The Bad Boy Makes Good

What Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, Haiti's pop star turned president, learned from a lifetime in music.


When Michel Martelly hired the slick Spanish marketing firm Sola to manage his presidential campaign in Haiti last year, the candidate was running third out of three major candidates in the race, behind Mirlande Manigat — the wife of an ex-president — and Jude Celestin, the government favorite. The Spanish team, which previously worked on campaigns for Mexican President Felipe Calderón in 2006 and U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008, advised him to embrace his position as a political outsider. They also helped him make use of his most powerful and singular asset: his voice.

The voice of Martelly, better known in the country that this week elected him president as "Sweet Micky," has been the soundtrack to the lives of Haiti’s youthful population, most of whom are under 24 years old. Like Proust’s character dipping his petit Madeleine into his tea and being at once flooded by a wave of involuntary memories, Sweet Micky’s voice has the capacity to transport Haitians back to a time when for an evening, the body felt good and life was all right. Before he was president-elect of Haiti, Martelly was know as the "president of konpa," the genre of Haitian dance music known for its upbeat tempo, carefree and pleasure-oriented lyrics, and cheek-to-cheek dance. In the darkened dance halls or outdoor squares where Sweet Micky’s records have played for more than 20 years, people dance in the arms of their chouboulouts (darlings) and let the music wash their cares away, a fleeting pleasure in a country that has yet to recover from the catastrophic earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince last year.

But Sola’s consultants worried that Martelly needed to transcend his image as the "bad boy" of konpa; after all, this was a man known largely for lyrics such as "I don’t care, I don’t give a shit." It was a version of the problem that entertainers and artists moving into politics elsewhere in the world have faced as well, as Al Franken and Arnold Schwarzenegger could attest. But Martelly had a major advantage: He was running for office in Haiti, a country where political parties are weak and where musical celebrity goes a long way.

The Haitian audioscape is as vibrant and blaring as the country’s brightly painted "tap-tap" buses. Music is entertainment, but it is also a form of work, a form of prayer, and a form of politics. In a country where the median age is 21 and most people are not literate, listening is a refined skill and sonic information is knowledge. In the countryside, women sing to the rhythm of the mortar and pestle as they pound corn meal in their homes, and men hoeing fields or building houses coordinate movements to music in work parties called konbit. In Port-au-Prince’s earthquake tent encampments, children unable to afford school sing to clapping games, and church groups sing prayers into the night. Students in schools chant their multiplication tables in unison, and walking street vendors play the "teedle-tee-tee-tee" of custom-made melodies on glass soda bottles to hawk cold 7-Up. Everybody is selling something, often with a distinctive sound to catch the ear and the attention.

In politics, the lowest-tech expression of Haiti’s musicality is the rara, the term for a style of parade music and the bands that perform it. Rara is distinctive for its portable drums and its long bamboo horns, cut to produce different pitches. (The horns are now often made of PVC piping, which produces a wonderful vibrating bass tone.) The horn notes are designed to carry far off into the countryside and are thought to have originated as the corps de musique of the Maroon armies that fought and defeated the white colonists in the Haitian Revolution. Often affiliated with Vodou congregations and believed to be under the patronage of a spirit in the unseen realm, rara bands are embedded in deep and wide political networks throughout the country; Martelly spent many hours of his campaign leading raras through the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince and numerous provincial towns.

Raras also have long served as a mouthpiece for popular opinion, a means by which the impoverished majority — whom the elites try their best not to see — can make themselves heard. They can boast about an aspiring candidate, "roast" a local community member by singing about a scandal, or launch criticism of the government. Haitians call this "voye pwen" — "sending a point." Pwen can be silly, and even vulgar, in the bawdy tradition of Carnival. They can also be sharply political. When President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by a military coup in 1991 after seven months in office, for example, one rara band sang about a woman who aborted a baby at seven months. If pressed, the musicians could always say they were just talking about Marie-Josephine down the block. But everybody knew that Marie-Jo was the military coup, and the baby was democracy.

Several of the most popular pwen songs railing against the 1991 ousting of Aristide were penned by one of Martelly’s closest current advisors: Richard A. Morse, the bandleader of RAM, a rasin ("roots") band (named after its leader’s initials) that mixes Afro-Creole Vodou music with rock. RAM’s 1992 song "Fey" ("Leaf") was shot through with cryptic criticisms of the coup, including a verse from a traditional Vodou song lamenting, "My only son, they made him leave the country." Because the lyric was in the first person, it belonged to everybody who sang along with it. The military leaders at the time banned the song from the radio, which of course only made its popularity soar among the raras in the streets.

The political potency of Haitian music was such that all genres of it except for konpa were banned under the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalierif konpa was Jean-Claude’s favorite, he reasoned, it should be everyone’s favorite, too. After Duvalier fell in 1986, Haitians embraced a number of musical genres, developing the exciting forms of rasin music, kreyol hip hop, ragga and reggae, jazz, and numerous hybrids. Most musicians, however, have stayed out of direct involvement in state politics. (One recent exception was the balladeer Manno Charlemagne, who was elected mayor of Port-au-Prince in 1995 for Aristide’s Lavalas party, though he left office less beloved than he was when he entered it.)

