SANTIAGO, CHILE — Escápate conmigo otra vez, sings Ralph Jean Baptiste in his Santiago apartment, over a demo track of slow R&B beats. His rhythmic Haitian accent deepens the melody of the Spanish lyrics.
Although born and raised speaking French Creole in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Baptiste, 29, writes all his songs in Spanish. He moved to Chile after Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, with dreams of a music career in tow.
“To get to audiences in Chile you have to sing in Spanish. They’ve never heard anything in French or Creole. I had to adapt,” he said.
Adapt—he says the word as if it is inherently natural to him. Baptiste has had to adapt daily to be accepted in his new homeland. Beat by beat, over nine years of performances, he built a name for himself, and in 2019, Baptiste was finally able to release his first album, Rafa.
Musicians have always been a nomadic sort, and Baptiste is no different. He had spent time in the Dominican Republic, where he learned Spanish, so after the earthquake struck, Baptiste chose to pursue his music in Latin America — unlike the 46,000 displaced Haitians who sought asylum in the United States He settled in Chile after short stints in Peru and Argentina.
Baptiste was among the first in what would become a surge of Haitian migrants in Chile. The country had granted fewer than a 1,000 visas to Haitians between 2005 and 2009, and when Baptiste arrived in 2010, only 713 Haitians received Chilean working visas — a marked difference from 2018, when 126,000 were granted.
Haitians were the first black, non-Spanish-speaking migrant group to arrive in Chile. They stood out. “When I arrived people looked at me strangely. They hadn’t seen Afros before. They touched my skin for luck,” Baptiste told AQ. “I have faced a lot of discrimination and rejection.”
When pressed to explain, Baptiste breaks into a broad smile and laughs. “I don’t like to remember the bad times.”
Beyond discrimination, being a migrant compounds the economic challenges that already exist for aspiring artists, said Dr. Marisol Facuse, who researches migration and music at the University of Chile.
“It is very hard for migrants to live off music, especially for migrants who don’t have networks, and Haitians are a community in Chile that isn’t very integrated culturally,” Facuse told AQ. “The question of survival is the biggest barrier.”
But survive Baptiste has, and his positive outlook provides a model of the kind of integration possible for migrants with the right support and attitude. His song “Aguante” (Endurance) sums up his experience living in a foreign land:
I had to leave everything and go far / to start from zero on a long road. / It has not been easy, but you have to move forward / cry and laugh / life has to be lived.
“I’m inspired by his character and strength,” said Charlie Checkz, who produced several of Baptiste’s songs, including “Aguante.” Checkz values the Haitian musician’s unique contribution to Chile’s musical scene.
“We combine rhythms — us as Chileans, and his Haitian music and culture. We put that in the music.”