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Interviews, Music

Interview: Pras Michel on the Rise of Sweet Micky and Rebuilding a Broken Haiti

By: Daniel Gerichter (@ZenDonut) –

Fugees' Pras Michel.

Fugees’ Pras Michel.

An outsider’s perspective makes Haiti’s history seem more bitter than sweet. Its beautiful and complex culture and status as the world’s first black republic are overshadowed today by a long history of deeply corrupt leaders, military coups, staggering poverty and of course, the devastating 2010 earthquake.

But Fugees founding member Pras Michel refuses to portray Haiti as a charity case. As a son of Haitian parents, the 43 year-old Brooklyn emcee spent his life trying to do more than just raise money. And after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake left nearly a quarter million people dead and the country’s infrastructure in ruins, Michel knew that while international donations and aid were a great start, the key to rebuilding Haiti lay in its heart and soul. His journey is laid out in the new documentary (currently running at Hot Docs) Sweet Mickey for President.

It was during his time in post-earthquake Haiti, Michel began to hear a familiar name. These days, he’s known by his given name, Michel Martelly. But like so many other Haitians, Pras knew him by his old moniker, Sweet Micky.

Martelly’s lyrics aggressively lashed out against Haiti’s growing tradition of government corruption, and called for uprising. However, Martelly’s performances were something different entirely. Sweet Micky’s sweaty, raucous performances – sometimes in a sarong; sometimes  in a diaper – became the stuff of legend. Of all the people to ascend to the presidency, few saw his candidacy coming.

Pras: Everything that the Haitians have been through –  207 years. From occupation to revolution. From these enigmatic leaders to coup d’etats. All these natural disasters and even spending the 80s being accused of having started AIDS. After that earthquake, I think I felt the same way the rest of Haiti did. I think everyone just said “fuck it, what’s the worst that could happen?” He was an entertainer but I think everyone felt he could help the whole country wake up from a bad dream.

The story that would follow – Sweet Micky’s presidential campaign – could only have unfolded in a country like Haiti. Pras enlisted Karyn Rachtman and Ben Patterson as producer and director, respectively.Rachtman is the storied soundtrack producer of Reservoir DogsJudgement Night, and of course, Bullworth. Patterson is a visionary and talented New York creative. Both believed in Pras’ mission to help restore hope to the Haitian people, and came together to create the documentary Sweet Mickey for President.

Patterson: I didn’t know much more than the average North American about Haiti, to be honest. What I knew, I knew from CNN. The earthquake, the camps, the poverty. As familiar as Pras was with that country, I think my role was to help bring that outsider’s perspective into this.

Rachtman: I think the way Westerners look at that country… everyone just sees them as fifteen million victims, and that’s not what they are. What I saw there, even with all the NGOs, everyone wants to give them a handout. Nobody wants to bring them up, but when you’re there, you can see that’s what the people of Haiti want. I think that’s what made the story of Michel Martelly so captivating.

Pras: This guy was an artist. When he first got started, he figured running a government would be the same as running his band. That should tell you all you need to know about where he was coming from. He wasn’t even fully familiar with the parliamentary system there, but he was familiar with the struggles of Haitians, both currently and historically. I think the fact that it was a learning process for him was actually part of his charm.

Haiti’s relationship with its leadership is historically tenuous. People have brought every type of leader to power, from dynastic strongmen like the Duvaliers (Papa and Baby Doc), fiery street preachers like Jean-Bertrant Aristide and clueless hangers-on like René Préval. With the optimism and promise of change each leader offered, came the corruption, brutality and too many military coups to count.

Sweet Micky for President

The documentary doesn’t portray Martelly as any of those, either. Even in his post Sweet Micky days, Martelly is portrayed as flamboyant, clumsy and even a bit naïve.

Patterson: Haitian politics are a complex, messy thing. We could have easily done a film about that. But we wanted to tell the diaperman story. We wanted to show how this one guy captured the imaginations of a people who’d been through so much and offered maybe a reprieve from the politics they’d known in their lives. The movie’s as much a political thriller as it is a comedy.

During the film, Martelly announces his candidacy at a press conference in Montreal. The bait-and-switch comes when Pras quietly takes him aside to remind him his fly is down. Martelly’s press agent then asks the assembled group of journalists to please retake their photos.

Pras: I think that part was important. For one, it was really funny. But also, it showed how human he is. As I got to know him, I realized he was exactly the type of guy Haiti needed in power. Musicians get to say things that politicians don’t. Usually, an artist and a politician are like oil and water that way, but at that time, that’s what Haiti needed.

The film also beautifully portrays the walls thrown up against Martelly’s campaign. Perhaps most notably was the involvement of Wyclef Jean. The Grammy-winning emcee leveraged his fame and wealth and nearly steamrolled every contender including Martelly. During that time, a very public war of words exploded between the two former bandmates.

Pras: Clef’s heart was in the right place, but as I’d mentioned before, I don’t think he had the kinds of answers Haiti needed. He’s been involved with the country before on a humanitarian level, but I just thought Martelly’s connection with the people was greater; deeper.

Wyclef’s attempts would be thwarted by a technicality involving his citizenship, but as election day nears, the film switches focus to the Préval’s government and their meddling. Martelly’s grassroots approach drew the ire of Préval and his government – a factor that would ultimately strengthen Martelly’s bond with Haiti’s voters.

There are no spoilers to warn you about, because Michel Martelly is still Haiti’s president. The film is not meant to act as a puff piece for Martelly or his policies.

Rachtman: At no point were we trying to say the guy was perfect. Far from it. Is he a good president or a bad one? There’s signs that have pointed to both. (Martelly has already been accused of corruption and has a tumultuous relationship with Haiti’s parliament). The point of the movie was to enlighten people about this amazing country and its people – what they went through and how this musician managed to deliver a bit of hope to them.

Pras: This movie means different things to all three of us. But I think what we all agree on is, there are all these charities raising millions in aid and keeping 75 per cent of it. This movie puts the country’s struggles, which have always been more than just money, to the forefront. When people in Canada or the U.S. are talking about Haiti, they know it and they’re proud of it. You hear stories about the great depression; that times were so hard for Americans, the only thing that got them through was going to the movies. It’s the same thing with Sweet Mickey. Times have always been hard in Haiti, but after that earthquake, it was just awful. Sweet Mickey’s struggle and his win are a classic Hollywood story. We want the whole world to know it.

Sweet Mickey for President is currently showing at Hot Docs. Check here for showtimes.

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