American hip-hop in Haiti: Musical fusion or cultural conquest?

Haitians aboard a bus called a "tap tap" observe a Carnival parade in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in February 2009. Along the side of one such bus is a painted shrine to T.I., an American rapper. (Associated Press)Haitians aboard a bus called a “tap tap” observe a Carnival parade in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in February 2009. Along the side of one such bus is a painted shrine to T.I., an American rapper. (Associated Press)
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti | Many of the things I’ve seen since moving to Haiti last year were expected. I expected to wake to the sound of roosters. I expected horrible traffic. I even expected the disheartening tents that dot busy intersections. But I never expected I’d be driving down the street one day and see a “tap tap” (Haitian bus) displaying along one side a painted shrine to T. I., an Atlanta-based rapper.

Nobody can doubt that the Haitian people are survivors. Far less certain is whether Haitian music can survive the invasion of American hip-hop.

“Over the past five years, we have seen a vast improvement within the Haitian music scene, and it’s mainly due to the success and the elevation of the American music scene,” declares Blake Seide, CEO of RKM Recordz.

Mr. Seide’s Miami-based record company specializes in rap kreyol, a relatively new genre that mixes the beats and styles of American hip-hop with traditional Haitian music and the Creole language. But as the music has grown in popularity, some Haitians are asking whether rap kreyol is a true fusion — or just an imitation of the American hip-hop so popular in Haiti.

Haitian musicians have long shown a knack for assimilating outside influences into traditional beats without sacrificing their native musical identities. When American troops brought jazz to Haitian shores during the U.S. occupation (1915-34), for example, local musicians incorporated it into their own music to create a new, yet unmistakably Haitian, synthesis known as “voudou jazz.”

Rap kreyol performers such as the group Rockfam have retained a strong fan base, fueling sales large by Haitian standards. (Rockfam)

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Rap kreyol performers such as the group Rockfam have retained a strong ... more >

Unlike jazz, however, American hip-hop was not “found” music happily adapted to local ends. Hip-hop has instead been hungrily imported intact and swallowed whole by Haitian youth. Its pervasive popularity in its pristine form has made fusion more difficult.

Social observers offer varying explanations for the American genre’s appeal in Haiti. Some speculate that young Haitians have been seduced by the images of success and personal freedom that most American rappers project. Others argue that marginalized Haitians identify with the deprived and dangerous inner-city backgrounds common to many of the artists. Most agree that the success of Haitian-American rappers, especially Wyclef Jean, has also had an impact.

As host of the popular radio show Hip Hop Times, Gandhi Dorsonne has striven to preserve the Haitian influence in the binational fusion of rap kreyol. He speaks only Creole. French, he says, is the oppressor’s language: Rappers don’t speak French. They can, however, speak English and do freely sprinkle their songs with English lyrics. After all, most imported rap songs are in English.

Mr. Dorsonne started working in the music industry about 10 years ago. American rap, though not a dominant genre at the time, had already begun to seep into the music scene. Rap kreyol existed, but most people still disdained local beats as street music. Even teenagers were ashamed to admit they listened to it. Hoping to cultivate a demand for increasingly local sounds, Mr. Dorsonne played songs that smuggled indigenous Haitian beats into music that otherwise sounded more like the American music already pulsing through the airwaves.

Today, rap kreyol has a respectable place in Haiti. At the peak of its success in 2006, “Trip N’ap Trip” by Barikad Crew washed through Carnival celebrations. The streets erupted in Haitian hip-hop. Since then, several groups, especially Barikad Crew and Rockfam, have retained strong fan bases fueling sales large by Haitian standards. Penetrating the international music market has proved more difficult.

Despite its success, rap kreyol cannot compete with American rap in popularity. As a DJ and club owner in Port-au-Prince, Didier Romain says it’s his job to know what sells. “We have a few good guys of hip-hop here, but most of what you hear on the radio will be American music,” he says.

Those local songs that do make it to the radio have some Haitians scratching their heads. “Sometimes you’re listening to a track and trying to figure out what he’s saying and exactly what is Haitian about this. Often, that is the track that gets success,” Mr. Dorsonne concedes.

Many of rap kreyol’s more popular songs mirror the materialism found in imported rap and showcase very little traditional music. A sub-genre known as roots hip-hop incorporates indigenous sounds to a greater degree and often centers on local lives and Haitian issues. But while roots hip-hop may be more authentically Haitian, it is also less popular.

Still, Mr. Dorsonne retains high hopes for roots. “In a way [hip-hop] overshadows what makes us Haitian, but in another way there is a fusion,” he says. “A new product is emerging.” As evidence of this trend, Mr. Dorsonne points to Blaze 1’s “Prizon Federal.”

From the rubble of the earthquake that shook the nation in January 2010 rose a roots hip-hop song that quickly became one of the biggest hits in Haiti. Blaze 1’s “Prizon Federal” addresses Haiti’s failing prison system. The image of prisoners in shoddy living conditions, often unable to meet their basic needs, struck a chord in the recently ravaged country. At a time of heightened solidarity and national mourning, the local context of the song was something that every Haitian could rally behind.

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