This post is also available in: Kreyol
Black Alex was the sound of the streets, the sound of the true spirit of carnival, the sound of Kreyòl.
False rumors of Black Alex’s death come around every few years and each time, we wait with bated breath to find out if it has really happened. This time our fears are true, Jamecy Alex Pierre, aka Black Alex, Haitian music legend has passed away at the age of 39. Black Alex, a former timoun lari or street kid who achieved extraordinary musical success left an undeniable mark on Haitian music.
The same unfortunate discussion comes up every time a popular Haitian artist passes away. In times like this, it becomes painstakingly clear that while Haitians do love music, even the most beloved of our artists do not manage to make viable careers of their art. We are reminded that the great voices who comfort and inspire Haitian society cannot live on applause alone. We are also reminded of the many we once praised, who we have forgotten like a passing fad. Jean Claude Martineau wrote a song detailing the story of Lumane Casimir, a beloved singer who passed away in 1953. She came to Port-au-Prince with no family or friends, “yon gita anba bra l ak yon espwa nan vwa l,” a guitar under her arm and hope in her voice. The song explains that although her music enchanted anyone who heard her, she spent her last days sick and alone in a shack with no electricity, with little food and was only visited from time to time by a caretaker who came to check on her.
The song goes on to say that when she passed away, the many people who Lumane served were not present to mourn for her. But the skies turned grey and rain came down to mourn her for us. According to Martineau, many swore that on that day, if you stood still, you could hear Lumane’s voice in the distance singing “Papa Gede Bèl Gason” forcing the thousands who forgot her to hear her voice one last time.
I was not alive during Lumane Casimir’s heyday, but I was present for Black Alex’s. I remember the many carnival songs that were brought to life by Black Alex’s vocal stylings, and silly dances. In addition to his work with the “Rap n Ragga” group King Posse, Black Alex was featured on countless hits in the Haitian music industry. I think of him as a musical King Midas; any song that Black Alex graced with his voice was a sure hit. With the likes of Sweet Micky, Mizik Mizik, Carimi, Papillon, T-Vice, Team Lòbèy, Black Alex’s guest verse would appear in a song like a special treat taking the song to the next level. With his dark skin, his Kreyòl rèk, and raw nasal sound, he was as his name suggests, unapologetically black. Black Alex was the sound of the streets, the sound of the true spirit of carnival, the sound of Kreyòl. And we loved it, we embraced it.
It is sad that all of this did not translate into an easy life for Black Alex. There was constant news about his deteriorating health, and financial issues. In April, a viral video of Black Alex being prayed and prophesied over by Pastor Muscadin at the extremely popular and controversial Haitian megachurch Shalom circulated on social media. “Alelouya!” People cheered on social media for the lost brother who had finally found his way to God.
As I watched the video of Black Alex pouring water over his head to receive healing, I was filled with sadness. What I saw in that video was someone searching for something. Whether this was physical healing or personal fulfillment, it was clear that there was a void that needed to be filled. A few days later, in an interview with Carel Pedre, Black Alex explained that he had to make sure his name was written in the book just in case God came back. And as always, he remained gracious when asked about anyone who might owe him money or may have profited from his talents while he struggled. “Black la li menm gon travay li fè pou pèp la…mwen menm fè moun yo kontan m fè moun yo kontan. Se sa y ap chèche.” “Black has a duty towards the people. I make the people happy, that’s what they are looking for,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. Black Alex knew what the people wanted from him and he gave it. As beautiful as that may sound, it seems like all he did was give. As Pedre put it “sanble ou toujou ap bay lòv, men ou pa janm jwenn lòv la back.” It seems like you’re constantly giving love, but never receiving it in return.
Haitian people cheered and said amen during Black La’s apparent conversion because they wanted to continue singing and dancing to his music guilt free. That’s what Black La did. He dared you to resist his great music, taunting you, asking you if you would be too stubborn to just give in and dance. Were you going to hold on to your religious biases to not enjoy his secular lyrics? Were you going to be too stoic and serious to let go and sing the catchy made up words? Were you going to be too zuzu or pretentious to relax your jaw to sing “madmwazèl je vouz èm” with the Kreyòl pronunciation like he did? He won every time. For a brief moment, the church ladies jigged with their bibles under their armpits, adults let their hair down to be silly for just one hook, and all social classes dropped the constant pretentious charade for just one moment to be truly Kreyòl while under Black Alex’s spell.
Black Alex did not stay around long enough to teach us just what “Diminino Mamamouno” meant, but he marked our lives and childhoods just the same. Perhaps we too will magically hear Black Alex’s voice in the atmosphere, as the many who had forgotten Lumane did in the song. But in the meantime, we will remember and sing his songs for him. From the street kids to the middle class to the upper class … “Diminino Mamamouno.” Rest in power, Black La.
Photo via chokarella.com