Hip-hop was born in New York but if you talk to most young people in São Paulo, Brazil, they’ll tell you that they feel like it belongs to them. No one will deny it is an American import, but after more than two decades of hip-hop, pronounced “hippy hoppy” in Portuguese, local hip-hop has developed explicitly Brazilian characteristics.

Hip-hop history is serious business in Brazil; the four elements (DJs, Break Dancers, Graffiti Writers, and MCs) are sacred. Their b-boys and b-girls compete on an international level, DJs can scratch and mix with the best of them, graffiti is so big that Santo Andre – a city on the outskirts of São Paulo – hosted the first world show of graffiti last summer. Rap has developed so much that many don’t even listen to American rap and there are about seven different styles, including gospel, gangster, “futuristic,” underground and rock fusion.

In many ways Brazilian hip-hop started out under the same conditions as it did in the United States. Many in the hip-hop community relate to the social and economic conditions that hip-hop talks about within our own country. Drugs (especially crack) have taken over the favelas – Brazilian shantytowns – and extreme levels of economic inequality and poverty coupled with drug-related violence means that the majority of Brazilian youth live in precarious situations.

Hip-hop has become one of the central tools of social criticism for a marginalized youth with little prospects for employment and extremely limited access to education. Through rap they learn about Zumbi dos Palmares – a hero in the struggle against slavery – and other important Afro-Brazilian leaders; they learn about the history of Brazilian People’s struggle to end the military dictatorship; and for many, it’s where they are introduced to concepts of revolution, socialism and democracy.

While they learned a lot from American hip-hop and followed our lead on many things, there are quite a few lessons we could stand to learn from the Brazilian experience. The b-boys and -girls, DJs, rappers, and graffiti writers have traditionally organized themselves into what they call “crews,” which not only dedicate themselves to their art forms but also perform community service and work to organize the young people in their neighborhoods to pass on both the art and social consciousness.

Today in most neighborhoods there are hip-hop-centered community projects and there even exists a community center that was converted into a House of Hip-Hop Culture in Diadema – a city on the outskirts of metropolitan São Paulo. The House of Hip-Hop Culture, which has become a model for many other communities and cities throughout Brazil, is an entire community center dedicated to the four elements of hip-hop that offers workshops, classes, free concerts, and a library to anyone interested in learning about hip-hop. Many Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also begun to incorporate hip-hop as a way to educate the public on issues of democracy and citizenship, sexuality and STDs, and even as a part of literacy campaigns.

This year for the first time, during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the hip-hop heads organized a National Hip-Hop Forum. Taking advantage of the World Social Forum, hip-hoppers from all over Brazil traveled to Porto Alegre to discuss the future of hip-hop in Brazil, the political landscape and situation of young people, and ways to organize themselves to better fight for the interests of their communities. They have vowed to continue to annually hold national hip-hop forums and to organize them in their cities and states to respond to the changing situations facing their communities. In the recent months they have become particularly active in the movement against war in Iraq and participated in the historic day of worldwide protest on Feb. 15.

In Brazil, hip-hop for most isn’t just something you do; it’s something you live and breathe. As the late rapper Sabotagem was often quoted as saying “rap é compromiso” – rap is a commitment. Hip-hop is the way that they express themselves, the way that they communicate with a society that often disregards them and most importantly it’s their way to contribute to the construction of a new Brazil.

This article is excerpted with permission from Dynamic, the magazine of the Young Communist League USA. The author can be reached at ycl@yclusa.org