Haiti’s Michel Martelly: Wyclef’s Presidential Opponent Speaks

Unlike many other Third World countries in turmoil, Haiti is not plagued by warring factions or ideological conflicts. Haiti’s issue for the last few decades have centered primarily around a lack of funds and a lack of proper leadership. Over the last 15 to 20 years, the Haitian people have been subjected to political conflicts […]

Unlike many other Third World countries in turmoil, Haiti is not plagued by warring factions or ideological conflicts. Haiti’s issue for the last few decades have centered primarily around a lack of funds and a lack of proper leadership. Over the last 15 to 20 years, the Haitian people have been subjected to political conflicts and economic stagnation rooted in selfish leadership which acted without true concern for the people or the development and progress of the island nation, which now lies as an embarrassment to its legacy as the first independent Black republic in the world. The January 12 earthquake which devastated Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and other towns on the island’s southwest side, dealt a final blow to the island’s international image. It revealed the nation naked exposing all the ills that had been plaguing its people. Now, with the first post-earthquake Presidential election in Haiti drawing near, many have speculated how to contend with the country’s current crisis as well as its legacy of socio-economic needs. Some have argued that Haiti needs a president who has a genuine desire to see the people do better. Wyclef Jean feels he fits that bill, but there is another. Enter Haitian musician Michel Martelly.

Just days after celebrating the 22nd anniversary of his musical career, Martelly announced that he would submit himself as candidate in the 2010 Haitian presidential election, set to take place on November 28. But while Martelly, or “Sweet Micky” as his legion of fans knows him, has embraced his position as the “President of Compa,” he is much more reluctant to accept the title of “Presidential candidate.” In his first interview with American media since submitting his candidacy to Haiti’s Electoral Council, Martelly spoke candidly to AllHipHop.com about his country’s biggest problems, his goals for the people of Haiti, and why he won’t be voting for his friend Wyclef Jean.

AllHipHop.com: So give us a brief introduction so American audiences can understand who you are

Michel Martelly: I came into the music world in 1988 with a song called “Ooh La La,” that was like a breath of fresh air in Haitian music. Because back then, we had the old generation big bands of Compa, playing with 15 members; that concept was going down in Haiti. At the same time, bands from abroad, like Kassav, were coming out with Zouk, which is a genre from the French islands Guadeloupe and Martinique. So when “Ooh La La” came out, it was a breath of fresh air for the Haitian market. I rallied all the youth around me, all the people who liked Compa, but felt like it was dying, going away, being replaced with Zouk. So it became a movement. So, through the years, I’ve played my music with dedication, discipline and originality, and controversy also. Unlike the big bands, I was a one-man show for the first two years. And then I was joined by two more members. By then, I had captivated the heart of every Haitian in Haiti and abroad. Because of that, I felt like I was the only thing happening. People would travel with me just to listen to my music: they [come to a] dance tonight in Port-au-Prince and they’re with me the next day in Miami, just to hear my music. Around 1993-94, I proclaimed myself President of Compa. And because there was no objection, the title remains to this day.

AllHipHop.com: Is the rumor that you are running for President of Haiti now confirmed?

Michel Martelly: The rumor is confirmed, but I still don’t wanna put it like this, like I’m “running for President.” I don’t think it’s a good [aspiration], being President of Haiti. The last five-six presidents of Haiti have failed miserably. And I don’t think it would be an honor for me to say I want to be the next “president.” I want to be the man by with whom change arrives. Because, I think it’s definitely time. It’s time for the Haitian people to have access to education. It’s time for Haitians to have access to health care. It’s time to open our borders to the Haitian diaspora, open our markets to the world. It’s time to open our country to potential investors. It’s time to change our mentality, which [has become] self-destructive: we seem not to care about ourselves, we don’t care about our neighbors, our children. We seem not to care about our country. We’ve lost our sense of civic duty, of patriotism, our sense of pride. And the concepts of love, sharing, compassion, are the concepts that regulate a society; and they’re basic concepts. And I think it’s a must for us to have a mental revolution. And having a warm voice, being loved by my Haitians, I believe that if I assume the leadership to take them to where they ought to be, although it may not have been their plan; and with the assistance of a great team, a team that is well qualified and devoted, and that understands also that it’s time to change the direction in which the country is headed, I believe that I’ll be successful. That’s why I don’t want to be just a regular candidate. I want to be the man through whom change happens.

