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Vida Loka at home, on my desk

Vida Loka at home, on my desk

Source: Photo by the author

1I keep this brick on my desk where I do most of the writing. I like how, in a Lego-like and playful manner, it represents a small house, with two windows on the first floor, just above the “crazy life” ground floor. I think that the artist who made this wrote it with a “c” – instead of a “k” – on purpose. The “k” highlights just how crazy life can be. Even spelling becomes ridiculous. It could also, at the same time, refer to the song Vida Loka from the São Paulo rap group Racionais MC’s. In their 2002 hit “Vida Loka Part I”, these rational masters of ceremony rap:

Eu sou guerreiro do rap, sempre em alta voltagem
Um por um, Deus por nós, tô aqui de passagem
Vida loka! Eu não tenho dom pra vítima
Justiça e liberdade, a causa é legítima
Meu rap faz o cântico, dos loco e dos romântico
Vou por um sorriso de criança aonde for

“I’ a warrior of rap, always on high voltage
One for one, God for us, I’m here just passing
Krazy life! I have no gift for victim
Justice and liberty, the cause is legitimate
My rap makes the song, of the crazy and the romantic
I’ll put on a child’s smile wherever I go”

2I bought the brick in 2009 in Rio’s favela Morrinho. The small Morrinho project houses are made and sold as part of a communal art project which started in 1997 and now consists of a 400 square meter miniature favela with miniature houses, bars and schools as well as miniature residents, police officers, children and thieves. The Morrinho project organizes guided tours and educational programs, the first for tourists, the second for children. This miniature favela in a favela is also an online world with films streamed on TV Morrinho. The installations have travelled over the world, including to prestigious places like the Haus der Kunst in Munich and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

3The favela is not too far from Palácio Laranjeiras, the early 20th century palace that was built for one of Brazil’s wealthiest families. Today, it is the official residency for the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro. There could hardly be a bigger contrast than that between the residency down the hill and the small houses on top of the hill; between the tranquil park that surrounds the palace down the hill and the narrow twisted footpaths up the hill. Yet these two places and ways of living are intimately and historically connected. The large house and the small houses, one mainly for white people and the other mainly for black people, as an invocation of Casa-Grande e Senzala. Only today you need to cross the Engenheiro Noronha viaduct to go from one to the other. In Vida Loka Part II, Racionais MC rap:

Dinheiro é puta e abre as portas
Dos castelos de areia que quiser
Preto e dinheiro, são palavras rivais

“Money is a hooker and it opens the doors
Of the sandcastles you desire
Black and money are rival words”

4The brick stands for something that I try to do: showing the crazy life we all live, although admittedly some lives are crazier than others. Every time I visit Brazil, colleagues and friends tell me something like: “Erik, you have arrived at a historical moment, things here are crazy at the moment!” They are right. Back in 2002, Racionais MC was good at predicting the future, probably better at it than most social scientists. The future tends to reveal itself first in the small houses of Brazil’s favelas. Once every so often I think of a conversation I had with Claudia. We met in 2013 at a coffee bar in the once futuristic Asa Norte of Brasília’s Plano Piloto. This location is far from marginal, yet Claudia was involved in a small social movement called Marcha das Vadias (Slutwalk). Together with other meninas (girls) she protested against oppressive beauty standards and against politicians attempting to weaken women’s rights over their own bodies. With others she tried to imagine and create another life, one without misogyny. She had just returned from Rio de Janeiro where she joined a protest against pope Francis. Millions had come to Rio to celebrate the pope’s visit and disseminate conservative Christian values, almost always involving the control of women. Several politicians used the moment to propose new laws that, among others, would grant rapist rights over their children, even when they were imprisoned. Claudia and others took the 24 hour bus journey from Brasília to Rio to protest against all this. There she saw a few masked but otherwise naked protesters who had taken statues of Maria, Jesus and other religious icons along. They simulated having sex with the icons after which they smashed them to pieces. Some protesters cheered, others like Claudia felt that they took things too far. It would only alienate potential allies and therefore harm their cause.

5Over coffee Claudia tells me: “I know it sounds crazy, but sometimes when I go to sleep in the evening, I am afraid that I will wake up in a dictatorship.” Her own thoughts worried and embarrassed her: the world does not change like that overnight, life certainly cannot be that crazy. She said that she dismissed these thoughts, telling herself and me that they were not realistic. But a lingering feeling of unease nonetheless remained. I have not met Claudia since, but am curious to know how she would now, almost ten years later, reflect on the nightmare she had back then.