As for Martelly, he was less known for politics than for provocation: dressing in a pink skirt or wearing a diaper on stage, and cultivating an image of a macho "legal bandit" (as one song is titled) who boasted a bad-ass attitude but could never be caught breaking the law. Martelly had his own (right-leaning) politics, but they took place mostly behind the scenes. He was friends with, and played for, Haitian military members during the coup period, and was named by — and for — the original Sweet Micky, the feared Port-au-Prince mayor Michel Francois, who would later be convicted of human rights abuses.  Nevertheless, a small measure of blunt and crass political commentary did find its way into Sweet Micky’s music. As a performer, his signature pwen was a guitar riff with the unsung but widely known lyrics, "Whoever doesn’t know Micky, here’s Micky." The riff was followed by a crowd response, "ko langet manman’w:" literally, "your mother’s clitoris," roughly meaning, "go fuck your mother." During Aristide’s presidency — which Martelly opposed — he would add three notes to the response, directed at Aristide: "Go fuck your mother, Aristide!" Despite Aristide’s mass popularity, audiences all over Haiti would sing along.

Politics and music had never collided as forcefully in Haiti as they did in the 2011 election, which left the country’s political elites shaking their heads at what one political cartoon in the national newspaper Le Nouvelliste dubbed the "Electionaval." By the end of its run, Martelly’s campaign had gone all-star, featuring the support of Morse and the Haitian-American rapper and singer Wyclef Jean, a celebrity trinity representing the three most popular commercial musical forms in Haitian culture — konpa, rasin, and hip-hop. (Jean and Micky had collaborated before in 1997, on the final track of Jean’s solo debut The Carnival, and Jean recorded a pro-Martelly song last month.)

Though his consultants fretted about the baggage of his diapered, bad-boy past, Martelly’s genius for leveraging his keen entertainer’s understanding of music’s place in Haiti’s public sphere was one of the most effective tools he brought to the race. His campaign capitalized on his famous voice with robocalls — including ones to cell phones, which may have been illegal — and a ringtone featuring a frenetic Carnival song in Micky’s style urging all within hearing distance to "vote for the baldhead."

But Martelly’s greatest strategic play was making his campaign into the place where the party was. He staged his campaign stops as concert-rally hybrids long traditional in Haiti and known as koudyay (pronounced koo-JAYi, from the French coup de jaille, "bursting forth"). Coming out of a history of patronage politics, a koudyay is a public party sponsored by a local patron for a national leader to endorse a program or smooth over political tension. The patron pays for the music — and sometimes food and liquor — and the crowds play their part, drinking, dancing, and cheering for the cause. 

Martelly became both patron and featured guest in his koudyay. As he stepped onto the platform or balcony to greet the crowds, raras signaled to him and greeted him with a riff. Often the raras played for Martelly the same little melody that was once played for Aristide, and before him, for Jean-Claude Duvalier and his father Francois: "Oh Martelly, Oh Martelly, se ou-menm nou t’ap cheche/Jodi-a nou delivre" ("Oh Martelly, Oh Martelly, it’s you we have been seeking/Today we are delivered"). For Sweet Micky to stand before throngs of hundreds of thousands was old hat; he was the master of the Carnival. He replied in kind to the delight of the crowd, punctuating his campaign speeches with songs.

Every candidate in Haiti releases a campaign song, and Martelly’s song, used in radio, TV, and YouTube ads, was a Carnival song in his style (though not sung by him). Jaunty and upbeat, it proclaimed, "Don’t fall into a trap, be careful when you make your X [on the ballot]/ … We want development, a good education/Michel Martelly, Number 8" (his number on the ballot). Catchy and pithy, it was a masterpiece of effective political messaging, associating fun times with the candidate while reminding people how to vote for him and rattling off his campaign promises. After he won the election, supporters sang in the streets, "Martelly, the country is for you. Do what you like with it.” The raras sang the same song for Aristide and, in turn, for Duvalier and others before him.

Martelly and his supporters show signs of reenacting the messianic dance of the presidency in Haiti, where hopes and dreams are pinned on one person, who, in turn, ends up believing the messianic myth and consolidating power. The raras that sign on to political campaigns are made up of young men, unemployed but talented, frustrated by the system’s utter failure and weak civil society. They are looking for possibility and hope — and maybe a little rum and a few dollars for their work. Enlisting the support of the business classes who call the shots in Haiti and mobilizing disgruntled youth to channel their frustration into voting for Martelly was the easy part — other Haitian presidents had done that, too. Now comes the hard work: Haiti’s infrastructure, civil society, and basic law and order — especially for women; rape is now a serious problem — have yet to recover from last year’s earthquake.

But Martelly is disciplined, puts in long hours, and is fast learning the arts of political speechmaking. He has even brushed up on his etiquette, in a deliciously musical form. On April 6, he released a thank-you note — a song of appreciation to everybody who voted.

Elizabeth McAlister is associate professor of religion at Wesleyan University, and author of Rara! Vodou, Power and Politics in Haiti and its Diaspora.