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I Found Michael Jackson In A Brazilian Favela

Illustration for article titled I Found Michael Jackson In A Brazilian Favela

From Dave Zirin's newest book, Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy, available now. We'll be running excerpts throughout the World Cup.

Tell me what has become of my rights

Am I invisible because you ignore me?

All I wanna say is that

They don't really care about us

-Michael Jackson

On my first day in Rio de Janeiro, my research assistant Zachary Zill and I were jetlagged out of our minds and had no clue what to do, so we decided to look for Michael Jackson. Not the late King of Pop himself, of course, but a statue of him that we had heard was located high up in Santa Marta, one of the famed favelas, or informal working-class communities, that are rooted throughout the city. Finding this particular Michael Jackson statue seemed worth the effort. In March 1995, the Jackson released his ninth studio album, HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book I. It is remembered today mostly for the song "Scream," which brought Michael and sister Janet together, or the queasy video for "You Are Not Alone," a song penned by R. Kelly, in which Michael disrobed with Lisa Marie Presley for a series of uncomfortable cuddles. Lost in the collective memory is HIStory's searing protest song, "They Don't Care about Us." It has a stark immediacy as Jackson sings in a sharp staccato voice about protest, prisons, and state-sanctioned violence with a global vision and awareness. In Jackson's own words, it was "a public awareness song . . . a protest kind of song."[i]


What does this have to do with Rio? Jackson, along with the video's director, Spike Lee, wanted to film in Santa Marta, a favela, a word commonly translated to mean "slum." This caused agitation in Brazil's corridors of power for multiple reasons. There was fear that by highlighting the favelas, Jackson would spread an image of Rio defined by crime and poverty. Then there was the even greater fear that, short of a military occupation, there would be no conceivable way to guarantee the safety of Jackson, Lee, and their crew in Santa Marta. In other words, government officials did not want the city to look unsafe, but they also didn't want people to "get the right idea" (so to speak) about its actual conditions.

It is true that at the time, by almost every metric, Rio was one of the least safe cities on earth, Brazil's government had also been desperate to project Rio as a global megacity suitable for hosting high-profile international events. For decades, instead of fighting the poverty and inequality that gave rise to crime, Rio cracked down on the urban poor using elite police squads. The primary contact residents of the city's favelas had with public authorities was by way of the police, particularly through violent incursions where innocents were routinely killed and tortured and lives were constantly interrupted by stray bullets, shutting down schools and rendering property values worthless. This led to the third anxiety related to Michael Jackson's visit: that his very presence would shed light on this "cleaning out" of the favelas, ironically—or perhaps intentionally—one of the themes in the song itself.

In 1996, Rio was making a serious bid to host the 2004 Olympics. Local authorities saw Michael Jackson's presence as the turd in the proverbial punchbowl. The Brazilian state leapt into action: a judge issued an injunction to stop the filming. Soccer star Pelé, then Minister of Sports, even weighed in, saying that the video shoot should not go ahead as planned. International news footage of Jackson wearing a surgical mask (because of his anxiety over a conjunctivitis outbreak) did not exactly help ease concerns about his effect on the city's image.[ii] While the government tried to move every lever to keep Jackson from filming, residents of Santa Marta had the opposite reaction. They welcomed Jackson both for his stardom and for the possibility of improving their lives through the publicity his video would generate. As one woman quoted in the New York Times said, "They're ashamed of the conditions here, and they'll have to do something."[iii] A Santa Marta samba instructor described the favela as "a poor world surrounded by a rich world, an island of misery surrounded by wealth."[iv]

Jackson and Lee did film their video and, for all of the drama, Santa Marta is on screen for just a few fleeting moments, with Jackson scampering up the steep and narrow favela steps as if he is fleeing from an attacker. But it does not look like an exposé of the poverty in Santa Marta. In the context of the video, it appears more as if Jackson is fleeing to safety and searching for refuge amid the favela's poverty and community, and away from the injustice and "fame monsters" attempting to swallow him and his sanity whole. It is favela as oasis from the jarring realities of his utterly unreal reality. In 1996, that would have been quite the unusual take; one would not have been wrong to accuse Jackson of romanticizing the poverty of a favela that no one would confuse with Neverland Ranch. Today it feels more like prophecy. Today developers are indeed chasing people up the favela steps in Rio's elite South Zone in an effort to get their hands on what has become incalculably valuable real estate. Today the favelas are for many an escape from a city and a country where public space is dwindling, people are getting removed from their homes, and the poor are being marginalized in an effort to turn Rio into the megacity of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF's) dreams.


We will get to all of this, but back to the King of Pop. We wanted to see the statue commemorating the moment when Michael Jackson and Spike Lee negotiated with both the Brazilian state and the local drug kingpins and ventured into the favela. We took the bus to Santa Marta in the neighborhood of Botafogo in the Zona Sul (South Zone), just north of Copacabana and just east of the famous hundred-foot statue of Christ the Redeemer, and arrived at Santa Marta, home of eight thousand residents whose houses cling to one of the steepest hillsides in the city.