AllHipHop.com: What motivated you to enter the political arena?

Michel Martelly: The initiative came from my wife. Through the years, while I was performing on Christmas Eve and things like that, instead of staying home alone with the kids and thinking about me or crying, she spent time preparing home cooked meals [which she delivered] to people in poor neighborhoods, to go to hospitals, to go to the places where she knew that people in need where having a very different Christmas. So she would take them food and other necessities and share with them the spirit of Christmas. And it became a tradition for my kids and my wife to do that. And after the years, that developed into more involvement. We would go to every corner of the country, from North to South, from East to West, to create a movement where we would receive [aid] donations and sponsorships and go distribute it in remote areas. With that came a deeper love from the people. Because before, it was just an admiration for my musical, I would say, talent – although I believe that not having any musical training, I remain a big figure in the Haitian music industry, and a controversial one. But now with my philanthropical involvement, besides just liking my music and being curious about my persona, they started realizing that I was someone much more different than what I was selling. I was selling craziness, I was selling joy, I was selling frivolity and indulgence. But behind the entertainer, there was a man full of compassion, a man who cared for his own. With that, the love came from the people’s heart. And that’s mainly why I believe that the power that I have is much more than the music. It’s like a family, it’s like a bond that exists, a relationship. And this is mainly the reason why I decided to do more. I believe that I can help them take direction. After the election of [exiled former Haitian president] Jean-Bertrand Aristide, I saw the people [motivated]. So I know the power of a leader that’s loved, I know the power of a leader that’s trusted, a leader people have respect for. Therefore, I decided to present myself as a candidate, not because I believe I’m the man with all the solutions, but because I believe that I can be that source of inspiration for my people. And again, alone, I will not succeed. But with a team, with a plan, with the unity that I can inspire, we’ll be successful.

AllHipHop.com: When you speak of Unity, what do you mean?

Michel Martelly: I’ve lived on both sides of the river. I was raised in a poor neighborhood; but I went to school with the rich kids. So, I’ve lived on both sides of the fence. And I believe, having been accepted everywhere, by every facet of Haiti’s society, I believe this is a chance for me to come in and unite the people, from North to South, from East to West, from White to Black, from rich to poor. Because the dream must be a common dream. There’s only one Haiti, so we need one goal, one nation and one leader. And even then, in order to succeed, we need to be aware that we have neighbors, we have collaborators, we have donors; and the people who will be investing in us will have expectations. We have to start negotiating and stop begging for help. We need to keep our pride, we need to deliver, we need to be respectful. And I believe that under my leadership, because I’m honest, full of good will and transparent; and because I have no need for power, beautiful cars or beautiful girls; because my only desire is to see my people change, my country progress and prosper, I believe I’ve made the right decision, and I’m going full blast at it.

AllHipHop.com: How exactly does the presidential electoral process in Haiti work?

Michel Martelly: Well, as you know, the process itself is new to me. But I know that right now, we first need to align ourselves to a political party, which is a decision we plan on making in the next 24 hours. Afterward, you need to register, which will probably be done within the next 48 hours. Afterwards, there is a grace period during which you’re allowed to prepare yourself, but you’re not allowed to [formally] campaign. You’ll be allowed to campaign starting October 26 until November 26. The election itself will be on [November] 28. The candidate who receives more than 50% of the popular vote wins. If no one gets 50%, there is a second election and the candidate with the most votes wins.

AllHipHop.com: When you say you can prepare yourself but not campaign, how does that work?

