. But Madureira also hosts some of Rio’s favelas, and I grew up very close to one of them.
Once the internet came to Brazil, one of the places I ended up spending a lot of my time was in the LAN houses, the favela’s cybercafés. Brazil has a huge cybercafé culture –and I really love them, they are just great.
Brazil has a huge cybercafé culture –and I really love them, they are just great.
Teenagers turned the LAN houses into their meeting place, and we spent entire days with a huge group of children and teens in this tiny space gathered around the computers. Poor children would spend the one real they had to go online for an hour. The owners of the LAN houses generally didn’t have a permit to open a cybercafé, and since they used old computers and connected them all to the same network, internet access was very cheap. Our favourite activities were chatting on MSN Messenger, playing videogames, and using Orkut. Orkut was the most popular social network in Brazil from 2005 to 2011 and was an initiation to social media for people in the favelas.
The explosion of smartphone sales
Internet access became absolutely essential to us – and it did for the people in the favelas too. When from 2005 to 2011 the monthly minimum wage was raised from R$ 300 to R$ 545 (92.7 € to 168.7 €), the number of people online in Brazil grew by 143.8%!
But Internet access at home was still expensive, and even in 2013, more than half of Brazilians didn’t have home access. A Brazilian needs to work 5 hours a month at an average wage to pay for a 1 Mbps connection. In the USA, by comparison, it’s only about 13 minutes.
The run up to the general elections in Brazil in 2010 was the first time politicians became aware that people in the favelas had another need beyond better health care, education, transportation and basic sanitation: they wanted internet access. In the Santa Marta favela, for instance, there were approximately 1,600 computers, but only 36% of them were online.
In the first quarter of 2013, 5.4 million smartphones were sold in the country.
Hoping to be re-elected, the Governor of the State of Rio took the first steps towards fulfilling the poor population's desires in 2009. He established a free Wi-Fi zone that benefitted ten thousand slum dwellers. Still one question remained: how would they access the free Wi-Fi?
But then a new tech revolution came to Brazil: smartphones. In the first quarter of 2013, 5.4 million smartphones were sold in the country. As mobile internet is available at low prices and offers more flexible paying schemes, it has already reached the favelas too. Today one in five slums-dwellers owns a smartphone:
The Internet has finally reached the residents of the favelas.
Now let’s get back to the story of the favela song. Music has always been an outlet for the residents of low-income areas in Brazil, a way to tell their stories. And social media have become an amplifier for these stories, allowing them to be shared and heard. Suddenly, the favela lifestyle and culture could reach out beyond the borders of the favela and become mainstream. Mercedes simply hopped on the bandwagon at just the right time.
Today, music and blogs have become the voice of the favelas online. The most well-known of them is probably Voz da comunidade by René Silva, who became famous for his tweets about the police occupation of the Complexo do Alemão favela.
Music and blogs have become the voice of the favelas online.
When René tweeted about a police operation against drug traffickers in 2010, the number of @VozdaComunidade followers suddenly jumped from 180 to 30,000, and the #vozdacomunidade hashtag became a “trending topic” in Brazil. Rene’s personal twitter also went from 600 to 15,000 followers in just one day.
Other blogs that cover life in the favelas include the Observatório de Favelas, Agência de Redes Para Juventude, and Viva Favela Facebook pages.