Sitting on the terrace of a café in Codivel, Odivelas, Allen Halloween is arguing with two of his friends in a high tone of voice uncommon in this small square surrounded by buildings more than ten storeys high. The three of them are trying to reach a consensus on what to do when you point a weapon at someone. How should you act when you hold someone at gun point? How do you get the other person’s respect? How far should you go? What is more ethical? Is it worth shooting?
They all have their own theory, but none of them is able to go beyond the premise – when they intend to justify it, the other two are already interrupting his reasoning and talking even louder. It’s past 9 p.m. and the sun barely shines on the roofs of the dozens of cars parked here. Nobody is paying attention to the TV set where Russia and Algeria tie to a goal in a game of the group stage of the World Cup in Brazil.
At some point, the discussion tones down and Halloween seizes the opportunity to voice his opinion. He leans forward and places his elbows on his knees. The shirt he’s wearing, black with red stripes, clings to his body, his broad shoulders relaxed and stretching the fabric. Halloween raises his voice, which, as in his songs, is deep and commanding, almost cavernous. He pronounces the “ss” with a slight hiss, a characteristic in his voice highlighted by the gap that splits one of his front teeth in half, diagonally.
“Brother, let me tell you something”, he begins by saying, while touching Kangoma’s arm, who is to his left. Also known as Lucyfer or Lucy, he’s one of the rappers who get on stage with him in every concert. Across from Halloween is Capanga, a longtime friend. They both listen to him attentively.
“If a guy draws a gun, is because he wants to make a statement. Am I right?”
“Yes”, they reply in unison.
“Ok. So when you point a gun at a guy, maybe you don’t even want to shoot him. Think about it, brother. It can all go wrong and you’ll end up in jail for God knows how many years, and all for nothing. It’s not worth it. Why are you going to settle matters with a gun when it can all be solved with a few punches? You’re only pointing a gun at him to make a stand and to make sure he respects you. If the guy starts running from you like a dog, why shoot him? If he runs is because he is afraid, he respects you. You’ve proven your point, there’s nothing more to do there, your day is done.”
Capanga, who is wearing a black sweatshirt with the words of a song by Racionais MC’s, a household name in Brazilian hip hop, nods in agreement. Kangoma whose braids are hidden by a black cap with the inscription “Homies” in white, imitating the logo of the French luxury brand Hermès, listens closely to what Halloween is saying, though he rarely takes his eyes off the tablet that he’s holding.
“But one thing is true. Even if you don’t want to shoot the guy, if he starts showing you some attitude, you have to do something about it, man … Ah, ah! That’s a whole new thing. You get pissed, brother, you think… ‘Even though I’m holding a gun, this guy doesn’t respect me?’ Fuck, you gotta shoot the guy! He’s forcing your hand! You have to do it, it’s a matter of pride. Am I right?”
Kangoma sets the tablet on the red plastic table, sponsored by a national brand of beer, and replies in an even higher tone of voice, laughing at his every word. “Seriously, brother, if the guy starts giving me an attitude, then I have to smoke him! You don’t have a choice, he can’t disrespect you…”
Allen cuts him off. “That’s the only reason why I’m still alive. I’m just a big coward, seriously. If I see a gun pointed at me, I raise my hands and walk away! Ah, ah! Do you really think I’m going to stand up to a guy with a gun in his hand? No way, hands up. There are no heroes, man! No way, I get the hell out of there… Tomorrow is a new day!”
Kangoma bursts into laughter and Capanga, less vocal, laughs discreetly. As he often does after every joke, Allen makes a sound with his mouth. Impossible to reproduce into words, the sound can be described as a cross between Donald Duck’s pitch and the vibrations of a reco-reco, attainable by blowing air bubbles against the top of his mouth and his teeth. The aforementioned gap in the tooth is essential for this to happen.
Quickly, the conversation progresses to other topics, from football, to politics, religion and music. The tone seems to be always the same, loud and exaggerated, indifferent about who might overhear the conversation. They are joined by some people passing by, who widen the circle of plastic chairs around the table where Halloween rests his glass of beer and Martini. Whenever someone approaches, they greet Allen with a handshake in which first the palm of the right hand slaps the other guy’s hand. Then the gesture is repeated, this time with a closed fist. The greeting only ends when the fist goes to the chest, resting over the heart.
