the rise and fall of baile funk dj, rennan de penha

November 13, 2019
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UPDATE: DJ Rennan da Penha was released from the Bangu penitentiary on Friday, November 22, 2019. A recent Brazilian Supreme Court decision ruled that non-violent defendants cannot be imprisoned until their appeals have been exhausted. So although Rennan is now free, his judicial fight is not over.


The phone rang at 1 am, shattering my power nap. “You ready, Kiratiana? It’s time to go! We’re coming by in 15 minutes.” 

Helen, a self-described American “funkeira,” had finally convinced me to go to a funk party in a favela. Just a few months ago, I had warned her against going to the city’s infamous funk parties alone, fearing for her safety. But tonight, curiosity overruled caution. I even recruited a third friend to join us. 

To get to the party, we left Rio de Janeiro’s toney South Zone for the working-class suburban North Zone and drove 45-minutes to Complexo da Penha, where a massive complex of favelas crawl across the surrounding hills. Our destination was Vila Cruzeiro, a favela founded by escaped enslaved Blacks who built their homes on land owned by the Penha Catholic Church. 

The Uber dropped us off on the asfalto — the paved street that delineates the “city” from the “hill” — and the first people we saw were two policeman holding long-barreled guns. They didn’t say anything to us as we passed them, and I avoided eye contact. A long narrow street separated us from our final destination, Baile de Gaiola (The Birdcage Party). The further we walked down the street, the deeper we entered into Vila Cruzeiro, one of Rio de Janeiro’s 1100 favela communities. The party, covered by massive tents in case of rain, snaked down the street for at least a half of a mile. We passed by dozens of vendors selling vodka and energy drinks, snacks, even branded party cups from makeshift stalls. Then came to a stage with a pagode samba band. Finally, the main DJ booth was in sight. 

As three Black American women, we didn’t stand out much, especially in the dark. The multi-hued crowd ranged in color from Cafe au lait to onyx. A few might have even passed for white in Brazil. But there was no doubt that this was funk music party for Blacks and favela residents. Groups of young girls danced with each other. Young men congregated together in an elevated VIP section. Around 3:30am the funk music stopped for a live pagode band. Once the samba ended, fireworks erupted from above the DJ booth at the far end of the party. It was time for the main attraction. 

DJ Rennan de Penha took to the stage just as the light from a rising sun started to touch the community. Only then could I clearly see the self-built terra cotta block houses that stacked precariously up the hill behind the DJ booth and around the entire party. With the morning sun now shining bright in the sky, I huddled next to the stage in front of the DJ booth to watch a passinho –– footwork– dance-off. 

Baile de Gaiola

“You ready to go?” Helen asked. 

By the time we left at 9am, thousands of people were still there enjoying the funk music. The party wasn’t as suffocatingly packed as it had been at 4am, but the music was still going hard. We walked down a side street that passed houses, bakeries, and little grocery stores. 

I searched my own memories for an American reference to help me understand what I had just experienced. This wasn’t a one-time party. This was an outdoor party that easily attracted 25,000 people! And it happened every week in the middle of a neighborhood. Part block party, part night club, part music festival: I couldn’t think of a comparable event. 

I had just attended the Greatest. Ever. Funk. Party. In Rio de Janeiro. For the next six months, whenever I announced to Brazilians that I had been to Baile da Gaiola, their eyes widened with envy and excitement. 

“Meu Deus, how was it? I still need to go.” 

“It was amazing and everything it was hyped up to be,” I typically responded. 

Six months later, the party was over, and DJ Rennan was locked up in Rio’s most notorious prison, Bangu Penitentiary

DJ Rennan da Penha (real name: Rennan Santos da Silva — Penha is the favela he hails from) created Baile de Gaiola, the greatest-ever recurring funk party in Rio, in 2017. At the young age of 23, this Black man, born and raised in the favela, became the king of funk music in Brazil. He used his massive platform to launch the careers of dozens of local funk singers, introduce a new style of funk music — 150 BPM — and re-center Rio de Janeiro as the nation’s stronghold of Funk music. His reign, though, was short-lived. In Spring of 2019, Rennan was arrested on charges of connections to drug-trafficking. Rennan wasn’t arrested for packing illegal guns, or drug possession, or racketeering — as numerous American hip-hop artists have. He was arrested for simply knowing and communicating with the people who he grew up with. 

