An Interview with Damian Platt
How did you first become involved with AfroReggae?
I first heard about AfroReggae through a friend who played me their CD, their first album. It’s called Nova Cara “A New Face”. I was on a research trip to Brazil for Amnesty International at the time. One of the cases that we worked on was the Vigario Geral massacre, the killing of 21 civilians by police, so I already knew the favela where AfroReggae worked and was interested to hear about a group working with culture and music there. I really liked this album and got in touch with Junior, the coordinator of AfroReggae. Through some stuff that happened while I was working for Amnesty we became friends. I helped out with some connections for the first tour of AfroReggae to the UK and Junior invited me and Patrick Neate to come and write the book. That was in 2005, and I ended up working for AfroReggae for 3 years and stayed in Rio!
What are you doing in Rio now?
I work on a variety of projects. I’m coordinating a research project that the London School of Economics is carrying out with AfroReggae and CUFA, an organization set up by the rapper MV Bill. It’s a partnership between these organizations as well as UNESCO and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. I’m setting up a cultural centre in the first favela in Rio de Janeiro, Morro da Providência, with the French artist JR and Mauricio Hora, a photographer born and raised in the community. During 2009 I worked with JR and Mauricio on the Brazilian leg of JR’s international project “Women”. JR is a friend who I met in 2006 while working at AfroReggae. I took him to visit to the Complexo do Alemao, one of the biggest favelas in Brazil, during a time when it was under constant police attack, and he took the photo that is on the back of the book. I also work as a consultant for NGOs and news outlets such as the BBC and Channel 4 and write for magazines such as The Stool Pigeon and The New Statesman.
What changes have you seen AfroReggae make in the lives of favela residents?
I have seen AfroReggae change the lives of many individual favela residents. AfroReggae brings hope and activity to communities where guns and crime are the day to day. These communities have been closed off to the outside world for many years. AfroReggae has also changed the way that viewers from the outside see favela residents. Because of AfroReggae and its relations with the Brazilian media, specifically TV Globo, there have been changes in the way favelas and young black people are represented.
How has AfroReggae expanded its influence over the years?
AfroReggae has achieved great international exposure through tours and films such as Favela Rising and internally in Brazil, principally through Globo TV and more recently a weekly TV program hosted by José Junior. The program has a unique ability to dialogue and work with partners from all sectors of Brazilian society, especially businesses.
What have been some obstacles to growth? What support have they gotten in the process?
At the beginning AfroReggae started with nothing and had to fight for space and recognition amid the risks of working in such a violent environment. AfroReggae is a grassroots organization that achieved huge growth in a short period of time. AfroReggae has grown with the support of organizations like the Ford Foundation, UNESCO, Amnesty International, the Barbican Centre, and through the film Favela Rising.
How does the Brazilian government view AfroReggae and other non-profits?
The Brazilian government has a positive relationship with cultural organizations such as AfroReggae since they promote a positive story in the news. It has a less constructive relationship with human rights organizations that directly challenge issues such as prisons and police violence.
What drew you to Brazil/Rio/the favelas?
I first came to Brazil in 1994 and made friends in Rio I was affected by the way everything seemed back to front. I had a problem with the police and people who had nothing to gain were very kind to me. I came back to Brazil in 1996 and worked in the North of the country with Catholic missionaries who used Liberation theology, a form of Christian teaching that is based upon political conscientization – an exploration of social and political contradictions – as well as the “option for the poor” that Jesus Christ showed in his life. The MST (landless movement) and other important organizations grew out of the structures established by liberation theologists. An Italian catholic priest from this background was very influential on AfroReggae in its early years.
What was most surprising to you as you got to know life in Brazil?
Ah Brazil is full of surprises! It’s a multifaceted, multiracial society where there is always something going on.
What do you think would surprise most outsiders?
Everyone has their own Brazil. There are many different ways of interpreting Brazil. But I think what might surprise outsiders would be the concentration of political power and wealth in the hands of so few, considering the size and importance of the country.
Can you discuss how race plays a role in Brazilian life in general and in the favelas in particular?
Race is an issue that goes largely un-discussed and has a lot to do with the heritage of slavery. However in Brazil not all poor people are black and not all black people are poor. There are white people and many mixed race people in favelas too. There are many difficulties faced in Brazil by black people that they are better qualified to talk about than me.
Have you noticed any changes in Rio/the favelas, since the city was named the host of both the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016?
A lot of people were surprised when Rio got the Olympics. There is concern about where and how the money will be spent, but also great hope that this will be a chance to turn a page in the city’s history. For once the authorities are going to have to think beyond the short term. There are signs that the city’s politicians are working together in a way that they have not done in the past.
In Culture Is Our Weapon, there is a section on how African-American music and the African-American experience speaks to the kids in the favelas. How do other cultures factor into AfroReggae’s work and what makes them relevant?
Well hip hop for instance is a universal language and art form that has as much influence in Rio as it does in Copenhagen and Soweto. AfroReggae itself is influenced by other culture, through travel, and religions as well. Brazil is a very spiritual country and this is reflected in day-to-day life and the work of institutions like AfroReggae.
What would you like people to know about Brazil/Rio/the favelas?
What I would like people to know is in the book. Brazil is too big and diverse a country to be easily deciphered. In terms of Rio, people should understand that one of the world’s most beautiful cities is also one of the most violent, and that this violence is about control of territories inhabited by the least privileged residents in the city, that they suffer human rights abuses and despotism at the hands of armed groups and the police. That certain parts of the city live an armed conflict that affects the lives of millions of people every day, and that it is a conflict of political and economic interests.