Political neophyte Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly won the Haitian presidential election in a landslide, defeating former first lady Mirlande Manigat, according to preliminary election results. While the infusion of fresh blood into the beleaguered Haitian political system was both needed and celebrated, we were taken by the fact that much of the media coverage focused on the bald-headed, 50-year-old Martelly's former career as a musician.
The Miami Herald cut straight to the chase, referring to Martelly as a "controversial carnival singer." The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog noted that he was "known for his ribald lyrics and outrageous performances." In a piece subtitled, "From Pop Star to President," MSNBC referred to Martelly as an "iconoclastic entertainer" and went on to specify that he was "a star of Haiti's Konpa carnival music blending African and Latin rhythms," stopping short of fully defining "Konpa."
Perhaps the most provocative description came from the normally staid New York Times, which described Martelly in the lede as "one of Haiti's most popular entertainers, a provocative Carnival singer previously best known for disrobing and swearing on stage." Fourteen paragraphs down the piece circled back to Martelly's antics, noting that "in the campaign, Mr. Martelly eschewed the skirts, underwear and other outlandish outfits of his musical career in favor of tailored suits and talk of reforming education and agriculture."
But it was the AP that delved the deepest, offering this description of Martelly's profession: "Master of Haitian music style known as compas, slowed-down version of merengue heavy on electronic keyboards." (There's the definition of compas we were hoping for, which is apparently interchangeable with "Konpa"). The mini-profile went on to note that he was "legendary for antics onstage, sometimes mooning audiences, cursing rivals, even wearing diapers and dresses."
Of course, Martelly isn't first popular entertainer with no political experience elected to public office. In fact, some might say we make a tradition of that here in the United States. As they did when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California, analysts are now probing Martelly's past and trying to square the entertainer's flamboyant roots with his political future.
So just how accurate is it to dismiss Martelly as a mere musician? Here's what the public record reveals:
Martelly in Miami: Martelly, the son of a Shell Oil executive, attended a prestigious Roman Catholic school in Port-au-Prince and did brief stints at junior colleges in the U.S., according to the BBC. He moved to Miami in the 1980s to pursue a music career, working as a construction worker and, according to an interview circulating on the internet, experimenting with crack cocaine (Martelly later quit and now urges people to avoid the drug).
Martelly's nightclub and military friends: During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as he pioneered a form of Haitian dance music known as compas, Martelly ran a nightclub called The Garage and befriended some soldiers and police who have since been accused of human rights violations, The Wall Street Journal notes. Reuters adds that critics question Martelly's friendships during this time with politicians who worked for former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Martelly himself has not been accused of any human rights violations, the Journal points out.
Martelly's musical act: In his performances, Martelly occasionally wore skirts, bikinis, wigs, and diapers, cursed, satirized the government, drank copious amounts of alcohol, and dropped his pants to moon the audience, according to the Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. Sadly, we haven't been able to locate a video of Martelly in drag or diapers, but for a taste of Martelly's performances, check out this video, which appears to show Martelly performing in New York with Brazilian dancers:
You can also get a sense of Martelly's music and one-time taste for bright-colored backwards hats here: