He is young and energetic with a gut that wrenches against the most fearful obstacles, because he is fearless. He is brilliant, intellectually shrewd with an unforeseen cleverness that seems to surpass no other. He dwells in his veins a revolutionary romanticism that has been the catapult behind all of his songs, his popular masterpieces. He is Kebert Bastien, an artist in ascendance, a megastar in the making. Most people in the United States may have never heard of him, but in university campuses across Haiti, around the most deprived shantytowns in his homeland, and even in some of the most envious musical stages in Canada, Kebert Bastien has already left his mark. He is the rising star, the legendary folk singer that Haiti wholeheartedly missed since the glory days of Manno Charlemagne. Novelist Ardain Isma, who has long chosen literature as weapon of choice, had been ardently in the search for someone with the will, the intellectual savvy and the logistics to sustain and rebuff the barrages of lies, manipulations, and the brainwashing that have exacerbated the Haitian struggle. Ardain seems to have found this messenger in the persona of Kebert Bastien. Like Ardain Isma, Kebert Bastien was born in Saint Louis du Nord, and it was with childhood glee that Ardain met Kebert’s mother last December, a cousin he hadn’t seen in years. It was through Kebert’s mother, about whom he speaks candidly in the interview that follows, that CSMS Magazine was put in contact with Kebert Bastien. Ardain spoke to him over the phone and requested an interview. It was with great pleasure that Kebert agreed. Then, prolific writer Claire Bijou, who is CSMS contributor in Port-au-Prince, realized the interview. Kebert, who is currently in tour in Canada, hopes to travel to the US this year, where he plans on meeting the Haitian community. Below is the interview in its entirety.
It was 11:00 am when I arrived at Epir D’or in Delmas 32 in the Delimart complex. The ambiance was quite noisy. With all this noise, I doubted it was going to be a quite fit for an interview, thought I. Sitting down, I called Kebert and told him that I made it, and that I was waiting on him. “I should be there shortly,” he replied. Pulling my notes out, I started reviewing the questionnaire for Kebert. Few curious eyes would glance my way, but I paid no heed. I was focused and ready to get this interview on the road. Approximately 5 minutes later, Kebert showed up dressed in off-white line design shirt and blue jeans and a little blue bag with designs going from his left to his right side and a Haitian made necklace. Amazingly, we noticed each other in one instant moment. But what was so surprising was that I quickly recognized him, not as an artist but as my fellow university classmate (granted I was 2 promotions ahead of him at Académie Nationale Diplomatique et Consulaire (ANDC).
As he neared me, he said, “But I know you!”
“We do,” I replied, without hesitation. “We went to ANDC,” I added.
“Yes,” he responded with a subtle grin.
Looking at his surrounding, he asked me if it would not be a problem if we went to BIC’s house in Delmas 34. I agreed, and we left. Near BIC’s house, Kebert was stopped by fellow fans where they happily greeted him. They were all laughing and joking. “What a sight,” I told myself. He seemed quite popular in the area. After his greeting, we proceeded to BIC’s house, where I got the chance to see BIC live. But with a generator on, there was too much noise to conduct the interview. Consequently, we had to leave the house. Right next to it, however, we found quite a comfortable restaurant. We entered and sat down. Taking my camera and my notebook out; we started the interview.
Good morning once again, Kebert. Kindly introduce yourself?
My name is Kebert Bastien, I am from St Louis du Nord. I am 29 years old; I am a musician, author, singer and songwriter. I studied International Relations at ANDC. I am currently in my fourth year studying Sociology at the State University. I am a committed artist and a defender of social justice. I have a video clip called “Merde” (The Hell with everything) and I am currently working on my next album, which should be released in May.
So Kebert, you were born in St-Louis de Nord, but from an artistic family, right?
Yes, yes. My mom is a singer, my dad also used to sing. While my mother was pregnant (with me), she participated and won an interstate competition in Port-de-Paix. She started a professional career, but had to stop mid-way. So I took over. I came to Port-au-Prince to study and at the same time putting my talents to the test, which brought me to the musical scene.
Basically, your family more like your mom, pushed you to be an artist. Is that correct?
Actually my mom didn’t agree with me being a singer. She wanted me to finish school, but once I obtained my diploma on International Relations, it was like passing the red light. Since I followed and respected my mother’s request and desire and I was old enough to make strategic decisions, it was time to awaken my musical career.
What were the reactions of your peers when you first started singing? Where did it all begin?
I have been singing for 11 years, now; and it all started in Saint Louis du Nord. My first songs did not make a consensus in pleasing everyone, and now that I am old enough, I can tell they didn’t have a foundation. But I truly started to focus on my musical career after 2004. It started with a tour at the State University: School of Ethnology, School of Social Science and School of Ecole Normale Superieure (Superior Normal School) and from there, I went to BIC’s studios where I started recording my new album. I also want to add that for me, singing can be a weapon. It can be used to bring awareness, like the right to have access to food, to have a home, and to go to school. When I say home, I mean to live in a decent place. As for food, to eat a well nutritious meal. I can use it as a weapon to change people’s lives, to create a movement in society so people could take their life seriously.
