Time for Mr Macho to face the music

The hot-blooded hombres of Brazil are having to mend their ways. A new wave of rap stars is challenging traditional attitudes to relationships and taking the safe-sex message to the streets. Lena Corner reports

Silvio Montinio do Silva doesn't look like your average agony aunt. Hemmed in by the sneakers and T-shirts of his tiny streetwear stall in a dark, sprawling favela market just outside Brasilia, he looks like any other 24-year-old skate kid just trying to scrape by. But recently, Silvio has been dishing out more advice than he has been selling skateboards. His stall is a magnet for local teenage boys, and he has lost count of the number of 14-year-olds badgering him for advice about the girl that they've just impregnated. Skid Skate, as his stall is known, is an unlikely port of call for family planning, but, out there, it's all they've got. Silvio has put his money where his mouth is, and has set up a sideline flogging cut-price condoms.

Silvio Montinio do Silva doesn't look like your average agony aunt. Hemmed in by the sneakers and T-shirts of his tiny streetwear stall in a dark, sprawling favela market just outside Brasilia, he looks like any other 24-year-old skate kid just trying to scrape by. But recently, Silvio has been dishing out more advice than he has been selling skateboards. His stall is a magnet for local teenage boys, and he has lost count of the number of 14-year-olds badgering him for advice about the girl that they've just impregnated. Skid Skate, as his stall is known, is an unlikely port of call for family planning, but, out there, it's all they've got. Silvio has put his money where his mouth is, and has set up a sideline flogging cut-price condoms.

The condoms that Silvio sells are called "Hora H", which translates as "zero hour", but colloquially means "in the heat of the moment". At 1.5 real for a three-pack, they're a fraction of the price of normal condoms, which low-income Brazilians simply cannot afford. They found their way to Silvio's stall thanks to "Program H", a project launched just over a year ago by the Durex makers, SSL International, and a Brazilian NGO called Instituto Promundo. The aim of the project has been to promote safe sex among red-blooded Latino males (the H here stands for hombres), and part of this has included getting the young men to come up with a brand name and design the packaging.

"For the first time in the entire history of Brazil, we have a larger number of youths (14-25-year-olds) than we ever have had, or ever will have," says Miguel Fontes, president of Instituto Promundo. "In Brazil, the average age at which boys start having sex is 13. For girls, it's 14. The problems that these figures bring are obvious - teenage pregnancy, drug use, unemployment and violence are rife."

The potential impact of this "youth wave" is sending tremors across the country. Soon, 32 million out of a population of 180 million are going to be in this highly volatile age-bracket. Already, the warning signs are there; it used to be that the majority of cases of HIV were in the gay community, but now, 70 per cent of cases are heterosexual transmissions, teenage pregnancies are up, and secondary schools are running at capacity.

But Project H is more than an embarrassing attempt to get down with the kids. The Brazilian hip-hop community has thrown its collective weight behind the project. Big names, such as MC Racionales, DJ Thayde, DJ Hum, Rappin' Hood and Japao have signed up to spread the message, while VM Hill, Brazilian hip hop's best-known export, played at the launch.

Japao comes from "Sector O", which is just down the road from Silvio's stall in Ceilandia. His friend tells me that the area is known as "the slum of the slum". Clearly, Japao isn't just paying lip-service to the cause - today, he is talking at a seminar on Project H in Brasilia, and tonight, he's performing at a hip-hop night in Taquatinga, another low-income town on the periphery of the city. "Hip hop is a lifestyle, not an accessory," he says with a toothless smile. "Here, we have no choice but to live it."

Hip hop in Brazil isn't what it is in the US. It's not all fast cars and flash living; it's far more political. Rappers tend to remain in the communities in which they grew up, and rap about what's going on around them. VM Hill, who famously criticised the makers of City of God for making a film that he believed was misrepresentative of his community, is a regular on the international hip-hop circuit, but he still refuses to give interviews anywhere but in the Cidade de Deus where he was born. Similarly, Rappin' Hood hasn't moved from the sprawling favela in which he grew up. For the past decade, he has held DJ workshops for the local children there.

Brazilian hip hop has moved into the mainstream. Although it has been gaining popularity since the late 1980s, according to Rappin' Hood, everything changed in 1995 when the hip-hop community joined forces for a night to mark 300 years since the death of Zumbi dos Palmares, the rebellious African slave who is still considered a hero in these parts. Rappin' Hood drags one of his friends over and pulls up his shirt. The name "Zumbi" is written in capitals right across his back. "The show was huge," says Rappin' Hood. "Before, hip hop was grass-roots, then it went up like a big bang."

Judging by the crowd at a hip-hop night in Taquatinga's Capital club, he's right. The venue is sandwiched between a Yamaha store and an oily electrical workshop on the town's bleak Pistao Sul, or Great Road South. Outside, it's desolate, deserted but for three boys who loll against a clapped-out car listening to a stereo cranked up to full volume. Later, they leave, pushing the car in front of them; clearly, their "portable stereo" was worth more than the ride. Inside the club, there's a circular, sunken dancefloor; like an amphitheatre, crammed with a mass of highly charged dancing bodies. To the side, there's a group of girls shimmying in hotpants, and at the back, a couple of breakdancers spin across the tiled floor. It's not a bad turnout for a Monday night.

