(Issue 19) Feature: Kebra, a Hip Hop Culture Festival

An interview with Ayesca Mayara by Monique Murad (translated from it’s original version in Portuguese)

Photography by @wgnoclick

“Hip hop is not just a style of dance or music. Hip-hop is a culture of politics. A culture of favela politics, which has its fashion, its black money, which has all its issues of self-reliance. To be hip hop means seeking knowledge, seeking information and thinking collectively. To be hip hop means encompassing all artistic forms and expressions. It’s much more about collective movements and community than a musical style. So we were loyal to the hip-hop festival, but very much thinking about everything that SEJA does as a collective. And with that, Kebra emerged.”

When was the last time you looked up at a stage, and saw yourself? Thinking, “if that person can do it, so can I”?

We know that the higher you are on the ladder of privilege, the closer you are to that stage, or at least to where you can see the people on it as reference points for your life.

So what happens when you democratize this visibility, access, and the power of a community that believes and invests in you?

The Kebra festival felt like a portal to what the world would be like when we eliminate these inequalities.

The Kebra Hip Hop festival took place at the venue Fundição Progresso in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on November 3rd and 4th of 2023. The festival’s aim is to empower young entrepreneurs and artists by democratizing opportunities for artists and professionals in the hip hop scene. Kebra emerged to celebrate hip hop culture and promote social transformation through break dance battles (bboy, bgirl), hip-hop dance and MCs, slams, vogue, musical and theatrical performances, dance workshops, and much more. 

Kebra was organized by an organization called SEJA, and produced by Agencia Ruua. SEJA, which in Portuguese, means “to be,” is an NGO that believes in the power of culture and local community leaders as the key to eliminating systemic inequalities. Agencia Ruua, is an organization created to support clients with the aim of embracing the diversity and plurality of street movements. 

In conversation with Ayesca Mayara, Cultural Projects Manager at SEJA, and Kebra’s MC, we talked about what Kebra meant to her, to her community, and the role of Hip Hop in the the breaking down (or “kebra”) of these inequalities.

Tell us a bit about Kebra

Our aim was to give visibility to freestyling. The great freestyle dancers and MCs in Rio have no space in the job market. The people who are there on stage with big artists like Anitta, with Ludmilla, are the people from dance studios, they are the people who are rappers, but that only write and compose music – the big stages don’t have space for freestylers.

At SEJA, ever since we started Community Battles, we sought to create this space. And the only way we can do it is through these battles. We make them profitable for these competitors and bring visibility to freestyle. 

So we put on the Festival bringing to the forefront this idea of ​​freestyle battles as entertainment so we could get these artists the resources they need. We wanted to prove that watching a dance battle is the same as seeing a show by a big artist – because it’s an incredible experience of entertainment and culture – to see someone head-spin and battle for the prize money, for an opportunity for themselves.

The festival supports this process of making freestyle profitable, and the finals are a big attraction. Each person worked and competed all year to be there.

Another thing that I think is very important about the Kebra Festival was the sponsorship process. In 2019, we put on these battles with our hearts. We tried to get as much money as possible to give out some prizes and encourage the participants. But now, the festival focuses on awarding monthly sponsorships precisely because of this care for the artist. They see this money as an opportunity for a fixed income, for a year, to actually produce dance. So they don’t have to go to the subway to dance every day, knowing that they will have that money to pay the rent. To actually be able to dance.

What was Kebra for you?

When I started at SEJA, I was constantly having to reassure myself, saying “man, is this place really for me?

Everyone would delegate to me, because I also represent the community they are seeking to support. And then I began to understand how important my work was within the organization to make it more humanized. To do work with real impact. I say all the time that SEJA took me out of the subway. I worked on the subway every day, and I could only pay my rent. When it wasn’t enough, I would dance in the street and “pass the hat” around. This is the reality for many artists here in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in freestyle.

So within SEJA, seeking and bringing these paths to my own people, with the encouragement of having help, of directing this money that SEJA wins for them…I said: bro, I do belong here. 

I cried a lot when Kebra ended, and why did I cry? Because It was this festival that made us believe in our dream. 

Agencia Ruua (Ruua Agency), which provided production support for the event, with all their knowledge of event production, made us believe too. They said there are people who are doing much less impactful work than you, just for money, using the culture, and you really do it for the culture, for the scene. Let’s make it big. 

It was the beginning of a path of what I really want to do and who I want to do it for. Which is for my people. This is real hip hop. 

Hip hop is not just a style of dance or music. Hip-hop is a culture of politics. A culture of favela politics, which has its fashion, its black money, which has all its issues of self-reliance. To be hip hop means seeking knowledge, seeking information and thinking collectively. To be hip hop means encompassing all artistic forms and expressions. It’s much more about collective movements and community than a musical style. So we were loyal to the hip-hop festival, but very much thinking about everything that SEJA does as a collective. 

And so, Kebra emerged.

What were some of the most impactful moments at the Festival?

