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Most of us are unlikely to enter the world of organised crime in our daily lives. Nevertheless, criminal gangs, the Mafia and cartels are extremely popular global phenomena in street art, film, video games and popular music, which normalise and celebrate their authority. What do we know about this role and how can their appeal be explained?

Don Corleone in The Godfather
Don Corleone in The Godfather (source: flickr)

Across the globe, marginalised sections of the population are turning to organised crime groups for the support and protection that they either do not receive from the state or do not trust the state to provide. Criminal organisations that provide economic support and security to the population often assume the roles and symbols of the state. Their position of power rests on their function as a social provider as much as on violence and fear. The normalisation of the power of organised crime groups is also influenced by popular culture, such as games, film and music. Some criminals are tremendously popular, elevated to hero status or even worshipped.

Rivke Jaffe, urban geographer at the University of Amsterdam and Martijn Oosterbaan, cultural anthropologist at Utrecht University, investigated the role of crime in popular culture, published a book/catalogue about it and contributed to an exhibition. On 5 June, they will deliver a presentation on this theme at the SPUI25 debate centre in Amsterdam.

most wanted book cover

Most Wanted: the book

In their book Most Wanted, Rivke Jaffe and Martijn Oosterbaan bundled a number of essays analysing aspects of the visual, material and expressive arts that focus on the Italian, Japanese and Russian Mafia and on organised crime groups in Brazil, Ghana, Jamaica and the United States. The book also serves as the catalogue for the tie-in exhibition.

Most Wanted: the exhibition

The MOST WANTED exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden chiefly examines the appeal of organised crime groups in popular culture. In what ways are they depicted in popular culture? Why are we so keen on seeing or hearing about these groups? The exhibition highlights such modern criminals as Pablo Escobar, who inspired the global Netflix hit series Narcos, and Don Corleone. It is designed around notable objects, items of clothing, stories, virtual reality and interviews.

A special feature is the virtual reality experience created by students of the Virtual and Augmented Reality Experience minor programme at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Put on the VR goggles and follow the music of Brazilian rapper MC Babalu to a fictitious baile funk party, where local gangs are celebrated as heroes in song.

Most Wanted: the debate

During the debate on 5 June, Rivke Jaffe and Martijn Oosterbaan will address the role of crime in music, games and television and discuss the conclusions and questions in their book. Specifically, they will focus on how the leaders of organised crime groups are remade as icons of the visual arts in Kingston (Jamaica), the status awarded in music to criminal militia in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) and material arts in Mexico City associated with drug cartels.

The MOST WANTED exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden is based on the study 'The popular culture of illegality', which was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).