This is also how he says goodbye to his friends, close to 1 a.m. He has a wife and two kids waiting for him, and the following day he has to go back to his new album, “Híbrido”. Moreover, he scheduled a rehearse with rapper General D, one of the first names in Portuguese hip hop, who invited him to perform at a concert in Intendente Square, in Lisbon.
36 knife wounds
Most nicknames start out the same way. Generally, a group, depending on their characteristics and dynamics, chooses a particular individual. It doesn’t matter if the person worthy of the new epithet belongs to the group or not. On the other hand, it is essential that this person has something that makes him stand out from the rest, otherwise his civil name would be enough and would avoid possible confusion. But there’s something in this person that merits him a nickname, be it funny, flattering or facetious. The starting point that inspires a nickname doesn’t go far beyond physical attributes, personality traits or a story in which the individual in question has stood out. This is where the challenge arises for the group, compelled to find and successfully assign a nickname. The nickname is the result of the collective imagination, which, after a more or less intense brainstorming process, comes up with an ideal name.
This was not the case with Allen Pires Sanhá, when he became Halloween.
It was 1996 and Allen was 13 years-old, living with his mother and three brothers in Casal da Paradela, a former shantytown in Odivelas. They lived in a wooden house, plain and small, where sometimes it rained inside without great difficulty. Although they had electricity, thanks to a cable running to the neighbor’s house in exchange for 10.000 Escudos a month, the shack had no running water. So whenever they needed to cook, bathe or quench their thirst, they had to resort to a well.
In an afternoon when this task befell on him, Allen took the bucket and ran the 200 meters that separated his house from the well. When he got there, as he was turning the corner, he saw two men lying on the ground, one on top of the other. The whole thing lasted no more than five seconds, but Allen noticed that the one that was on top was a neighbor of his. Armed with a knife, the man was trying to kill the one he had pinned down. Allen counted four stab wounds. In panic, he ran away in time not to see the fifth. He ran home and, with his voice not yet fully formed through puberty, called out shrilly to his mother. “Mom! Mom! Varela is killing his friend!”
Later, the whole neighborhood became aware of what had happened: the murderer, who killed his friend with 36 knife wounds because he thought he had an affair with his wife, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for murder.
“When you see that kind of thing at 13 years-old, you’re scarred for life, there is no escaping that. At first, I was scared shitless, as if I had seen the devil. I remember taking a good look at the guy’s face, it was the face of death. You could see that he was eager to kill, that was all he wanted to do. Those things get you thinking. At 13 years-old, after seeing that, I thought I’d seen everything. Then time goes by and the thing sticks to you. From then on, I was fascinated with knives and guns and shit like that.”
From then on, Allen Pires Sanhá chose his own nickname. After making a list of the scariest, darkest names he could think of, he decided on one. From then on, his name would be Halloween.
It is no exaggeration to say that there is an Allen before this incident and another one that emerged from it. The first one was born in 1980, in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau, into a family that was rich enough to live in a two storey house, with an annex for their staff of 10 servants to live in. Most of the maids were distant cousins who lived outside of Bissau and asked Allen’s mother for a room in exchange for work. They had servants, cooks, driver and a person in charge of taking care of the children and taking them to the movies. His mother worked in a bank and his father took off when he left to study Economics at a university in Leipzig, the second largest city of what was at the time East Germany.
For reasons that seem to escape Allen, his mother chose to leave the comfort they had in Bissau to risk their fortune in Lisbon. When she reached the Portuguese capital with her two children, the family settled in an apartment with far worse conditions than what they had in Bissau. “It was a house full of immigrants near Estrela Park… It didn’t seem quite legal, there were people from all over. Around 10 people slept in the same room, piled one on top of the other.” Allen was four years old and this was the first of many places where his family moved to, always in or around Lisbon. Those were not good times, like Allen Halloween sings in his track “Jardim à beira mar plantado”, from his second album, “Árvore Kriminal”: “Do you remember, mother, when we begged for money in the garden bench of Póvoa church?”
