By Onz Chery
When Jean Bélony Murat, better known as BélO, released his first album Wyclef Jean had hair and YouTube was only six months old. Fifteen years and four prestigious international music awards later, Murat is still vigorously climbing to the summit of the music industry.
The 40-year-old entered Unsigned Only, the American music competition he won last month, to challenge himself and add a new award to his collection.
“You don’t enter a competition to not become the champion,” Murat said, laughing. “A competition is one thing that pushes you to evaluate yourself against other people. Unsigned Only was a way for me to see my value internationally.”
The world gave him what he sought. Murat not only won Unsigned Only’s grand prize, he also took home the Fandemonium by the largest margin in the competition’s history by racking up 13,000 of the 30,000 fan votes. He’s the first Haitian to win either award and the first artist to earn both.
To get them, Murat beat out more than 7,000 participants from 109 countries in the competition with his submission, “Eda,” a song from his latest album “Motivation.”
“Eda” personifies Murat’s musical style, ragganga, a mixture of reggae, jazz, rock, and Afro-Haitian melody. He described the song as a countryman on a four-wheeler.
“He’s just such a talented artist all around,” Jim Morgan, Unsigned Only’s co-owner, said. “That came through his music. He stood out among all the other entries we had.”
Murat was born in Laferonnay, a village in Croix-des-Bouquets, where music was treasured. Rara bands often flowed through the streets. Young Murat felt this urge to make his own melody too and accompany it with a message.
His mother was against it. Murat said she viewed Haitian musicians as vagabonds, people who abuse drugs and alcohol and struggle financially. He made a deal with his mother to finish school before mainly focusing on music.
In 1998, Haitian music bigwigs Fabrice Rouzier and Keke Belizaire proposed making an album with Murat. An eleventh grader at the time, Murat told them to wait until he finished school.
It wasn’t until 2005, during his last year studying accounting in college that he recorded his first album, “Lakou Trankil,” Creole for Quiet Streets.
Transcending borders and races
Murat has made touching on Haiti’s issues a part of his repertoire since his first album, which won the 2006 International France Radio Discovery Prize.
Soon after, Murat tied the knot. The ceremony was held privately partly because, Murat said, he did not want his bride to deal with the emotional turmoil that might come from being married to a celebrity. Weeks later, the singer appeared with his wife, who was pregnant then, on national TV and apologized for keeping his marriage a secret.
Fans were surprised when they learned the identity of his wife Maude Jaquet, a Belgian woman who lived in Corail near Jeremie. Some were downright resentful and criticized Murat for marrying a white woman.
The couple now have two children, ages 11 and 7, and the family lives in Pétion-Ville.
While building his family, Murat also worked on his music, which continued to gain recognition internationally. He won SACEM’s Caribbean Song of the Year Award in 2010 with “Ti Jean” and was selected as the 2014 World Citizen Artist.
Murat also became involved in humanitarian causes during this time. He participated in benefit concerts and activities around the world to raise HIV awareness, assist Haiti’s 2010 earthquake victims and support cancer research, to name a few.
With the international success and noble representation of Haiti, Murat also gained the ‘ambassador of Haitian music’ moniker.
Singer and guitarist Ralph Condé, with whom Murat has performed at Voice and Guitars, were among the many industry observers who took note.
“I always say the true ambassadors of our country are the musicians,” Condé said of Murat. “They’re the ones who travel, who bring our cultures to other places, to other people. When Haitian artists win international awards, I think Haiti wins.”
Now in sight: a Grammy
For winning Unsigned Only and other prizes, Murat receives one-one-one tutoring and opportunities with such labels and industry rainmakers as ARC Music, Cumbancha/Putumayo, Montreux Jazz Festival, and RCA.
Murat said he will wait to start working on a new album, as he always does, but his desire to reach his peak is still burning.
“I’m a worker. A worker for the arts and for human rights,” Murat said. “I will keep going, maybe one day I will win a Grammy.”