Atlantic Cities

Rolezinhos: The Flash Mobs Currently Freaking Out Brazilian Authorities

Rolezinhos: The Flash Mobs Currently Freaking Out Brazilian Authorities
InfoNEWS

On most Saturdays since early December, a series of unusual youth gatherings have led police to respond to a handful of São Paulo shopping malls. The happenings, dubbed rolezinhos, have a flash-mob quality, except the participants are disadvantaged local youth. Though they're intended to be peaceful, a police crackdown last weekend included tear gas and rubber bullets.

Participants in rolezinhos (Portuguese for "strolls") gather in large numbers in shopping malls to chant lyrics from songs that are part of a music genre called funk da ostentação ("ostentation funk"), which glorifies consumption, brands, and especially cars, motorcycles and scantily clad women. It’s a derivative of funk carioca, a musical style that first emerged in Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

In São Paulo, funk originally glorified crime, but in order to reach a wider audience, MCs developed the "ostentation" subgenre, which specifically eschews any sort of illegal activity. In funk da ostentação videos, boys from the outskirts of the city rap about having Nike sneakers and Oakley sunglasses. Fans aspire to whiskey and cars, a sign of a generation that, while poor, has become more integrated into capitalism, says Renato Barreido, a former deputy mayor of Cidade Tiradente, the section of the city’s low-income eastern edge where this style of funk developed.


A sampler compilation video of "ostentation" funk music.

The funk da ostentação fans who are showing up for the weekly rolezinhos don't appear to be part of a unified protest movement in the traditional sense, though several participants have told local media outlets that they are protesting a lack of places where they are welcome to hang out.

That likely has something to do with a recent crackdown on pancadões ("big thump"), or funk da ostentação street parties. Typical pancadões involve a few cars with special speakers mounted in the trunks, each pounding out music at high volume. Dancing and drinking follows in proximity to the cars, explains Leonardo Cardoso, an ethnomusicologist who is working on a book about noise control in São Paulo. He notes that because of age and cost, young organizers of pancadões generally can’t consider going to nightclubs, and since pancadões are, by definition, mobile, participants can leave or relocate quickly upon police interruption. "It's a very practical mechanism," Cardoso says.

But in early January, the municipal government took aim directly at the pancadões, imposing hefty fines on stationary cars emitting loud music.

The new law seems to have fueled a growing sense among suburban São Paulo youth that there is nowhere for them go. Thus, the rolezinhos. "You can’t stay locked up at home," as one organizer told Brazilian newspaper Estadão.


This YouTube clip from 2012 shows a large 'pancadão' taking place in Sao Paulo.

As the popularity of rolezinhos grows each week, so is the alarm of authorities. Mall administrators have responded by obtaining judicial orders to fine anyone caught participating in a rolezinho 10,000 reales (roughly $4,200). They've also deployed guards to screen would-be mall goers. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, apparently concerned that the movement will spread, called for a high-level meeting on the subject this week, and on Thursday the mayor of São Paulo pleaded with local youths to move the events to public spaces or at least the mall parking lots, while at the same time announcing a series of meetings with shopping mall owners to avoid racist policies.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the seeming random nature of the rolezinhos, reaction to them has provided much fodder for analysis among São Paulo's elite. Left-wing commentators were indignant when the gatherings were initially interpreted by the local media to be “arrastão,” a term usually applied to large groups of people intent on rioting. Some headlines are using the term “apartheid” to refer to the shopping malls' attempts to keep these youths out.

"People are scared because it's a lot of youth together … and because they are black and live in the periphery," says Barreido.

The main effect of the rolezinhos may in fact be to make people uncomfortable.


Clips from a rolezinho that took place earlier this month.

Though participants have not rallied around specific demands, their concerns about feeling marginalized is telling. The youths who participate might just be looking for a good time, but they’re also learning lessons about the power generated by large groups of people, and how authorities and society can react to a show of force.

Jordana Timerman is a freelance writer and an urban public policy researcher living in Buenos Aires. All posts »

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