Back in 1996, Michael Jackson had to helicopter in to get to the top of the hillside. Now Santa Marta has a funicular tram. Then Santa Marta felt hidden behind a dark curtain. Now it is on official tourist maps of the city. In fact, there is a tourist checkpoint at the bottom of the hillside along Rua São Clemente, complete with multilingual guides who hand out maps of the favela and offer tips to visitors. The guides were, granted, lonely; there did not appear to be a rush of people wanting to see the favela up close. Their brochures welcome people to the "Rio Top Tour" (in English) and promise to point out "historic community landmarks."


We ventured up ourselves, since neither of us knew where the Michael Jackson statue was. At first we decided to walk up the steep hill, testing my lung capacity. (Zach is a soccer player and his ability to walk quickly without losing his breath soon filled me with murderous thoughts.) I made the case that we should wait for the tram to "have the experience." The wait was long; we were behind a group of young men carrying massive speakers that eventually filled half the tram by themselves. Most of the other half of the tram was filled by cases of beer. No one waiting seemed particularly put out by this. It was Saturday night and all of this was for a massive outdoor party that evening on the hilltop.

Two men in delivery uniforms were waiting alongside us with a mammoth mattress and matching box spring. There was also a group of moms with small children and grocery bags. Once we made it onto the tram, I made the case that we should go to the top for the view and then find the Michael Jackson statue by traversing downhill. (Once again: it was steep.) Maybe my motives were cardiovascular, but no one would have argued with the results. We walked out to an astounding view of one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The panorama unfolded in front of us: brown granite hills jutting up dramatically from gentle green slopes, a thick urban patchwork of roads and buildings, the shimmering water of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, and then the ocean just beyond.


Kids were throwing paper planes off the hillside and chasing after them as they floated gently down. Music echoed off the squat little houses, cobbled together at odd angles. Neighbors shouted to each other across a passageway. Of course there was a dusty soccer pitch at the top of the hill, just beyond the small plaza where the tram ended. Looming over the pitch was a new-looking building painted bright blue and emblazoned with the acronym UPP. We were to learn a great deal about the UPP, the "Pacifying Police Unit" making the favelas safe for tourists and real-estate speculators alike, in the days ahead. The UPP building was perhaps the largest in the community; its roof was festooned with high-tech surveillance and satellite equipment.

Just to the left of UPP headquarters, we had a clear view of the highest grouping of houses on the hillside, roughly fifty yards away from our perch. Massive painted protest slogans were grouped in front of them, almost certainly visible for miles. The signs read "SOS" and then, in Portuguese, "What kind of 'model favela' is this?" "Peace without a voice isn't peace, it's fear," and "Don't erase our history." We thought that the signs were protesting the UPP and the evictions and demolitions leading up to the World Cup and Olympics. We learned later that these very homes, which had stood for more than fifty years without falling, had been slated for removal on the pretext of "landslides." There was a rumor (accepted as common sense) that the real reason these homes would be destroyed was that a Brazilian billionaire wanted to build a private estate.


We ogled the view for a few more minutes and then decided to descend the hillside in an attempt to find what our map called "Michael Jackson Square." Our tourist map, however, was utterly incapable of guiding us through the narrow passageways and staircases jutting at seemingly impossible angles between, across, and through the squat houses of the favela. The compactness of the space in the favela was an incredible experience in itself, at least for Americans unaccustomed to this type of urban environment. It was a vast assemblage of humanity. We passed a cafe selling soda, beer, and grilled meats. We saw young boys playing an arcade game, a young family sitting around a grill, a door that opened directly onto a tiny, cramped bedroom. The smells of open sewage and of delicious cooking food intermingled. As we walked past a large boulder with two tiny kittens huddling on top of it, a rat that looked like the kittens' big brother waddled by. It was the first favela we visited. It would not be the last.

Finally, after asking directions from many bemused people sitting outside their homes, we arrived at Michael Jackson Square, a small plaza built into the hillside with another incredible view. To the left was a wall with a large mosaic depicting Jackson; just beyond the wall, on a small patch of concrete jutting out over the hillside, was the statue of the King of Pop. It was… small. Maybe five feet tall. Jackson was smiling, sunglasses resting on his surgically pointed nose, with none of the rage he showed in the video.


As metaphors go, this is good as any. Rio is being sanitized. As a New York City boy who does not recognize the place where I was raised, the signs felt all too clear. Not even Michael Jackson's rage is permitted for public consumption. He smiles, his hand reaching out over a view of the entire city, almost as if he was saying, "The world is yours." But wipe that happy smile off his face and he could also be saying, just as clearly, "They don't care about us."

Dave Zirin is the Sports Editor at the Nation Magazine. He hosts Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius XM and co-hosts The Collision on WPFW with Etan Thomas. Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy is his eighth book about the intersection of sports and politics. You can follow him on Twitter @EdgeofSports.


[i] Adrian Grant, Michael Jackson: Making History (London: Omnibus Press, 1998). When this song is remembered, it's usually for its unfortunate use of anti-Semitic phrases like "Jew me" and "kike me" in the lyrics (which Jackson later changed and apologized for). Bigotry aside, that "They Don't Care about Us" has been forgotten is a damn shame.


[ii] Diana Jean Schemo, "Rio Frets as Michael Jackson Plans to Film Slum," New York Times, February 11, 1996,…

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

Screamer is Deadspin's soccer site. We're @ScreamerDS on Twitter. We'll be partnering with our friends at Howler Magazine throughout the World Cup. Follow them on Twitter, @whatahowler.


Photo credit: Getty

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