For Black Brazilians, favela residents, it’s obvious that these charges were just a front for the racism and discrimination that always seem to target the Black and poor in Brazil. 

To understand the phenomenon of DJ Rennan and Baile de Gaiola, I called up Bruno Rafael, a Black music culture expert born and raised in the City of God favela (the one the 2002 film was about). In 2018, Rafael pushed the city government to recognize traditional carioca funk as cultural patrimony. Carioca is a catch-all term for anything authentically from Rio de Janeiro. Rafael, 38, now a “hip-hop head,” spent his teen years attending some of Rio’s largest Baile Funk events. I explained to him how dumbfounded I was to see thousands of people partying to funk music in the middle of a favela. And it wasn’t even a holiday weekend. It was just a regular Saturday. 

“This isn’t a surprise for people who come from a favela,” Rafael said. “It’s only a surprise to people who come from the South Zone, or from abroad.” 

But Baile de Gaiola’s national impact did amaze Bruno, who attended the party three times. 

“[Rennan] did something that had never been done before. He organized a weekly party with 25,000 people in a favela that became a national brand. He was this young Black guy from the hood traveling all over the world, traveling to Dubai to DJ,” Rafael said. “This had never happened before.”

Funk is the preferred music of the youth in Rio favelas, the hillside communities that Blacks and the impoverished call home. The sound’s roots lie in Black American hip-hop and electronic music, in particular, the Miami Bass sound of the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Baile Funk parties evolved from 1970s Soul parties that had attracted Rio’s Black favela and suburban youth every weekend. By the late ‘80s, Black music lovers had split into two groups, those who still preferred Soul music, and the growing group of youth who preferred the hard beats of Miami Bass. 

Back in the 1980s Brazilian DJs had to fly to the States to get American music. During one of these trips, DJ Nazz picked up “808 Volt Mix” by DJ Battery Brain and started playing it at his parties. This song’s beat helped launch Carioca Funk music, and for the next decade, every song used this beat. 

The Brazilian funk music explosion of the late-‘80s/early-’90s happened in the shadow of mainstream media, which ignored this cultural phenomenon because it was coming from marginalized Black and poor communities. Within this booming moment, Cidinha and Doca produced funk’s most famous song, “Rap de Felicidade” (“Happy Rap”). With Battery Brain’s beat in the background, they rapped about seeking happiness in a favela. In the late 90s, funk artists flipped to the tamberzão beat, a tropical mix of electronic music with conga drums. This beat defined carioca funk well into the 2010s. 

Favela communities held (and still hold) their own small funk parties, usually financed by the ruling drug factions, but the most popular parties of the ‘80s and ‘90s were Bailes de Briga, or “fighting parties.” Black and favela youth from all over Rio congregated in warehouses, dancing and fist fighting each other to funk music. 

Rafael attended these parties as a teenager, always returning home bruised, sore and with torn up clothes. “I had to lie to my mother,” he said. “But back then the way you became known was by beating up the most people.” One night, though, Rafael was standing next to his older brother and best friend when someone started shooting at the party. The bullet hit his best friend and killed him. “From that moment I decided to embrace hip-hop, and stopped going to funk parties,” Rafael said. 

This was probably a good thing. The 2000s became all about “funk probidão”— funk that reflected the pain of favela life, the violence, gang life, drug use, and death. By the end of the decade, mounting large baile funk events became difficult, as favela communities underwent pacification. To prepare for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, Rio police kicked drug factions out of large favela communities and occupied them, to ostensibly make them safer. The first thing they banned was the weekly funk party. 

While Rio’s bailes suffered under new police oppression, São Paulo funk artists and producers filled the vacuum with “ostentatious funk,” a funk music about money, partying and girls. The scene also had its own music video producer, Konrad Dantas, also known as Kondzilla. Kondzilla has one of the largest Youtube channels in the world, with 50 million subscribers. 2017’s “Bum Bum Tam Tam,” a Kondzilla-produced joint that garnered an international remix that has more than 1 billion views on Youtube. 

Once the Olympic Flame was extinguished, the city of Rio entered a freefall. The state went bankrupt, unable to even pay the police. The “pacification” projects left most of the favelas they had entered just seven years earlier. Violence crept up to pre-mega-events levels. In other words, Rio de Janeiro was returning to its old self. This created the perfect opening for funk music’s three newest phenomena: DJ Rennan da Penha, Baile de Gaiola and 150 BPM funk music. 

