Straight outta Rio: BK-81 blasts aggressive protest hardcore/new metal exposing the dark side of the tropics

Author Flavia Andrade - 16.8.2021

When thinking of Rio de Janeiro the images that come to mind are usually those of a beachy tropical metropolis. But these four guys from the West Side of Rio, Zé Oliveira (drums), Rafael Diskordia (bass), Leo Sic (guitar) and Pablo França (vocals) show us that there is a lot more to it. With sounds reminiscent of Slipknot and lyrics like a slap in the face, the group reveals a mastery of energetic riffs, grooves and vocals that spill out harsh political and social criticism. Their latest single and music video, “Idiocracia” (Idiocracy) brings layers of symbolism depicting the current political misgivings of Brazil combined with pure musical aggression.

Chaoszine had the opportunity to speak to the band about their origins, sound, influences, and message. Check out the interview below.

Hello and thank you for talking to Chaoszine. How are you guys coping with the pandemic?

Oliveira: We had our last concert right before the official start of the pandemic here in Brazil in March 2020 – the day after we performed there was the first confirmed death. We were a little freaked out not really knowing what we were going to do, because we had a series of concerts planned. We has just launched an EP, we wanted to tour all over Brazil. We were caught off guard. So, we focused on social networks and made new music videos. We launched three of those in 2020, and now in 2021 we have a new one out, “Idiocracia”. This is the way we found to be closer to our audience, so the band doesn’t die and find new fans as well. We did a livestream on YouTube, but we can’t do those all the time. The format gets old so we try to innovate.

In 2015, you formed BK-81 in Santa Cruz, in the Deep West Side of the city of Rio de Janeiro. How did you decide to start a hardcore/new metal band in an area that is commonly associated with funk and samba? What has been the audience’s reception to your music?

Oliveira: I formed the band in 2015 with a different line-up. But as we defined our goals as a band the line-up changed: Pablo joined in 2017, Leo joined in 2018 and Rafael in 2019, one month before Rock in Rio festival. A little bit of trivia: Pablo first knew of us as a band in one of our concerts, so did Rafael. For Leo it was through social media. So, before they were in the band they were part of our audience.

Diskordia: We try to survive amidst this maelstrom of musical styles present here in Rio. Someone playing funk around the corner, some pagode [a style of samba] from across the street… The people who really like our sound show up for us on social platforms. The livestream we did was a success, we’re getting there. Little by little we’ve been able to make it within this rock n’ roll world which is a little mixed up.

What are your main musical influences and how does your sound come to life?

Diskordia: We are greatly influenced by new metal like Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot. Leo is also a big fan of Slipknot, Zé is really influenced by Deftones, and we are also influenced by Brazilian bands.

Oliveira: Yeah, each new arrival to the band brought in a new characteristic. I was always into New York hardcore like Biohazard, Madball. I’ve also been into Brazilian bands like Rodox in their hardcore/new metal phase. Then I followed Fernandão [ex-Rodox drummer] in Worst, which really influenced my drumming style. Then Pablo arrived with a more melodic approach, and Leo is into metalcore with lots of breakdowns, which I also really dig. Rafael, as he said, is more into raw new metal. We mix all of the above, but we also listen to other stuff outside of rock and metal. Maybe that’s why there is a Brazilian spice present in our sound.

Diskordia: We are different rock n’ rollers: in our barbecue parties there is always some pagode, Brazilian funk and pop playing. We have no prejudice! We are not just “rock musicians”: we are musicians in a broader sense, and we cannot close our minds to what is out there: it is also part of us.

Your songs all have very powerful messages, both from social and political points of view. Where does it all stem from?

Oliveira: Before BK-81 we were all in other bands and felt in our own skins the difficulties of being in a rock band in the favela communities of Rio de Janeiro. We have two choices: either play the victims and complain that we have no opportunities, or make ourselves the protagonists and try to burst this bubble and search for something different, like what came out in the lyrics of “Idiocracia”, for example. We always had a goal of writing lyrics that are socially engaged, also politically engaged, and when Pablo arrived it all fit perfectly. He assimilated this need of ours. So, let’s express all we go through here, lots of difficulties: for instance, in putting together a studio for us we had to use a garage in my mother’s house. And now, with more maturity and a lot more knowledge we have the opportunity of showing the world what we’re really about bringing forward, the themes and messages that we want to share.

