Vox Sambou: Haitian hip-hop ambassador

0 Posted by - April 3, 2008 - Blog, Policy, Sound, Word

The self-described “eternal voice of Haiti”, Vox Sambou (born Robints Paul) is a Montreal-based emcee and international hip-hop activist whose Creole raps and dancehall chants speak to the thorny political reality that continues to plague his countrymen. After 16 years of spitting rhymes in booming baritone from Haiti to Havana to Toronto’s Harbourfront alone or alongside Montreal’s Nomadic Massive, Paul is now set to bless us with his debut solo album.

The title of the LP is Lakay, the Haitian Creole word for home, which in Paul’s case is Litero a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city of Limbe 220 km north of Port au Prince. Also known as ‘ti Guinea, the small region is the source of the deep-rooted Caribbean rhythms that punctuated the lives of Paul’s great-great grandparents and kept his own head bobbin’ before he had ever heard of a thing called hip-hop. As he grew older, Paul also embraced Dancehall and early Reggaetone, but his true heroes were the socially conscious local musicians he saw live. Motivated by the rebellious roots music of Eddie Francois and the legendary band Bookman Eksperyans as well as Kompa groups such as Tropicana, Paul moved to Port au Prince where hip-hop was quickly becoming the subversive soundtrack of choice for the next generation of young Haitians.

Shortly after one of his brothers was beaten in a crackdown by the Haitian army, Paul and his family fled the country… for Winnipeg.

In the early 90s, while US rap fans cooled out to A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, supporters of Haiti’s toppled president Jean Bertrand Aristide chanted the lyrics to Boukman Eksperyans‘ rap anthem “Kalfou Dangere” (“Dangerous Crossroads”) as they marched through the streets of the capital city. In 1992, at the age of 16, amidst the growing number of voices denouncing the downfall of the country’s first democratically elected leader Paul grabbed the mike and stepped on stage for the first time. Over the next four years the rookie emcee would build his skills, performing frequently in Port au Prince and occasionally back in Limbe where he would give Haitian party-goers weaned on Sizzla and Buju Banton their first taste of Creole hip-hop.

By 1995 the army’s crackdown on the Haitian people had grown so brutal that many political dissidents began to fear for their lives. After one of them was severely beaten, two of Paul’s older brothers fled Haiti by boat and claimed refugee status in the US. In December of that same year Paul and his parents emigrated to Winnipeg. In this new ice-cold climate where no one spoke French and his fellow students dissed him for insisting on wearing his snowsuit inside, Paul found solace—ironically perhaps—in The Notorious B.I.G’s hit album Ready to Die.

After graduating university, Paul traveled east to Ottawa and eventually settled in Montreal. Since than, he has been an active member of Nomadic Massive participating in an international hip-hop symposium and traveling to Cuba for annual hip-hop festivals. While Canadian fans have become familiar with Paul’s message through a number of live performances in Montreal and Toronto, the Haitian emcee’s passion for social issues extends well beyond beats and rhymes. In addition to his day job as director of La Maison des Jeunes that caters to minority youth in Montreal’s Cotes des Neiges neighborhood, Paul has plans to return to Limbe in May to oversee the completion of a community centre on his family’s land.

Vox Sambou – Lakay

Lakay is an intense and jarring album that is equal parts political critique and cultural celebration. Vox rhymes almost entirely in Creole and his arrows carry messages aimed at his Haitian countrymen both at home and abroad. That is not to say however that this album is off limits to the masses-Vox’s themes are easy enough to pick up on and his mike skills shine through in any language. Not to mention the fact that the multilingual members of the Montreal-based collective Nomadic Massive have his back on a number of tracks.

“The Boat” tells the story of a man fleeing Haiti on a ship bound for Miami—an occurrence more common than CNN would have us believe.

The best example of Vox’s lyrical dexterity is ‘Neg Chante’ which is produced by Nomadic’s Lou Piensa. The syncopated beat, minimalist baseline and Vox’s off-kilter delivery lend the song a sense of urgency while the chorus provides a cathartic release. The track is also embedded with samples of broadcasts made by Jean Dominique the populist Haitian radio host who was assassinated in 2003. Ultimately, ‘Neg Chante’ is about dancing in the face of oppression and not becoming consumed by political disenchantment.

On ‘Bato’ (The Boat), based partly on the experiences of two of his brothers who claimed refugee status in the U.S., Paul plunges the listener into the life of a man who flees the country illegally on a ship destined for Miami. According to Vox this is occurring much more often than CNN would have us believe. Instead of simply pointing his finger at the government Vox questions what the Haitian community can do to counter the lack of hope felt by the country’s disenfranchised. ‘Bato’ stands out on the album because Vox doesn’t stick to a strict formula of a specific number of bars per verse. Instead, the narrative takes precedence over song structure resulting in a chilling tale that is highly cinematic.

On ‘Idantite’ which features Sara Renelik, Vox targets Haitians in the diaspora who are proud to represent but at the same time harbor prejudices against their own. Although this is a moving song it also illustrates one of the drawbacks of Lakay: at certain points Vox comes off as if he is preaching to second-generation Haitians in North America and chastising them for disassociating themselves from their culture. There will also probably be some heads who have seen Vox spit fire live and are wondering why he didn’t add a bit more Dancehall flavor to his debut. Despite these minor glitches Vox has succeeded in crafting a unique solo album that is audacious, introspective and very difficult to ignore. Let the home-schooling begin.

Lakay, a product of Flea Market Products, is available via Public Transit Recordings. For more on Vox Sambou, visit his website at VoxSambou.com.

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