On the Trail with Michel Martelly: From Sweet Micky to Presidential Contender

Martelly campaigns in BostonMartelly campaigns in BostonWe know him best as “Sweet Micky”, a talented musician whose wild stage antics brought an element of shock to Haitian entertainment. In the late 1980s, he started out as any one of a number of notable Haitian talents and went simply by his name, Michel Martelly. Michel’s career began with the success of early releases with fun titles like, “Woule, Woule”, “Anba Rad La”, “The Sweetest” etc. However, real fame and international success came with the creation of a sub-identity “Sweet Micky”. It was the wild and uninhibited Micky that became a household name among Haitians. Sweet Micky’s irreverent style, controversial albums and frequent feuds with rival bands, made Michel Martelly wealthy and famous.

Martelly came into the Haitian music industry during turbulent times. In the early 1990s, the Island was in political free-fall after the ouster of the Duvalier regime. The populace had democratically elected a progressive yet controversial former priest, Jean Bertrand Aristide and within a year he was exiled by Haiti’s military. Haiti’s popular music Konpa, was struggling as a new generation preferred the sound of Zouk, which had its origins in Guadeloupe and Martinique. Michel Martelly’s act was one among a new generation of artists that met the challenge of Zouk by using technology to reduce the man-power it took to man live Konpa shows and moved its sound into the new digital format.

The act, “Sweet Micky” was also a controversial political phenomenon. Haitian musicians always found sophisticated but non-confrontational ways to address the wrongs of the Duvalier dictatorship. True to this tradition, “Sweet Micky” took sides in the ideological divide between Aristide’s Lavalas party and former Duvalierists. Micky seemed to support the old regime and took on Lavalas and its leader at the peak of their popularity. His confrontational style made him the darling of the social elite without affecting his mass appeal.

Today, Sweet Micky makes way for the public figure, Michel Martelly, candidate for the Haitian presidency. One of the candidate’s greatest challenges will be confronting Sweet Micky’s 20-year legacy of reckless behavior. How does one explain that the performer you saw was me, but not the real me? Tough sell, especially when most of the albums are signed Michel Martelly and not Sweet Micky. Perhaps only seasoned politicians understand this dichotomy, as part of their skill includes the ability to adapt to the public’s latest political whim. The successful pop artist must also have this insight into the workings of the public psyche in order to guarantee himself success. So, the me you saw was not me but actually – you!

The Reporter caught up with the candidate during a political fundraiser in Boston in October. The following are excerpts from our talk:

BHR: To many it seems you made this decision in haste, almost immediately after Wyclef’s announcement. Was this in part a reaction to the Wyclef announcement?

Michel Martelly: I didn’t decide to run because Wyclef made his announcement. On the contrary, I think it was a decision I took too long to make. I was always involved as a citizen in trying to change what Haiti was but I didn’t think about politics until I was approached by a group that wanted me to run for office.
I was approached by Wyclef for support in his campaign afterward, but by that time I was already committed to my team. We agreed to run a campaign to change Haiti, not to attack one another. Now, unfortunately he’s no longer around but I believe he’s still with me because he also wanted change.

BHR: Do you foresee a role for Wyclef or his former band-mate and your supporter Pras Michael in your administration?

MM: I think all Haitians have a role to play in what we’re facing. Let’s take Wyclef for example. He’s well off enough to never put a Haitian flag on his head. He is an international figure who chooses to represent Haiti but when you look at Haiti today, you can’t be proud.
So it’s not about what role people will have in my administration. We all have something to do to help the situation.

BHR: One of the worst set backs we experienced after the earthquake, was the loss of our few educational institutions. What are your plans to address the issue of education in Haiti?

MM: It is my opinion that an educated populace is the source of the wealth of any nation. My plan is to provide free access to education up through high school for Haitian students. Education for everyone. There are funds for this. There are international organizations that want to partner with Haiti because it has been identified as a place that is in need of this intervention. Further, we can establish a lottery system in the country that can be used to fund education. We can also establish casinos and gambling facilities that we can tax for the purpose of educating the populace.
We will provide free university education to a percentage of our populace who show promise. We will ask those students to repay the government for its investment by serving for 2 years in government - at reduced pay. Those who perform well will be encouraged to continue in government and those who show no interest can leave. The current situation is one where as soon as students graduate they leave the country.

We don’t have the facilities or the money to give every student a university level education, so we will partner with foreign universities that are interested in helping Haiti, to help the rest. Many embassies have offered us placement for Haitian students to study overseas. Did you know that after the earthquake the current administration received offers of up to 5,000 seats for students? They were ready to pay travel costs, room and board, books, and tuition! The current administration has yet to respond.
We also realize that not all students will want a university education. For those students we will have trade schools where you can learn to be a carpenter, electrician, or a chef. You will have an education and be able to speak clearly and think for yourself. You walk through Haiti today and you find young men looking for work. You ask them what they can do and they respond “anything” but have no training. We will address this!

But it is not only the students who need an education but our teachers themselves. The standards across the Island have been compromised over the years. So we will have programs to help retrain our teachers using modern technology like Skype and teleconferencing. I see no reason why we can’t have centers with wide screens where teachers are accessing instruction.
It will take time for these things to materialize but they are possible.

BHR: Haiti’s farmers, the rice growers in particular, have been set back by foreign imports and lack of infrastructure what are your plans to support their interests?

