A fundamental component of our branding campaign includes highlighting success stories of Haitians and members of the diaspora who are actively changing their country through innovative initiatives and development. None of which is present in the “poverty porn” that mainstream media has found contagious Haiti. Given the critical role that music plays in Haitian culture due to its ability to tell stories and share the inexpressible, creating a stronger sense of unity, we are seeking interviews with Haitian and francophone musicians to help us change the international perception of Haiti. Recently, the talented Mélissa Laveaux, welcomed the opportunity for a BrandHaiti interview to promote her work. As a highly-acclaimed international artist and a member of the Haitian diaspora, we eagerly sought to gain her insight on advancing Haiti while we also promoted her work. Mélissa exemplifies the very capacities and contributions of Haitians abroad that BrandHaiti features.
A few years ago while on vacation in Montreal, I discovered Mélissa Laveaux, a vocal goddess. My cousin was playing a song called “Dodo Titit” in her room, which brought back sweet memories of my mother singing this old Haitian lullaby to me when I was young. Her sultry and raspy voice triggered something in me and left me wanting more. I instantly purchased her album, Camphor & Copper, on iTunes and have been listening to it on repeat ever since. The elegance and beauty of singing so eloquently in English, French, and Creole—the languages of my heart and tongue—brought me much joy. Her music not only satisfies my palate for rich, jazzy, folk-like acoustic tunes, but also evoked feelings of pride, as she was one of the most visible Haitian musicians, I knew of next to Wyclef Jean.
Mélissa Laveaux is a brilliant and soulful vocalist, songwriter, guitarist, and poet based in Paris under the French label No Format. A mix of blues and folk, her lyrical genius shines in her songs, birthed from lived experiences. “Writing what I knew was the best advice I got from my sister,” Mélissa remarks. Abiding by this rule has helped pave her success. While her musical career began in Canada, she now lives and performs in Europe, occasionally touring in Asia. Unfortunately, she has yet to perform in the United States due to a lack of interest from US labels and distributors. As such, we hope this interview will help expose her music to a wider audience; we at BrandHaiti are certain her voice will captivate you.
Mélissa was born in Montreal but raised in Ottawa, Canada to a Haitian couple that immigrated in search of new opportunities for their expanding family. She visited Haiti once as a child, but nevertheless she sings and composes in Creole. Mélissa inherited her love for music from her father, a guitarist himself. When she was six, she wanted to take piano lessons in order to fit in better with other girls in her class. However, things did not work out as planned: “I lost the payment for my first class, and my mother was so upset that I never got to touch an instrument until I turned thirteen, when my father bought me a used classical guitar with very high action; in other words, it was very difficult to play.”
That experience humbled her. She has spent the last fourteen years playing the guitar, and the last nine years singing. As a student at the University of Ottawa, she performed local gigs on her campus. Since then, she has performed three times at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Cully Jazz Festival, the Donostia Jazzaldia Jazz Festival, the Festival du Bout du Monde (2008), Les Francofolies de La Rochelle (2009), the Sakifo Musik Festival in La Réunion Island, and le Printemps de Bourges.
The year 2007 was a remarkable year for this young artist. She graduated with honors from the University of Ottawa, and she also won the Lagardère Jeune Talent Award for Music. Additionally, she received a songwriting prize for her composition in Creole, “Koudlo.” After a performance in Quebec, she was immediately offered a contract with No Format. She has since relocated to Paris, and under a new label and management team, she officially released her first album Camphor & Copper in 2008, which was a compilation of songs she wrote while living in Canada.
Today, she has grown accustomed to her new life in Paris. In conversation with her, one cannot miss her confidence, poise, and caring demeanor. She is humbled by the opportunity to live her dream as a musician, and explained that she has fallen in love with Paris’s artistic culture and network of musicians that has challenged her to grow.
“Making music in Canada wasn’t for me, so I moved to France. Canada requires artists to have a day job…” while she wanted to focus solely on her music. She did not want to be stuck singing only French songs or be forced into pop music; moving to Paris has allowed her to stay true to her musical soul. She is currently in the process of completing her second album, which will be released in October in Europe. She says her new album will not be as folky as her previous work, acknowledging the potential risk of losing some fans. However, she remains pleased with the direction of both work and her life in Paris, as they reflect more accurately her growth and freedom. Melissa has remained true to the musical tunings of her heart throughout her versatile journey as an artist. I admire Melissa for her bravery to be different, her zest for life, and her refusal to be boxed in by an industry that ignores the skills and musical callings of artists such as Melissa in order to perpetuate a particular narrative or simply to make more money. Melissa provides a face and voice to provide hope for young Haitian girls, a hope that counters the negative narratives about Haitians in the media.
Below is the transcription of my interview with Mélissa Laveaux, and we hope you find it as informative and inspirational as we did. Enjoy!
MG: What artists have you worked with, and why?
