This post is part of our forum on “Hip Hop at 50.”
Haiti got a special place in our history,
But we don’t learn about it in the ‘hood,
It stayed a mystery.
–Talib Kweli, “Cry for Haiti”
The Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804) was the first successful revolution by enslaved people in the Americas. Recent books by Leslie Alexander, Brandon Byrd and Millery Polyné have emphasized the event’s significance for 19th- and 20th-century African Americans. As Alexander argues in Fear of a Black Republic, “Haiti’s triumphant ascendance created a beacon of hope for free and enslaved Black people…, especially those fighting for freedom in the United States.” Other scholars have examined the Revolution’s appearances in Black culture forms from jazz and art to theater.
The place of the Haitian Revolution in US hip hop has received much less attention, however. In fact, the Haitian Revolution has made appearances in the lyrics of several rap artists—especially those from Brooklyn and other NYC boroughs with sizable Caribbean populations— showing that it remains relevant to Black freedom struggles today.
Schools throughout the United States have long ignored the Haitian Revolution, and many academic historians have also long excluded the Revolution from their analyses of revolutions of the same era. The Haitian Revolution was also largely hidden from movie screens. In general, discrimination and stereotyping against Haitians immigrants compounded the silencing of the Haitian Revolution. During the 1980s, for example, both white and Black Americans labelled Haitian immigrants as AIDS carriers, which pushed young Haitians to camouflage their origins.1
Despite these prejudices, some late 20th- and early 21st-century African Americans have continued earlier Black traditions of being inspired by the Haitian Revolution. The Brooklyn-born comedian and director Chris Rock learned about the Revolution by reading on his own. His 2014 film Top Five linked the Revolution and hip hop as twin manifestations of Black freedom that unnerve white Americans.
Other NYC artists have learned about Haiti’s Revolution and wanted to help others learn about it. The Brooklyn-born rapper KRS-One (who strongly identifies with the Bronx) has been deeply interested in Haiti, as part of his efforts to educate Black audiences about silences in white-authored history curricula. His 1993 Sound of Da Police, for instance, emphasized continuities between slavery regimes and contemporary policing. KRS-One has also criticized the white supremacist thinking underlying conventional historiographical narratives in his 2020 Black Oustory: A Philosophical Look At “Black” And “History.” 2
In 1994, KRS-One met with Haitian journalist Jean Dominique and director Jonathan Demme to describe his plan to create a collaborative “magnum opus” teaching Americans about Haitian history. KRS-One wanted to bring together leading US artists and Haitian bands like RAM. The project would start with Arawak perspectives on Columbus, before moving onto the Revolution, the US Occupation (1915-1934), and US interference with Haitian sovereignty under US Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In this conversation, which was preserved by Duke University’s Radio Haiti Archive and processed by Laura Wagner, KRS-One reported having difficulty persuading record labels to fund the project.
It does not appear that KRS-One’s project on Haiti was ever completed. However, a fragment remains on the album released by Melky Jean and others after the 2010 Haitian Earthquake (Care for Haiti, Slip-N-Slide Records). The track “Cry for Haiti” (KRS-One, Talib Kweli and Melky Jean) highlighted the Revolution and US persecution of Haitians since. KRS-One began, “Red for mulattoes, blue for the Blacks/It’s the Haitian Revolution, KRS on the track/First Black-governed republic in the Western Hemisphere/Haitians: they never fear!” before shifting to US hostility toward the Revolution and the need to help Haitians now:
Man, it’s crazy,
How racist the US is toward them kids in Haiti.
They ain’t never gonna get over the ass-whippin’
The Haitians gave the French – they still trippin’!
But listen: there’s no time for wastin’
Starvation and death are chasin’ Haitians
Act fast, get off your ass…
Haitians comin’ across in rafts while the government laughs.
In the track’s next section, Kweli observed how US foreign policy harms Haitians: Yo, there’s mad Haitians in Brooklyn/You can hear it in their voice, you can see it in their face/If you’re lookin’. He also criticized the suppression of the Revolution in public schools and the “crush[ing] the will of the nation” by arming junta members against the Haitian people.
