Hip hop in the City of God: Rapping for Social Change

Beyond being a mere genre of music, hip hop poses as a network of social movements that have built solidarity among marginalized groups throughout the world. According to United Nations Habitat studies, hip hop has surfaced as the primary global cultural vehicle for advocating social justice and as a prominent voice for urban youth. Curiously, hip hop also carries political weight as it simultaneously is a product and a rejection of globalization.

Considering hip hop's ever rising political significance it is fitting that the nation's capital played host to Hip Hop in the City of God: Rapping for Social Change. The thought provoking event was held on Friday, April 11, 2008 at the National Geographic's headquarters and consisted of video clips, conversation, and a live performance. The evening celebrated the launch of National Geographic's Emerging Explorers' Sol Guy and Josh Thome's TV series 4REAL which debuts overseas on the new Nat Geo Wild and Nat Geo Music channels. The show brings high profile celebrities such as Cameron Diaz, Joaquin Phoenix, Mos Def and Flea of Red Hot Chilli Peppers together with blossoming social change leaders around the world.

For the panel discussion, the two 4REAL filmmakers were accompanied on stage by Brazilian hip hop artist MV Bill (and his translator) and hip hop pioneer and founder of Public Enemy, Chuck D. The highlight of the night was listening to MV Bill's story. MV Bill, a native of Cidade de Deus (City of God)-a notoriously dangerous favela (ghetto) in Rio de Janeiro, raps about omnipresent problems that Brazilian youth face in favelas. These include violence, drug trafficking, prostitution, family neglect, and racism among several others. As MV Bill emerged as a hip hop hero in Brazil his pursuit of social justice intensified. He recognized the need of doing more than just music to advocate his cause. Though being a hip hop star in Brazil was not nearly as lucrative as being one in the US, MV Bill, with the help of the moderate wealth and fame he gained through playing concerts, was able to invest in what he refers to as Brazil's greatest riches- human kindness.

After purchasing two video cameras and a laptop, MV Bill set out to visit other favelas around the country to record the daily lives of disenfranchised Brazilian youth. Out of the 17 boys that he interviewed for the purpose of the documentary titled "Falcon: Boys of the Drug Trafficking Trade" only one remains alive today, two years after production. The burials of these children are shown in the film. After being in the works for eight years the film became an overnight sensation when it aired on one of Brazil's most popular cable networks in 2006. The film shed light on the harsh and seemingly distant realities of favela life and moved Brazilian society to reflect on itself.

In addition, MV Bill has co-authored three books and co-founded the CUFA (Unique Center of the Favelas) an internationally renowned NGO that strives to empower Brazilian youth living in slums. At the center, the children learn reading, writing and computer skills along with essential hip hop skills such as music recording, graffiti, break dancing, and video production. Since the center receives no financial aid from the government, it is fueled entirely by volunteer work. MV Bill has received several prestigious awards for his social change work. Despite the honor, he insists that the prizes simply remind him to keep pushing for social justice.

Witnessing first hand the amount of mutual respect that Chuck D and MV Bill have for one another as well as their sense of duty was moving. The unity on display was also a welcome change from America's current hip hop scene, where feuds, excessive flashiness and boasts of being the best rapper have become the norm. When asked what role Public Enemy played in his development as an artist, MV Bill emphasized that Public Enemy's music spoke to him even though he did not know any English and that the images of PE's videos resonated with the ones that he encountered in Brazilian favelas. Chuck D offered high praise for MV Bill's communal work and even compared his cultural importance in Brazil to that of Bob Marley's in Jamaica.

After the panel discussion, MV Bill and his fellow band members performed a few songs in Portuguese. Their energy and set which featured MV Bill along with a female vocalist, a drummer, and a violinist reminded me of that of the Legendary Roots Crew. MV Bill's militant like delivery on the mic complimented his endearing soft-spoken tone that he exhibited throughout the conversation portion of the evening. Judging from the audience's applause, dancing, and cheers, Chuck D and MV Bill's assertion that music transcends language barriers rang true.

Friday night showcased a refreshing alternative to the hip hop that currently plagues American radio airwaves and music videos. The lone disappointment of the night was the fact that Chuck D did not perform. Nonetheless, the auditorium was buzzing with positive energy, the conversation was stimulating, and the message was delivered loud and clear. The occasion served as a firm reminder of the power of hip hop as a dynamic cultural tool that can do away with the obstacles of language barriers, bridge people and create social change.

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