6In the call to this special issue of Etnográfica, the editorial board asked for “describing an object you [the authors] considered significant of your research path, your field of experience… describing the object you choose, its story, its role and relevance for you.” When I do fieldwork and co-construct data and meaning and then write about it, I end up telling my story too. Their stories come to the fore when they resonate with my own history. It is not that specific personal experiences are necessary in order to recognize other people’s experiences, although some personal experiences certainly do help when doing fieldwork. After all, fieldwork puts personal experience at the center of knowledge about a society. But I mean something else too. What I noticed is that one way or another I end up telling my own story through the stories of others. When I write about “their” predicaments with, for example, money and kinship, I write something about myself too. The texts always have this personal layer to them. When revealing the crazy lives of others, I end up with a subtext about the maybe not quite that crazy life that I lead. I realize that this might sound terribly narcissistic, but it is unavoidable and best to be recognized. It is unavoidable because shared experiences form the basis of the epistemology on which fieldwork is built. It is also unavoidable from a reflexive point of view. The language that we, or at least I have to express crazy lives is the result of our personal biographies, histories, and other positionalities.

7I am also fascinated by the fact that people can have such fundamentally different worldviews, with ideas and perceptions that leave me in awe but sometimes also shock and disgust me. But these worldviews can maybe be understood at some level if one recognizes the craziness of and in one’s own life. Societies are full of crazy dynamics, some of these are deeply felt and trouble people, while others remain unnoticed or are taken for granted. These contradictions are not only between cultures and societies, but also within a society, a family, and a person. Attention to craziness has theoretical implications. Theory sets out to explain differences, that’s what we need it for. But at a certain level of theoretical abstraction, when one enters a language that is too far removed from the experiences and chaos that Racionais MC perform, theory becomes a universalizing and oppressive force, unable to convey the Vida Loka, also in anthropology. Theory fails to capture the craziness of life when it shows or explains everything and everywhere; when it turns into verbal acrobatics that rises the status of theoretical insiders to dazzling heights. Such an approach to theory risks overlooking that theory is historically contingent, or only pays lip service to that fact. The biographies of the authors and the society and networks in which they participate are invested in theoretical approaches and therefore theory can never be universal. A universalizing approach to theory, also in anthropology, dehumanizes. When theory becomes too encompassing and too abstract, it renders doubt, incongruences and things so small that it can easily be overlooked. Theory then is a universalizing and ideological language that wrongfully suggests that life can be understood from one albeit complex point of view. Theory sanitizes by ignoring that which, from such heights, becomes meaningless. Although I recognize that theory is important, this universalizing and dehumanizing characteristic makes me deeply suspicious. Theory suggests authority over the world.

8When I do research and write about it, I try to capture a crazy world in miniature, but I cannot do so by painting bricks in green, red and white. I do not have the poetic and aggressive language that Racionais MC has. Those are not my worlds. I sometimes envy the freedom that other languages and forms of expression give. The best I can do is to approach theory iconoclastically and use its fragments wherever I find it useful. At the same time, I often hesitate to pay attention to the craziness of life. There is something comforting about using a theory that convinces oneself and others that everything fits, that everything falls into place and somehow makes sense. The hesitation is also because I do not want to make people that are included in my research look stupid, nor portray myself as unethical and lacking cultural relativism. For these reasons, there is a lingering impulse to leave the craziness out; to navigate around what is embarrassing and therefore difficult to see and write about; to use theory to control the world. The Vida Loka brick, next to my computer on my desk, reminds me that I need to stay close to what I see and experience and what people tell me; to make sure to keep my eyes open to whatever is uncomfortable for them, myself, and maybe the reader too.

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Título Vida Loka at home, on my desk
Créditos Source: Photo by the author
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Referência do documento impresso

Erik Bähre, «Vida Loka»Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 41-46.

Referência eletrónica

Erik Bähre, «Vida Loka»Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 28 janeiro 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Erik Bähre

Leiden University, Netherlands

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Creative Commons - Atribuição-NãoComercial 4.0 Internacional - CC BY-NC 4.0

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