Little Haiti: The Marginalization of Haitians in Rap
Whenever Future releases a new song, I text my brother, "Future is the best Haitian rapper alive." And he texts me back, "Future is terrible." It's something] I say to provoke--my brother is super annoyed by Future--and it's something that I believe--I'm super enamored with Future!--and it's something that needs to be said. In my experience in arguing about hip hop, it's easier to debate your favorite mid-2000s Philadelphia battle rapper or your favorite mid-to-late 2000s Lil Wayne mixtape then is it get someone to name two Haitian rappers, much less have a conversation about them.
It's only right to start with Wyclef Jean because he is the de facto answer to the "Who is your favorite rapper" question. Wyclef has one undisputed classic album on his resume (The Score) and one underrated classic album (The Carnival). These are both encouraging reference points when talking about Haitian, because everyone should really listen to both of those albums. At this stage in his career, Wyclef is on the periphery of hip hop. Consider that he dropped a thirty two song mixtape this year and I only know that because my brother told me. Recognition and buzz aren't everything, but if rapper that's most linked to Haiti isn't making waves that does not bode well.
The counterpoint--or at least the thing I'm hearing in the back of my head--is what's all the fuss? You could make the same argument substituting any other Caribbean nation and resolve that the country is underrepresented in rap. But it's not that Haitians rappers are underrepresented in rap relative to other countries. I arrived at that conclusion as a rap listener who's caught a ton of references to Haiti and I put it to the test using Rap Stats, which draws from our database at Rap Genius to determine the frequency of words and phrases in rap over time.
Comparing the six most populous countries in the Caribbean, you can see Haiti has always had a strong presence in rap. From 95' to '97, it was the most referenced Caribbean country not named Jamaica. It held that distinction again from 2005 through 2010, though a rapper that goes by the name of Trinidad James will claim the silver medal for his country in the foreseeable future.
Haiti's been the most referenced Caribbean country (non-Jamaica division) half the time in the last 18 years. So it's not that we're underrepresented; no, it's that Haitians are misrepresented in hip hop. Here are some of the ways that these misrepresentations and misconceptions:
The three kinds of misconceptions
So where do we go from here? I'm of two minds: I don't see hip hop suddenly become sympathetic to immigrant issues, but I can see a prominent Haitian rapper entering the fray.
How Influential Were The Fugees?
"When New York niggas was calling southern rappers lameBut then jacking our slang" - Jay Electronica, "Exhibit C"
Sounds are blurring and it's impossible to know their impact. Whether it's the Memphis and Houston leanings of Drake or A$AP Rocky or the Jamaican dancehall we hear on Kanye West and Pusha T record, sound is more transferrable than sentiment. What does the presence of dancehall say other than "dis type ah shit happen everyday." Or rather, does anyone listen to "Otis" and then search for Otis Redding music?
The Fugees were interested in the sound of the Caribbean and the experience of it. And though the band is seminal and very dear to me, I wonder about their influence in rap. We are in the midst of '90s rap revival, but I don't see young rappers drawing from the Fugees. From Beast Coast to TDE, rappers are returning to '90s standards like third eye mysticism, borough claiming/mythologizing, and the Illuminati wanting mind/soul/body.
Compared these upword trends to the themes the Fugees discussed (Lauryn's Rastafarian fascinations, Pras and Wyclef's first generation Haitian immigrant experience, and their "Refugee Camp" that extended to include artists like Akon)
What I suspect is that Fugees are just incredibly hard to copy. One of the reasons I love The Score is that it creates a sound and then cannibalizes itself. There are four different remixes of "Fu-Gee-La" on the seventeen track album. The title track samples the other songs on the album to make its bridge and chorus. As a template, finding someone with Wyclef's talent for instrumentation, Pras' mind, and Lauryn Hill once-in-generation talent isn't easy. Like The Roots, the Fugees were rap band and those have always been an endangered species.
The kind of conversations once framed by the Refugee Camp aren't on the charts, but they're still on the radio with the Combat Jack Show or in the documentaries of Pras.
Back To The Future
My harebrained theory about Future's use of auto tune is that distinguishes itself with his accent--along with his enthusiasm and ear for melody. Though Future has aligned himself with Haiti, he hasn't really identified with it. In fact, discovering that Future was Haitian was a joint effort in 1) listening to his music and 2) asking the internet. For all I know he may not even be Haitian considering his first name is Nayvidus and he keeps hinting that he is from Pluto. What I do know is that Honest, his second LP in as many years, is the album I'm anticipating the most in the fourth quarter. And touring with Drake in support of Honest and Pluto, is the star-making move that I welcome because I want more songs by Future on the radio and fewer songs just featuring Future.
Lately I've been thinking about the tide raises all ships, artist who use their platform to put on for their city. I'm listening to projects from The Weeknd (co-signer Drake), Earl Sweatshirt (Tyler, The Creator), Lil Snupe (Meek Mill) and A$AP Ferg (A$AP Rocky). They are great in their own right, but are the (worthy) beneficiaries of co-signs because their they make challenging work. That's to say, I'll be glad when a Haitian rapper takes his place in the mainstream, but I really wanna hear that guy's right hand man, the voice we get hear by happenstance.
That voice might be sitting in Kirkwood or Little Haiti or Jacmel right now, listening to all the broad characterizations of their experience. Fortunately, hip hop has always given a microphone to the guy saying: "this is what it's actually like here."
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