How Michael Jackson Reinvigorated Tourism in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

Michael Jackson statue in Brazil

Growing up in the 1990s, I saw Brazil as the powerhouse in international football (or soccer for our North American friends). When they won the 1994 World Cup, I recall everyone in school celebrating scoring a goal playing football as Bebeto did when he put his arms out, rocking it left to right, now known as the baby celebration. I also grew up wanting to visit the country after Michael Jackson (MJ) went over to film his music video, ‘They Don’t Care About Us.’ I was and still am a massive MJ fan. I got the chance to visit back in 2018; here is why it was so memorable. 

Rio de Janeiro

Rio was on my list of places to travel for one other reason – The Christ the Redeemer statue. I was on a journey at the time trying to see all the Seven Wonders of the World, but I also had an eye on heading over to the favela that MJ made internationally famous: Santa or Dona Marta. At the time of the news of him filming the music video, there was a divide amongst people. The knowledge that poverty in Rio would be used as an international image as urban misery sparked emotional debate. 

Ronaldo Cezar Coelho, who was the state secretary for Industry, Commerce, and Tourism, at the time protested that such a video would damage the city’s image. He told a local newspaper, “I don’t see why we should have to facilitate films that will contribute nothing to all our efforts to rehabilitate Rio’s image.”

Another prominent individual at the time, Cristina Becker of the Rio Convention Bureau, said: “We’ve always oriented producers to show the good that Rio has. If Michael Jackson only wants to show the bad side, it’s better that he not come.” Even Pele, the soccer legend, went on record saying Jackson’s filming would hinder their Olympic bid for 2004. 

Fast forward two decades later, with both the 2014 World Cup final and the 2016 Olympics staged in Rio, the city is no longer quite so ashamed of its favelas. Largely thanks to Michael Jackson, Dona Marta has become a tourist hotspot. 

Santa/Dona Marta

Elias Dudre and his family have lived in Dona Marta for generations. It was a pleasure meeting Elias, a local tour guide for the favela and being shown around by him in late September 2018. He told me the favela has become Internationally known due to what Michael Jackson did back in 1995. He said, “Since Michael Jackson came here, many more have come to visit. Madonna, Vin Diesel, and Paul Walker, who both filmed Fast Five here. Bradley Cooper came with his friends. There are so many other famous celebrities. Not to mention people like you, tourists from all over the world. I am so happy to have my home visited.”

Dona Maria Brazil

I was so pleased to hear this, as, over the years, there have been problems relating to gang violence. But as Elias explained to me, as long as you are taken on an organized tour or with someone known to the favela, you will have no problems. 

I only had one request for Elias, which was to show me all the spots Michael Jackson filmed in the video. He said that was not a problem as long as I would go to his house for tea as his guest. I told him that it would be my honor. 

Michael Jackson Mural

As I was being shown around the favela, I found it unbelievable how the houses were built on top of one another. And the colors of the building on the exterior made it look so majestic. I visited local schools and met many people who were inviting me over for dinner. I then got to the alleyways that Michael Jackson danced away in and then to the place where his statue now lives. There it was, arms out with his iconic sunglasses on. It was jaw-dropping. It was situated where you can see Christ the Redeemer statue and Sugarloaf Mountain on either side of the figure. There was also a mural of MJ next to the statue, which was pretty impressive as well. 

Elias explained to me, “No matter the troubles here, no one touches this statue. This is a symbol of greatness given to us by Michael Jackson. People regard this place as wholly sacred ground.” I definitely got that feeling, and Elias told me that this place also filmed most of his dance sequences.

michael jackson statue

After getting my MJ fix, I headed over to Elias’s house for tea. It was an honor to have been invited into someone’s house and to make me feel at home; he put on the music video, ‘They Don’t Care About Us.’

When it was time for me to leave, I felt a little sad, as it really was a huge highlight of my visit to Rio. I thanked Elias for showing me around and providing me with hospitality as well. He only had one request from me before I left. I asked what it was, and he said, “Please tell all your friends and family of Dona Marta and what life we have here. Maybe one day they will visit.” I said, of course, I would, and next time I visit, I would love to stay for dinner. He said that was a deal. 

Lasting Legacy

Favela Alley Way

Initially, everyone was worried that the music video would harm Rio and Brazil’s tourism with the poverty on display. It couldn’t be more on the contrary. It has opened the door to many others worldwide visiting. Why wouldn’t they visit? It’s such an awe-inspiring experience to behold. I still have to pinch myself; I got to walk the same path Michael Jackson danced away.