Where do you draw your inspirations from?
I draw my inspirations from my daily life. For example, I have this song called “Grangou” (hunger). Why? Because there was a time I had no money, I spent 2 days without food. That event inspired me to write that song. I have a song called “La Vie” (Life). When I looked at folks in my neighborhood, I saw them every day going about their way, looking for a better life. This also has inspired me.
He smiled and pondered for a minute.
It was a beautiful experience, where I was able to discover a myriad of music genres. Everyone, who was present, played a different type of music with different accents. To get back to the question; while in Canada, I participated in 4 festivals. One of them was in La Vallée. They had asked us to write a song. I managed to write two titles: “Petite Vallée” and “Château de Mots.” For Petite Vallée, the landscape of that place inspired me. As for the other one, I poured out my frustration vis-à-vis the big void that exists between the developed world and the third world nations. In this one, “Château de Mots,” I started the song with “Pastor, speaker and dictator, cannibal speakers, dramatic individuals, actors who build a castle of words while the world still asks for their words, heavy bearers through their words, we search each other through the word ‘liberty.’”
For me, ‘liberty’ in this song means financial freedom—freedom where both worlds would be on the same ladder or equal status. However, before singing my songs, we all had tryouts, where they had us sang songs they had taught us about Canada. After, I went to Montreal where I performed twice in the Haitian community and I also sold a lot of CDs. It was an extraordinary experience where not only did I learn but also perform in front of fellow citizens (Haitian expatriates) as well as a foreign public.
When you are performing, how is the reaction of the public toward you?
My greatest joy is always when I have to face a new audience, performing at a place for the first time. Recently, I was in l’ile a Vache. I was singing a song and, all of a sudden, I saw a lady crying and someone was washing away her tears. She felt I was speaking on her behalf. She could relate to what I was singing. It’s to say that people always relate to my songs.
This same scenario also happened in Canada. I was making references to these facts of life. Even though you left Haiti and traveled to Canada in search of a better life, you will not find it. It’s like you find yourself facing another law-binding treaty. For the work, the money they make is barely enough to live a decent life. Adding to that, your status as an immigrant can only make matters worse. As I was singing “How many pick mattock to find life, how many pieces of breadfruits to fry, there’s no life in factories, or standing in front of DGI or downtown PAP. As soon as I said those words, a lady started crying. It is to say that I always find a good reception, whether at the university or in the ghettoes, or abroad etc…
Who encouraged you to go Canada?
It was a group of friends, including BIC and his manager, who pushed me, as well as many others. I could say I was lucky, but I don’t believe in luck; I believe in working to achieve success. For a week, all I kept thinking about was the competition. Finally, I sent seven texts and five songs. In between the two candidates they were going to choose for Latin America, I was one of them along with another friend called Avière Jubilaga. I am to meet him on January 7th, since I will be leaving for Canada on the 6th of January to participate in a festival at Ottawa.
No, I was already an artist in my own right before I met him. I remember eight months after the January 12th, 2010 earthquake, I was in Champs-de-Mars, and it was really a sad moment. It was there that I heard a song of BIC titled “calculations (Kalkil)”. I used to listen to BIC, but this new BIC, I didn’t recognize him. From there, I searched for his number, called him, he was more than happy to meet me. Upon our first meeting, I gave him one my songs titled “Tito”. He was like wow, you are a true artist. Since then, he is featured in my first album, singing a song called “La Rue” (The Street). Sometimes, I even take over for him in some performances, and him as well. For me, he is good friend, a brother…
So before becoming a celebrity in Port-au-Prince, you were quite famous in Port-de-Paix, were you?
Yes, St-Louis du Nord, Port-de-Paix, and Alliance Francaise in Port-de-Paix. We had a club called Klass, where we did many activities.
Now let’s talk about your famous songs titled “Merde and Palais National.” How did your peers/family react to these two songs, especially “Merde.” Didn’t you hesitate to write it and what inspired you to do so?
Merde is like my autobiography, for now. I am not ashamed to tell my mother that I am a feminist, though my manhood is 100 percent unequivocal. Why I say so is simply because how my mother had raised me. I grew up in a fatherless household. It was only my mother, my older sister and I. So, I was always surrounded by women—no father figure. There was a lot of hesitation toward the song, someone is saying Merde (the hell with it) to life. My mom was terribly afraid that her son was the bearer of a song called Merde. I am not afraid to tell people it’s not about what they think, but more about what capitalism has injected into our lives, our minds. This has caused us to look for life, the heavenly prize to win, everywhere and every single day. My father died chasing the elusive decent life. We will die trying to find it as well, and we may not find it, for the system we live in has created an illusion, a mirage if you will, like that of the wall of Jericho casted in front of us, and it is tempting us, saying that life is rosy behind this wall. To this life, I say Merde. Some people truly get the message, its real meaning. Others simply don’t. After a lot of patience, my mother has finally started to understand me. Currently, I have this group of friends that believe in me, too—an amalgam of folks from across the social spectrum. They are teachers, classmates and colleagues, and even Christian friends.