At the end of 2016 — summertime in Brazil — the DJs Rennan da Penha and Iasmin Turbininha began to play funk music with an accelerated beat, 150 beats per minute (BPM). Traditional Rio funk music had never gone beyond 130 BPMs. This new fast funk music, created by DJ Polyvox, appealed to passinho dancers who wanted to show off their intricate footwork, and to young girls who wanted to practice rebolando (booty shaking).

Rennan started DJing a party at the Gaiola bar in Penha, every Saturday. With its catchy name, fast beats and “pretty boy” DJ (Rennan), the party started to take over the entire street, often lasting until noon the next day. As the party grew, so did the local commerce. Dozens of tents sprang up selling vodka bottles and energy drink mixers, cigarettes, branded Baile de Gaiola cups, ice, whatever. Like any electronic music party, sales of illicit substances in the community likely skyrocketed as well. The party even created an opportunity for aluminum can collectors, who made sure no can was left on the ground. 

“As a funk dancer, this party was marvelous,” said Juliana Barreto da Silva, a popular funk dancer known as Codazzi. “I never felt sleepy or tired. I just wanted to dance. There were numerous times when I stayed from two in the morning until two in the afternoon.”

And then came the music hits that elevated the party to mythic status. “Tu Ta Na Gaiola” combined a slick melody with a fast beat. 

Cheiro de lança do bom – It smells like good lança* 

(ei tu ‘ta na gaiola) – (hey you are at gaiola)

Cheiro de maconha boa – It smells like good pot 

(ei tu ‘ta na gaiola) – (hey you are at gaiola)

Varias piranha jogando – Many hoes throwing it 

(ei tu ‘ta na gaiola) – (hey you are at gaiola)

Os amigos faturando – Bros making money

(ei tu ‘ta na gaiola) – (hey you are at gaiola)

Vem sentando na piroca – Come sit on my dick 

(ei tu ‘ta na gaiola) – Hey you are at gaiola 

Sentando, entrando na pipoca – Sitting, getting my dick

(*Lança refers to Lança perfume, an inhalant drug (made up of chemicals) that produces a brief high.) 

In 2018, Rennan’s 25th birthday fell on a Saturday in July. Birthdays are important, celebrated events in Brazil — Brazilians really love birthday parties! Rennan’s attracted more than 40,000 people and lasted until 4pm on Sunday, angering some locals. Complaints about the party were so widespread that even the newspaper reported about Rennan’s birthday party. “Imagine people wanting to sleep.. absurd! I go to the BRT to get to work, and it looked like a zombie apocalypse. Young kids totally drugged out, drunk and hopeless,” said a social media post that the paper reported. 

This legendary party helped DJ Rennan secure his status as the preeminent funk DJ in Brazil, crisscrossing the country DJing funk music. Typically, all successful Black men chase after blond South Zone girls to prove their “arrival,” but Rennan showed off his Black girlfriend on Instagram. 

Rio’s funk DJ’s basked in his shine. On weekends, DJs like DJ FP do Trem Bala and DJ Zullu played three or four parties per night. Funk parties blossomed again in favelas like City of God and Chapadão. Cities across Brazil held their own Baile de Gaiola parties, sometimes with Rennan da Penha. But often not. 

“Favela funk parties have always helped to promote funk,” said Ana Capricornia, manager of funk DJ FP do Trem Bala. “150BPM was becoming more popular, and the Baile de Gaiola managed to popularize its even more. And with this, funk returned to the top in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil.”

Even Rio de Janeiro’s conservative evangelical mayor couldn’t deny the power of the moment and signed a decree to establish a cultural development program supporting traditional “carioca” funk. “Funk is a cultural movement in this city that deserves to not only be recognized but also strengthened,” said Nilcemar Nogueira, then Rio de Janeiro’s Secretary of Culture. 

Brazil and Rio de Janeiro changed dramatically in the last six months of 2018. Solidifying its hard right-wing turn, the country elected Jair Bolsonaro as President. Bolsonaro campaigned on a “family first” platform in which he declared that “a good thug is a dead thug.” Rio de Janeiro elected a reactionary governor who openly admitted to wanting to drop bombs on favelas. 

