Interview with Michel Joseph Martelly, former president of Haiti
Haitians don’t like President Trump’s recent comment about their country. And now they won’t take similar insults from their former president, either.
Two Haitian cities have banned singer Sweet Micky — the foul-mouthed, anti-establishment, gyrating alter ego of former Haitian President Michel Martelly — from this weekend’s pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations on their streets. The ex-president won’t be performing in Jacmel or Gonaives, cities where the boisterous street parties are legendary.
Where is this new conservatism during Carnival coming from?
“When you, as a Haitian, decide to engage in vulgarity and say whatever, you open the door for a stranger to denigrate you,” Jacmel Vice Mayor Loudie César said, explaining how Trump’s remark — he reportedly called Haiti a “shithole” country during a private Jan. 11 White House meeting — influenced officials’ decision to ban Sweet Micky from performing during the National Carnival of Jacmel on Sunday.
The self-appointed president of konpa — Haiti’s dominant musical sound — Martelly rose to political success through his music and is known both for his socially conscious lyrics imploring Haitians to rise up and his frank discourse from the stage, often laced with profanity.
Since he left the top office in Haiti two years ago, he has increasingly responded to critics of his controversial presidency through unfiltered rants and sexually explicit imagery while performing on stage.
But now some Haitians say they’ve had enough. The wave of protest, led by religious leaders, feminists and human rights groups, erupted after Martelly’s Jan. 6 performance at a Port-au-Prince music festival. Clad in a black T-shirt, he vacillated between inspiring leader — “Youth, if you believe you are good at something, do it and do it well” — and bombastic entertainer, bashing two prominent journalists and a human rights activist, accusing them of corruption and land grabs. He dropped F-bombs, insulted the audience’s mothers and used raunchy language as he lashed out.
“They say Martelly is a vagabond. Why? Because I say zo... and co...,” Martelly said in Creole, the audience finishing up the words, which refer to male and female genitals.
Turning to his experience as president, he referenced a Haitian Senate Commission report accusing several of his ex-ministers and heads of private firms of embezzling $2 billion in Venezuelan oil loans under the Petrocaribe program. He dismissed the accusations with a sarcastic tirade, aiming a particularly obscene comment at one of his chief critics, journalist Liliane Pierre-Paul, regarded as an icon in Haiti’s fight for democracy and free speech.
Pierre-Paul, who was tortured during Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s dictatorship and has faced death threats, has tried to ignore Martelly’s rants. When she has to refer to him on her Radio Kiskeya news program, she calls him the “pornographic” or “lewd” president rather than by name.
“I am absolutely sad to see that such a person was the president of Haiti,” she told the Miami Herald. “What will his legacy be?”
Efforts to reach Martelly were not successful, but his supporters have called the move to ban him from carnival performances a political plot. He also implied that in his recently released carnival song and a Facebook Live chat on Monday. Unapologetic and defiant, the former president acknowledged his foul mouth — “It works for me,” he said — seeking to draw a distinction between his music and his politics.
“Handle your issues with Michel Martelly,” he said, directing his message at critics. “Don’t touch Sweet Micky.”
Activists who led the push to get the cities of Jacmel and Gonaives to institute the ban say they hope the decision teaches Sweet Micky, the musician, a lesson — and forces Martelly, the politician, to reflect on his responsibility as a former president.
“For us, this behavior of Sweet Micky’s is a danger for Haitian society, and he gives a lot of foreigners reasons to treat us any way they want,” said Didier Pierre, a Gonaives resident.
Jude Edouard Pierre, mayor of the city of Carrefour on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and head of the National Federation of Haitian Mayors, said he disagrees with the two-city ban. “It’s a restriction of liberty,” he said.
While the backlash against Martelly, who some believe is contemplating another presidential run, began with the Jan. 6 concert, it strengthened after reports of Trump’s insult, which the U.S. president has denied. Publicly, Haitians were criticizing Trump; privately, they also questioned their own tolerance of the antics of their celebrity-turned-president, who is famous for getting a rise out of a crowd with insults.
“We couldn’t let him come here and ruin the youth in Jacmel,” said Marie-Ange Noël, whose feminist organization, Fanm Deside, or Women Decide, was among the groups that pressured Jacmel to shut the singer out of its rollicking celebration known for its papier-mâché masks and artistic costumes.
“Trump doesn’t have a right to say what he said because we are talking about discrimination,” she said. “But if at home, we don’t start to scream ‘no’ against immorality and against people who are doing it, then we will be giving them a reason to denigrate us.”
But Martelly isn’t just anybody.
“He’s a former president, which gives him a lot of advantages and privileges,” said Pierre, 35, a member of a citizens group in Gonaives calling itself “The Independents” that vowed not to rest until Sweet Micky was removed from the carnival line-up. “There is a minimum that he has to do for the country. He has to be a role model.”
Martelly is no stranger to carnival controversies. During his presidency, he was accused of banning singer Antonio “Don Kato” Cheramy — now an elected senator — and other bands from participating in carnivals because their méringue tunes criticized his governance.
On Wednesday, a group of Port-au-Prince citizens, taking note of the decisions in Gonaives and Jacmel, said they’ll stage a sit-in on Thursday to push for Sweet Micky’s removal from that city’s line-up when it hosts the National Carnival the weekend of Feb. 11.
Martelly responded to the mounting campaign against him in his usual way: through song. In his new carnival méringue, “Without Profanity,” he sings: “They say Micky can’t parade?”
Minus the expletives and more subdued than songs he released for carnival in prior years, he still indirectly takes aim at his critics, warning in the opening lines: “If you try me, you’ll find me.”
“I’m a musician, a comedian, a citizen,” he sings. “Who do you think you are to call me a vagabond? When I look you are no better than me.”
César, the Jacmel vice mayor, says the issue isn’t just with the lyrics. It’s what happens when Martelly hits the stage as Sweet Micky.
“The minute he sees the crowd and starts playing, he could just start saying something and go off. And we don’t want to invite that,” she said.