Michel Martelly: You can visit [institutions] outside of the country and speak, you can organize fundraisers, talk to the people, align yourself with people, finish the building of your team, review your plans, fine tune whatever is missing, travel and introduce yourself to the international community. You need to understand politics a little bit more, especially if you’re new, like myself and Wyclef. We both have experience managing our careers and we both have good intentions, we both understand that we need to surround ourselves with qualified people. So that’s what we’ll be doing before we start campaigning. When campaigning starts, as you realize we only have one month. For that month, Haiti has ten “départements ,” which are like states, and you have to visit each of them. Some, depending on the size, you may want to visit more than once. And you also have to speak to the Haitian people outside of Haiti. What I believe is, while you cannot campaign in Haiti [before late October], I believe you can campaign in the diaspora, talk to the people, answer questions, without it being under an official campaign. But this is the time we should use to present ourselves to the people who don’t know us and to reveal and explain our plans to the voters and potential contributors. But of course, you have to do it by the book.

AllHipHop.com: The fact that there’s corruption in the Haitian government is no secret to international community. What is the current attitude of Haitian citizens towards the current administration? Do they trust the government? Do they believe they have the power to change the situation as it is right now?

Michel Martelly: It’s a vicious circle where people tend to believe that even if they pay their taxes, for example, the government won’t do anything with it. So what you need to do is restore the authority of the state. You need to restore the people’s trust, you need to restore their confidence. You need to show that you are out to eliminate corruption. You have to show the people that when you pay taxes, progress is made. One of the reasons we always seem to have our hand out begging, is because [the government] has no money coming in. We don’t emphasize taxes, we don’t export… so, these are some of the things we’re going to have to work on and implement so people can go back to work, be able to afford paying their taxes, etc. But they also need to have transparency to see that they can keep an eye so trust can prevail. And from there, you set the example.

AllHipHop.com: So you believe the government’s authority has been undermined?

Michel Martelly: If we had to go back now and put people in jail for things like back taxes, you’d have to put almost everybody in jail. Because a country that has no rule of law allows anybody to do anything. And that’s not where we wanna go now. We need to look forward right now. We want to develop, we want healthcare, we want to develop our agriculture system, we need to raise the standard of education, we need to restore pride, we need to develop our tourism industry, we need to restore our relationships with other countries. We need to stop begging. We need to present plans and we need to carry them out. We need to care. We need to love. And this is what I want to work on.

AllHipHop.com: You’ve spoken of pride and the idea of not begging a couple of times…

Michel Martelly: A question I’ve been asking throughout Haiti is, what if the international community never gives us a cent of the money that was pledged? Are we gonna remain the way we are? We’re at 80% unemployment. Why not use the “kombit” aspect of our culture [ed note: the idea of members of the community working together to harvest, clean, build, etc.]? There probably not enough money to rebuild through “kombit,” but you can at least clear the rubble and debris left by the earthquake. So by uniting the people, by having one vision, by having the right leadership, there are so many things that we can do. We need to go back to our culture. Even though the country is predominantly Christian, we need to accept voodoo as part of our culture, for example. It’s a very mysterious thing. People tend to want to learn more about it. And we need to utilize it within the tourism industry. There is a thing called “The Ceremony at Bois Caïmans,” which was the ceremony that started the slave revolt that lead to Haiti’s independence. We should have, like a Broadway show so people all over the world could come and see “La Ceremonie du Bois Caïmans.” We need to exploit these things, we need to exploit our history and our past because it’s a great past! It’s like we don’t know who we are. We need to restore pride, and for this, we can’t do it alone. It can’t be just me, it can’t be just me and my team, it can’t just be us and the international community. We need a movement. We need help from the Almighty. But at least with a positive attitude, I think we can move in the right direction.

AllHipHop.com: Are Haiti’s problems only problems for the Haitian people?

