By Garry Pierre-Pierre
When a colleague learned that May is Haitian American Heritage Month, he excitedly asked me where the cultural events were happening. He specifically asked about a food fair or music festival. Sadly, I told him there were few, and most of the activities were mainly talks, small receptions, and elected official organized activities.
That question from my colleague exposed a sore in our community—a reminder that we’re failing on the cultural front. But it is not for a lack of trying. I truly believe that Haiti’s culture is rich and vibrant enough to attract non-Haitians. For some reason, we can’t organize consistent cultural events, and those of us who do, do so at our own financial peril.
The Haitian Times organized Kreyolfest for 17 of its 19 years of existence. Again, I am sad to say that this year, we were left with no choice but to cancel this year’s event—perhaps forever. As of this writing, we have no plans of bringing it back. There simply isn’t enough support for such a large-scale event in New York.
The reasons are many, but I will discuss three major obstacles that we’ve faced over the years that led to the ultimate decision.
Firstly, there is no suitable place left in Brooklyn to organize large day-long events. The Parks Department has been under pressure from the new residents—who have been flocking to areas once dominated by Caribbean people—to not close parks for “private” events. The argument is that the parks belong to the people and that they should remain accessible to the public. While I agree with this premise, it’s execution is false. Large companies such as Live Nation have monopolized venues where small community-minded promoters once held events.
We used to get a waiver that allowed us to charge a minimal fee to cover some basic costs. That became untenable a few years ago. We tried to make it a totally free event, but the low budget limited our ability to book A-list bands. Therefore, the festival’s popularity waned and attendance suffered.
Secondly, companies that once sponsored Kreyolfest have since pulled out altogether or curtailed their contributions. The donation amount has gone down to an insignificant number that can’t even cover the cost of portable toilets, let alone the cost of stage and sound—just to name one expense we faced.
This decline began with the U.S. financial crisis of 2008. Although some companies have recovered since the recession, others have not returned to supporting the festival. I spent months reaching out to old and trying to recruit new sponsors, all with no success.
Lastly, the state of the Haitian Music Industry (HMI) is in shambles. Top bands and artists cannot bring people out as they used to 15 years ago. The digital disruption that shook the music industry at large has decimated the HMI, particularly Konpa, Haiti’s pop music and the country’s most popular musical genre. The bands are not as prolific as they used to be, and only a handful produce music yearly or every other year. Some bands will wait up to five years before dropping a CD. The bands who are consistent create music as a marketing tool for the bal (nightclub)circuit. These parties, held at nightclubs, curtail the audience because the young people and 50-somethings don’t go for a host of obvious and opaque reasons. There is a disconnect between the bands and the audience.
All of this is happening at a time when Haitians are being pushed out of their traditional strongholds in Brooklyn and Queens because of gentrification, not to mention the high cost of living in the New York metropolitan area. Most Haitians have relocated to Pennsylvania, Delaware, and other states where they can make a decent living.
It’s a Herculean challenge for anyone, let alone a small publication with little resources. Despite it all, The Haitian Times turned over every stone and came up with strategies to keep Kreyolfest afloat.
At the end of the day, we did not arrive at our decision to shutter the festival lightly. It was a painful realization, but one we had to make. To keep Kreyolfest going under these circumstances would have been irresponsible on our part. One idea we floated was to move the event to Queens as many other Caribbean promoters have done.
Doing so would have increased our budget tenfold and there is no indication that attendance would have increased as much. Then, there is the issue of affordability. The Haitian Times analytics give us insight to the state of our readers and the community at large. With that, we know that anything above $20 is beyond the means of a family of four.
At the same time, it saddens us deeply to see the end of an event that brought thousands of people together to celebrate our music, cuisine, and art. I can only say that The Haitian Times tried its best and unfortunately, it was not enough to organize Kreyolfest.
I don’t know if we can get some help to bring it back next year, but I am not optimistic. Brooklyn is no longer a cradle of Haitian-American life as new immigrants are leaving fast or are unable to settle there in the first place.
I truly wished that Kreyolfest could have lasted as long as The Haitian Times was around. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Adieu, Kreyolfest, and happy Haitian Heritage Month.