MM: We are running under the banner, “Reponse Peyizan” (The answer for the peasantry). Our peasantry is the essence of our identity. They work the land and make it possible for us all to eat. However, they are the ones we neglect the most. This class represents 60 percent of the country and they’re the ones who come to Port-au-Prince, not to look for work but to conduct business. It’s time we take them seriously.

My administration will give them access to credit so they can build their businesses. We will create funds for them to borrow money. We will help them modernize. We will ensure they see the fruits of their labors in terms of profits. We will subsidize the big planters by buying their goods and selling them. And we will not necessarily have to sell them at high cost. The intent will be to create more jobs, more opportunities.

We will also educate the peasant about their responsibilities towards their government. They will have to eventually pay taxes on their income. Once we help create this reliable tax base then the government itself will be strengthened with reliable sources of income.

I have a simple plan [to] get Haitian rice farmers to work as a unit and not as individual entities. In order to compete with international imports, work the land together as a cooperative. It’s less expensive for everyone. We cultivate as a unit, sell in bulk, and profits are split according to what percentage of land each farmer owns.

As far as dealing with the cheaper American imports, you tax the import. I can’t prevent anyone from choosing American rice but I’ll tax it appropriately to defend the local product like any other independent country. Of course there will be those who are there to defend the American import but Haiti must have persons in place to defend its products.

Our fishermen need support! The fisherman catches a fish at 9 a.m. and by nightfall the fish is rotting because he has no means of preserving the fish. A fish that could have been sold for $10 winds up selling for 10 cents by nightfall for lack of access to modern tools. The state must address this.

BHR: What are your plans to meet the demand for health care in Haiti?

MM: I can credit the current administration with making some strides in this area. Right now if you are a government employee, you have rights to health care. We want to do this for the entire population. The government can’t pay the cost of health care for 9 million people. Our plan is to create a fund where for $10 a month each citizen will be guaranteed access to healthcare.

The government does not have a good track record with running hospitals but we have partners who are willing to help us establish 10 new hospitals across the country. We will ask their assistance in helping us run those hospitals.

BHR: The issue of empowerment for women on the Island is one that has been emerging. What are your plans to advance the interests of Haitian women?

MM: For me a woman is the essence of life, the organ of reproduction for life on earth. Women have a greater sense of responsibility than men, with all due respect. They take care of the home with their money. We will have severe laws to protect their interests in my administration.

A young lady came up to me and reported being violated at a cab stand by two men while about 20 looked on and did not intervene. The impunity that exists in the country allows the men to do whatever they want. We must put laws in place that protect women and see to it that those laws are enforced.

BHR: What are your plans to promote the arts in Haiti?

MM: As an artist, I must address culture. We don’t promote our art. Why not use Haitian films as a means of also promoting other artistic products across the country? We should also promote our history. Consider the revolution at Bois-Cayman as the starting point of the black liberation struggle that would eventually result in freedom for all black slaves. This is not just our history but a part of the history of the world. Why not a yearly celebration of Bois-Cayman marketed to the world in Broadway style?

BHR: Do you foresee a greater role for the Haitian Diaspora in your administration?

MM: The Diaspora. I don’t like to look at Haitians who live abroad as Diaspora or as different from us. When we speak of improving Haiti, it’s for everyone. The person who has Haiti at heart is Haitian. But Haitians in Haiti give you that name. They want the money you send every month but ask that you stay far.

If you are able to vote, then you might change things in Haiti. You can’t have all this economic power and not use it. We would like to suggest that you organize your funds for the country. Giving Haitians $100 a month doesn’t go far. Pool the funds in an account and once it reaches a substantial amount come up with projects to help develop the country.

The power is in your hands already!

BHR: In one of your early interviews, you were heard saying, “We don’t want your money, keep your money” in reference to foreign aid. What did you mean by that?

MM: Our biggest issue is our lack of good will, lack of a good conscience. It’s not money!

The populace must be put to work, that’s the only way the government will get the money it needs to function. We don’t need money in our hands in Haiti, we’re corrupt. We don’t know how to steward tons and tons of immediate access to cash. I’m interested in those who want to invest in infrastructure.

Come show me. Teach me how to do things. When I speak to American senators and members of the Black Caucus, I’m not interested in money. Come consult for three years, teach us and then leave. That’s the kind of aid we want.

The problem is we use our government as a means to get rich. The problem is us, too many con artists passing themselves off as politicians, speaking French while the populace is bathing in open sewage. Pigs and goats on one end and the kids are playing right there.

BHR: What are your thoughts on establishing a decent minimum wage in Haiti?

MM: The minimum wage is less an issue for me as that of job creation. Instead of one thousand people working for one million dollars each, give me ten thousand working for three thousand dollars a year. I’d rather have more people working for a reasonable wage than establish a high minimum wage that is an impediment to entrepreneurs.

BHR: Given the history of well meaning heads of state ending up in exile, are you in any way concerned about that possibility if you are elected?

MM: Well, those who were exiled worked toward it. They did not deliver. I’m not working to be exiled. Times have changed and we’re in a global economy where it’s not in the best interest of the superpowers to have an unstable Haiti. You think these powers want an unstable base for terrorists to exploit? So more boat people make their way to the US?

BHR: How will you confront the reality of local and foreign agents in Haiti to promote their self-interest?

MM: In the course of conducting international affairs, competing agents will defend their interests but that only means Haiti needs agents that will defend its interests in return.