On January 12, 2010, Haiti was hit with a 7.0-magnitude earthquake, leaving more than 100,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed. Pras Michel, best known as a founder and member of '90s hip-hop group the Fugees, felt the need to act as an American of Haitian decent. He called up his friend Michel Martelly, known in Haiti as the diaper-toting, antics-loving singer Sweety Micky, and thus began an election campaign for one of the world’s most unlikely presidents.
Directed by Ben Patterson, ‘Sweet Micky for President’ follows the journey on film, complete with a heated rivalry between Pras and former bandmate Wyclef Jean, run-ins with Sean Penn, and underlying tension of who is best equipped to run a country in need.
The film screens at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, on April 28, 29, and May 3 and as Pras is in Toronto this week to promote the film, he spoke to OpenCanada on Haiti’s complicated history, the ability to make an impact, and the dirty world of politics.
You start the film off by saying the earthquake was a personal wake up call for you; that you could have been one of the kids we were seeing on TV. Was there much time or certin considerations before you called up your friend Michel Martelly and suggest he run for president, or was that an instinctual response?
It was very instinctual. Not knowing what I was going to do, but knowing I had to do something.
You had identified as someone of Haitian descent but what was your personal connection to the country until then? Were you travelling there often?
No, I wasn’t travelling there at all. I had been there but it wasn’t regular, it was just here and there.
So has the way you identify personally with the country changed since getting involved with the election campaign?
Yeah, definitely. Before, because I was born in the States, I knew I was Haitian but I never really identified with the culture to the extent that I felt I had to get involved politically. But the minute that the earthquake happened something just rushed over me, and for years I would see different things that were happening there, but that pressed the reset button for me.
And how do you feel now about your connection to Haiti?
I feel like I’m a place where I should have been all along, which is really identifying with my roots and being able to make a change, that’s a very self rewarding aspect to it.
Politics can be dirty. Did it live up to the reputation for you?
It’s very, very dirty. It was dirtier than I thought. You know, it’s politics. It’s kind of like you say one thing to someone and it means something else to someone else. Politics has no friends, right? It’s what is convenient in that moment to get closer to whatever it is that you think you need to accomplish.
My father used to tell me the illusion is people say they want to hear the truth but the truth is people want to hear the illusion. So even when you went to the people and said, ‘listen, I know we have economic problems, we have educational problems, we have healthcare issues, it’s going to take more than five years to figure this thing out,’ or, let’s say you tell the people the truth, they don’t want to hear that. And even though they know a person is lying underneath their teeth, something about that lie makes them feel better... They want to hear that person who says that tomorrow is going to be great when they know tomorrow is not going to be great.
The film quotes a Haitian activist speaking about former President Rene Preval, saying when he got to power, he forgot his promises. Was that a fear getting into the campaign that that could be the destiny for any politician in Haiti, or elsewhere for that matter?
Well, I never wanted to be a politician.
So that’s Michel’s battle now?
Yeah, I don’t want to. Because I’m very progressive in my political thoughts so someone like me cannot be a politician. But I can be what I want to be, which is an artist. I’ll give you an example — in the States, we have a very big drug problem. They are just now legalizing marijuana all around the country. They should have legalized that particular drug 40 years ago. Marijuana is no different from alcohol. So if you legalize something that’s equally harmful — not even as harmful as the other — why don’t you legalize it and get the revenues from that and implement more social programs? That’s only common sense to me.
Politics aren’t for you yet you were instrumental in getting Michel elected. Does that let you off the hook a bit? The path of Haiti changed right then and there with that campaign.
Yes, it did. But listen, part of it was just about one citizen trying to make a difference. Did I believe he was going to win? Yes. Did I understand the magnitude of what we jumped into when we jumped into the fray? Probably not. Because if I did I probably wouldn’t have jumped into the fray, understanding how complex and complicated the whole ordeal was. So it goes to show you that me jumping the fray it came from, 100 percent, my heart and soul. There was no agenda.
When you sit back and really think about it, it’s a ridiculous story to the point that it doesn’t make any sense. This guy who used to wear diapers is now the head of state, nowhere in the civilized world could that be true. It’s just one of those instances that at that moment in Haiti, the gravity of the universe just stopped and everyone was hypnotized and he snuck in. That’s the only way you can really explain it. The guy who used to wear diapers, used to moon people on the stage for crying out loud, and the guy becomes the president of the state.
Does that say something on the state of Haiti or its people at that time? Were they just so desperate for change?
Yes, of course. It was a moment of crisis. Let’s follow what happened: The revolution… A country that neighbours you helps to fund the people that you were fighting against, and you still manage to defeat that country that colonized you, which was France. America was arming the Dominican side because Americans didn’t want a slave country to win. You still win against those odds… Then they decide they want to occupy your country, then you go through dictatorship, then you go through coup d’états. Then you get labeled for the epidemic AIDS, that you’re responsible for that disease, which wasn’t true. Then you have hurricanes, you have flooding. Then you have embargo/sanctions put on you. Then you have epidemics. Everything. And then they finally hit you with an earthquake. Everybody’s like when do we great a break? When does this stop? Is there a curse on us? Finally everyone was like, ‘look we can drown in our sorrows or we can elect this clown and just see what happens. What’s the worst that can happen? We go through five years and if it doesn’t work out, we just press the reset button and go back to reality.’
