by M. Skye Holly
There is an idiom that says “lightning does not strike in the same place twice.” The saying generally refers to negative experiences, and in the case of the legendary Haitian songstress/activist Emeline Michel, this couldn’t be more far from the truth.
The soulful and luminous singer is about to strike twice in Brooklyn, NY this week.
Tonight at Brooklyn College, Michel will headline a panel discussion in association with the City University of New York’s Haitian Studies Institute. The event “Voices from Haiti: Artists as Activists” will explore the position of Haitian artists serving as international activists in their respective fields. Joining Michel on the panel are author Ibi Zoboi; filmmaker and journalist Cassandre Thrasybule; Régine Roumain, the Executive Director of the Haiti Cultural Exchange; and Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul, the founding Director of the City University of New York (CUNY) Haitian Studies Institute. Then on Saturday, March 4, Emeline takes the stage in a widely-anticipated concert at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts.
Michel said she feels “compelled” to participate in the discussion.
“It’s always an exciting moment for me to meet other artists and activists, to discover what they are doing to enrich their movement. And it’s always good to mingle and gather new ideas,” Michel said.
Throughout Michel’s 30 year career she has made an indelible mark in Haitian and world music, performing in a wide array of styles such as jazz, blues, pop, kompa, and traditional Haitian song. Michel has carved out a career where she is as known for the songs she belts out as she is for the issues she will sing or speak out on. She serves as a Red Cross Ambassador and was aptly praised by The New York Times as a “diplomat of music” and “the dancing ambassador with a voice serene and warm like the breeze.”
She is often asked why she has gone in her chosen direction as opposed to building a career on light hearted or commercial-ready hits. Michel insists it a must to “reflect what is going on in my country.” Michel’s music has offered celebratory anthems, ballads and songs of awareness, including the poignant “Djannie,” addressing abusive relationships.
“If you knew the richness of what we have to offer…I must reflect what is going on. I will always sing about love, but I cannot take the (political) out of it,” she said.
Michel feels that all artists should be activists, but it should be intrinsic.
“You’ve got to have it ingrained in you,” Michel said. “A lot of people will think it’s cool and they’ll all want to be a part of something, lending their voice or image to something,” Michel pointed out, concluding such people are not activists—they are simply following trends.
“All artists should be, but if you’re not an activist, just be yourself,” Michel recommended.
Just being herself is all Emeline Michel can do. She has an ethereal folk quality that has garnered comparisons to Joni Mitchell and an electric charge not unlike Celia Cruz. Her soul and command of presence may bring Aretha Franklin to mind, and her commitment to social justice channels greats like James Brown or Marvin Gaye. Still, Michel is a vocal and social change force to be reckoned with in her own right and maintains that she always has been.
“Wherever there can be awareness—whether we are talking about violence against women…it’s been a part of my material. It has always been a part of my conscious writing,” said Michel.
Emeline recalled a conversation she had with a concertgoer after one of her shows in Port-au-Prince that reconfirmed her desire to endorse respect and empowerment for women. A woman approached her and asked if Michel would write songs addressing the pain and complexity experienced by those who had suffered through domestic violence. Michel understood that “from intimate settings, it could be very shameful to come out and expose such a thing.” It reassured her that she would continue to use her music to speak for the voiceless whenever she could.
Responses from fans have been overwhelming and Michel said every comment means the world to her.
“I save so many of the [thank you] messages that people have given me. It makes it all worth it. At midnight, after rehearsals, I will think of them. A woman studying to become a nurse once told me that my music kept her company when she was in school. She said ‘I share my diploma with you,’” Michel remembered.
“People are listening, and a song goes a long way,” Michel shared. “It is one specific way to bring a subject out there. People will listen to a song, sing to it—and it will go the extra mile that a speech may not go.”
Only days after Michel and her contemporaries will discuss their perspectives at “Voices from Haiti: Artists as Activists,” she is looking forward to being in the company of old and new fans at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts. There, she will stir hearts to action, stir hearts to remember her beloved homeland, and stir hearts to dance.
Welcome, Emeline. New York is ready for lightning to strike.
Emeline Michel, CUNY Haitian Studies Institute Panel Discussion.
“VOICES OF HAITI: ARTISTS AS ACTIVISTS”
Woody Tanger Auditorium at Brooklyn College Library, Brooklyn College,
2900 Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11210
www.brooklyncenter.org (718) 951-4500 Thursday, March 2, 2017, 6:30 p.m. FREE
Emeline Michel, in concert at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College.
2900 Campus Rd., Brooklyn, NY 11210
www.brooklyncenter.org (718) 951-4500 Saturday, March 4, 2017, 8:00 p.m. Tickets: $35.00