Brazilian rap lovers want to create Rio’s first ‘Hip-Hop Plaza’


Snoopy Crioulo, a 26-year-old rapper from Rio de Janeiro, recites a few lines, accompanied by MC Mingau, who beat-boxes a rhythm.

Genocide in the ghetto. Covered up by the state.

A sea of tears on the faces of the poor.

We discover it’s impossible to believe,

In a system that closes our schools and kills our children.

Snoopy isn’t rapping in a club, on a stage or on a street corner. He’s in the ornate back chambers of Rio’s city hall. He’s here along with a group of MCs, DJs and activists trying to convince the city to take a historic step.

The activists want lawmakers to designate a public square in downtown Rio as an official “Praca de Hip-Hop,” or “Hip-Hop Plaza.” As they see it, a square being rebuilt in the Sao Cristovao neighborhood is their opportunity to claim a space dedicated to the New York-born genre they say saved them.

“We want to have a walk of fame, like they have in Hollywood, where famous artists can put their handprints and sign the pavement,” said Sergio Leal, known as DJ TR, a hip-hop aficionado from the City of God neighborhood. “Those five fingers represent the five elements of hip-hop: breakdancing, graffiti, DJing, MCing and knowledge and culture.”

These raptivists envision a plaza with spaces for graffiti and breakdance, as well as a concert area where a committee could hold regular events and festivals.

For young people in Rio’s crime-ridden favelas, there are not many legit career options.

Bruno Rafael, an event producer, credits hip-hop with saving him from a life of crime and violence. He's also from City of God (Cidade de Deus). If you haven't heard of it, the area lent its name to an acclaimed 2002 movie that made favela life look even harsher than the toughest 'hoods of America's hip-hop birthplace, the Bronx.

Related: Residents in Brazil's notorious City of God are 'scared to death' of US shootings

The genre gave youths like Rafael and Leal a channel for their frustration, and goals to strive for, they said. Leal described how it helped them learn discipline and teamwork, and got them involved in political activism. He said hip-hop is an international family that should be recognized as a key element of contemporary black culture in Brazil. More young people in favelas could benefit from the positive messaging some hip-hop brings, he added.

“Young people need to study this, because they don’t know, they don’t realize that hip-hop is a culture that can rescue them,” Rafael said.

Hip-hop activists at Rio city hall to push for recognition.

Hip-hop activist Sergio Leal, left, met with officials including Rio city councilman Joao Mendes de Jesus (middle, wearing a suit) to move along their push for recognition of the genre.


Will Carless/PRI

The city of Rio has a history of providing public space for art and music. The most notable example is probably downtown’s Cidade de Samba, or Samba City, set up for practicing the traditional Brazilian dance music for Carnival. Several of Rio’s squares are also (officially or unofficially) named for different musicians, most of them Brazilian but some international, like Michael Jackson Square in the Santa Marta favela.

But Leal says the real inspiration for the hip-hop plaza in Sao Cristovao came from thousands of miles away, in the New York City borough of the Bronx.

“I saw that earlier this year they named a street in the Bronx ‘Hip-Hop Boulevard,’” he said. “That seemed like a cool idea — to have a space that recognizes the value of hip-hop to the city’s culture.”

The activists have hooked up with Rio city councilman Joao Mendes de Jesus. Mendes, a former church minister, authored the city’s official “Hip-Hop Law” in 2012. The statute recognizes hip-hop as “a popular cultural and musical movement of the city of Rio de Janeiro.”

Mendes is confident he can convince other city lawmakers to go ahead with the designation and to work with activists to design the square to their liking. But he cautioned the process could take as long as a year.

Leal is happy to wait. And despite Brazil’s financial problems, he’s optimistic the city will stump up the cash to create a square that will make Rio’s hip-hop community proud.

“They already have the budget and the materials to build it,” he said. “They can use that concrete to build something really cool.”

Related: Gold medal winner is just one hero in Rio’s tough City of God