It was only when Allen had just nine years-old that his family settled in Casal da Paradela, a neighborhood of which only the ruins of a single house remain: Varela’s house. He returned there while serving the last year of prison on probation. When you ask Halloween what influence did that neighborhood have in his youth, the answer couldn’t be more honest: “When I lived in this ghetto, I was a lot calmer. I started behaving badly when I started hanging around in Barruncho…”
Quinta do Barruncho is just over five minutes drive from Casal da Paradela. Barruncho remains a shantytown, mostly brick and plate buildings. The streets are narrow and crooked, covered in dirt, cement and some broken tiles. No cars enter this place – not even patrol cars.
“In those days, when we got in trouble with the police, it was normal to spend some time in hiding, in Barruncho. The police wouldn’t even go there, we were perfectly safe. Barruncho is like any other ghetto. It’s a place apart, where there is no law and no rule. In the ghetto you’re on your own, and so you can do whatever you feel like. But then there’s the other side. Everything that can happen, imagine anything, it can happen to you in the ghetto. It’s a risk. In the ghetto you can kill and be killed.”
When he began going to Barruncho, Halloween was already his adopted name. He was 16 years-old and had stopped listening to his mother. No one told him what to do anymore. “Imagine a mother with four children,” he says. “She cannot work and take care of them all… I’ve always had the freedom to do what I wanted and I came home as late as I pleased.” That’s when he took the first steps in the world of crime and delinquency. He did it as if he had no choice and didn’t know any better. More than a nickname, he had a status to maintain. So when he committed a crime, he would do it to preserve his authority more than out of need.
At the same time that he began his life of crime, Allen also got in touch with the hip hop circuit in Odivelas. Shy and reserved, he began by listening to the older boys doing battles and improvisations that he thought were good, but perfectly at his reach. Gradually he became more courageous and remembering some written papers he had done for school, he began to stand out. Just like the teacher who praised his writing and asked him to read his texts out loud to the rest of the class, the older boys started to let him participate in their street sessions. Soon enough, they took him under their wing and started taking him to rival neighborhoods to show off the Guinean kid who, on a good day, could bust some rhymes for half an hour straight.
“I began to be taken seriously because I was different from everybody else. I never said I was the greatest and put on airs. No, I would speak about myself, my reality and my gang. I was never into rap ego trips. I rap about my life, that’s what I know. I’m not gonna talk about someone else’s mother if I don’t even know her. I rarely went on an ego trip, and when I did it was all about the violence, it was all about ‘I’m coming to your neighborhood with a shotgun and I’m gonna kill you all’. That was the kind of environment we were in.”
Those were the years that inspired Halloween to write the song “Um dia na vida de um drede de 16 anos”, possibly one of his most popular tracks. On YouTube alone, the videos where this song can be heard have almost 2 million hits. It’s over ten minutes of music with a beat that is as simple as it is dark, where the rapper broadly describes what his life was like for over a decade. Presenting himself as a “suburban thug” whose everyday life was marked by violence and crime, he speaks of what is a normal day for him. He is pulled over by PSP (“Pigs Following Blacks”) and is promptly arrested for contempt by the local police. The idea of spending the night in jail seems to please him, even though irony is not lost on him, singing: “For me, the jail cell is a suite; my house doesn’t have cement walls and that is just sad.” At 3 a.m. he’s released and he goes home, but he can’t sleep. All because he’s got a hangover: “I can’t stand it, nigga, the agony is too great. I need some shit to shoot up my veins. Give me gas or gasoline, I’ll do it. Shoot me up with something or I’ll cut my wrists, I swear…” He then goes out with his friends to buy a joint. Things go well with Dino, a dealer with “sunglasses, suit and tie, Cuban cigar and diplomat suitcase” who drives a Mercedes. But when he accidentally throws up in his car, he is kicked out with his friends, who end up leaving him alone and unconscious on the floor. He wakes up a few hours later, with the help of a woman, but instead of thanking her, he steals her necklace, wedding ring and purse.
“What you hear on ‘Um dia na vida de um drede de 16 anos’ is my routine when I had 17 or 18 years-old. That’s when you start to have addictions, you want to drink, smoke, do drugs… And you have to get money for it all, whatever the cost (…). But I only talk about the calm and mellow stuff… Okay, I never robbed an old woman, but the rest of it I must have done it all, or most of it. But that’s the lighter stuff… Nowadays, it’s like asking a kid to go get you some beer.”