It is clear that Japao and Rappin' Hood are sticking their necks out for Project H. During their performance, which takes place under a plastic banner that reads " Se liga na Hora H" (turn on in the heat of the moment), Japao breaks off to confront his audience. He has heard that things are being said about him fraternising with Durex and other people from the other side of the tracks. He's working with them for a reason, he says, and that doesn't mean that he's selling out.

To understand this mentality, you need to understand the geography of the city itself. Brasilia was designed 40 years ago by the architect Oscar Niemeyer, when it was decided that the country needed a new inland capital. It went up in just three years, and people came from the very poorest part of north Brazil in search of work. But these people weren't allowed to live among the palaces, cathedrals and monuments of the grand plano piloto that they were constructing. Instead, they were bused out to places such as Ceilandia and Taquatinga, 25km away. Ceilandia takes its name from its first three initials, which was its original acronym. Roughly translated, the CEI stands for the Campaign for the Eradication of the Invasions or Immigrants. It has been this way ever since - a city of distinct haves and have-nots.

But the upsurge in popularity of hip hop has helped to cross this geographical and psychological divide. Oscimar is a local DJ who runs Pro Vinil, one of the best record shops in town, which also has a healthy supply of Hora H on its counter. He's been running club nights called Da Bomb with Japao for years. Last year, they did the unthinkable. They threw a hip-hop night in the centre of Brasilia and invited all their old mates to come in from the periphery. "It was an opportunity for people on a low income to get dressed up and go out dancing in Brasilia," says Oscimar. "Before, that was unheard of. They were ashamed to say 'I live in the ghetto'. Now, they are proud of it because that is where hip hop came from."

Essentially, what Project H and the rappers are trying to do is to change attitudes that are as old as the country itself. In Brazil, they call it machista. We'd probably call it machismo, or outright sexism. "When I was 12," says Rappin' Hood, "I was helping my mother do the dishes. When my father came home and saw me standing there in an apron, he lurched at me and started attacking me. To him, it was women's work and he couldn't bear to see me do it. That is how boys in Brazil are brought up."

Evidence of machista is everywhere, and those who are deemed to be lacking in it are labelled florzinha, or "little flower". Until as recently as 1990, when Brazil's Civil Code was changed, this attitude was written into the law. If a man murdered his wife, he received a much lighter sentence if he could prove mitigating circumstances, such as her having an affair. One in every three Brazilian women is beaten by their partners at some stage in their life. Abortion in this Catholic country is illegal, but Brazilian women undergo a phenomenal number of illegal operations every year. Opinions are so entrenched on the subject that even progressive politicians such as the Brazilian President Lula da Silva fail to mention the issue as they know the impact that it would have on voters.

" Machista is a cultural norm and it's a huge problem for us," says Miguel Fontes. "Publicly, Brazil is very non-violent - the last time we were at war was in the 18th century against Paraguay, but domestically we are one of the most violent countries in the world. External causes - that is, homicides and accidents - are the second biggest killer in Brazil after heart disease. It's not viruses or bacteria that are killing us, it's our attitude problem."

A visit to Educational Centre No 3, in Ceilandia, for a Project H workshop, confirms his fears. Within minutes of passing through the electric security barriers, at least five heavily pregnant teenage girls wander past on their way to class. The school's director, Maria Helena, estimates that about 20 percent of the girls in her school are pregnant. "And that," she says, "is a very good, low figure."

Project H may sound like a cynical ploy on the part of Durex to capture the Brazilian market, but as Peter Roach, the social marketing controller at SSL, points out, Durex don't even sell in Brazil, nor are they likely to as Brazilians simply can't afford their prices. "Right now, Brazil is about where we were at in the mid-1980s," Roach says. "To get a condom there, you have to go to a pharmacy or family-planning clinic. We're trying to extend this to outlets such as music stores, bars, bakeries, pizzerias, because these are the places that are open late into the night where the kids go."

Roach, who has been working in the condom business since he started at the London Rubber Company back in 1985, is a mine of information on everything latex-related, from condom kitemarks to minimum length (180mm), minimum width (52mm) and capacity when fully inflated (Durex - 40l). He was the man responsible for getting condoms in the UK stocked in supermarkets and petrol stations. Twenty years ago, "condoms were the butt of every schoolboy joke," says Roach. "But when HIV hit in 1986, they went from being an under-the-counter purchase to one that was well and truly on top of the counter overnight. This is what we're hoping to do in Brazil." And just as we called them johnnies, Brazilians have a word for them - camisinha, or "little shirt".

As Miguel Fontes concludes: "In the 1970s, Brazil was all about political crisis; in the 1980s, it was economic crisis; in the 1990s, social crisis; and in the 21st century, we have arrived at a cultural crisis. We have to change our behaviour, and we have to change it radically."

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