Monday, April 26, 2010

The Haitian diaspora

With Haiti's recent devastating earthquakes placing it firmly in the global consciousness as a nation wracked by both man-made and natural disasters, it is timely to reflect on the many people who fled the country throughout its history in search of a better life. Like many developing countries, it has experienced a brain-drain as many of its best and brightest leave its shores, fleeing political violence and grinding poverty. Most Haitian emigration has been next door to the Dominican Republic (where there are around 800,000 Haitians), and to the USA, with approximately 600,000 located primarily in New York and Miami. Other significant diasporas exist in France and Canada.

The Haitian diaspora includes a number of people you may have heard of:


Grammy-award winning smooth soul man Maxwell, the Brooklyn-born son of a Puerto Rican father and Haitian mother. His Urban Hang Suite album is the best love-making music since the days of Barry White, and was responsible for a lot of sweet lovin' back in 1996.

Also from Brooklyn is David Jolicoeur, better known as Trugoy or Plug 2, member of hip-hop grandmasters De La Soul.

One of the greatest underground rappers going around is J-Live (born Jean-Jacques Cadet), also from NYC. J-Live's skill with worldplay is not surprising - he was a high school English teacher. Check out his track End of Story, with producer Peshay.

Actress Garcelle Beauvais is perhaps best known for her roles on NYPD Blue and The Jamie Foxx Show. Born in St Marc in Haiti, she emigrated to New York at age 17 to pursue a modelling career.
Probably the best known Haitian-born musician is Wyclef Jean, the singer, rapper and producer who has recorded songs in Haitian Creole as well as English. Wyclef's family is blessed with musical individuals; his younger brother and sister formed the RnB duo Melky Sedeck, while his cousin Jerry Duplessis is a prolific producer (notably credited with his work on The Fugees' massive album The Score.
Of course Wyclef's other cousin is Prakazrel Michel, better known as Pras, another third of The Fugees and a successful solo artist in his own right. Remember of course that the group's name is short for "refugees" and is a nod to Pras and Clef's flight from Haiti to New Jersey.

Anyone who watched the sitcom Becker would recall Alex Desert as the affable blind guy Jake. Desert also has a musical career that predates his TV appearances, as a founding member of the excellent LA-based ska band Hepcat. You can check out a Hepcat performance here.

Two other American-born rappers with Haitian roots are G-Unit members Lloyd Banks (left) and Tony Yayo (right). Banks has a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother.

Samuel Dalembert was born in Port-Au-Prince but emigrated to Canada at age 14. The 6'11, 250-pounder has gone on to be the starting center for the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. Dalembert was given the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his contributions to the Haitian people following the 2010 earthquake.

Another basketball star with Haitian parentage is Mario Elie. The 6'5 swingman is a model of perseverance; he toiled in the minor leagues and in Portugal and Argentina for 7 seasons before landing in the NBA, where he was an integral part of the Houston Rockets' 2 championships in 1994 and 1995. He won a third championship with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.

One of the USA's brightest footballing talents is Josmer "Jozy" Altidore. The 20-year-old, 6'1 striker was a 7 million euro signing by Spanish club Villareal, and became the first American to score in the Spanish League. He is currently on loan at Hull City in the English Premier League. Altidore's former team-mate at New York Red Bulls, forward Jerrod Laventure, is another American of Haitian ancestry, but who plays his international football for Haiti.

Alexandre Dumas, pere (1802-1870) was a prolific playwright and author, but is best known for writing The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. His son Alexandre Dumas, fils (1824-1895) was also a renowned author and dramatist; while his father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806), was a famous General in the French Revolution and was born in Haiti to a French nobleman and a Creole woman. Thomas-Alexandre's bravery in battle and racial heritage saw him nicknamed "Diable Noir" (The Black Devil).

One of the cornerstones of African-American literature is The Souls of Black Folk, written by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, better known as W.E.B. Du Bois (1868 - 1963). Du Bois was the first African-American to graduate from Harvard, and would go on to be a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University, and for a time was head of the NAACP, which he helped found.

Described as the first black man to be a superstar in the art world, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) was a graffiti artist-turned-neo-expressionist. Born in Brooklyn to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, he died at 27 of a heroid overdose. A biopic about his life was made in 1996 with Jeffrey Wright in the title role.

More stuff on Haiti here and here.

Also check out:

The Nigerian diaspora: Musicians, Actors and Athletes

The Surinamese footballing diaspora

Dutch-Indonesian footballers

When is an American not an American?

West Indians now more Indian than ever

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