During Haitian Heritage Month, The Haitian Times is running mini-profiles that look at how different people experience pride in their Haitian heritage. Have a story to share? Email firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
Like many Haitian-Americans, Dernst Emile II, grew up listening to konpa artists like Lakol, Zin and Sweet Micky. But like only a select few do, Emile, better known as D’Mile, turned that love of music into collaborations with household names — including Janet Jackson, Justin Bieber and Bruno Mars, whose music bears his stamp.
Emile now composes and produces music in a range of styles, including hip-hop, R&B and pop. But earlier in life, his strong ties to Haitian music, forged through his family, served as part of his creative foundation.
“That was my main passion, and so just being able to pick it up, and learn from the best people I could learn from, my dad and my mom, it was incredible,” said Emile, 36, who resides in Los Angeles with his wife Reina. “The way my dad used to compose, if it was Haitian music that he was working on, he liked to incorporate a lot of jazz elements. I feel like I got that from him.”
While growing up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, Emile said it was inevitable that his parents’ strong influence would lead him into music.
In the mid-2000s, when Emile was still a teenager, a production group called Full Force gave a listen to one of Emile’s CDs. The group soon took the music to a then-unknown young singer from Barbados, named Rihanna. One song on Emile’s CD, he said, evolved into “That La La La La” on Rihanna’s 2005 debut album.
The song proved to be one of Emile’s big breaks. At age 20, Emile said he moved to Atlantic City to collaborate with Grammy-winning producer Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. He had heard of Emile from a music director at Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, where the Haitian-American musician occasionally played. Together, Jerkins and Emile produced music for Janet Jackson, among other artists.
About two years later, Emile moved cross-country to Los Angeles, where he expanded his catalog of musical acts, including Justin Bieber and Usher. He was also nominated for four Grammy Awards, one of which he won, in 2020, for the H.E.R. song “I Can’t Breathe.”
“He can play anything,” said John Kercy, a sound engineer and frequent collaborator. “I’ll go out and purchase a trumpet and he’ll learn it, it’s because he has this perfect pitch. It’s like a video game to him, he’ll figure it out because he knows all the sounds, every note that he wants, he can find it.”
Emile says even though he’s not fluent in Creole and has not yet visited Haiti, he stays in touch with his Haitian roots through family and friends, including Kercy, who is also Haitian-American. Their final product may not be konpa, but the genre has some influence on how the pair approaches music, Kercy said.
“Konpa is a very groove and feeling-based genre,” said Kercy, of Los Angeles. “The producing that he does and the mixing that I do, it’s very feeling and groove-based. I feel, like, a subliminal tie to the Haitian culture and konpa.”
Emile said winning an Oscar still seems surreal, and he frequently has to remind himself that it really happened. But nearly two months after winning the award, he did not hesitate when asked what else he wants to accomplish in his music career.
Eventually, Emile said, he would like to start his own record label, to have autonomy over the production process.
“I eventually want to have my own artists and build, you know, my own team of talented people that I can stand behind and work with, and help them succeed,” Emile said. “It’s one of the next things that I want to look into.”