By Sheli DeNola
From the blood of revolution, Haiti was born, its independence the result of the world’s first successful slave revolt. Ever since this turbulent beginning, Haiti has been no stranger to violent rebellions and political unrest, and this constant resurrection of political strife has lead Haitian youth to express their political dissent through the medium of music.
Wyclef Jean, one of the most successful Haitian artists to date, emerged from this rich culture to find popular success in the Western world. Wyclef has used his popular clout to spread awareness about the plight of Haiti, the most poverty-stricken nation in the western hemisphere.
Jean released his latest album, “Carnival, Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant,” last December. The album’s message is deeply rooted in the plight of the immigrant. In exploring such themes, Jean even took the album’s most successful single, “Sweetest Girl”, and released a music video for the song centering on a refugee camp.
The video displays the unique place Wyclef Jean holds in today’s music. By keying into the mentality of American youth through familiar lyrics ripped from popular culture, he is able to introduce the evocative images of a refugee camp to an audience largely unfamiliar with such desolate images or political questions.
“In making people think, he is bringing Haiti to the forefront,” said T.V. Reed, director of American Studies at Washington State University.
Asked how the “Sweetest Girl” video affects its American audience, Reed said, “Through very powerful images. You want people to ask questions and find out more.”
The beauty of Wyclef’s music is that it crosses cultural lines, bridging the gap between the U.S. and Haiti through a shared medium.
“[U.S. youth] can gain some understanding from people overseas, and youth in Haiti can see what possibilities are out there in the world for them,” said Isebill Gruhn, a professor emerita of politics at UC Santa Cruz, who specializes in post-colonial states.
John Tomasic, managing editor of “Pop and Politics,” a new-media journalism and criticism website, commented on the style of Wyclef’s music in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press.
“It’s liberation music generally, and anticolonial and antiracist in particular,” Tomasic said. “Wyclef has taken it to a new level recently, merging these impressions as style and message by speaking directly, in a hip-hop referential language, to the role of dollar bills in all of it. Wyclef’s music is a stylization of the centuries-old Haitian experience of economic and every other kind of exploitation. It is poetry of refugee-nests.”
Wyclef emerges from a rich culture where religion, politics and music are nearly inseparable. Vodou, a religion that relies on music and dance for worship, is the island nation’s most widely practiced religion and has left a lasting imprint on the music of Haiti.
“The words of the songs are often parables, the kind of music that can be used against corrupt politicians,” said Anna Ferdinand, a journalist who worked in Haiti in the mid-1990s. “When you have music as a religion and you are communicating to a god, it is much less self-conscious.”
As Wyclef Jean burst on to the music scene in the mid-’90s with the Fugees, Haiti underwent what many saw as a political rebirth. Its latest dictator ousted, a democratic government was put in place with the help of the Clinton administration and the United Nations.
“Haiti was being rebuilt, and the culture was free,” Ferdinand said. “It was a good time for me to see the culture out from under the military gun.”
Since the 1990s, however, Haiti has descended once again into political violence and abject poverty, and has relied upon a UN peacekeeping force to maintain security in the nation. But despite ongoing instability, Haiti’s music and culture have endured and continue to provide the hope and inspiration they always have.
“There is a certain sense of bitterness and resignation,” Ferdinand said. “There’s a feeling of powerlessness, but when you have a float like music anything is possible. Music allows things to continue and survive.”
Despite Haiti’s ongoing struggles, many Haitians and Americans look to the country’s youth to move the country toward peace and political progress in the near future.
“The only way to change the country is the next generation,” said Laura Richards, an American founder of a nonprofit in Haiti that focuses on helping the nation’s children.
If Haiti’s youth are to make such changes, there is little doubt that they will look to their music for inspiration.
“Half of the population in Haiti is under 25,” Reed said. “This is a great opportunity for Wyclef to effect change through this audience. Youth are always the ones who bring about real substantial change.”
In Haiti, music acts as a reminder of what is possible and what is yet to be done.