Michel Martelly: I believe we’re a problem in the Caribbean, we’ve even been a source of insecurity for the United States. We need security in the country. We need to watch and control our borders. We need to be in a better position to work with our neighbors and control the area. We [and the Dominican Republic] are the biggest island in the Caribbean. It’s important for America to understand the need participate in stabilizing Haiti. Because we can be a good influence in the Caribbean, if we are organized and developed nation with security and employment, where people don’t have to do whatever it takes to survive. We need to raise up from that situation and look like a real country. We need to care about how our streets look, how our houses look. People are unemployed, can’t care for themselves, and don’t see a problem with having more kids? We need to change that mentality. I know I can’t change all these things in one term. But if we can change the direction we’re going in, we will eventually get to where we need to be. Because, I said to someone earlier that Haiti’s not going anywhere right now, and he said, ‘no, the country has direction: we’re heading to catastrophe.” We need to change that.

AllHipHop.com: In the last six months since the January 12 earthquake, what do you think have been the biggest mistakes or missteps on the part of the Haitian government?

Michel Martelly: To be honest with you, in order to stay in line with what we’re working on, if we’re gonna identify things that have been bad, we need to say everything. We can’t just blame the current government, we need to blame ourselves. The government is made up of people just like us. I think the problem is that we never cared about our own selves, about our neighbors. When people come to power and that attitude prevails, there are dire consequences. What we’re living now is not a consequence of this government. It’s not a result of Réné Preval’s administration. It’s a result of a series of political attitudes that have been detrimental to the country. And this is what we need to work on: changing these attitudes. Yes, we need to identify our mistakes so we don’t repeat them, but now is not the time for pointing fingers. We need to follow Nelson Mandela’s example: we need to move forward, we need peace, we need unity. We need patriotism and civility. That is the only way that we will progress.

AllHipHop.com: Talk to us about your relationship with Wyclef. Are you guys friends?

Michel Martelly: I got introduced to the Fugees after their huge success with The Score. Me being on top of Haitian music, them being on top of the world, we started hanging out. The invited me to join them in London for the MTV Awards there. Wyclef was always much more on the scene, with Pras and Lauryn being more quiet. So I got to hang out much more with Clef, but I’ve always maintained a relationship with Pras as well. I introduced them to Haiti. The youth was [starting] to gain more interest in Hip-Hop [at that time], and being that that’s my audience, my introduction made it even easier for them to accept Clef. I’ve always been an honest and trusting person, and I believe it’s been the same with Clef. Seeing him always wearing his Haitian flag – whether it’s on MTV, at the World Cup, with Shakira, at concerts, on interviews, etc. – I felt like he was at least proud of his Haitian culture. I love Clef [like family]. And I believe that he has some good intentions. When the Fugees had their reunion in California for Verizon, he took my son Olivier with him for his 18th birthday. When someone does certain things for you, you could never betray their confidence, their trust. This is the relationship we have. He’s spent time with my family, so we do have a good relationship. And the good thing is I never expected anything from Clef: my English is not that good, my Hip-Hop is not good, so I never expected for him to help me crossover. On my side, it’s just been a genuine friendship.

AllHipHop.com: He made his candidacy official yesterday (Aug 5), but the rumors about both of you have been out for a couple of weeks. Had you spoken to him in that time?

Michel Martelly: Here’s the thing: I spoke to Clef a couple of years ago about teaming up and doing some things for Haiti. And we had a plan. But we never revisited that plan. And it’s not a problem, I know how busy the guy is. But I did find it strange that he pondered and made this decision without speaking to me about it. Because had Clef told me that he was going to run, I would have probably thrown my support behind him. Because, like I told you: I don’t need to run. I need the change.

Michel Martelly: But I welcome his participation in the election. I don’t doubt his good intentions, because for years he’s shown his affection for his country. I just probably won’t vote for him. Because, first of all, I don’t know his plans. And I have my plans. Besides the plans, the money thing, the power we have across the globe, the main thing now is being a leader for our people. Because the Haitian people are sick. Our people have no concept of love, sharing, community, civic duty, unity. They have no concept of not just accepting anything. We need to change the people’s mentality. If you give two million dollars to someone here in Haiti – who’s not used to money, who’s never worked – they’ll be broke in three weeks. If you introduce someone who’s only ever used latrines to proper, hygienic toilets, they’ll turn it right back into what they’re used to. If you come in and rebuild downtown Port-au-Prince, you put in modern high rises, without changing the mentality of the people, next election year, they’ll be throwing rocks at the buildings in protest. So I really don’t think it’s about the money, the power, or being recognized around the world. I really think now it’s about being able to guide our people. Being able to be loved and trusted by them. And that’s where I make a distinction between myself and ANY other potential opponent.