There were very few times that Halloween had a job. He even worked in construction, but he swore never to go back after spending one afternoon scraping a roof; he worked in a call center; he worked in a factory making the electrical resistance for kettles and grills. None of this went as well as drug trafficking – today, he says, he’s at a point where “drugs are not for him”.
It is with some pride that Halloween says the crime he was involved in for years was not “petty thuggery”, which would only make him the laughing stock in his neighborhood.
“My thing was not stealing, my thing was violence between neighborhoods. All for respect (…). Sometimes, I went too far… There were many times where I lost control. I think I never hurt anyone who had nothing to do with our beefs. I only hurt those who trespassed into our area.”
The brawls extended to the world of hip hop, where Halloween was creating enemies. In a song he released on YouTube in 2007, called “Fuck y’all yo”, the Guinean rapper criticizes many famous national rappers. Known as “beefs”, these songs are often directed to just one rapper with whom the author has a quarrel. However, when Halloween recorded “Fuck y’all yo”, he pointed the gun at several artists: NBC, Black Mastah, Sam the Kid, Lancelot and Tekilla. Some references are more subtle than others, but many felt insulted and responded with new songs – none of them with the same sharpness as “Fuck y’all yo”.
He explains sometimes beefs go beyond music.
“Things only happen because, once in a while, some people come to spike you. I never tell all in my music, the things I say are not to be taken literally, otherwise, it wouldn’t be art, right? People for whom I wrote those things know very well who they are. There are rappers out there with whom I drew blood, there are others with whom I have had physical altercations. That’s all I’m saying, because I don’t like to brag, that’s vanity. Things that happen between us stay between us. Here, we win and lose.”
Allen also tells us he’s lucky to be alive – none of the six stab wounds from which he still has the scars were serious. And he also likes to believe that his habit before each robbery, fight, or any other mishap – to pray – helped him. When the time came, he closed his eyes, raised his head and with his hands in a heart shape, he would ask God: “Lord, please forgive all my sins and help me in this hour, make it all go well.”
In 2006, Halloween released his debut album, “O projecto de Mary Witch”. The songs were written from 1999 onwards and a few of the beats were made in a PlayStation videogame, “Music 2000”. “At the time, I didn’t worry too much about the sound quality and all that shit, because I knew that the rhymes were really heavy, and that was what interested me.”
At the time, there was nothing similar to Halloween’s work in Portuguese hip hop. The end result was unique, with lyrics that portrayed Halloween’s daily life, always supported by darkly heavy beats, with equal parts of angst and rebellion. Even his voice was different. Rather than what was the norm in national hip hop, where rappers sung quickly and with a nasal voice, Halloween did it slowly, dragging his unmistakably deep voice while he sung.
As the album made its way on the Internet, Halloween began to perform all over the country. Although he couldn’t live off his music income alone, the rapper began to be followed by a loyal legion of fans. Gradually, his music reached other Portuguese speaking countries. The invitation to perform in Angola came naturally, such is the number of fans he has over there. His international star status only helped to hysteria. He will never forget the concert he gave at Cinema Karl Marx, in Luanda, where a fan cried during the entire performance.
After all, little was known of this rapper who had hitherto escaped most of the media. It was also at this stage that he gave a concert at Cova da Moura, in Damaia. As soon as he got there, a gunfight broke out. The result was two injured people, including a man who was shot at the precise moment he entered the venue, alongside Halloween – which led him to think that he was the target and that the shooter had bad aiming. Just to be safe, he fled the scene immediately after the incident and the concert never occurred. When the story spread, it gained a new detail which many believed: Halloween had died that night.
While he was “dead”, the rapper tried to find his place. In 2006, he met Jeremy, former founder of the female hip hop group Jamal, with whom he began a relationship that still goes on. It seemed his life was on a more stable and responsible course.
“From 2006 until 2011 I went through a lot. I got a house, kids… It was a very important time for me, because when I look back, I realize that right about that time, which is more or less the time I released my first album, I was all alone in the world. I didn’t have my spot, you see? I could sleep one night at my mother’s and then spend the rest of the month at a friend’s house in Barruncho. And then I could go to the Algarve and stay there for a couple of months at another friend’s house.”
