Alan Diaz/AP
Haitian President Michel Martelly talks to reporters during a news conference late last year in North Miami Beach, Fla.

Is Haiti's musician turned president cracking down on carnival songs?

In a country where past carnival songs have predicted the fate of governments, lyrics are viewed as the social and political pulse of Haiti. Some bands behind controversial tunes say they were disinvited from this year's carnival.

As "Sweet Micky," Haiti's charismatic president built a reputation as the king of carnival by denouncing governments, mooning politicians, and being outrageously anti-establishment.

Now, as president of Haiti, some say Michel Martelly is banning other artists from taking part in this year's carnival celebration for doing the same thing he did as a singer: criticizing the government.

Lead singers behind some of this season's most controversial carnival tunes - most of them critical of the Martelly government - say they were disinvited from being among the 15 bands to be featured on floats for this year's carnival.

"As young artists, we learned how to do this from him, watching him denounce government after government," said Don Kato of the group Brothers Posse, whose alleged ban has lit up social media and become a lead story for Haitian journalists. "It makes no sense that as an artist I can't sing about the environment I am living in, and you want to sanction me because I'm not singing in favor of you."

In a country where past carnival songs have predicted the fate of governments, carnival lyrics are viewed as the social and political pulse of the country. In the past 20 years, some have even predicted the fates of governments, which Martelly acknowledged in a radio interview Friday, saying songs have the power to "overthrow a government." Already, political journalists and opposition lawmakers are employing the song lyrics in their own analysis of Haiti's current rough political waters.

In the interview on Port-au-Prince's Scoop FM radio, Martelly said it's not automatic that an artist would be chosen to perform during carnival. He added that Kato's song "doesn't bother me."

Still, Martelly hinted that the group's carnival Aloral, accusing his government of being all talk, is not consistent with this year's environmental theme and would not create the kind of ambiance his government was seeking when it took the annual three-day pre-Lenten cultural showcase, which begins Sunday, out of the capital Sunday. He said the intent is to boost tourism.

"It's a party that's being organized; it's not a protest," Martelly said. "The carnival is not like it was a long time ago. Before it was do as you like, take to the streets."

As the interview aired Friday, Martelly toured a spruced-up Cap-Haitien on foot where some were preparing Aloral T-shirts, and others were preparing red posters - a symbol of failure in soccer - to wave during the weekend. Kato, who is from Cap-Haitien, has called for calm among his fans and said he plans to stay away from the festivities.

Martelly said the band lineup was selected by an 18-member carnival committee he appointed. He personally chose three bands and "intervened once" after the committee prematurely announced the line-up, which included Brothers Posse.

"I called the committee and I told them, 'Careful...I would suggest you listen to the carnivals first,'" Martelly said.

Haiti roots band Kanpech also won't be on a float for the second year in a row. Lead singer Frederic "Fredo" Pierre Louis said the decision came from Martelly.

"This isn't being decided by a group of five or six people; it's one person," said Pierre Louis, whose song Nou Pap Ka Mate l is a clever play on "Martelly's" name as a derivative of a laundry list of government actions the Haitian people can no longer tolerate.

Richard Morse, lead singer of RAM, also not in the line up, blames the committee. Bands are paid the equivalent of $30,000 for three days of performances.

"On the phone, they said the minister wasn't in town, which is why our check wasn't ready. On the radio, they said that RAM didn't want to participate," said Morse, a cousin of Martelly and until recently an adviser in his government.

The group's song Men Bwaw has become the subject of decoding and debate as carnival watchers and journalists interpret its lyrics as double entendres illustrating frustration with the government. Morse said the song is about trees and Haiti's history.

"People who get angry about lyrics identify themselves as the targets of those lyrics," he said. "Some of our most powerful and popular carnival songs have been rejected by previous carnival committees. This is nothing new to us."

Carnival committee President Gilbert Bailey said bands "were chosen randomly," something he hopes to change next year. He did, however, manage to get one band reinstated, he said.

Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun, leader of Grammy-nominated Boukman Eksperyans, said after fan pressure they were recently told by the committee they would be featured on a float. Similar to the other controversial meringues, Boukman's song Piou Piout accuses the government of talking too much and letting Haitians down.

"The government has been panicked by that song," Beaubrun said.

Some are also irked by Kato's video, which has already garnered 17,523 views on YouTube featuring a baldheaded Martelly impersonator dancing on the desk in the palace.

"We are not into politics, but we cannot sit quiet and not express the suffering our brothers and sisters are living in," Kato said of his reggae-fused song. "What I am singing, is what the people are saying. They are not lies, so if he thinks I am against him, then the whole population is against him."

Sonjah Stanley Niaah, a professor of cultural studies at the University of West Indies, said while there are many examples in the larger Caribbean of similar attempts to ban artists - the Virgin Islands banned the calypso song "Master Woodsman" and St. Kitts once banned Calypsonian "Bad John"- leaders need to proceed with caution in trying to censure artists.

"There is a fine line between social responsibility and freedom of expression. While some of the bans have been nonsensical, others have simply served to increase the popularity of the very expression being banned and their creators," she said.

Robert Fatton, a Haiti political observer, finds the entire saga ironic and said Haiti could be headed on a dangerous path of repression.

"This form of censure is dangerous, it may announce future curbs to free speech and a gradual descent into authoritarianism," he said. "Free speech has been a popular conquest, I want to believe it will not vanish easily."

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