‘Girl Power’ by Marisa Meltzer and ‘Culture Is Our Weapon’ by Patrick Neate and Damian Platt

Grupo Cultural AfroReggae performs in 2008.
(Copyright: Steff Langley / Penguin Group)

Girl Power

The Nineties Revolution in Music

Marisa Meltzer

Faber & Faber: 162 pp., $14 paper

Culture Is Our Weapon

Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro

Patrick Neate and Damian Platt, preface by Caetano Veloso

Penguin: 224 pp., $14 paper

Riot grrrls influenced and inspired young Marisa Meltzer. “I can’t think of anything more exciting to my nascent feminist fourteen-year-old self,” she writes, “than photos of girls in halter tops, torn fishnets, and smeared red lipstick.” The bratty, girl-first movement led by Kathleen Hanna and other punk rock women in the Pacific Northwest is at the core of “Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music,” which attempts, unconvincingly, to map out its legacy.

Hanna’s Riot Grrrl Manifesto, full of vigorous feminism and anti-capitalist bravado, appeared in a fanzine in 1991. The late 1980s and early ‘90s were a heyday for small-run print magazines, which helped connect a vibrant, pre-Internet, underground music culture. Generally punk with shimmerings of pop, this underground music exploded into chart-topping popularity with Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in 1991.

Hanna’s manifesto -- and her confrontational punk band Bikini Kill -- got swept up in the tide. Meltzer details a spectrum of avowedly non-hierarchical riot grrrl activities, including debates about the shape of feminism, public discussions of sexual abuse and broad encouragement for girls to do things themselves -- create zines, start bands, fix motorcycles. Riot grrrls did capture the media’s attention, but for their fashion: crop tops and micro minis, hair up in baby barrettes, words like “SLUT” and “RAPE” scrawled across flat bellies in lipstick and magic marker. Feeling that the feminist message was getting lost, Hanna in 1994 asked riot grrrls to stop speaking to the press; the diffuse riot grrrl movement subsequently faded away.

“Riot grrrls’ rage begat the more media-friendly Hole and Babes in Toyland,” Meltzer writes, even though singer Courtney Love had already formed Hole and was filling no one’s Army boots but her own. Similarly, Meltzer attributes the wide popularity of “angry girls” Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair and Tori Amos less to their own experiences (respectively: getting dumped, taking on the Rolling Stones and sexual assault) than to the riot grrrls who preceded them.

All of this is rather problematic, but what follows is even more so. Using the weak hinge of their song lyric “girl power” (a phrase the riot grrrls claimed), Meltzer moves on to British pop group the Spice Girls. While she ably conveys the degree to which the Spice Girls saturated the consciousness of preteens, she doesn’t explain the connection between riot grrrl in-your-face feminism and the Spice Girls’ cartoonishly sexy personas.

Do today’s female pop stars derive from the anarchic riot grrrl movement? Maybe. But they might be closer to earlier teen pop divas Debbie Gibson, Tiffany or even ‘60s star Lesley Gore. Too often, Meltzer revisits headline-makers without pulling back for the bigger picture. She mistakes chronology for causality. Sure, these musicians came after the others, but there were a lot of other influences and antecedents. The story of the shifting position of women in rock, and the unique place of the radical riot grrrls, is fascinating, but Meltzer has only part of it. That revolution is not yet chronicled.

If you are looking for a revolution that has been chronicled, “Culture Is Our Weapon: Making Music and Changing Lives in Rio de Janeiro” examines the music and cultural tumult of the Brazilian favelas with a clear eye. The book has many things going for it, not the least of which is co-author Patrick Neate, a British journalist whose comic mystery “City of Tiny Lights” was a finalist for a 2006 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Neate and co-author Damian Platt bring a deeply curious outsider’s perspective to Rio, and the book moves easily from cocktails on elite balconies to government offices to the dangerous favela streets.

The 600 or so favelas in Rio de Janeiro, home to about a third of the city’s residents, are shantytowns; they are overcrowded, poor and a safe harbor for the drug trade’s violent rival factions. Many favelas perch on peaks above and within the city, so someone relaxing in a high-rise is eye level with families ducking gunfire. As quasi-legal settlements, they have some resources, such as electricity, but not all: some have no roads; and Cidade de Deus, featured in the film “City of God,” has 50,000 residents but no secondary schools.

In 1993, José Junior, a dance party promoter in Rio, was putting together a newsletter and music workshops focused on Brazilian-African heritage -- a somewhat radical territory in the complex racial history of Brazil -- when violence in the favelas reached a new peak.

After four police officers were killed by a drug gang, 30 armed military policemen walked into a favela and killed 21 innocent civilians, including eight evangelical Christians sitting at home. Even in a young democracy with entrenched police corruption, this was an astonishing act. The news rocked the country, and Junior’s project was flooded with young people seeking an alternative to drug life.

Neate and Platt tackle complex political issues without it ever feeling like they’re delivering a lecture, partly because they weave in the voices of people involved in Junior’s Grupo Cultural AfroReggae, like JB, a former senior drug trafficker. “You can’t get away from the world that you lived in, the perverse things you saw and did,” he says. “Today I talk to these kids working as traficantes, and I know they want to get out. But they can’t, because there are no opportunities to do so. And that’s why I’m here.”

The band AfroReggae, the galvanizing force of the movement, combines hip-hop, reggae and samba; it has toured the world and, in 2006, opened for the Rolling Stones.

But Junior’s concept stretches beyond just one band -- it is fed by groups of drummers, dancers and singers. There is also a circus, artist workshops and a computer center.

Most important, in the violent conflict of Rio’s drug wars, AfroReggae is a cultural Switzerland. In a terrifying chapter, Neate and Platt describe a meeting with Junior and representatives of two opposing drug factions, lining up face to face on the street dividing their territories, with armed soldiers at the ready, during which Junior negotiates a brief truce so they can put on a concert.

“I have seen for myself very young children handling heavy weapons and it’s still unbelievable to me,” writes Caetano Veloso -- who performed with fellow musical icon and then-Brazilian culture minister Gilberto Gil in the favelas -- in the book’s introduction. “But AfroReggae?. . . . They have built houses of culture and music right in the middle of all this violence.”

Now that’s a revolution.

Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times’ book blog.