You have released the EPs “Cidade Distante”, “Efeito Balrog” and “Favela” besides the singles “Vendedor de Fé”, “Zona Oeste” and your latest “Idiocracia”, which is a harsh criticism of the political corruption and current situation in Brazil. All your music is filled with social and political protest. It is great you guys are out there to fill this void. Please, tell us a bit more about that.

Oliveira: “Cidade Distante” (Distant City) was our first work. I wrote the lyrics and composed the songs mostly myself. Karol Felix, our former singer, wrote a couple songs but there was some trouble between the band members and we didn’t move forward together. “Efeito Balrog” (Balrog Effect) was recorded around the time Pablo joined us, in a time when we were reformulating the band. Our former bass player, who is still a very close friend of ours, Fabio and I had written some lyrics and some music. This “Balrog Effect” came into being at a time when the band needed a sort of rebirth. We were at a crossroads as a band, make or break. So, the title comes from this Street Fighter character, Balrog, who punches his way out of every tough situation. You can see on the cover art half an old dude half an alien, a bit shaken up and blurry, to give the viewer a sense of disturbance.

Sic: “Favela” was my first work with BK-81, and soon after, Rafael joined us. This was when we discovered ourselves in terms of musical style, showcased our evolution as musicians and as a band with a characteristic sound. This was also when we started launching our music videos with better production: the starting point of our growth. I feel very strongly about this one because of the new beginning as a band we are discovering who we are. And this is what ultimately led to “Idiocracia”, where we seek for something new but never letting go of our origins in terms of arrangements, of songwriting and lyrics.

Diskordia: I have been in other bands before, but because everything costs a lot here in Brazil, it is really hard for a band in its infancy to have well produced stuff out there to showcase their work. So with BK-81 it is the first time I have been able to participate in such a process completely. The title “Favela” was also about a continuation of the Rock in Rio thing [the band played on the Favela stage], and it gave us more visibility because of this connection.

BK-81 playing their critically acclaimed concert in Rock in Rio festival (2019), when most of their fanbase started to coalesce.

So, do you collaborate on your songs equally?

Oliveira: Yes, as I said before the guys knew the band before they joined and this gives them total confidence in songwriting. All of us work together, as equals. Pablo usually brings in lyrics, but we all suggest stuff to one another. For instance, the drum lines in “Idiocracia” stemmed a lot from ideas the other guys gave me.

Sic: This band is not a battle of egos! We are always helping each other out. Zé is a drummer, but he helps me out with ideas for guitar parts: it is an exchange amongst the band members. We are in this together and always want the best for us all.

Your music has been described as “a slap in the face of society”. The music video for “Senzala” (Slave House) ends with a quote by Angela Davis. Please tell our audience the importance of fighting racial inequality in a place like Rio, where it is usually hidden, and the favela is glamourized and portrayed as a tourist attraction.

Diskordia: I was raised in Rocinha, one of the largest and most famous favelas in the South End of the city. I saw it all: you go out to get some bread and you see something wrong going on. You go catch a bus, you see something absurd happening. I mean, really absurd things that are not shown on TV. My brother used to have a band and we rehearsed on the rooftop of a house that faced one of the main streets of the community. Everyday there was a Jeep full of tourists that stopped in front of our rehearsal place and took pictures of us. Like, they would even stop traffic to do this. That’s all very nice, but I think it’s really strange how people from other countries find the favela a beautiful thing, like it’s really interesting, as if we were an attraction in some kind of show. There are many stories of foreigners who move to Rio to live in Rocinha, because they think it’s wonderful. And, man, it’s not the fairytale they think it is. I went through a lot of bad situations when living there, there was always a gun fight going on; my family left there because it was unsafe. My mom was desperate to get us out of there, go live in a better place. But I still miss Rocinha, it’s a whole universe on its own, even though the lifestyle is really tough. I have friends and family still living there. But what the media shows and the people who don’t live there think does not correspond to reality.

Oliveira: To add to what Rafael just said, with “Senzala” we were trying to show what it is like to live in the favela and be from there. Because people glamourize it, but only those who live there know the real difficulties of everyday life. They know what it’s like to suffer for real, on a daily basis. It’s really easy to talk about racism and inequality if you haven’t lived it in your own skin.

