The award winning documentary Favela Rising shows the power of music as a force for social change and how one man’s vision can save a community.

Rio de Janeiro is known for beaches, for Carnaval, for the giant statue of Jesus…but behind and beneath are the favelas, the shantytown slums of Rio.  The 600 favelas operate as their own communities, but as one resident points out, the residents’ opportunities for advancement are limited because of their zip code.

Extreme poverty rules the favelas, along with drug lords who rule through torture, murder and money. In 1993, when four policemen were killed in Vigário Geral, one of the poorest favelas, police retaliated by killing 21 innocent people. And out of this was born Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, a music and cultural movement, created counteract the violent drug industry and police oppression.

After starting a newspaper featuring hip hop and local music,  the group started a cultural center, and using traditional drumming, martial arts and dance, as well as recycling projects, recruited children and teens off the streets taught them tools for social change through self improvement and pride.  At one concert a drug lord thanked Anderson Sa,  GCAR’s front man, for keeping his little brother out of crime.

Music empowered the favela, and Banda AfroReggae was signed to Universal Music Group, vowing to put the money they made back into community projects and  expand into other favelas, taking into account what those communities needed rather than imposing an action plan. They kept these promises, and continued to improve lives in Before GCAR began, there were 125 drug lords in the Vigário Geral community; by 2001 that number had dwindled to 25.

But when a truce between a neighboring favela Lucas and Vigário Geral errupts into violence, Anderson and his fellow community leaders are put at risk as a lynch mob descends on them, spurred by rumors of Anderson rapping a girl and taking hostages. Anderson stays waits for the mob, because he says that to run would be to be admitting guilt.

Anderson and a drug lord from Lucas who part of the mob begin talking and the situation resolves, as Anderson explains that they are not for one drug cartel or another, but a voice in the community, a loud voice…

And then Anderson’s voice is nearly extinguished as he suffers a freak accident and is left paralyzed from the neck down. His neurosurgeon, familiar with AfroReggae, does the surgery for free, part of his doctor’s politics, that those who can pay, do and those who can’t shouldn’t.

Miracles do occur, and as Anderson says the favela’s spine has always been broken. Prayers are answered and Anderson walk again, and within months is performing on stage with AfroReggae.

Favela Rising was shot in part by a group called Nos do Cinema using the crew’s DV equipment. Our guest Matt Mochary and co-director Jeff Zimbalist would sometimes leave cameras with the children when they returned to New York. The utter violent realism of the footage is in sharp contrast to the music and movement of hope crated by AfroReggae.

Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.