3:AM Brasil: Culture is Our Weapon
3:AM: How did this start, what first aroused your interest in AfroReggae?
PN: I met them through my friend Luke who runs an NGO in Rio called Luta Pela Paz. It was 2001 and I was researching a book about hip hop around the world and, after months swimming in the sea of hip hop materialism, I was desperately looking for an inspiring story of music as catalyst for change. Meeting Junior was like a breath of fresh air.
3:AM: You’re principally a music writer but to what extent did the human rights situation in Brazil weigh upon your mind before publishing this?
PN: To be honest, whatever my feelings about the human rights situation in Brazil, I don’t necessarily think I’m a person qualified to write about it. What excited me about the AfroReggae story, therefore, was that it gave voice to people who don’t often get heard. Frankly, who cares what an Englishman feels about Brazilian human rights? It’s much more interesting and powerful to hear from those who are actually living in the midst of the problems. And one thing that repeatedly struck me talking to kids stuck in the ever decreasing circles of opportunity that the Rio favelas can be was how smart and politically astute they were — they knew what was wrong and they often had a pretty good idea what to do about it, but very few organisations empowered them in any way. AfroReggae, however, was one such organisation.
3:AM: The New Internationalist review, which was mostly positive, especially against Favela Rising as a cinematic counterpart, suggests that the book suffers from an organisational weakness in not listing some basic statistics about AfroReggae. Do you accept this?
Also, placing it alongside Favela Rising is an obvious move, but what did you make of that film? Again, do you accept some of the criticisms levelled against it that it was a flashy and romanticised version of reality in Rio, such as editing the slum of Vigario Geral to be next to a beach it wasn’t actually anywhere near?
PN: I’d not seen that review before. To be honest, I’m sure the statistic it says is missing (how many centres working with how many people) is there, so I think that’s their mistake.
As for Favela Rising? I very much enjoyed it. I met Jeff Zimbablist (one of the film makers) and liked him a lot. The fact is that the film is trying to do something different from our book… Favela Rising is telling a story that highlights the issues of the Rio favelas in an impressionistic way. True, it’s not always absolutely accurate, but I think that’s excusable. Our book, on the other hand, was very much intended to give the facts and I think that’s what it does.
All that said, the further you get away from pure reportage, the more editorial decisions you have to make and the more the material is shaped by you. Personally, I wouldn’t dare to take such liberties with the facts, even though I believe that the editorial decisions taken by the makers of Favela Rising were justified. At the end of the day, they represented the work of AfroReggae honestly in a format that will reach many more people than our little book ever will and, for me, that’s the important thing.
3:AM: You were clearly impressed with what you saw in Brazil but do you think the principles or the organisation behind Afro-Reggae are transferable to other poor countries?
PN: It depends what you mean. I think that due to the changing nature of media/ information exchange, it’s now more likely than ever that people in difficult situations that are frequently exoiticised in the Western world can recognise and benefit from the value of their own cultural capital. This is, I think, one of the most interesting things about AfroReggae — they have recognised the value of their product (both locally and internationally) and retained control of its exploitation. This idea is certainly transferable. That said, AfroReggae’s other great skill, of course, is in their detailed knowledge of the specific local situation in which they work.
3:AM: Finally, you released both a novel and a non-fiction work in the same year, do you feel at ease as a multi-faceted author? Which Brazilian authors do you rate? Do you think we’ll ever see Brazil referenced in any of your fiction?
PN: Ha! I’m not sure how multi-faceted I am. I did write a novel and a nonfiction book in the same year, but it almost killed me. I’m really a novelist. Nonfiction is much too hard as there’s no room to make it all up when you get stuck. I end up writing nonfiction only when it’s something i care passionately about, whereas I seem to have fictional stories available almost on tap.
Brazilian authors I admire? I’m afraid I can’t answer that. I haven’t read enough Brazilian literature to make comparative judgements without sounding like an arsehole. Likewise referencing Brazil in fiction – no comment! I’m afraid I never know quite what’s coming.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Zan was born in Santo Andre on the outskirts of São Paulo in 1978 before moving to London several years ago. She is editor of 3:AM Brasil.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, July 11th, 2007.