In 2008, he moved from Odivelas and went to live in Cais do Sodré with his wife and children. Soon, he was making friends in that area – he used to go out in Bairro Alto and Santa Catarina belvedere (known as Adamastor), at a time when he still was “living off a few gigs”, he says, laughing. At that time, he began recording his second album in a home studio in that part of Lisbon. When it was almost finished, by 2009, the studio owner stole his microphone and, worst of all, the laptop where he kept the songs that were going to go on the album.
As soon as he learned the thief was bragging about what he had done, saying that he had erased songs that were practically finished, his wounded pride made him reach out to a friend and devise a plan to rescue his property. “The guy crossed my path and I went to his house to trample him and humiliate him.”
Allen, who claims to have gone unarmed, admits that the friend with whom he had talked took a gun. They knocked on the door of the studio owner and when he opened, he was immediately shot in the leg. The way was clear for Halloween to retrieve his belongings, and his partner had the opportunity to raid the house while the producer was lying on the floor.
The Guinean rapper took his family back to Odivelas – the exact address is known by few. He left Cais do Sodré at the right time: a few days later, men paid by the owner of the studio burst into his house with guns ready to fire. When they realized Allen had fled, they scattered acid and bleach throughout the house, breaking the little furniture that was left.
When the second album finally came out in October 2011, the critical acclaim could hardly have been better. With a more polished sound, achieved without the rapper giving up the more harsh tone of his debut album, “Árvore Kriminal” confirmed Allen Halloween as one of the great names in Portuguese hip hop. “Blitz” magazine praised his “simple beats and kinematics multi-layers” as well as the “pulse of the seasoned chronicler”, considering his latest album as the tenth best Portuguese album of the year. Even more generous, the cultural supplement of “Público” newspaper, “Ípsilon”, put him in 7th place on the list of the best albums of the year – of all the Portuguese artists he was the best placed. The praise was unequivocal: “Halloween is a laborious creator with his narrative crescendos, as capable of rhyming the violence of everyday life that is not shown in primetime TV (…), as of being pierced by an insurmountable anguish (…) ‘Árvore Kriminal’ is a must album of 2011 in this country.”
The public agreed with the critics. Halloween went from a niche rapper to an artist with a name in the business. Some radio stations began to play his music, with special emphasis on the single “Drunfos”. And if before “Árvore Kriminal”, Allen was asked to perform for free in exchange for an open bar, invitations to concerts began to pour in every month – and this time he was getting the kind of money that allowed him to finally live off music. He became a constant presence in venues such as Music Box, in Lisbon, or Hard Club in Porto, selling out quite easily in both.
At a time when the austerity measures began to be felt by most Portuguese and the country headed for a situation of unprecedented social protest for some generations, some have sought a political undertone in some of Allen Halloween’s lyrics. Besides having been invited by left wing parties to sing at rallies and festivals (which he refused), the Guinean rapper was also called to perform as an “intervention musician” (which he accepted, although the concert did not differ from his regular gigs in which politics are not a subject).
Allen Halloween’s temptation
On his way to drop me off in Odivelas subway station, minutes after saying goodbye to his friends with whom he had just been discussing the ethics of firing a gun in a Codivel café, Allen looks at a Bloco de Esquerda green poster where the political party urges people to vote in the European Parliament elections. “At first, these guys were not too bad, but then they messed it up and the party was taken over by pseudo-intellectuals… They have no idea how people live. But I don’t give a shit about politics. Everyone knows that the Bible says humanity does not govern itself. Salvation is not in the parties, but in the word of God.”
We say goodbye with a regular handshake, much simpler than those with which he had just said goodbye to his friends. We agreed to meet again at the rehearsal with General D, the next day. The musician heads towards his house in a swaying walk, with no apparent hurry.
The next day, his phone is turned off and he doesn’t show at the rehearsal. In the afternoon of the concert, he calls me and says: “I run into some shit and my leg is all fucked up, I have a bruise in my eye… I’m not going to the concert. Call me in the next few days so we can meet and talk.”
Almost two weeks go by until we meet again. When Allen Halloween comes out of the building where the home studio where he is recording his next album is, he can barely support the weight of his body on the crutch he’s holding in his left hand. There is little trace of his bruised right eye, but he’s still limping painfully from his left leg. Finally, when we sit down, he tells me what happened.