ML: I’ve opened for a lot of musicians—Feist, Rokia Traore, Amadou and Mariam— because of our professional links and because they are inspirations to me. Right now, I’m working on a collaboration concert with Thea Hjelmeland, a Norwegian artist, where we are fusing our bands, our songs, and our sounds together. We’ll play it in Paris.
MG: You’ve written some songs about Haiti. Why, given your strong Anglophone supporters? Have you worked with Haitian artists?
ML: I write songs for myself before thinking of an audience to whom to target that song. I’ve never worked with any Haitian artists, but not because I haven’t tried. Several attempts have failed. But someone I’m dreaming of working with is Mimi Barthélémy because she’s a storyteller and she lives right here in Paris. I think there’s so much I could learn from her, her experiences, her storytelling, her repertoire of traditional songs…
MG: Can you share with us, your reasoning for the songs you wrote about Haiti?
ML: It was just a song written to my mother who never really tried to impress “Haitianess” into us as we were growing up as she hoped we would better assimilate by only speaking French or English. Only later did she regret our Creole wasn’t strong enough, for instance.
MG: What’s the perception of Haiti in Canada?
ML: Canadians are actually quite familiar with Haitians—well at least people in Ontario and mostly Quebec because the latter is one of the target destination cities for the Haitian diaspora. I am one of the many fruits of that diaspora as Montreal is my birthtown. There’s such a diasporic culture in central-eastern Canada that Canadians know a lot more about Haiti than we give them credit for. They even know common words, some slang a few insults here and there. Furthermore, most of the Haitians in popular culture rising out of Quebec make a pretty big name for themselves—writers, screenwriters, television producers, musicians, and singer-songwriters. There’s a flock of famous Canadian Haitians.
MG: Do you think the perception of Haiti in Canada needs to change? If so why or why not?
ML: I actually think Canada doesn’t need a different perception of Haiti; however, perhaps its leaders who send troops to the country that have a real impact on the local population do. While I’m sure that Canadian policies mean well, it can only be a win-win situation if Canadian troops have a better understanding and respect for the citizens whom they aim to support.
MG: What are some differences and similarities between Canadian and Haitian music?
ML: These days, I think there’s definitely a sense of a shared global culture growing. I think every country has their own traditional music. In Canada’s case, it’s difficult as it’s a country that’s been occupied and colonized and migrated to many times over. Add the internet to general history and you can pretty much hear listen to the same bands in Haiti as you can in Canada. You’ll have people listening to Celine Dion or Rihanna, just like you’ll have people listening to underground metal bands.
MG: What has been your impression of Haiti as a member of the diaspora?
ML: As a member of the diaspora I am more heartbroken by the lack of diversity in the images shown of Haiti in the media than the crises that are disrupting the daily lives of thousands and perhaps even millions of Haitians. How can the world properly direct its support to an emerging country when it doesn’t really get access to the full picture? I think there are so many positive aspects of Haiti to feature.
MG: Why do you think Haiti needs to be re-branded?
ML: I’m not sure Haiti needs us to re-brand it so much as it needs us to show its true branding. We, as a diaspora, know how great of a country it is and most of us share a positive outlook on its future. Most of us are proud to claim we’re Haitian and all the knowledge and traditions our families have passed on. This project is important because it needs us to reflect the positive image of Haiti our families and friends—on the island and off—have impressed upon us over time and to this day. Each one of us is a witness bearing truth. I think I hear far too much pity in the voices of my peers when they speak about Haiti. But I’m not afraid to call them on it.
MG: I am a huge believer in the empowerment of people. What are your thoughts on how best BrandHaiti can empower the people of Haiti?
ML: We can bear witness to what’s going on. We can extend the reach of the voices of Haitians on mainland as well as in diaspora. We can be attentive to the need to be heard and talked about with dignity instead of pity.
MG: What would you like the youth of America to know about the people of Haiti from your observation?
ML: Teenagers are the same everywhere. I’m sure they’d be surprised at how much they could relate to and learn from a Haitian penpal.
MG: Before we conclude our interview, what song would you like to share with students from the US? And how can they support your work?
ML: I’d like to share with them “Needle In The Ha” and I guess if they have social network accounts, they can share videos of my work. I have a hefty team of folks who on my promotion, but it’s always pleasant to see a new face or two in the crowd at my concerts.
MG: Thank you kindly Mélissa for taking the time to speak with BrandHaiti. We really appreciate your support and are continually inspired by you and your work. To our viewers, I hope you have enjoyed our interview with Mélissa Laveaux and that you will support her work by buying her album or by following her on Twitter (@miellaveaux) and facebook for tour schedule and release of her new cd. Today, our hearts go out to her talented voice.
To learn more about Mélissa Laveaux, please visit her website at http://www.melissalaveaux.com/
~Marie-Gabby Isidore, CEO and Co-Founder of BrandHaiti