They are proud of the bronze Michael Jackson statue that stands on the edge of a little square in the Santa Marta favela in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s the only one in Rio,” said 32-year-old Thiago Firmino, DJ, local resident and our tour guide. Its arms stretch out to embrace a dizzying view of Rio, and of the shanty town that tumbles down the hillside below. On the wall behind it is a Michael Jackson mosaic.
It was here that director Spike Lee filmed scenes for the video to Jackson’s 1996 hit They Don’t Care About Us. Rio authorities originally opposed the video because they felt filming in a favela would show a negative side of the city, which at the time was bidding to host the 2004 Olympics. Nearly two decades later, with both the 2014 World Cup final and the 2016 Olympics set to be staged here, Rio is no longer quite so ashamed of its favelas. Officially, it has 763 of them, (according to the 2010 census), and they are home to almost 1.4 million people, or 22% of the city’s population.
Lee’s video plays on a loop in the little tourist shop that Thiago’s parents run on the square, Praça Cantão. The alleyways in which Jackson danced seem little changed but lower down, a square at the foot of the favela has been brightened up with a 7,000-square-metre lick of paint. The Favela Painting art project, created by Dutch duo Haas&Hahn, with the aim of boosting community pride, has seen 34 houses painted in a rainbow of bright colours.
In 2008, Santa Marta was the first favela in Rio to be “pacified” under a state programme to expel its drug gangs by installing a police base and initiating social change projects. Since then, another 34 favelas have been pacified. Santa Marta is held up as the model and has become a stop-off for visiting celebrities, Madonna, Beyoncé and Alicia Keys included.