Lead photo by Harrison Corwin
Not everyone responds to the sight of their homeland in crisis with a presidential bid. But, not everyone is Pras Michel.
Following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that ravaged Haiti just two weeks into 2010, the founder of the Fugees returned to his native country to find a nation incapacitated by an ineffective and corrupt government.
With no real plan in place, but armed with endless passion, Pras cajoled his friend, the larger-than-life provocateur and cross-dressing compas musician, Michel Martelly, aka “Sweet Micky” to enter Haiti’s presidential race. Sounds like a long shot for sure, but what follows is of the strangest (and often hilarious) political races in recent history. The new documentary, Sweet Micky For President captures every twist and surprise turn.
Seeing beyond Martelly’s public persona and raunchy veneer (Google it. Kilts, diapers, and tons of gyrating galore), Pras saw in the improbable candidate the power of popularity, a potential unifying force for the betterment of Haiti. With director Ben Patterson at the the helm, the Brooklyn-born artist set out to chronicle the come-what-may roller coaster ride of the democratic process, which, in this case, includes bumpin’ political rallies that could rival most concerts. The process was never neat and always a weary journey, but for Pras and Patterson the entire focus of the film was documenting the indomitable spirt of the Haitian people and this underdog campaign of hope.
Now add into the fray of altruism, celebrity and political inexperience, civil unrest, voter fraud, and the absolute absurd once Wyclef Jean jumps into the race (“This motherfucker is doing an interview with Wolf Blitzer!”) and Pras and Martelly’s honest dream of change takes on a life of its own.
We sat down with Ben Patterson and Pras to get at their why’s for jumping into the political fray. Both, while quick to joke, radiate with genuine intensity and ardor for Haiti and politics in general. We talked about harnessing the power of celebrity, how the country’s current election is framing people’s responses to the doc, and how promoting a record is just like any political campaign.
Mass Appeal: Following the devastation of the earthquake, there were many different ways you could have responded to the crisis. Not everyone decides to go for the jugular and gun straight for the top of the political pyramid.
Pras: What really pushed me to that brink was when the president at that time, René Préval, made a comment on CNN. Right after the earthquake, a reporter asked him where he was going to stay that night. He says, “I don’t know.” What kind of message are you sending to your people when you, the leader, don’t know where you are going to stay? Can you image if 9/11 happened and someone asked Bush that and he said, “I don’t know. Think I’m just going to go to France”? How are you going to instill confidence in the people like that? You remember what Bush said? “Life goes on. This is not going to stop us.” Right? “Continue with your life. We are not going to let these people make us live in fear.” That was his defining moment in his presidency. Am I right or wrong? So this dude, Préval, says he doesn’t know. That really struck a chord with me. Even at the point, I didn’t know yet what exactly I wanted to do, but thought that was bizarre.
A few days later, I thought, “Let me call my man, Michel Martelly.” We was just catching up. I hadn’t spoken to him for a couple of months. I said, “Listen man, you see what’s going down in Haiti?” I knew that there was an election coming up. There was supposed to be one, but the earthquake happening postponed it. I said, “What are we gonna do?” And then I was like, “Yo, Michel. I think you should run for president.” Initially, he didn’t know how serious I was. I said, “Listen, Michel. Handle Haiti. Let me figure out America.” But, I had no idea what the fuck that meant. [Laughs]
Since the election, Michel has been accused of corruption himself and the film is now being framed by the realties of the present-tense presidential campaigns in Haiti.
P: But, that’s the wrong way to do it. This is four years later. Obviously, it was a moment in time that we captured. You have to judge it on that moment in time for what it is. We would have loved for it to have been wonderful post the election, but that’s not what this film is about.
Ben Patterson: It’s about a campaign. After that, there’s a whole other story that has nothing to do with what the film captures. That’s a whole other film. That’s a whole other chapter. This is about the nature of democracy and how the selling of hope manifests itself. I think that’s a universal thing. We are dealing with that in our country right now.
P: Yeah. It really is about democracy. It’s about when one person decides that they want to make a change. Obviously, there are many different layers to this story. It’s also about people’s voices being heard and about the people, at that time, wanting to steer away from the status quo.
Were you concerned that the entire process would be reduced to entertainment?
P: But, that’s who we are. This is a story about democracy and entertainers or artists trying to jump into the fray of the political landscape. We are who we are. It’s just how it is. We’re capturing that. We are not seasoned politicians.
You’re fakin’ it till you make it.
P: Well, we’re not faking it. I mean, I know what you’re saying, but politicians are no different than artists. If you have a record, you’re campaigning for people to like the record. You have a movie, you campaigning for people to go see it. It’s the same thing. All we’re doing is taking what we did as artists and applying it to politics. Now, we weren’t too seasoned. I mean, clearly, we were a bunch of neophytes running around, but that’s the beauty of it. At the end of the day, you have to respect this guy’s initiative, and we went along to see what happens.
You literally just called up Martelly and said, “You should run for president”?
P: Yeah. And there were a million other people I could have called.
So many aspects of this story are absurd. Wyclef jumping in? It’s bananas.
P: And you know what is so crazy? I said to Michel: “I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but the universe is going to help conspire with us.” I’m a firm believer in that shit. He was like, “The fuck you talking about?”
