Haiti has lost one of its most important human rights advocates, freedom fighters, public intellectuals, and anti-dictator and American empire thinkers in the second half of the 20th century: Emmanuel “Manno” Charlemagne.
Emmanuel Charlemagne (1948-2017), also known as “Manno,” was a political activist and gifted musician who boldly sang about the resilience and hope of the Haitian people in the midst of political tragedy,despair, cultural alienation, and imperial interruptions.
As a young man growing up in Haiti, I learned about America’s hegemony in the world and the danger of the American empire and global capitalism through Manno’s musical lyrics.I learned about the corruption, the abuses, and the false promises of the Haitian government. Manno also taught me about the long suffering and courage of the Haitian people.
Through his lyrics, I became aware of the importance of democracy,justice, the ethics of individual responsibility, the collective mobilization toward human flourishing, and the common good in the Haitian society.
Consider the following verse from the 1994 album “La Fimen,” which translates to “The Smoke,”in which Manno laments about the state of the Haitian society and failure of the Haitian state after 200 years of independence:
Dwa de lòm se konsa l rele (The right of man is what it’s called)
Lamayòt pou ti moun fronte (For the people who are disrespectful we know what to do)
Apre 200 zan sa n regle (After 200 years, what have we done?)
Nèg vle fè n konnen ke solèy se Bondye (Man wants us to believe the sun is God)
Men dyab la ap vini pa pale (But the devil is coming, so don’t speak)
Labib son w bagay ki sakre (The bible is something that is sacred)
Yon patay ki pa byen regle ( A distribution that’s not calculated fairly )
Blan yo pran tè ya (The white man took the land)
Yo bann bib la n aksepte tande (They forced the bible on us, but we accepted it)
Correspondingly, as an anticolonial thinker, Manno confronts white supremacy and colonization with poetic rigor and aggressiveness: “Blan yo pran tè ya /Yo bann bib la n aksepte tande.” This translates to: “The white man took the land and gave us the Bible, and he forced it upon us.”
In his song, “Oganizasyon Mondyal,” Manno denounces the global class systems and the dominant class that exploit the underclass and mistreat the wretched of the earth. Not only so, but Manno also makes a clarion call to the people: “Lè pèp anba zam tout peyi tout kote,” which translates to “revolt against the various groups, forces, and institutions that oppress the poor and common people.” He is informing us of the goal of the dominant class:to destroy and kill.
Laklas dominant entelijan ke l ye (The dominant class is the intelligent ones of course)
An prensip konnen ke l an minorite (But in principle they know they are the minority)
L konn ki jan pou l jwe ( They know how to play the game)
Pozisyon de klas li se sa ki konte (Their status is what counts)
La fè lenposib la kraze la brize ( They are going to do the impossible)
Pou l elimine ti moun ki lan ze (So they can eliminate the future generation before they’re born)
Nap goumen jouk mayi mi jouk tan nou libere ( We will fight until the end, until we get our freedom)
Pran konfyans lan lit lòt pèp yo ki pa pè tonbe (Trust the other nations who are not afraid to fall)
Delivrans yo se jefò yo lan san ki ap koule (Our blood will shed until we have freedom)
Grenn doktè ta vle preskri yo voye sa jete (What the doctor prescribes they throw away)
For Manno, the Haitian people must continue to fight until everyone is free, yet their freedom is in their shared bloodshed. Freedom is costly and demands the collective sacrifice of the people.
Through his revolutionary songs, Manno spoke of the predicament of the Haitian poor and working class and defended their right to exist and their rightful possession of freedom, and correspondingly, their right to work and harvest the fruit of their own labor. He awakened the consciousness of the Haitian youth in the second half of the 20th century.
I was young, perhaps 9 or 10 years old, and did not fully understand all you were singing about, but somehow I understood that you were speaking truth, beauty, justice, and love. You were singing about power to the Haitian people and self-agency for the Haitian poor and oppressed class. In “Banm Yon Ti Limyè” (1990), your cri de coeur for justice, equality, and a better life for all Haitians challenged the powers and political authorities that sustained the suffering and domination of the Haitian people:
Ban m yon ti limyè mèt (Give me some light master)
Ban m yon ti limyè pou m wè sa k’ap pase (Give me some light so I can see what’s happening)
Ban m yon ti limyè mèt (Give me some light master)
Ban m yon ti limyè souple pou m ka wè (Give me some light please so I can see)
Poukisa se nèg yo fè soufri (Why is that the black man suffers)
Poukisa se nèg yo fè sòt (Why is it the black man made to be uneducated)
Poukisa nèg paka manje (Why is it that the black man can’t eat)
Poukisa yo mande lanmò (Why does the black man ask for death)
In this lyric, you are searching to find light (limyè) or to be enlightened about the living conditions of black people in the world. You articulate the international suffering and plight of black people in a series of provocative questions:
Why are the black people suffering?
Why can’t they find food?
Why are they asking for death?
You championed the cause of the Haitian poor and oppressed, the victims of the Duvalier regime, the Haitian bourgeoisie, and the political elite class. You advocated total justice in Haitian civil and political society. You portrayed yourself as the voice for the voiceless. Through your songs, you raised Haitian consciousness about the plight of underrepresented Haitian families, and the miscarriages of justice in our society and in the world.
You were also my historian—from you, I became acquainted with a host of Haitian freedom fighters, both Haitian men and women, national heroes and heroines, and learned about the infinite worth of our glorious Haitian revolution. Through you, I learned that it is imperative for us, as Haitians, to collaboratively plan our future and destiny in order to live together as a people,as a nation.
May you never die in the hearts of the Haitian people!
May the Haitian soul never forget the revolutionary songs of freedom and justice you wrote on their behalf!
Ban m yon ti limyè souple (Give me some light please)
Ban m yon ti limye tonè (Give me some light damn it)
Ban m yon ti limyè (Give me some light)
Celucien L. Joseph PhD (University of Texas at Dallas) is an Assistant Professor of English at Indian River State College. His most recent book includes Thinking in Public: Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development in Jacques Roumain (Pickwick Publications, 2017) and is the general editor of the forthcoming text, Between Two Worlds: Jean Price-Mars, Haiti, and Africa (Lexington Books, February 2018).