From violent slums to a gig with the Stones

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The boy standing on a dusty street corner at the edge of Rio de Janeiro's favela of Vigário Geral looks in his mid-teens. The white paper kite he is flying flutters in the blue sky overhead as he winds the string around an old tin can, carefully controlling the tension. A rifle is slung casually over his shoulder.

It is a stark reminder in this deprived but tight-knit community that the threat of violence often hangs heavy in the air.

As the drug traffickers who control most of Rio's 600 or so favelas wage their territorial battles, it is communities such as Vigário Geral that suffer. And it is not just to the drug barons that they fall victim. On the 29 August 1993, off-duty police raided the favela in a reported revenge attack against the former drug baron Flavio Negão; four officers had been killed by his gang the previous day. The police killed 21 innocent people, including several children.

The shock waves went across the world. In Rio, José Junior, who had grown up in a poor neighbourhood in the city centre and became a local music promoter before launching a black culture newspaper called AfroReggae News, decided he couldn't stand back and watch. First he set up an arts centre, and workshops in music, drumming, dance and circus. Before long, Banda AfroReggae was born. Their raps, combined with exhilarating high-energy drumming and a tight rhythm section,started to attract attention. In 1998 they signed to Universal, becoming the first group from a social project to be accepted by a major label.

Last month they launched their second album, with the title track - "Nenhum motiovo explica a guerra" (No reason explains the war) - featuring collaborations from the London rappers Ty and Estelle. On 18 February they will open for the Rolling Stones on Copacabana beach before travelling to the UK to play next month at the Barbican in London, Oxford and Manchester.

For most of the band, many of whom started playing in Junior's original 1993 workshops, it has been a steep climb. "Now I'm a musician and co-ordinator in AfroReggae," says Altair Martin, the percussionist and one of the original members. "Everything in my life has changed, from my social awareness to my financial situation. Playing with the Rolling Stones is a big privilege but I also feel it's a responsibility ... It's our mission to build bridges between classes and races."

In a cramped and bustling office in downtown Rio, the hub of the AfroReggae network, José Junior has the deceptively cool air of a New York hip hop label manager rather than the founder and director of arguably the most successful social project in Brazil.

Searching through his laptop hard drive, he finds a pop video clip for AfroReggae's 2001 hit "Tô Bolando", a critique of the Vigário Geral massacre, which featured on their first album, Nova Cara. The images are shocking - armed police in riot gear storm into favelas while men, women and children run screaming in terror. Close-ups show beatings, shootings, people are kicked as they fall. The footage, provided by Global, Rio's largest TV station, is all real.

AfroReggae rap in Portuguese: "I don't understand this world, they tell me the police exist to protect the people ... but we don't have protection here, only cowardice, stupidity, disloyalty ... no words exist in the world for this idiotic attitude." The video fades.

"We decided not to use it. Showing that is not going to help," he says. But what would? It was clear to Junior that he needed a cleverer approach to halt police violence. He jokes: "Do you remember Return of the Jedi? Do you remember the scene right at the end with Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader?" For those who don't, Luke, who believes Darth Vader is not wholly evil but has been corrupted and needs help to mend his ways, works with him to defeat the Emperor, their greater enemy.

The metaphor may not hold up to scrutiny, but it inspired Junior to find a way of working with the police. Nearly three years later, Junior and his crew are gathered in Rio's police headquarters to launch their most ambitious initiative. The chiefs of the military and civilian police are here, as is Rio's public security secretary, Marcelo Itagiba.

The unexpectedly soulful Military Police Big Band open the event, dressed in police band uniform, brass instruments polished. They offer stark contrast to the 13-strong AfroReggae band in bright T-shirts and low slung jeans, who, when their turn is up, charge on to the stage urging the crowd closer. "No disrespect but things are going to get a little less formal now." They close with a number played by both bands.

The 50 invited police, uniformed and armed, chosen to represent all battalions across the city, as well as all levels, from commander to street sergeant, look on with arms folded defensively. They do not mingle with the 50 invited from Vigário Geral.

Silvia Ramos, an expert on public security at Rio's Candido Mendes University who developed the idea, admits: "When Junior first told me he wanted to work with the police I thought 'Are you mad? This will never happen'." For almost a year it seemed she was right. They had raised $85,000 (£48,000) from the Ford Foundation.

"We made appointments to which people didn't turn up, we went to see one commander who told me himself 'I'm totally against this project and I'm only receiving you because my superior commander told me to receive you'," explains Ms Ramos.

"We were about to give back the money and then Junior went to Minas Gerais [Rio's neighbouring state]." The security secretary there jumped on the idea and the result was a four-week programme in 2004 of workshops in music, dance, circus and theatre for police and youth.

"Magical things started to happen when Afro Reggae entered," says Ms Ramos. "In the first week the police saw these young people as traffickers, bandits, scum. To the youth, the police were vermin. But when the drums started, everything changed." Mutual respect grew. At the end, police made T-shirts for their instructors with AfroReggae and police battalion logos side by side.

Junior has ambitious plans afoot and is setting up meetings with the Black Police Federation and the Metropolitan Police when AfroReggae come to London. "This doesn't stop with Vigário Geral, with Rio," he says.