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By Kyle Munzenrieder
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Patrick Juste, owner of Les Cousins, a Miami boutique specializing in Haitian art, literature, and music, says that Martelly is the top-selling Haitian artist in South Florida. "His music moves," Juste observes. Sweet Micky's CDs also do well in other cities of the Haitian diaspora, and Martelly was a nominee for outstanding male artist at this year's Haitian Music Awards, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Last year he won best album of the year.
For those who hold fast to ideological verities, Sweet Micky's success is now bitterly ironic. Unlike other Haitian musicians, including those in the internationally known band Boukman Eksperyans and singer Manno Charlemagne, who risked their lives to criticize the de facto military government, Martelly spent the coup years entertaining leaders and their factotums. While Charlemagne and others were living in exile, Martelly operated a nightclub called the Garage, which was patronized by the military and other members of the ruling elite.
Martelly openly acknowledges his friendship with Lt. Col. Michel François, the former Port-au-Prince police chief who along with Cedras helped orchestrate the coup against Aristide. François was recently indicted for drug trafficking by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami. An avid Sweet Micky fan, François adopted that moniker as his nickname.
From cab drivers in Miami to slum dwellers in Port-au-Prince, Sweet Micky enthusiasts say they are withholding judgment on his politics. Martelly's supporters point out he is also close to members of the current government, U.S. diplomats, and progressive rappers like the Fugees. (Group members Wyclef Jean, Prakazrel Michel, and Lauryn Hill stop by Martelly's home in Port-au-Prince when they are in Haiti, and Jean and Martelly perform a compas song together on Jean's new solo album.)
"You have to take [the friendship with Michel Francois] out of the political context," says Gesner Champagne, a childhood buddy who married Martelly's wife's sister. "You might like the conversation you have with that person. You might like the good time you have with that person. It doesn't have to be political. You just like the guy."
Sitting at the bar at the Spirit, Champagne emphasizes Martelly's ability to attract fans across the political and social spectrum. "Sweet Micky is the only one who brings everyone together," he claims. "I don't care if you are from the slums of Cite Soleil or from Petionville [a city built in the hills above Port-au-Prince where most wealthy Haitians live]; Sweet Micky brings everyone together in peace and they enjoy his music."
Stanley Schrager, the former spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, acknowledges Martelly's reputation as a supporter of the military but concedes that he too views the entertainer as a friend. "Our relationship has been nonpolitical," Schrager says. "I admire him very much as a performer. He can generate tremendous passion, intensity, and energy."
During Schrager's tour of duty in Port-au-Prince he spent a few months as Martelly's neighbor. Since Schrager returned to the States last year, the two men have remained in touch. "He's a sincere family man who pays a lot of attention to his kids," Schrager asserts. "He's kind of a quiet, thoughtful guy, a genuinely likable type." Schrager adds that Martelly has not discussed his political ambitions with him. "He certainly is well-known, so he has a lot of name recognition," Schrager muses. "Any candidacy he would undertake would clearly generate a lot of attention, though he would obviously have to deal with the allegations of his closeness to the former military regime."
Martelly was born in 1961. Haiti was securely in the thrall of François ("Papa Doc") Duvalier, a country doctor who would subsequently declare himself "an immaterial being," "the personification of the Haitian fatherland," and "president for life." There was civic order, as nostalgic Duvalierists are quick to point out, enforced by Duvalier's civilian militia, better known as the Tonton Macoutes or the Volunteers for National Security. The Macoutes outnumbered the Haitian Army by at least two to one and functioned as a secret-police force preventing Duvalier's overthrow. Their methods were brutal and their power virtually unchecked.
When Martelly was ten, Papa Doc died and governing authority was transferred to his nineteen-year-old son, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier. Francois Duvalier had espoused Noirisme, a political philosophy advocating the transfer of power from the affluent mulatto minority to the mostly impoverished black majority. Duvalier attempted to accomplish this by confiscating property and suppressing his opposition. But under Jean-Claude the relationship between the government and the small mulatto elite, to which the Martelly family belonged, improved.
Gerard Martelly, Michel's father, supervised the Shell petroleum plant, located in Carrefour. The family lived near the plant, in that rundown part of the city that today is the red-light district. The Martellys were traditionally middle-class, observing strict rules of comportment: They went to church. They did not curse. They ate meals together.
But rebellion ran in Martelly's blood. His maternal grandfather was a troubadour who had penned protest songs against the 1915-34 U.S. occupation. Martelly hung out with the poor kids from Carrefour and taught himself to play piano by ear. Though his parents sent him to the best schools, he was repeatedly expelled for poor behavior. Once Martelly organized his fellow students into a mock orchestra, improvising tiny instruments from his mother's hairpins. Another time he hid a frog in a matchbox, carefully positioned so the liberated amphibian would jump straight up his teacher's dress.