KRS-One and Kweli were not alone in invoking the Haitian Revolution in post-earthquake songs. After consulting with several scholars, including Haitian Studies Association director Claudine Michel, Douglas Daniels, Kyrah Malika Daniels and Gaye Johnson, Chuck D of Public Enemy created the project Kombit pou Haiti 2010. It represented a “call to action,” to help others realize how the earthquake’s severe effects resulted “from the progression of imperial occupations, permanent enslavement, and lasting economic and racial subjugation” of the Haitian people. In his song “This Bit of Earth,” Chuck D drew parallels between the era of slavery (when Haitians were “enslaved to work sugar and coffee”) and contemporary times as American corporations run sweatshops in Haiti. Chuck D denounced US efforts to continue exploiting Haitians (Original plan in Effect/Destroy the Black Planet). Chuck D described this song as illustrating how Haitians have suffered “retribution for… Toussaint Louverture leading the first successful slave revolt in history.” Chuck D and Johnson asked, “what is the West going to do to fix a region it screwed up with slavery, conquest, government takeovers, occupation, and underhanded modern gangsterism?” 3
Haitian American artists have also highlighted the Revolution in their lyrics. Wyclef Jean, who immigrated to Brooklyn before settling in New Jersey, often references Haitian revolutionary heroes in his songs, as is the case in “Election Time” and “Ghetto Racine.” Indeed, Régine Jean-Charles views Wyclef’s frequent identification with the revolutionary generals Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines as expressions of Haitian pride but also a “performed masculinity.” The Florida rapper Black Dada similarly invoked Toussaint and Dessalines in his 2009 “Imma Zoe” video. Other diaspora Haitians who have found success in African American music genres like hip hop and R&B have deemphasized their Haitianness while sneaking references to their homeland into some of their tracks. These include the late Dave “Trugoy the Dove” Jolicoeur of De La Soul in Itzsoweezee (1996) and Jason Joël Desrouleux (aka Jason Derulo) in Talk Dirty (2013) and the 2018 Colors video.
More recently, as police killings of African Americans and attacks on civil rights gains have continued, the Haitian Revolution has reappeared in hip hop. In June 2020, weeks after the murder of George Floyd, Public Enemy performed a remake of “Fight the Power” on the BET Awards, with special guests. Rapper Nas, one of the guests in the performance, harkened back to the Revolution’s overturning white supremacy: “Haiti beat France in century 17/Salute Toussaint and Dessalines.”
A 2021 video by Brooklyn-born artist Joey Bada$$ also features Haitian culture. “The Light,” directed by Kerby Jean-Raymond, chronicled Bada$$’s attempt to get “his mojo back” by participating in a Haitian Vodou ceremony in Brooklyn. Vodou helped to spark the Revolution, which was launched following an August 1791 ceremony led by an enslaved Haitian named Boukman Dutty and the Vodou priestess Cécile Fatiman. Emulating Haitians who have drawn courage from the Haitian lwas (spirits), Bada$$ turns in the video to Vodou and explains that he wants “to inspire Black people to realize their power and take it back.” By the end of the video’s—after being metaphorically lit on fire in the ceremony— Bada$$ carries the flame radiating off his body into a NYPD precinct office.
As these examples illustrate, the Haitian Revolution has been a powerful and consistent trope in US hip hop. Rappers in the United States have used hip hop to create historical counter-narratives, challenging listeners to learn the history. In so doing, these artists continue the tradition of Black Americans who challenged the US government on its foreign policies toward Black nations.
- Cécile Accilien, “Congratulations! You Don’t Look Haitian: How and When Does One Look Haitian?” in Philippe Zacaïr, ed., Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora in the Wider Caribbean (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2010), 158-160; Alex Stepick, “Just Comes and Cover-Ups: African Americans and Haitians in High School,” in Alex Stepick, Guillermo Grenier, Max Castro and Marvin Dunn, eds., This Land Is Our Land: Immigrants and Power in Miami (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 116. ↩
- For more on KRS-One’s historical and political ideas, see Priya Parmar, Knowledge Reigns Supreme: The Critical Pedagogy of Hip Hop Artist KRS-ONE (Rotterdam, Neth.: Sense Publishers, 2009) ↩
- Leslie Alexander invokes Chuck D’s song in Fear of a Black Republic, whose title is a riff on the Public Enemy album Fear of a Black Planet. Other Brooklyn- and Bronx-born artists made earthquake relief tracks about Haiti but without necessarily invoking the Revolution; see for instance “Stranded (Haiti Mon Amour)” by Jay-Z, Rihanna, Bono, and Swizz Beatz. ↩