For singer-songwriter Emeline Michel, it’s hard to separate art from politics, especially when one comes from a certain country. And if that place is Haiti, it’s almost impossible.
|Emeline Michel during a performance in Paris.|
Michel was born in Gonaïves, in the northern part of the Caribbean island, and she’s no stranger to scenes of rioting, flooding, mudslides and other catastrophes that have affected her homeland. But she is also a witness to the indomitable spirit and generosity of Haitians, and her music reflects this.
“In my country, when you have a voice and a mic, there is just so much that you can’t allow yourself to let pass by without saying something,” she told SWAN during an interview before two concerts in Paris, France, this week.
“You have to speak out for people who don’t have the same privilege. The inspiration and the issues are right under my eyes, and as much as I sing about love and other subjects, it’s impossible for me to be quiet about the social and political content,” she added.
On tour to promote her 10th album, Quintessence, Michel said that the scars of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti caused her to look inward, to go back to basics. The music and her current performances pull listeners into a space where pain is mixed with healing, sadness with joy. “Sucré et salé” – sweet and salty – she calls her renditions, as she moves from joyous to wrenching songs, and back.
|Michel, in a relaxed moment.|
Michel’s voice evokes something elemental, and brings to mind the talent of vocalists such as Miriam Makeba and Ella Fitzgerald. Her origins as a gospel and jazz singer infuse and bolster the African, Caribbean and Latin American rhythms in her music. But it’s the lyrics that cause reflection.
“I think your background absolutely impacts who you are as a singer-songwriter, and as a person,” she said in response to a question about her influences. “When you see someone standing up and singing after a hurricane, and you see the country re-forming, it changes you as a person. That's why so much of my music is about hope.”
Michel first gained attention when she won a talent contest at the age of 18, after having sung in her local church. The win motivated her to move to the United States to study jazz for a year at the Detroit Jazz Center, and when she returned to Haiti, she created a band and launched her career as a singer. Soon she was racking up hits in the French-speaking Caribbean, with both her voice and her good looks fueling awareness of her presence.
In 1991, she drew international notice with the release of the album Tout mon temps (All my time) and the success of the infectious song “A.K.I. K.O”. From that point, Michel could have gone on to be just another pop star, producing danceable but forgettable music. Instead, she chose to develop her skills as a songwriter and producer, and to combine her art with social activism. To “stay true” to her artistic vision, she created her own production company, “Cheval de Feu”, in 1999.
Four years later, she launched Rasin Kreyòl (Creole Roots), a collection of songs with poignant lyrics and powerful melodies that paid tribute to traditional Haitian rhythms and expressed a certain yearning for her homeland.
|Michel, with her band, in Paris.|
She was again living in the United States at the time, and the album caused influential people in the music business to take notice. Michel was invited as a guest on National Public Radio and also performed at prestigious Carnegie Hall. In Canada, the French-language press hailed Rasin Kreyòl as one of the best world music records of 2004.
Alongside her music career, Michel became increasingly involved in community service in the United States, giving concerts for patients at various hospitals and also for prison inmates, including women prisoners.
Haiti meanwhile was eager to welcome her back, and in 2007 Michel was the guest of honor at Musique en Folie (Music Madness) in Port-au-Prince. She took the opportunity to launch her ninth album, Reine de Coeur (Queen of Hearts), there. Drawing anew on her African and Caribbean links, Michel worked with a team of 35 musicians, and used the album to celebrate her 20 years in the music business.
The earthquake of 12 January 2010 galvanized her and other U.S.-based Haitian artists to assist with the relief efforts, and anyone who watched the Hope for Haiti telethon organized by U.S. actor George Clooney will remember Michel’s raw rendition of the Jimmy Cliff classic “Many Rivers to Cross”. The telethon was broadcast around the world and raised $66 million.
|Michel, before a rehearsal in France. © SWAN|
The aftermath of the earthquake caused a change in Michel’s approach to music, she told SWAN. She said that she wanted to go to a “quiet place” with only the essentials, "only the bare minimum". Quintessence is thus an acoustic-driven album, pared down, poetic and jazzy.
Michel worked with the renowned Haitian author Edwidge Danticat on the stand-out track "Dawn", and what listeners hear is Danticat’s lyrical language delivered in Michel’s moving voice.
“I feel like I’ve been wanting to do this album forever”, Michel told SWAN. “I love reading and always wanted to work with some of the writers who’ve kept me awake with their books over the years.”
Not all the songs seem suited to a live performance, and several of Michel's friends thought the project was “too different”. But the singer says she felt it was important for her to do something she truly enjoyed.
“When you talk with your heart, people respond to it,” she said. “I’ve learned over the years not to do things because of trends.” – A.M.