Michael Brun holds his microphone out to the crowd that fills the courtyard of Miami’s Little Haiti Cultural Complex for the Bayo Block Party. The New York-based music producer and DJ encourages them to shout out the Creole word bayo, the title of his newest track. “Bayo” means “to give,” explains Brun. “It also means give your heart and soul to what you do, when you put everything into your work, people can tell.”
The Bayo Block Party is a street party hosted by Brun, now in its second year. “I want people to know how much of a strength Haitian culture is. Don’t forget the history of the country’s accomplishments,” describes Brun. It is all part of a musical path that he has traveled since childhood, but his mission to change people’s perception of Haiti and build confidence is something he regards as a team effort. It is a message that resonates with the crowd, as they sing, rap and dance to the Haitian beats.
“Haitians have taken every type of hit imaginable over the course of their history, from natural disasters to political and economic instability,” says Brun. “We’re still standing and we’re still smiling and we’re still fighting.” Brun believes music can help people cope and respond positively to these pressures. He started his career as an EDM DJ but has returned more to his roots. “By using Haitian music as the backbone of what I’m creating now, I want to prove to everybody that you can draw strength from home, no matter what anybody might tell you.”
Located north of downtown Miami, Little Haiti gained its name as far back as the 1980s. It wasn’t until 2016, however, that it became an official city neighborhood. Large-scale Haitian immigration to the United States began during the 1970s with asylum-seekers arriving on small boats, seeking refuge from the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who was then succeeded by the oppressive regime of his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Today, the Haitian-American population has grown to more than 300,000 in South Florida, the largest in the US, with Little Haiti being a nexus of activism and social activity.
There’s a real sense of unity at the Bayo Block Party, just as Brun hoped, and the atmosphere of Port-au-Prince is palpable, with the smell of Haitian griot and pikliz (marinated, fried pork and pickled vegetables) wafting through the air. Bodies are swaying to the deep Caribbean grooves. With only a few days notice, the show is packed. Brun brings out guests to excite the audience, including J-Perry, Princess Eud, DJ Gardy Girault, Paul Beaubrun, T-Micky, Sandro Martelly and even a surprise appearance by former Haitian President Michel Martelly, a.k.a. “Sweet Micky.” Afterward, the whole audience takes the party atmosphere into the streets, stopping the traffic on NE 2nd Avenue as hundreds dance around local rara musicians.
Just around the corner from the venue for Brun’s block party is Little Haiti’s bookstore, Libreri Mapou. Specializing in Haitian literature, it is a cultural gathering spot where plays are staged and community leaders have strategized for over 25 years. Owner Jan Mapou was once imprisoned in Haiti (along with eleven others) for being instrumental in encouraging the use of Creole over the government’s preference for French. Political killings were frequent during the Duvalier reign. Lucky to get out of prison alive, he decided not to take any chances and sought political asylum in America, where he has lived since 1969. His bookstore is one of the few shops still open on the street. According to Mapou, the neighborhood suffers the loss of business from the panicked departure of Haitians fearful of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Mapou recognizes the future is not bright, and pressures of gentrification are transforming the area into a prime target for developers. Ringing up a customer at the front register with an image of Martin Luther King Jr. behind him, Mapou seems like the captain of a proud ship heading into stormy weather. ”Little Haiti is a symbol of the Haitian community. As long as I have food on my table, my shop is not for sale,” he says.
Unlike Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s regime and were given asylum in America, Haitians didn’t receive the same welcome and did not have the support system and political power Cubans had when they got here. Haitians are historically viewed as economic emigrants rather than political refugees. No matter how hard they worked, they were unfairly represented and suffered humiliations, including the accusation that HIV was spread to the US by Haitians. They were portrayed as diseased, and part of a smear campaign in the US press: the “Four H’s – homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians.” Haitians have since vigorously protested and pushed back against these stereotypes, but the callous stigmatization was brought back to life by President Trump when he allegedly said earlier this year that they “all have AIDS.”
“We sought to eliminate that [stigma] and now it’s coming back up,” Mapou says, shaking his head in dismay. Then came another blow: according to sources, President Trump referred to the whole continent of Africa, El Salvador and Haiti as “shithole countries” — throwing the Haitian community in South Florida into a rage. “I’m very grateful to this nation because when I was in trouble they welcomed me with open arms,” describes Mapou. “Black Africans are a very big component of our society. For me, it hurts deeply.” The community planned a solemn gathering to commemorate the 8th anniversary of the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed more then 230,000 people in Haiti. Instead, scores of Haitians marked the day with a march, carrying signs calling President Trump a “bigot” and “racist,” and demanding an apology.
Trump’s lack of concern for Haitians goes much further than his remarks. During his campaign, he spoke in Little Haiti and insisted he would be their “greatest champion,” but early in his term, he ended the Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for nearly 60,000 Haitians – estimated 24,000 of them living in South Florida. The protection had been granted on humanitarian grounds after the 2010 earthquake, but now TPS recipients must leave the United States by July 2019 or face deportation. This announcement has had immediate repercussions in Little Haiti. “It is creating a panic in the community,” declares Jan Mapou. “They cannot go back to Haiti, they have nothing in Haiti. How can they go back?” Walk down NE 2nd Avenue, along the main drag of Little Haiti, and you’ll see a ghost town. “They are either going into hiding, or they are leaving. Everybody is scared,” Mapou says. “We are also up against gentrification. We are being taken in on all sides like a sandwich. They’re going to eat us alive.” Additionally, wedged between the trendy Wynwood, the Design District, and Biscayne Boulevard, hungry developers are eager to move north as those areas become saturated, so they continue to raise rents, driving local Haitian businesses out.
Little Haiti has long been important to the Haitian diaspora. Fabienne Josaphat left Haiti and came to Miami for schooling. A gifted writer, she has found great inspiration there. “It is a place that grounded me, says Josaphat. “Knowing Little Haiti as a community existed and knowing that there are people here that welcome me as a Haitian person, it was very helpful.” Writing for Teen Vogue, Josaphat highlighted the suffering of her people, victims of an ongoing cholera epidemic as well as long term economic ills, and also addressed how the ingrained privilege of Trump translates into an inability to recognize the courage and humanity of those with less opportunities. “He does not know the history of Haiti, and he does not comprehend the significance of Haiti’s contributions because he doesn’t care to. His wealth and privilege have allowed him to erase others to the point of invisibility.” she says. Caught between troubles at home and abroad, the Haitian’s situation is indeed grim, but they have a remarkable resilience. “We are planting our feet in the ground and waiting for the next insult to fly.”
VIDEO SHORTS FROM LITTLE HAITI
Michael Brun speaks about Haitian resilience. Produced by Niall Macaulay.
Author, Fabienne Josaphat, speaks about the importance of Little Haiti to the community.
Jan Mapou explains why he will not sell his bookstore, no matter what the price.