When Haiti was rocked by an earthquake in 2010, one of the world’s poorest countries was on its knees. More than 200,000 were killed. Havoc and devastation reigned. Years of dictatorships and corruption had left a shattered nation petrified of the future. Former Fugees star Pras (born Prakazrel Samuel Michel), whose family came from the island, was watching the hell unfold. He couldn’t take it anymore. So, with the race for a new President getting underway, Pras called a man known as the Haitian Michael Jackson.
Michel ‘Sweet Micky’ Martelly was already a notorious legend in Haiti. A man who would bump and grind on stage wearing diapers. He was a singer, not a politician, but matter. With Pras’ help, Micky entered the race. Things were rolling along nicely until, without warning, Pras’ former bandmate Wyclef Jean entered the race with buckets of cash. His entrance stunned everyone, though it didn’t last long: Jean is a U.S. resident, rendering him ineligible. That left Sweet Micky with a clear run; amazingly, he took his place as President of Haiti in May of 2011.
Five years later, Sweet Micky hasn’t been the savior many hoped he’d be. Corruption corrodes the air, and the country is still struggling. A new President will be elected at soon, although a runoff election scheduled for December 27 has just been postponed. Just seeing the crazy crooner being given this unprecedented opportunity — Martelly was Haiti’s third-ever democratically appointed President — was progress in itself.
The story of Martelly’s ascension was captured by New York City director, producer and cinematographer Ben Patterson, and the resulting documentary, Sweet Micky for President, is being tipped for an Oscar next year. Playboy.com sat down with Pras to get behind one of the craziest political stories you’ll ever hear.
You’ve got millions in the bank and have produced a number of films recently. The situation in Haiti is so fraught with controversy and danger, and could take decades to sort out. Why did you get involved?
I was always conscientious of what was happening politically on a global scale. After the earthquake, though, I felt I couldn’t just sit back and watch it all unfold, debate it with friends and then move on with my life. I had to do something. I am very active; I did a documentary called Skid Row, which looked at the homeless in Los Angeles, and then I went to Somalia, Yemen, North Korea. I went to the frontline in Iraq, the place where ISIS are at. That was crazy. A soldier was killed while we were there. This film, though, took on everything in a much grander scale — my connection to Haiti, what it means to my family.
In the film, it becomes obvious very quickly just how much Haiti and the Haitian people mean to you.
I am Haitian-American. If I am seeing all the negative things which have happened to us, I remember when the Fugees came out and how popular we were in Haiti. When we walked up on stage at the MTV Video Music Awards with the Haitian flag, we know what effect that had. It’s about being patriotic. It’s kids looking and thinking ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’ I am not a politician. I am politically inclined, but I am not trying to get anyone’s votes. What I am trying to do is to use my platform to create something that the next generation can see. We had so many Haitians see the movie and they all said how proud they were. This is the first movie in the mainstream that isn’t about them being the victim or under a dictatorship. It’s about the culture, the history, and their resilience. That’s all I can do as an artist.
If anyone googles Sweet Micky, they will find all kinds of crazy photos of a bald singer wearing a diaper. What made you make that call?
I had gotten to know Sweet Micky during this campaign, although I had always liked and listened to his music. However, I wasn’t aware of the antics and theatrics which came with him. When the idea was coming to fruition, I called the producer Ben [Patterson] and told him to google Michel Martelly. He started doing some research and all he found was this guy dancing in diapers. “This can’t be him!” I tried not to think about all that, though. I just felt that he was the best man for the job at that time. And I believed he had a great chance of winning. I knew how popular Sweet Micky was in Haiti. Being popular, though, doesn’t mean you can lead. There are people in the US like that – but I knew how conscientious he was. His songs were very politically inclined. That’s why you see so many artists get involved in politics. Sinatra was on the outskirts of things like that back in the day.
It’s inescapable though to look at the current situation in Haiti – the continued riots, the corruption, the rigged votes – and think that because Sweet Micky had zero political experience this was a disaster waiting to happen.
Look at Eisenhower. Zero political experience. He came off the battlefield and became President. He was fairly good, so you just don’t know. The circumstances at the time can help make you succeed, depending on the decisions you make. They can propel you to greatness. When we were running the campaign it was great to see people excited. To see people believe in something. There are certain variables, unforeseen, which prevent you from doing what you want to do. I did what I set out to do. There’s not one Haitian who could identify one product which represents them in this magnitude. And, I am an artist — that is what I am supposed to do. Create art. This is art. I didn’t try to solve their education or healthcare problems. I did it to try and create a light so that when people, especially Haitians, are watching this unfold, they can feel something inside which tells them: I want to do something.
Has Sweet Micky’s story perhaps killed the idea that politicians are needed to run governments? I guess Donald Trump would have something to say about that.
But what is political experience? And do people need it? Look at what is happening globally. That would indicate it’s not fucking working. All the leaders — other than a few exceptions, like Iceland and Guatemala, have been lifelong politicians. The world is in a fucked-up place. That’s not to say we should switch over to artists, but we need an alternative. What the people did in Haiti is no different than what is happening globally. The recent protests in Iran are the first ones since the 1979 revolution, which is remarkable. Same thing in China – that is crazy. Hong Kong – crazy again. And now you are beginning to see a modern way of protesting right here in America. What went down recently at the University of Missouri, students walking out, costing the school $1 million. The way it happened in Haiti – that was done in the US during the 1970s against Vietnam. You see colorful characters vying for the highest post in the land. They resonate with certain audiences. Trump? He’s number one with the Republicans.
How do you assess the mood in Haiti right now?
Something is happening. The Haitians didn’t believe that Michel was going to be Winston Churchill or FDR. They were like, “We need to figure something out.” It’s like what Einstein said: insanity is doing the same thing over and over, thinking you’re going to get a different result. They wanted to try an alternative. It’s not just Haiti.
Are you disappointed with how it all worked out?
Of course I am disappointed. I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t. We have voting issues in the US. Michel was the third democratically elected president – the third one in the US was Thomas Jefferson. If we go back to that time, I want to see how smooth that was. Slaves were freed in 1865, segregation didn’t end until 1968 when Linden Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill. It wasn’t perfect here, so how can people expect Haiti to be like that? We go to Iraq and say we are going to drop democracy on you guys and look what happened – what is happening right now. I believe, for the most part, that innately most people come in and do something for the country. But I think one of our biggest issues is the domination of corporations, lobbyists and special-interest groups. The fact that they are intertwining with the politicians means that it will never work fully. How can I fully serve the people when I just got money from this guy over here? Priorities change. Politicians become conflicted. And it won’t change until the people hold them accountable. You hit them where it hurts the most: economically.
What positives can be taken from the whole experience?
When supporting a candidate, the hope is that he or she will do something progressive. Did I think he would turn Haiti into the second-largest economy in the world? Or it would be like Dubai or Disneyland? Maybe they would have a new express train installed between Haiti and the Dominican Republic? Fuck no. I am a realist, but I hoped it would have been the beginning of a progression. The opportunity was there. What people fail to see is that as bad as it may seem, it is still positive because Michel did his full term. It was relatively peaceful. The Haitians are starting to accept democracy: “We voted for him. He may not be great, but we just need to wait for the next time.” Before? If those Haitians didn’t like you, exile. Gone. So that is positive.
The arrival on the scene of Wyclef is one of the most jaw-dropping parts of the film. When you were kids starting out with the Fugees, did you ever think you’d arrive at a situation like that?
We were kids, just sitting back on a roll. When the Fuguees came out, Bill Clinton was in office. There really wasn’t too much to talk about because they were prosperous times. When you have a situation like we have globally right now, people are beginning to get concerned. We are not at peace; we are at war. The climate is different. In the ’90s we were young, making millions of dollars. I was thinking about what color my next Ferrari would be. But when he became involved in Haiti, I certainly didn’t see that coming. But I wasn’t shocked. He was born in poverty, lived in Haiti, came to America to pursue his dream and become a world superstar. It would have only made sense for him to try and become president. I just thought it was too soon. Another 15-20 years. You don’t know what’s in someone’s heart. You can make the same arguments about the candidates right now, but you don’t know what will happen until they get into power. We are cool now. You go from having this brotherly energy to being joined in politics. Never in my wildest dreams did I think all that would happen.
What’s the timescale for Haiti to remedy all their problems and recover from their torrid past? Are we talking 100 years?
100 years? Give me 30 years and we can talk again.