Sweet Micky's masquerade

The Caribbean sun blazes relentlessly on the tall orange gates of Bernard Mevs Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Women with heaping baskets of mangos and laundry balanced on their heads plod by on the unpaved road. As men repair rusty jalopies, a merengue beat drifts languidly over the noise of nearby Toussaint Louverture Boulevard.

The lazy Friday morning doesn't last. A pack of police on four-wheelers tears down the narrow street, sending merchants frantically scrambling out of the way. Then a half-dozen motorcycles roar through the cloud of dust, their riders dismounting in a blur of camouflage and assault rifles. Finally, two jet-black SUVs pull up in front of the hospital gate.

A perfectly hairless orb emerges from one of the vehicles like a caramel-colored lollipop. "Tet kale!" the rapidly swelling crowd shouts. "Bald head!" Cameras flash.

It's an entrance fit for a pop star or a president. Or both.

Dressed in a dapper gray suit, Michel Martelly squints his heavy-lidded eyes, beams a brilliantly white smile, and waves. Only six days into his unlikely presidency, he's unfazed by the attention. It's no surprise. For more than two decades, "Sweet Micky" was Haiti's most popular musician: a raucous performer who combined lascivious dances with romantic, often bawdy lyrics. He drank, smoked, cursed, cross-dressed, and stripped onstage. Then he ran for president. After a round of voting that was marred by fraud and deadly riots, Martelly won a March runoff by a landslide.

Now he is in charge of one of the poorest nations in the world, still reeling from the January 12, 2010 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 Haitians and left more than a million homeless. In a nation looted by the father-and-son dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Martelly is also entrusted with spending more than $11 billion of international aid.

Yet Martelly is a mystery. He has never held office, touting his outsider status in the lead up to the election.

"My music was never political," Martelly tells New Times in an exclusive interview. "I have always tried to make sure that people laughed and had fun."

But a close look at his life and tunes proves otherwise. As a musician, he provided the soundtrack for coups d'état. He hosted private parties for right-wing thugs accused of extrajudicial killings. He borrowed his nickname from a notorious police chief later convicted of human rights abuses.

Despite a slick political makeover, Haiti's self-proclaimed "bad boy" hasn't really changed. He plans to re-establish the army that was abolished after the coup and has shown other early signs of a strongman mentality. Most worrisome, however, a video uploaded to YouTube in February shows Martelly calling opponents "faggots" and threatening to kill Jean-Bertrand Aristide — a leftist ex-president who recently returned from exile — by "stick[ing] a dick up his ass."

The stage may have changed, but Sweet Micky is still performing. And Haiti might end up getting played.

"He has two lives," says François Pierre-Louis, a Haitian political scientist at the City University of New York. "He's really a right-wing populist... Once he doesn't get his way, he will force his way and do things that aren't constitutional." So far, he says, Martelly has excluded opposition ministers from crucial meetings and proposed an unqualified candidate for prime minister.

Born on February 12, 1961, four years into the 14-year reign of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, Martelly lived a sheltered upbringing during the reign of the brutal dictator, who ordered the killings of 30,000 of his countrymen. Martelly's father was a Shell Oil executive, and young Micky was expelled from a series of private schools for his rebelliousness. After finishing high school, he was kicked out of the Haitian Military Academy after impregnating a general's goddaughter, he says.

In 1984, Martelly moved to Colorado and then to Miami, where he briefly attended Miami-Dade Community College, dropped out, and worked in construction. In 1986, just as Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was forced into exile, Martelly returned to Port-au-Prince and joined a friend's band, teaching himself to play the keyboard while singing every night at the El Rancho Hotel. Eventually, Martelly landed his own gig at Le Florville, a popular nightclub in the relatively upscale suburb of Petionville.

It was an uncertain time in Haiti. Baby Doc's departure had unleashed his Tonton Macoute thugs on the capital, while a series of military generals gave lip service to democratic change. Most musicians were busy penning politically charged protest lyrics, but Martelly sang playful, romantic numbers over a slowed-down merengue beat called compas, the only music allowed under the Duvaliers.

"There was a patriotic fervor attached to the overthrowing of the dictatorship, but Micky was the contrarian," says Gage Averill, an expert on Haitian music. "Haiti was coming through cathartic times, and here he was making such a strong play for this playboy image: partying with nice cars and beautiful women in Petionville clubs. His music was really a nostalgia for those Jean-Claude years."