Vox Sambou and the Solid'Ayiti initiative for Haiti

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Interview with Nomadic Massive rapper Vox Sambou on artistic solidarity and the grassroots in Haiti. Photo: Kamal/Photofade www.photofade.com

Haitian hip-hop artist Vox Sambou offers an inspiring mix of powerful music and social action, pointing to the great possibilities of blending the arts with community activism. A key hip-hop figure in Montreal, Vox is a member of the celebrated ensemble Nomadic Massive and assisted in launching the Solid'Ayiti initiative after the devastating earthquake hit Haiti last winter.

Solid'Ayiti supports Lycée Jean-Baptiste Cinéas, a public school in Limbé, Vox's hometown on the northern coast. Recently Vox returned to Haiti for the first time since the earthquake and rabble.ca contributor Stefan Christoff had the opportunity to speak with him about the current situation there, the role of hip-hop culture in movements for social change in the country, and the Haiti's "invisible" crisis of HIV/AIDS.

Stefan Christoff: Vox, you just returned from your first trip to Haiti after the massive earthquake that struck last winter. Just over six months later, could you describe your impressions from the grassroots.

Vox Sambou: I was very excited to go back home, to see my people, but also there was a fear inside me before returning after the earthquake, about actually seeing Haiti after the earthquake; it was very difficult to see all the families and friends who lost loved ones.

After arriving in Port-au-Prince, the immigration desk became crowded quickly with Haitians from the diaspora, my flight from Montreal stopped in Miami, another city with a major Haitian community. Everything was hectic and disorganized at the airport, waiting under the heat for hours to pass through immigration and get luggage.

After taking a small plane from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien, the director of Lycée, Jean-Baptiste Cinéas from my town Limbé, came to pick me up. It is only 27 kilometres from Cap-Haïtien to Limbé but it took more than more than an hour because of the post-earthquake road conditions.

My heart is always happy in Haiti, and especially the north, but after arriving in Limbé last month you could see the faces of the people were very, very sad.

SC: Talk about how people are coping six months after the earthquake, given that Haiti has fallen from the headlines.

VS: On the ground people are asking questions, in Limbé, in Cap-Haïtien, people are wondering where all the help promised by the international community is because much of the relief aid has been centralized in the capital. People are very frustrated.

In Limbé at recent protests, people burnt down the Haitian government courtroom building and the government tax office was also burnt completely. People feel very little sense of government presence or support -- even the police in Limbé are now very limited.

Poverty is crazy. Many young kids in my town are on the streets today that weren't on the streets before.

At the same time, the youth at Lycée Jean-Baptiste Cinéas are very positive, they still believe, some are writers, some wrote books and regularly perform slam poetry. Youth are saying the only way out is through education and this motivated me, to see the youth in movement, also because through concerts organized by Solid'Ayiti we are supporting this school.

SC: There was an unprecedented global focus on Haiti this winter in the weeks after the earthquake and today there are many different international players in Haiti, including the U.S. military personal, armed U.N. forces, major NGOs, and Canadian police forces. Aside from the international players in Haiti who we hear about often in the mainstream news, I'm wondering about the mood on the ground, as Haitians struggle to reconstruct and maintain Haiti's national identity at a grassroots level in contrast to all the international forces in the country.

VS: In 2010 it is a very difficult struggle for Haitians, both those living abroad or living in Haiti, to fight for a strong independent Haitian identity.

Haiti is lacking real mentors. In the 1960s Duvalier kicked out so many intellectuals, so the youth at that time lost many people with progressive ideas to look toward. Today, Haiti is so overwhelmed by American culture and it is a struggle to maintain our Haitian culture, an African culture.

If we talk about music, the roots music in Haiti, the Voodoo music, today we are still not allowed to practice our culture and play our music freely in many circumstances.

Haitians in Haiti often are not taught important information about our history, for example it is only Canada that I learned that François Mackandal, an architect of the Haitian revolution, born in my town Limbé.

Now, through Solid'Ayiti, we are working on a writing contest to remember Markandal with the students at Lycée Jean-Baptiste Cinéas, to teach students about their own history and specifically about Markandal.

Actually, it is my feeling that many problems Haiti continues to face is linked to Haitians not fully embracing our own culture, while being overwhelmed by imperialist narratives. As a nation we need to sit down and remember where we come from, our revolution in 1804, learn about our heritage, our drums and our rhythms.

Always the international community selected leaders in Haiti that served their own interests. Colonial powers gave privileges to some in society, financing that created social divisions and today we are seeing this again in many of the reconstruction projects. Many politicians and political parties in Haiti have struggled first for recondition and support not from Haitians but from outside powers like France, the U.S., and Canada.

Today, many youth are involved in hip-hop Creole and are rapping about Haitian independence and self-determination, a really positive step. Many youth are uniting via the Creole rap movement, although the radio often plays American gangster rap like 50 Cent, but many youth are doing their own music, creating their own hip-hop culture that is Haitian.

SC: In your own music you touch on major social issues, in your latest video DiscriminaSida you touch on the social crisis in Haiti created by HIV/AIDS in Haiti, can you talk about what inspired you to write that song?

VS: DiscriminaSida is about all the injustices facing people live with HIV/AIDS, the song aims to send a message in Haiti that those living with the virus are not dead people, they are very much alive and they can really contribute to society. That was the goal of DiscriminaSida, a song that is accompanied by a music video by filmmaker Ariel Mota from Dominican Republic.

I have lost relatives to AIDS in Haiti and those last days were often very painful for the victims, they were ashamed and didn't want anyone to know about their condition. Also many living with HIV/AIDS can't access generic live-saving AIDS drugs due to patents by major pharmaceutical corporations more interested in profit than saving lives. People living in rural areas do not have access to medicine or support, again because HIV/AIDS is a social taboo.

DiscriminaSida challenges the social discrimination of people living with HIV/AIDS in Haiti and expresses a message of solidarity.

SC: In Montreal you work with Nomadic Massive, you also have you own solo work, and are involved in the Solid'Ayiti initiative, clearly you are an important voice from the Haitian diaspora in Montreal. Interested in hearing your thoughts on the role that the Haitian diaspora can play in the future of Haiti especially with the recent news that Wyclef Jean will be running for President.

VS: Actually the Haitian diaspora has always been really involved in Haiti. Many Haitians survive today because of the money sent every month by relatives abroad, remittances, which is not sustainable for the future.

Today, we need not just money but we need people on the ground in Haiti getting involved in direct solidarity work.

In Montreal, artists moved to help Haiti tremendously which is great, big up and big respect for that, but also making that trip to Haiti to be with Haitians on the ground is important.

Solid'Ayiti's efforts in Montreal were really well received in Limbé because we have a direct connection, it is my hometown. After the concerts in Montreal this winter people in Limbé knew that the people raising money in Montreal weren't just anyone but the crew from Nomadic Massive and friends.

Vox Sambou is a Haitian hip-hop artist with Nomadic Massive. Info can be found here

Stefan Christoff is a journalist, community organizer and musician in Montreal who regularly contributes to rabble.ca. He can be found on Twitter here.

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