That’s the best way I can explain it because I’m going to be honest with you, he would have never got elected if it wasn’t for the earthquake, that I can assure you.
At the launch of Michel’s presidential campaign in Montreal, one journalist said running for president of Haiti is like wanting to be the captain of the Titanic.
That’s one of my favourite quotes in the movie.
It would seem to require a certain amount of craziness or courage, or combination of both, to take it on because there was bound to be so many challenges. Do you keep in touch with Michel now, how has he found the challenge?
What’s the worst that can happen? It’s like, look, we just lost two to three hundred thousand lives, we tried everything, let’s try this. It’s not like he is going to wage a war against the Dominican Republic or against the United States. OK, there might be some corruption, we’re used to that; there might be some nepotism, we’re used to that. We’ll have our entertainer for five years and then we’ll go back to our senses. I’ll tell you Haiti will never elect someone like that again. That’s not going to happen.
It has been four years since his election. What are the reviews?
Depends on who you talk to. Some would say things are OK, some would say things got a little better than it was five years ago, and some people will tell you that it’s horrible. So it depends. I personally think, does this guy come out of Gandhi? No. Could he have done better? Yes. But I think at the end of the day what he did is inspire a lot of people in Haiti to say, ‘if this guy can do it, there’s no reason why I can’t do it. And do it better.' He’s the third democratically elected president in its 200-year history, I mean what does that tell you right there? Any democracy is still in its infancy for the country of Haiti... I think that’s why he got elected. You couldn’t go any lower of a case than him. What’s lower than that? I don’t know, electing a 10-year-old? I think that’s the lowest you can go.
What would he think to hear that? Did he need to convince himself he was the right candidate? In the film, he says ‘what’s the difference — I have run my band for 22 years now I can run the country.’
Well, obviously that’s not the case and I think he knows that’s the case. We all think we know politics until we really getting into it, right? I think he would say, ‘Man this is not what I what I thought it would be.’
There’s a theme throughout the film about outsiders, whether you’re a musician outside of politics, or a foreigner from outside Haiti, with an overarching question of when belonging is legitimate. Did this journey test your belief on belonging?
Yeah, that question comes up. It definitely tests your morals, your spirit, your soul. When you go through hell you just keep going, you can’t turn back, you keep going. The mission was [Michel] must be elected as the next president of Haiti. That was the mission. As crazy as it may sound, that effort in itself should be the moral to the whole story. Whether it was ridiculous or not, that’s up to one's opinion. What you cannot discount is when you believe in something, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish. All is possible. That’s what the human existence is about… There’s no other way to explain it. He didn’t have any political weaponry. He didn’t even own a suit when we first started.
There are scenes that to the average person might seem surreal — calling up Sean Penn or Bill Clinton, as if that’s a casual thing to do. Is that because we are seeing this through your eyes, or that’s really how Haiti felt after the earthquake, with celebrities and high-profile politicians coming out of the woodwork?
I don’t think the average person would have been able to give Bill Clinton a call. I think part of my celebrity helped me to get some of these things to happen. I always knew Sean Penn but I never knew him personally. So around the time of the earthquake, a good friend of mine, he’s like my godfather — and that’s Warren Beatty — put me in contact with Sean before I even got to Haiti. I got his information, I’m in Haiti, trying to make moves. He’s in Haiti. I called Sean, Sean’s like I’m going to meet with Bill, c’mon let’s go. I know it sounds crazy. You couldn’t plan this. You would have too much bureaucracy. It just happened.
What’s you relationship now with President Martelly (aka Sweet Micky)? Do you speak on a regular basis; do you go to visit him?
We definitely do not speak on a regular basis. But we’re fine, we’re cool. The last time I visited Haiti, or two times before that, I went to see him. I kind of try to stay away from the politics of it, because there’s some kind of things that I see that I don’t totally agree with. But once you take away the politics, that’s my boy. I love Michel. And I think he’d say the same about me.
What about your relationship with Wyclef Jean? Is it still as we see in the film, with this campaign bringing you two closer together, in the end?
Yeah we’re fine. I don’t know if we’re best friends, but we’re fine.
What do you see for the future of Haiti and your relationship with the country now?
I think the future is bright. I really do. I think believe it or not this Michel election is going to put a lot of pressure from all angles, for the people, for the U.S., the international community. People are going to have to step up and they are going to be held accountable. You gotta remember this is not a game, we’re talking about peoples lives. It’s not a joke. You can’t be playing with peoples lives like that, you know?
Did you ever have to remind yourself that?
I never had to remind myself that, because I live that mantra. I’m not saying I’m a saint, but I think people should just have basic human livelihoods — clean water, that’s just basic; having somewhere to send their children for education, that’s basic. We’re not talking about we need to make money and go on vacation, we’re not talking about luxury things, we’re talking about fundamental things that human beings should have access to.
Now that sounds like the makings for a political campaign.
You have to remember that in Haiti, there are a lot of elements that don’t want to [fulfill those needs] because there’s a group of people that prosper off the instability of Haiti. So you have to make a decision. Something has to be done.
Is film your way to get messages across these days? Are we going to see more film projects from you?