There were moments that had a real constructive impact on me. First, there was a moment during the MC battle when the microphone went out when one guy was rhyming, and the judge said that she didn’t vote for him because she didn’t understand what he was saying, and then voted for the other guy. I felt that MC’s pain because his dream was crushed in our battle. In moments like this you see that it’s about doing this work for real, doing it right, and that can be very difficult. The sound guy won’t understand that if a microphone glitches when the MC is rhyming, his rhyme will lose total meaning with the beat. I’m also a freestyle MC, I’ve battled a lot in the past, so I know how important this is.

This is something that I will always remember and take away from the experience – that it is important for those of us who have the knowledge and understanding of this, to always work to do right by the competitors. There’s no way someone can host a break battle if they don’t understand the minimum needed to put on the ground so the b-boy doesn’t get hurt. And this happens in different ways, people trying to use our art to promote themselves, but not putting our own people to help develop the experience. Because we understand the needs, because it is our dream, and it is our pain. 

Another positive thing, a lot of people didn’t believe that SEJA could hold an MC battle. And we held our community battle circuit throughout the year, doing these MC battles. But what also had the most impact was the union of the elements, because they are two very separate cultural scenes, dance and MC freestyle. 

Both are huge, and if we come together, we will become even bigger. There are more than 180 cultural circles throughout Rio de Janeiro that hold MC battles. And dance has more than 27 groups spread across Rio. So many battles, several open training sessions for people to learn about freestyle. So if these two come together, we can be even greater and strengthen as a community. One of the most incredible feedback moments I received was when the MCs were saying, bro, man, you guys made this amazing, because I’ve never seen a dance battle. The people were really impacted by it all. 

Another moment was when a random person who just passed through Lapa, came in on the first day and went on the second as well, pulled me over and said, come here, what’s going on here? I came yesterday. There’s a crazy amount of stuff going on, there were people singing, dancing. And she got my contact and said, I have a snack stand here in Lapa, when you need it you can go there and eat.

And then I really understood how cool this is for entertainment. Because she thought the guys were singing their own song, she didn’t think the guys were rhyming freestyle. And she thought the guys were dancing choreography, but they were just dancing freestyle. This is so powerful, you know?

She got to know a new world and publicized it on her social networks. So it also helped with spreading the word and we saw how she was also willing to be there as a part of our community. She said, come eat! Is that boy hungry? Come on, I’ll fry one for him! This shows how welcoming this environment is too, how when people get to know the freestyle community, they are willing to help make it big, they are willing to help it grow.

What was the fundraising process like for the event, given that it was free?

We presented the work to companies and many companies would say, no, this is not for me.

I said, what do you mean?” How come companies don’t see themselves supporting this work? And we didn’t talk about “dance and hip-hop”, we talked about “social transformation”, “promoting culture”. And companies said it wasn’t for them. So much of this prejudice and racism with hip hop culture is still rooted in companies in a structural way. 

Not only in fundraising, but also in how people come and promote our work. It is still very difficult for peripheral and favela culture, for Black culture. MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) is all good, samba is all good, now, because they found a way to “whiten” samba. Samba, yes. But not yet hip-hop, because we still have this resistance to fight for our origins.

During the government of Bolsonaro, they banned art in public transport, again. It had only been three years that we were able to legally perform in these spaces. But we fought for the new government to repeal this law. And to this day, we haven’t managed to do it. We tried everything.

All the dancers and all the MCs that were there at Kebra, they all came from these spaces. They all worked on the street doing freestyle. It’s the only way to freestyle, you know? Doing freestyle is to “pass the hat.” 

As a community, how do we change this if we tried all other ways? We need to always show how powerful we are. The newspapers will always highlight about our communities that, “so and so was robbed”, but now there will also be a “the huge Kebra Festival, artists winning.”

We have to show more of the power of the favela, because in the newspaper we will only see our culture being marginalized.

And what is next year’s northstar?

Next year we are very motivated to improve small points that make a lot of difference, thinking about people and competitors.

But next year we really want to cover everything we thought we would cover this year, which are more dance categories. We also wanted to bring in other elements, such as a graffiti battle category. We really want to make it more complete. I think this year was a kickoff, but next year we are very hopeful that we will be able to put together all the elements and include all the battle categories of all the communities that are involved with SEJA.

We want it to be a real competition. Just like all the others. But this year we had to do it in a smaller format due to time and money.

So, for next year, more access to everything we do, fixing the things we went through this year., and showing everyone what Kebra is, and its potential. We want to bring everyone to discover this world of freestyle. We want SEJA to reach more kids, more artists, and more people.

About Ayesca Mayara

Ayesca Mayara Souza is the Cultural Projects Manager at the NGO SEJA and was MC at the Kebra Festival. She has participated in several shows with the dance “passinho foda”. With the company Passinho Carioca she performed in the shows “Resistência” and “Na Manhã”, toured SESC Rio and performed at the municipal theater.

As a dancer she has performed on many different stages, from performances in the subway to the favela stage of Rock in Rio.

Current projects include: NGO Tio Lino; BeTV; BeHubs; Battle of California; Cypher Be; Colectivos AsMarias.

Born in October 1993, she currently lives in the Vidigal favela but is active throughout Rio de Janeiro with passinho and funk.


Learn more about SEJA Hubs

insta: @seja.hubs @seja.tv

Learn more about Agência Ruua

insta: @agenciaruua

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