Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock.com

The school Spin Rocinha teaches young Brazilians how to DJ, no charge.  

In Rio de Janeiro's sprawling Rocinha favela, students learn to wield second-hand mixers and blend beats in an unusual locale: a bedroom-sized DJ school called Spin Rocinha. Asking neither tuition nor experience—required by academies in the surrounding wealthier neighborhoods of São Conrado and Gávea—the instructors at one of Brazil's most unique music schools have become mentors to a group of young song-selectors-to-be in the hopes of providing a brighter future for at-risk youth.

"Anybody who has ever been to Brazil knows we love music—even our Portuguese sounds like we are singing," says Spin Rocinha founder Renato da Silva, a.k.a. DJ Zezinho. "We already have two music schools in the favela but they operate [separately from] what we do. Why not add DJing?"

Zezinho founded Spin Rocinha in 2011. A professional DJ, he has nearly two decades of experience performing in clubs around the world. Though he was born in Brazil, he spent years in the U.S. and Canada before returning to Rio, and ended up settling in Rocinha in 2007. The 51-year-old is now Rocinha's loudest and most passionate cheerleader: his entire body is covered in Rocinha-related tattoos (current count: 30), and he distributes "self esteem" bracelets declaring "I <3 ROCINHA" to residents for free.

The DJ school is an extension of his love for Rocinha, born of a desire to give back to the community by inspiring its youth through music. "The sense of accomplishment is big for favela people who would never have this opportunity without our program," he says.

Zezinho hopes to provide a creative outlet, as well as professional opportunities for up-and-coming artists. With an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 residents (far higher than the official census count of 70,000), Rocinha is the largest favela in Brazil, and one of the most densely populated districts in Rio de Janeiro. Thousands of colorful houses stacked high on top of each other cascade down a steep hillside to the beach. Essentially a city within a city, Rocinha is jam-packed with a wide range of businesses and services, from 24-hour banks to baile funk clubs blasting earth-rattling beats. But a lack of critical infrastructure and educational support remains a challenge.

Tourists exploring Rocinha in 2012 (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

On average, Rocinha residents receive just over four years of formal education. Less than 1 percent of the favela's adult population holds a degree above a high school diploma—a huge problem for the community, as the majority of jobs paying livable wages in Brazil go to those with advanced degrees. In lieu of degree programs, vocational training is available, but often unaffordable to favela residents.

DJ training schools outside of the favela cost between 800-2000 reais, equivalent to $300-$745. Rocinha residents' average monthly income is $240—making such programs completely out of reach to local youth. Accessibility was of utmost importance to Zezinho, so Spin Rocinha was launched as a free program, open to all Rocinha residents. Equipment is largely purchased with funds from Zezinho's tourism company, Favela Adventures; additional supplies and expenses are covered by donations from tourists and visiting DJs.

Zezinho eventually partnered with Dembore Aredes da Silva, a 26-year-old local DJ, to run the school. Dembore, a Rocinha resident who spent years honing his skills in New Jersey, has been volunteering his time at Spin Rocinha for the last two-and-a-half years.

Spin Rocinha offers after-school classes, as well as a variety of one-off workshops and events, specifically designed to support disadvantaged youth. "When I was a kid, I had problems with family and many other things," says Dembore. "My classes are like great therapy. For me and for them too." Zezinho adds, "For young people, it's kind of a cool thing since DJs—like Skrillex, DeadMau5—are in right now and coming to the forefront of the music industry." The program currently serves 18 students of varying ages, with most classes capped at six students, and operates six evenings a week, Monday through Saturday.

Zezinho (front, in white) and Dembore (center, in red)
(Spin Rocinha)

"People come here because its a relaxed atmosphere and no pressure," Dembore says. Beyond teaching kids basic technical skills like mixing and matching beats, Spin Rocinha provides digital production workshops to teach students how to make their own electronic dance music, and informal academic support—the courses require students to learn basic English to read the labels on the DJ equipment, most of which is imported from the U.S.

"Not everyone can sing. Not everyone can dance. But this is another way to enjoy music, and if our students want to, they can become professional DJs and we can find them work," Zezinho says.

Rocinha, like virtually all favelas in Rio, has relatively high crime rates stemming from decades of drug trafficking and gang violence. Zezinho is clear that he wants to mentor, rather than "save," local kids. "If you have projects, or you have activities, the people will gravitate to you, and if they stick with it, chances are they won't be out running in the streets and doing drugs and getting into trouble," he explains. Three of the school's students are now getting steady DJ gigs, although it's still a part-time job for them, Zezinho says.

The next step in the organization's evolution is buying a building to meet rising demand for classes; Spin Rocinha can only comfortably accommodate eight to 10 people at a time right now. The ideal space, Dembore says, would have a classroom, a recording studio, and practice space for students to work on producing their own music. Zezinho has been eyeing one particular building for quite some time, and hopes to make the big move by the end of this year. One the space is secured, Zezinho and Dembore plan to launch an online podcast to showcase student work, and possibly a community radio station.

"I'd like to see things improve here, and I really, sincerely think that if everybody does a little bit, then the favela becomes a better place," says Zezinho. "I'm doing my part with this project."

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