On the night he dropped me off at the subway station, he was ready to go home but he had to change plans when he got a call from a friend. After a lover’s quarrel, his friend’s girlfriend kicked him out of the house and he had to leave. Disheartened, he asked Allen to go with him to a food truck that serves hot dogs and pork sandwiches all night long in Odivelas.
When they got to the stomping ground of many of the city’s night owls, Allen was confronted with the presence of a rival, someone who he had never managed to win the respect from. Without going into great detail, he said that the confrontation that inevitably followed resulted in his injuries. At first, he could hardly walk, but that didn’t make him go to the hospital, not wanting to explain how he got hurt. Halloween told this episode without any manly pride. Rather, he did it with some shame.
Episodes like this are not consistent with the change that Halloween is trying to implement in his life for the past two years. It all started when someone knocked on his door and asked him: “Would you like to know more about God?” He answered affirmatively.
“I already know the word of God since I was 13 years-old. Since that time that some Jehovah’s Witnesses would go to my house to teach the Bible to my mother and to us. But then I stopped studying it. I had to deal with some things and stopped focusing on that. But God was always with me and I always knew that.”
Since then, every Tuesday afternoon, Halloween gets together with two instructors that explain him some Bible passages, while asking for his interpretation. “It felt good to hear those words once again. It’s like leaving your parents’ house to find out if the world is as they said it was. And then you come back home and you say: ‘It was exactly as you said it was’.”
For two years now Halloween is making an effort to be an exemplary father, protecting his two children and educating them according to the Bible. His third child is on the way. Although he’s not a totally pacified man, often evoking in his music and in his speech the “demons” that haunt him, the rapper tries to get on with his life. For him, the visits from the Jehovah’s Witnesses are essential in this process. “It’s like you start cleaning yourself… You can forget about the past. When I read the Bible, it speaks to me about the future.”
Halloween speaks of the Bible with reverence, and his voice is more serene and very different from what we heard in “Um dia na vida de um drede de 16 anos”. Moreover, the Sacred Book is something that he speaks about with much more interest and depth than when he refers his upcoming album, “Híbrido”.
“One thing the Bible has taught me is that humanity does not govern itself. This applies to political leaders and to all of us, who think we are our own leaders. But we cannot forget that all leaders are under the control of Satan, because by feeling they deserve that privilege, they are going against God, who is our only lord. I don’t want to be my own master, I want God to control my destiny. The Bible tells us that the third temptation of Christ was when the Devil offered him all the kingdoms of the world. He could rule over all of that and be a leader. But he refused. And I don’t want that to myself, either.”
Halloween seems to have studied his lesson well, the words come out of him in an organized and coherent manner, almost as if he’d rehearsed them. Still, I ask him what implications does that have on his personal life. He is quick in his answer.
“Do you see the realms that the Devil offered Christ? Music can be one of them. Music can be a temptation (…). The music world involves being with your fellow band members that are not on the same page as you. You finish a gig and all you want to do is go back to the hotel and be on your own. But, for example, maybe your drummer wants to say yes to four chicks who are volunteering to go to your room. This can make you waver in a big way. There are many temptations in the music world. Alcohol, drugs, women, fame… That’s why I want to quit music.”
Halloween has everything worked out. August 2014 marks the release of “Híbrido”. The album title has a double meaning. The first is because over the production of the album he tried to mix the sounds from his first album with the ones from the second, finding a perfect combination between the strong and disturbing beats and the knowledge that experience brings. But the second reason is also the most important one for Halloween. The album is called “Híbrido” so that, like all hybrid animals, this one never reproduces. After this, there will be no more albums.
What will the fans think?
“I don’t like the word fan. I’m just a fan of Christ… Better still, I’m not a fan of Christ, I’m a fan of God. Moreover, the fans are not that important, at least for me. If you think you’re the greatest, you won’t have room for anything else. That can ruin you. And there are more important things in life. Music is nothing compared to the importance of those people who are out there on the streets, knocking on doors and giving testimony of God. I want to be like them, I want to spread the word of God. And for that to happen, I have to stop living this life.”
By then, he will only be Allen Pires Sanhá. He’s thinking about opening his own business, “so that I can earn some money without fussing too much.” His nickname will be forgotten, along with his demons. “God willing.”