Haiti, if anything, is but two things: featured regularly in the news as a country in dire need, and a 90 minute flight from Miami. The combination results in a regular stream of volunteers, missionaries, entrepreneurs, innovators, and of course the occasional celebrity, all eager to help. For those looking for a meaningful volunteer experience, Haiti boasts the “exotic” appeal of Africa but with a fraction of the cost and flying time. This is not to say that those coming to Haiti are simply looking to earn their hardship stripes, so to speak, but it’s often-showcased poverty and its nearness to the United States makes it an easy target for those who wish to do so.
The last 12 months alone saw visits from Miley Cyrus, Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham, Busta Rhymes, Donna Karen, Martha Stewart, Arcade Fire, members of Linkin Park, and many others, each of whom came for their own varied reason. Busta Rhymes, for example, made little personal fanfare of his visit but instead came to assist Wyclef in campaigning for now-president Michel Martelly. Donna Karen comes regularly to pick out Haitian crafts to stock in Macy’s.
Recent on the celebrity guestlist, Haiti saw rapper/actor Common, who shot the music video for his latest single “Sweet” while in country. Those familiar with Common’s musical repertoire would label him as something of a “conscious” rapper. Basically he’s in the same category as Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots, Little Brother, and countless others. Still, the music video “Sweet” strikes as more of a “battle cry” rather than a call to social action. As one blogger puts it, Common “used Haiti to make himself seem tough.” I think this is a valid perspective in one regard. Given all that Haiti has endured, and specifically I mean the fact that celebrities et al come to Haiti constantly to show the world how much they care, there’s not much differentiating Common’s use of Haiti as the backdrop of his music video from the visits of other celebrities.
At the same time, one can view Common’s visit from a more nuanced perspective. While in Haiti, Common teamed up with CNN to do a one-hour documentary entitled Common Dreams. The documentary follows Common as he learns about the restavek (child slavery) phenomenon in Haiti, not unlike Jay-Z’s documentary with MTV, Water for Life. Common spends a good chunk of the time learning about the Restavek Freedom Foundation, a local organization founded by a Haitian-American that tackles the restavek issue head on.
In this context, Common steps back a little from the limelight and let’s the issue take focus. Granted, celebrity-driven causes are always a bit of a conundrum, especially when celebrities appear as experts on issues when in fact they are not. Common avoids that by letting the Restavek Freedom Foundation do most of the work. Common is there simply to keep the star presence, and thus our attention.
So what does this have to do with “Sweet?” Quite simply, I’m not convinced Common came to Haiti to make a beef song with the toughness of Haiti as his credentials. There’s a fascinating Vibe interview with Common where he explains why he chose Haiti to shoot the music video. In short, Haiti is inspirational, a fact that no one who has visited will debate. For Common, expressing that inspiration, that raw emotion, meant a rap song expressing himself as the greatest; one could argue he sees Haiti in the same light. Take the opening lines and replace any reference to himself with references to Haiti (a fair trade, given Common’s personal excitement at being in Haiti). The lyrics would then sound something like:
you know they ask about Haiti, about what Haiti’s doing now… I tell them Haiti’s doing what it does…. how can I say this? Haiti is the greatest/Haiti is the A-list for all these great debaters
Maybe I’m taking extensive creative liberties with this one. Still, this is the core nature of art, that it is open for interpretation. While I don’t disagree with the dissection of Common’s music video in Pale Avém, I believe the video, as well as Common’s trip to Haiti, can also be viewed in a more positive light, one where Common himself feels inspired by Haiti and uses that energy to fuel his music. After all, have you ever listened to Wyclef’s first solo album Carnival? The first track Apocalypse is gritty (especially for the time), yet the entire album is laced with Haitian influence. If Wyclef can take this same rawness from Haiti and infuse it into his albums, then I believe there is room for other artists, particularly ones such as Common who visit the country first to shed light on underlying social issues, to apply that same grit to their own music.
Still, I invite you to forge your own analysis: