“Chicago Musicians Participate In Artistic Rejuvenation In Haiti”
by Ruth Blatt
read the full article here
Paul Karner is a 29-year-old who plays guitar in a Chicago band called Ragged Claws and works as a bartender to pay his bills. He also happens to have built a recording studio in Haiti. As a junior in college majoring in music composition, he traveled to Haiti to teach at a music summer camp in Léogâne. “I had met this group called K-Lami-T [as in ‘Calamity’],” told me Karner. “They started showing me the music they were playing and it was this cool blend of Haitian roots music, a little reggae and then there were a couple MCs rapping over it.” He liked it and stayed in touch.
Léogâne was the epicenter of the January 2010 earthquake. In 2011 Karner traveled to Haiti to set up a studio to record K-Lami-T and other artists who were making music in the region. Since then, he founded the Carrefour Collaborative with the mission to empower Haitian artist by granting them funds, mentoring, and infrastructure to help them make and disseminate their music. According to the mission statement on their website, supporting Haitian artists benefits the entire global artistic community, “as it is asked to view through a critical lens an artistic voice that is too often marginalized.”
Carrefour fills in the little gaps that get ignored by the major philanthropic organizations. They find underground off-the-radar artists and help them get performance clothes, shoot videos, and record their songs on high-quality equipment. “Almost all of the professional recording studios are in Port-au-Prince. They’re super expensive, and on top of that they’re mostly occupied by artists that have a lot of money,” said Karner. “It’s really hard for a musician to get the opportunity to get through that.”
Karner teamed up with a collective of artists and producers called Messiah Brown Productions. The first artist they sponsored is Gaetville. “She’s an MC, a mix of hip hop and dance hall music,” said Karner. “I’ve met a lot of artists, but she just had everything. She had this fire, she was so pumped about her stuff and showing it to everybody. She had everything she needed except absolutely no money and no access to a studio.” Carrefour helped her get a phone, Internet access, and clothes. They then raised money for her to record a single and shoot a video in Port-au-Prince with a guest spot for a well-known Haitian MC. As a result, her career has taken off.
“Haiti is really hungry for new and interesting music because a lot of the hip hop just sounds the same and it’s not always made by people who are on the ground,” said Karner. “The goal is getting these artists into the public consciousness, to make them a name. And then from then on it’s easier for them to get to the table, to set up concerts and get sponsors.”
Carrefour Collaborative’s most recent initiative is to bring established Chicago artists to collaborate and mentor Haitian artists in Léogâne. The first artist to make the trip was Psalm One, a Chicago-based rapper.
“When it comes down to the broke artist, the starving artist, there isn’t much outside help,” Psalm One told me. She went to Haiti to fulfill a promise to herself to help the devastated region. “I get irritated when people are so gung-ho about a cause on Wednesday and then on Thursday they’ve forgotten about it,” she said.
“I was fortunate in my career to have people help me out when I needed it,” she said. “It wasn’t a pity thing. It was just saying, ‘Hey, I believe in you and you’re working hard let’s help you out.’ When I was in Haiti that’s how I felt.”
The primary goal was for Psalm One to record high-quality radio-ready songs with Haitian artists that would help expose them to American audiences. “Because the sound quality is miles ahead of a lot of stuff that’s going on, they will have the upper hand on getting opportunities to get their music heard.” To collaborate with them, she drew on her experience as a hip-hop educator in Chicago’s Rhyme School Program, a 10-week after-school hip-hop program for kids offered through the Intonation Music Workshop.
Psalm One also gave a production workshop at another studio in the region, Audio Institute, creating songs on the spot with about 30 music students. “I was the first artist to actually rap in the studios,” she said. “I kind of set the bar a little bit. I went in there and we did about six songs in about four hours.”
Carrefour’s larger goal goes beyond developing particular artists, for which Karner and his organization receive no monetary remuneration. It’s to help a devastated country revive itself through art. By investing in individual artists, they invest in the community as a whole. “My larger goal is to stir excitement in the local community,” said Karner. Most artists, he told me, never get beyond recording one song because they don’t have the resources to create a high-quality recording and video. “There are so many artists that pump everything into one song and then you meet them two years later and they say, ‘I have this one song and that’s it.’ It’s so easy to get burnt out.”
A thriving artistic community is healthy for other reasons. It can attract more tourists to the region. And it can cheer people up. “You can be struggling in your personal life and then go see a concert or take part in a festival and you really feel part of a local culture and you feel proud of it,” said Karner. For a place that has suffered so much devastation, putting a microphone in the hand of local artists—and logistically making it possible for them to disseminate their music—is empowering. Haiti has an artistic voice, and Carrefour is there to help amplify it.
“At the end of the day, I am a white guy from Chicago,” said Karner. “I try to tread the line between offering guidance and expertise, but also making sure that I’m supporting the artist’s vision. I’m an artist, I’m a musician and I’m meeting musicians on that level.”