AllHipHop.com: So how do you feel about Wyclef’s decision?

Michel Martelly: I welcome his participation. I think he makes it exciting. He’s opening the eyes of the world and now the international community’s attention is on our upcoming election. We spoke two weeks ago, and he asked me to back them up. And I’m like, “come on man! You went to other people, people I introduced you to, for their support first. And now, another group has already chosen me to do the same thing. So all I can do is promise that’s going to be a fair race. And if I lose, I support you; and if you lose, you support me.” So that was our conversation. And I spoke to him via BBM the other day, because I had heard that his mother had a heart attack, which was a false rumor. So we’re still family. Everything is good. I don’t want politics to divide us.

AllHipHop.com: But at the same time, there are things that have to be addressed. For example, Sean Penn told CNN yesterday that he basically hasn’t seen Wyclef’s on-the-ground involvement since the earthquake. People are wondering how you can run a country when you don’t speak one of the national languages, and can’t write either national language. The fact that Wyclef has never lived in Haiti as an adult. How do you think those things will affect him as a candidate and as a leader?

Michel Martelly: Well, I know that Clef is well intentioned. But, I believe that not having been raised here, not being familiar with any neighborhood – because I don’t think Clef can drive anywhere here on his own – he can’t speak the languages, I agree that those are handicaps. I’m not saying that he couldn’t surprise the world and be a good president. I cannot say that; I would be speculating. I’d be speculating if I said he couldn’t deliver. But there are things about him that raise concerns for us here in Haiti. Because he doesn’t know the country. He doesn’t know who are proper political allies, who he can trust. He doesn’t know our culture, he doesn’t know our way of life, he doesn’t know what we expect. He doesn’t know our needs. He doesn’t realize that some people may never truly accept him. And right now, we don’t need anyone that’s going to be a further source of conflict between the Haitian people. I believe that Wyclef can still help Haiti, I believe he could be a good president after living here for a few years. But again, I welcome his participation. He makes it exciting. And you know, he could be the best president ever, who knows! I don’t want to speculate, I’m just offering some analysis based on the fact that he didn’t grow up here, he doesn’t know the country. He doesn’t know our problems. Because our problems may be more than the money; our problems could be the leadership. In order to make the changes Haiti needs, we need a leader that the majority of the people can trust and believe in. And that’s exactly why even if he was running for President, Clef should have aligned himself with someone who can be a supplement to what he doesn’t know. And I don’t want to make it seem like we’re not still friends. I’ll probably speak to him tomorrow. Who are we to judge how much he’s been in Haiti since the earthquake? We don’t know what his obligations were. So how can we blame him? But we have to analyze the sociological aspects of him not being familiar with our customs, with our way of thinking. Because, you might think that you understand everything from abroad, but when you come here, the problems may be completely different from what you envisioned. And these are things that I would say to Wyclef directly. I love Clef, I appreciate his efforts for Haiti.

AllHipHop.com: What are the five most important things that Haiti’s next president will need to tackle within his or her first six months in office?

Michel Martelly: First, there is the urgent need to develop a plan for the people who are still living in the streets [after the earthquake]. But there are problems that we’ve had long before the earthquake. We need to talk about jobs, because 80% of our population is unemployed. We need to talk about education, because without education, the people can’t be expected to govern themselves or move the country forward. We need to open our borders to tourists and investors. We have 2,000 kilometers of sandy beaches and haven’t learned how to use that to create opportunities for the people. But the main thing would be education, because that will help bring resolution to almost all of the country’s other issues. I think one of the greatest gifts that I could offer the people is letting them know who they are and talking to them so that they know they have a voice and someone who is ready to work for them. Let’s take Haiti into the 21st Century.