I called my uncle up, who I hadn’t spoken to in like 15 years and I said,”Yo, I’m going to run my dude, Martelly, for president.” He said, “That’s either a brilliant move or the dumbest decision of your life.”
Those big moments are often those one-way-or-the-other moves.
P: Right? So, my uncle says, “You know what you need to do? To be respected, you’ve got to bring him to Montreal.” Montreal, Canada is what leads the politics in Haiti because it’s the French-speaking part of it. Even though America is the captain, Haiti follows the Canadian-lead. My uncle sets up a press conference for us.
Hold up. Who’s your uncle? He’s not like my uncle, retired and sitting in New Jersey.
P: Oh no. My uncle is a businessman. [Laughs] Nah, I didn’t just randomly call up any uncle. He knows politics. He said, “Come up to Montreal. I’m going to set up a press conference.” Now, for some reason, I didn’t want to fly up there. Then, Ben just happens to call me and is like, “What you doing?’ I’m like, “I need a ride.” He’s says, “I just finished doing this project and still have this rental car. I’ll give you a ride.” It was crazy, as I get to the car, I’m like, “What’s all this shit?” He’s like,” That’s all my camera equipment.” So, alright. Fuck it. We drove to the border.
BP: Pras had made up this whole story on the way. When we get to the border, say that we’re filming my cousin’s wedding or something. So, me and my boy with us had it all worked out. Of course, we get pulled aside and they want talk to us at the border. Pras has like a stamp from every terrorist state in his passport [Laughs].
P: [Laughs] Right. Right.
BP: They’re like, “Why were you in Yemen?”
P: “Why were you in Somalia?!” [Laughs]
BP: So, my boy and I are giving our story: “Well, you see, we’re gonna film our cousin’s wedding…” All of a sudden, Pras is just like: “I’m an artist.”
P: [Laughs] That’s how it started. The scene in the film at the press conference, the scene with Martelly’s zipper being down, that’s the first thing we shot.
So, it’s en route then that you decide that this should be documented?
BP: I mean, I knew Pras had this crazy idea. I had YouTubed Martelly’s diaper stuff, so I knew we were going to step into an interesting situation, and I wan’t to see how it would all go down. I loved the War Room (D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on the Bill Clinton’s ‘92 presidential election). So, I thought this might be the hip hop War Room.
P: Then soon after, we had to go down to Haiti and officially register as a candidate. Now, we had heard rumblings that Wyclef might run. The first time I heard about the possibility, was somebody literally text me from his Fourth of July party at his house, saying he was running. But, I thought maybe Clef was drunk and was just saying that. But, then a couple of weeks later, TIME magazine did a big article on Clef possibly running. That was his PR machine putting the buzz out there, but I was still a little unsure.
On the 6th of August, I flew to Haiti to meet Michel to go and register. He tells me he’s having doubts. He doesn’t want to do this anymore. Why not? Because Wyclef has about 15,000 to 20,000 supporters out on the streets wearing his T-shirts. Michel is like there is no way we can compete with that. I said, “Listen. Something is gonna happen. We don’t know what, but we gotta go register. The universe will help us out.” That’s just what I said to him. You know how the universe helped us out? We get there and the Associated Press was right there. They see me walk in with Martelly. After we’re done, I’m then back en route to the airport to fly back to the States. On my way, there is a convoy of like 20 cars coming the opposite direction, coming from the airport. And that was Wyclef and his crew. So, when he shows up to register, AP was like, “Headline: Fugee Bandmate Does Not Support Wyclef’s Presidential Bid.” That’s how the whole shit got started. That was a big push for us.
Do you like betting on long shots in general?
P: I’m more of a calculating better. I look at all the variables. It’s just understanding for example, that when things happened in historical moments, that there is a shift. Lyndon Johnson probably wouldn’t have signed the Civil Rights Bill had John F. Kennedy not been assassinated. Or like, maybe Obama might not be president right now if Gore had won the election instead of Bush. So, I understood that if Michel had any shot, this would be it. Because of the earthquake. If it wasn’t for the earthquake, he wouldn’t of had a shot in hell.
But, throughout Michel’s career, even with the veneer of spectacle and raunch, he was consistently singing about corruption and calling out the government.
P: Musically, he was. Yeah. Think about it, right? Haiti had its first taste of democracy in the 1990s. Societies that are not used to democracy, if you just go in and drop it on them, it’ll never work. In Haiti, for like 180 years, they’ve been used to dictatorships, occupation, all this crazy shit, right? Then all of a sudden, somebody says, “Oh. you can vote now.” Now, you’ve just infested the system with corruption and whatnot.
This film was a journey. I have always been somebody who’s been interested in politics. My uncles worked for the U.S. government. As a kid, I would always hear about what was going on. I was always fascinate about it. That’s why Bob Marley was always one of my favorite artists growing up, because of what he was saying. That was basically what the Fugees stood for. But, I definitely got deeper into it with the making of this film. Now people are starting to hear my perspective, which they don’t know previously. You can’t just sit here after getting up one morning and decide that you want to do it. It’s kinda something that’s already in you.
Sweet Micky For President is now playing in theaters in Los Angeles and New York.