In a way, you made alliances with groups of singers that share the same beliefs as yours?
Yes, BIC is one of them. There are others that are not singers but activists, people that are fighting for justice and equality, for a just society, for the lower class to live humanly. They always say “Qui ressemble s’assemble”, those who look alike, dwell together, like birds of the same feather. Arguably, our speech and ideology bring us together.
When do you usually perform?
I perform whenever I am asked to play. Other times, I could create unexpected concert in a certain rural area or popular zone. I also do the same at the university. Starting this March, I will be touring the public schools, giving out concerts for 11th and 12th graders (Rheto et Philo). I don’t have to wait for people to call me. Sometimes, I create my own events.
Other than St-Louis, Port-de-Paix and Port-au-Prince, where else have you performed?
I have travelled throughout the whole country; my last performance was in L’ile a Vache. Before that, I was in Jacmel, then Gonaives, Lascahobas etc… I am always everywhere in the country. In Jacmel, it was a producer that invited me. They even wrote an article about me.
They have compared you to Manno Charlemagne from the 1980’s, how do you see such comparison?
It’s a well-deserved comparison. However, for Manno Charlemagne, it was harder, due to the dictatorship that existed then. The repression was systematic. In my time, it is no longer the dictatorship, it is rather the economic stagnation, where food is scarce. Because of hunger, people have turned into murderers, thieves etc… For me, this battle is harder. It is a fair comparison, but I am fighting against a financial dictatorship. Speaking of comparison, I would like to talk about Ardain Isma. There’s a song of his that I used to sing when I was little, I have to say, Ardain has been an inspiration for me, as well. I don’t really remember the song, but he explained in the song that when he was young he had the urge to build castles in Spain, but later on he understood that life was not as it seemed. He did not say Merde to life, just like I did, but it was as if he said it. Ardain could have also been a Manno Charlemagne. Just like Manno Charlemagne, BIC and Ardain, they made me who I am today.
You have yet to perform in the United States?
Is it in your plan to travel there and perform?
Yes, I have a project that called Word Acoustic Guitar, where I had to travel to the States, but the project is on hold. But this year hopefully, it may happen. If it does not work, I will try to conquer the public in a different way. I have received demands for my songs on Itunes, Facebook and they are waiting for me in Miami. Hopefully, this project will materialize this year.
After Merde, what other project do you have in perspective?
I have two videos that are currently ready. I am also redoing Palais National into three different videos. “La Vie” video is currently ready and “Tito” as well. They will come out after the carnival. But my biggest project for this year is called “Point Ne Fais Pas” (Hold up here) which will be based on the American occupation, one 100 years later. It will be two albums. One will be about the American occupation, and the other about the school system in Haiti.
How do you see yourself as a sociologist and singer at the same time?
What I’m trying to do is to take all of what I’ve learned in school and transfer it into music. I started doing my thesis for ANDC, but I had to cancel it and create one on music. Currently I am studying ‘Diplomatie et L’art’ (Art and Diplomacy) more like the importance of music within International Relations. When I publish my thesis on Sociologist, I plan on combining all that I have learned into music. Sociology has helped me to have an acute understanding about International Relations, what is going on in the world’s scene. It has helped me to become really competent.
How do you see the future of Haiti? Do you think Haiti still has a future?
Yes, of course. Otherwise, I would not be fighting. Haiti cannot stay the way it is. I believe that we have arrived at the extreme level of worseness. There are no bigger weapons on this world than hunger. I have seen how hunger can cause someone to behave. Our youths have become humans without dignity. And someone without dignity is a lost soul. People have to find a way to stand up and reproduce life and more. We all know the conditions of the country, the way our people live, especially what and how they eat every day. Eating has become a primary objective, causing us to only see food, nothing else. Some are starting to see the real reason behind this headache. Because of that, they have rejoined our ancestor’s ideology where Dessalines proclaimed, “I want a strong and sovereign nation, socially equitable, originally cultural”. This means a lot.
We have reached the end, is there an advice you would like to give to those who wish to follow your footstep?
I don’t have an advice. What I have is more like a wakeup call. I want to tell them to have a positive outlook in life, even sometimes there seems to be no end in sight. Have a positive mindset toward everything that you do, so that Haiti can someday land on its feet. The results will be for the benefit of all.
Thank you, Kebert. It was pleasure to have met you and seen you again. I wish you a lot of success for this year. I’m wishing you a happy New Year.
I want to say, happy Independence Day, especially to our ancestors whom, thanks to them, we are a free nation. I want to continue the fight to free all those who are blind so that our beloved country could blossom again. Thank you, again.
Note: You can watch the video clip “Merde” on our the CSMS Magazine main page: www.csmsmagazine.org