Diskordia: We can talk about it with knowledge of what it’s like because we’ve been through it. No one can say we’re wrong about it, because we live it, they are our life experiences.

França: The murder of George Floyd happened the very week we launched “Senzala”, although the song had been ready for a while. The fight for racial equality was the main subject around that time, there were protests all over the USA, then around the world. Not that this fight was ever absent: here in Brazil life is a constant struggle for equality, especially when it comes to the police, the state branch that shows how much racism is rooted in our society. They have stopped us on the road and Rafael was treated differently because of the colour of his skin, or me. This is stuff that happens every day. Two of us are white, Zé and Leo, yet they still take up this fight with us, as if the problem was with them, too. Because the problems is theirs, too. It is everyone’s problem, as a society, and that’s why BK-81 is part of this fight.

Now back to the pandemic: what can the government do, both locally and on a nationwide level, to assist the arts and culture recover from the blow suffered during these difficult times? And what do you think the chances of that are given the current state of affairs in Brazil?

França: I think it will only change when Bolsonaro is no longer the president of Brazil.

Oliveira: If you don’t give any support to culture and music, if you think kids in school should only learn language and mathematics, but don’t think they should learn philosophy, if you think a man has to behave like this and a woman like that, then it’s a recipe for disaster. How can there be any stimulus for the arts if the government doesn’t set the example? They have given us all the signs they never will, every day something more absurd happens in this country because of the federal government. While they remain in power, there is no way out of this mess we’re in, there is no way to feed culture to those who are hungry for it.

França: We feel a lot of anger and sadness with all that’s going on. But culture is not over. We will still be here, no matter what the government does. During the military regime, from 1964 to 1984, artists still did their thing. They were persecuted but still kept on going, in exile, in prison. We are resilient: art is not an easy thing to do for a living. But we know for a fact that things will only get better in terms of support for the arts when these people are no longer in power.

You spoke of anger, and that is something very present in your music: it’s a very aggressive sound, like a punch to the gut.

França: We hear that a lot. We know lots of bands who put this anger in their lyrics but in a more subtle way, you’ve got to read between the lines. But not us: we spit it out in your face, we say it exactly how we mean it, no subtext. It will come out all at once, all the hate.

Sic: Except when we recorded “Zona Oeste”, we changed the lyrics in order to avoid mention of a certain criminal organization. But when we play it live, we just say it. We are not afraid.

França: We have no prudishness in talking about what oppresses us, and the way to take down oppression is to call it out. If you have no financial means to do that, you do it through your art.

Oliveira: In the area where we live the situation is absurd; all services are controlled by organized crime, like a monopoly: cable, cooking gas… And like Pablo said, we vent out the hate through our music. That’s where we can break it all with a more violent sound, because we believe that we can do it through art.

The rock and metal scene in Brazil is always effervescent with new music. What other Brazilian bands do you listen to? Any suggestions to our readers?

Band: I think Project46 brings a new face to the scene showing that metal is not dead, and, like every Brazilian we are fans of Sepultura. But outside the mainstream, Nervosa, Aurora Rules, John Wayne, Pense, are bands we listen to that influence us in some way. We like Forkill, a thrash metal band from Rio and Vitalism, also a great band. Violet Soda, Far From Alaska, Molho Negro are bands that play other styles of rock that we dig.

Oliveira: There is an abyss between underground bands and big bands that made it to the mainstream here in Brazil, and those lose track of where they came from, and how hard it is to do so. I think that’s really sad. We see talented friends of ours giving up on having bands because of this lack of support. We keep on going because we’re very stubborn!

França: The truth is we don’t think there is a scene per se, but rather cells that contain bands like us. People who were fed up with waiting for something greater to happen and decided to fight for ourselves. The thing is: don’t expect mainstream to show you good new bands, it’s not gonna happen. Here in Brazil, the best bands are hidden in the darkest and filthiest alleys. But it’s worth looking. And we’ll keep on moving forward despite lack of support. If need be, we will work harder to make things happen together with our friends in other bands. If anyone wants to reach out, go to our social networks, we will respond. As soon as this pandemic is over, things will go back to normal, we’ll go back on the road, drink a few beers. We will be spat on, get slapped in the face, but we’ll make some music together.

Thank you again for taking the time to talk to us.

Band: We thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. It’s like fuel to us!