Tapping into the cultural power of the global hip-hop movement, Manoel Johnson helps poor Brazilian youth channel their energy into productive social engagement rather than succumbing to gangs, drugs, or violence.
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Opportunities for positive self-expression are scarce for young people living in the poor urban neighborhoods of Brazil; many lack the basic resources, career prospects, and skills they need to build rewarding lives. Manoel spreads an organizing model that fills these gaps, balancing goals of social and economic empowerment. To draw and sustain the interest of young people, Manoel integrates hip-hop culture into all aspects of his program, the Movimento Hip-Hop Organizado (MH2O). He works with young people to create graffiti art, perform rap music, and design and market products for sale to a wide audience. Through Manoel’s movement, young people across Brazil build entrepreneurial skills, tackle social problems, and find their creative voice, all while securing a steady stream of income.
The number of young people living in Brazil has exploded in the past decades, posing a grave challenge to systems of education, employment, and health. The nation is now home to 47 million people between the ages of 15 and 29, of whom 34 million are below the age of 25; these numbers are quickly rising. Social structures in Brazil are ill-equipped to deal with the emerging population boom. In particular, a stagnant economy has left more than 65 percent of young people unemployed. With few prospects for work and little opportunity to contribute meaningfully to school or community, Brazilian youth increasingly turn to crime to secure basic income. Involvement in crime exposes them to great danger; youth account for 69 percent of the nation’s prison population; and homicide causes more than 44 percent of young deaths.
Growing up poor in the cities of Brazil, young people face a host of obstacles to long-term success. Traditional modes of community engagement like student movements often fail to draw them away from violence and crime. Although some institutions claim to serve youth, few allow young people to have a say in the development and direction of programs.
Searching for an approach that can more powerfully include youth, some groups have attempted to tap into the cultural power of hip-hop. The fit between hip hop and youth empowerment programs is in some ways natural: confronting the problems of economic and racial isolation and political exclusion are essential elements of the hip-hop movement around the globe, expressed most visibly in rap music, graffiti art, and breakdance. However, hip-hop has its share of problems: it has often been co-opted by recording studios looking to turn a profit at all cost; and it has sometimes fallen victim to intolerance along lines of gender and race. Citizen sector organizations that incorporate hip-hop into their work struggle to reap its benefits without suffering from its faults.
Manoel spearheads a model for youth mobilization and employment that contends with the structural barriers to youth participation and directly promotes voice, equity, and inclusion. His group MH2O began as a loose network of student “posses” taking part in talent shows and school workshops in the early 1990s. It has now transformed into a full-fledged enterprise complete with shops, production houses, talent agencies, and a recording company.
In the production houses, artists develop designs that youth can then replicate in MH2O studios or in their own homes. As youth learn to apply graffiti designs to t-shirts and sell their first few items, they begin to build the capital to buy the tools they need to go into business on their own. Stable sources of income lead these young people away from future participation in criminal or gang activity.
Manoel involves hundreds of youth in various phases of the creation and performance of the products of hip-hop culture, helping them gain a wide range of skills in business and leadership. With his support, youth coordinate performances, act as agents for the performers, and develop and carry out trainings for their peers. MH2O hosts roughly 1,000 art and education events each year, including the state Break Circuit, designed to promote and develop breakdancing as a sport. At the recording company, youth develop thousands of songs, jingles, and full albums under the tutelage of MH2O artists, who Manoel recruits through regional competitions. The efforts of his young artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs come together at the MH2O store. Manoel plans to open stores throughout Brazil to increase visibility of his movement and open economic opportunities for young people throughout the country.
Manoel ensures that the economic opportunities he creates produce maximum social benefit by conducting all MH2O business collectively. He guides young people to make the decisions that drive the company, carefully organizing committees and discussion groups for maximum participation. The work of the committees goes far beyond the strict limits of business; young people in MH2O help to secure benefits including health insurance and job training for their communities. They also talk through ways to promote gender equity and prevent violence.
Under Manoel’s leadership, MH2O has expanded far beyond its home district of Fortaleza. It sponsors more than 28 branches in the Northeast and Southeast regions of Brazil. In Ceará state alone, the organization boasts 6,000 members. Manoel anticipates working closely with the National Small Business Agency and other citizen sector organizations to expand MH2O’s throughout his country.
Manoel Johnson was born in 1969 on a farm in the Aguái district of Itapajé, Brazil. In 1989, he moved to Fortaleza and had his first experience of social activism, joining a movement to secure resources for underserved students in the wake of a teachers’ strike. In this movement he began to see the popularity and potential of hip-hop culture; as they advocated for their rights, young people were breakdancing, rapping, and skateboarding by the dozens.
Using hip-hop culture as a basis for recruitment and mobilization, Manoel established a group called Proletarian Anarchy. In the early years he focused primarily on community organizing, but he soon began to realize that his goals for social engagement among youth could not succeed without economic independence. He founded MH2O to help secure both social and economic power for the young people of Brazil