Meanwhile, by February 2019, Baile de Gaiola funk songs had become the undisputed carnival hits. In Brazil, this is the ultimate test of music popularity — to have your songs repeatedly played throughout the six-day bacchanalia of Carnival. These were the songs that made any crowd — Black, white, rich, poor — go crazy. Brass bands played instrumental versions. White DJ’s played the songs at VIP parties during the samba parade. And on and on.

Although the police had also clearly benefited from the two years of popular funk parties  (through bribes of course), the new governor wanted to shut them all down. Being the biggest party in Brazil, Baile de Gaiola was an easy target. On Saturday, February 16, police entered the favela to close it down. Four residents were shot and injured. Just after carnival early on Sunday morning, gunshots interrupted a slam poetry reading that was being held on the party’s main stage. By early March, Baile de Gaiola was on life support. Next up was DJ Rennan da Penha. 

In 2015, police had jailed DJ Rennan for “association” with drug trafficking and participating in events promoted by “criminals” in the favelas. But the judge found him not guilty because of a lack of evidence, and he was subsequently released. In what seemed like perfect timing, at the end of March 2019, right after Carnival, a chief judge ruled that Rennan da Penha was complicit with drug traffickers and ordered him to prison for six years and eight months. This powerful judge made this decision without hearing any testimony. The claimed charges was that he acted as a lookout for drug traffickers when police entered the favela, sending them WhatsApp messages. This is a common practice among residents of any favela because when police enter, violence follows.

From the perspective of someone who grew up in a favela, the charge against Renan made no sense. Everyone knows each other in these tight-knit communities, so anyone can be accused of association with a “criminal.” Rennan is a funk DJ, but he grew up with the kid who became a drug dealer. And no funk DJ can throw a party without the explicit “blessing” of the area’s ruling factions. 

Black and favela activists called the persecution of Rennan exactly what it was: racism. 

“Privileged people do not like to see a black man from the favela on top,” said Raul Santiago, an activist from the Complexo de Alemão community. “Rennan da Penha, who bears the name of the Complex where he grew up, has occupied all media spaces positively, taking the favela with him and strengthening part of the culture here, FUNK, placing it at the top of the charts. This is the same young man who is now on the pages of newspapers, pursued precisely for expanding the name of one of the slums across the country. Being one of those responsible for raising the FUNK 150 bpm to the world; criminalized, for earning fame and money, not from the stereotypes that racist society puts on those who live in the slums.”

A group of activists also launched a social media campaign — #deixaeudancar or #LetMeDance — and launching a website explains why Rennan’s sentence is racist. 

“This has always happened to us funk people, Blacks, and favela residents,” wrote MC Carol on her Facebook. “We’re being followed, persecuted, hunted, maligned, arrested and killed all the time, and no one does anything. Do you know what our crime is? Making money, talking about the reality of the favela, and being Black.”

Right after Rennan was ordered to prison, Circo Voador, Rio’s popular live music venue in the famed Lapa district, held a funk-in, where activists railed against the persecution of funk music.

Before turning himself in, Rennan, visibly shaken as if he had been crying, posted a video on his social media platforms: “I’m a father of two daughters. I wasn’t born for this. I’m a hard-worker. I went to jail once, and I didn’t want to return. I want to thank everyone who loved my work, the LGBT community, my lawyers, the DJs and producers who liked my work. Thank you.” 

Although I haven’t attended a Baile Funk party since last year, I can still see and hear the remnants of DJ Rennan’s two-year domination. One time I was at a folklore fair in Rio de Janeiro and a sertanejo (Brazilian country music) band started playing a live version of “Tu Ta Na Gaiola.” The crowd went crazy. Some clubs in Rio’s downtown Lapa district still even have Baile de Gaiola parties. 

At the end of September, Brazil’s Supreme Court denied a request for Rennan to be released because of unlawful imprisonment. On September 24, Rennan received a Latin Grammy nomination for a song that he produced for Nego do Borel, “Me Solta (Let me go).” 

White musicians can play their Brazilian country version of the songs that made the Baile de Gaiola famous. And white Brazilians can still attend Baile de Gaiola nightclub parties in downtown Rio. But Rennan da Penha, a Black man who created and led the fleeting cultural movement he named “The Birdcage Ball,” sits in an actual steel cage in the remote western outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.