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In The Moment

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Pras Michel

Words Paul Watson | Photographs Ben Cook

At just 15-years-old, Pras Michel introduced his school friend, Lauryn Hill, to his cousin, Wyclef Jean, and the trio began playing music together. They became The Fugees, one of the world’s biggest and most vocal bands, offering a repertoire of deeply political songs in a bid to give hope to their poverty-stricken, corrupt homeland, Haiti. Two Grammys, and a bunch of other accolades later, Pras is still singing the same song, but with even greater authority. His latest documentary film, Sweet Mickey For President, restores your faith in human nature. It also shows the true power of music on arguably the most powerful of
all stages...

Pras met Michel Martelly for the first time in 1994, at a show in Miami. At the time, The Fugees “weren’t the Fugee Fugees”, he says, but Martelly was proud that there was a Haitian-American band on the rise.

For those that don’t know of Michel Martelly the artist, he is a huge name in Haiti, and has been for a couple of decades and more. Sure, his wild performances on stage often saw him drop his pants, slap on a diaper or two, and there was a lot of provocative dancing... But behind the music was a man who cared deeply about his country and its people; he was always sending out some kind of social or political message – sometimes hidden, sometimes not so much.

For Pras, since the days of The Fugees, the dream had always been to generate hope and belief in the people of Haiti. It was in 1997, a year after the band’s second and breakthrough album, The Score, that The Fugees got the chance to play in Haiti for the first time; it was a huge outdoor concert, which Martelly himself attended.

“That’s when I really got to know Michel properly, I guess, and it’s where it all started for us as a band,” Pras recalls. “Then, years later, when the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti and caused such terrible devastation, I wanted to do something about it. I’d already made a couple of documentaries about social issues in the US and in Africa, and I wanted to do a film over in Haiti – I just needed to do something to help the cause.”

The previous films Pras refers to are the internationally acclaimed Skid Row Los Angeles (2007), where he went undercover as a homeless guy in LA for nine days; and Paper Dreams (2009), where he visited Somalia in a bid to expose the country’s rife piracy issues (the latter is still unfinished due to political issues, and in the filming process, Pras’ ship was actually taken hostage by pirates).

Through Sweet Mickey, has Pras taken his philanthropy to a new level?

“I have always tried to do what I do best in some sort of art form, and I’m very socially conscious; whatever I do, there has to be a social element in the backdrop,” explains Pras. “If you look at Sweet Mickey, it’s a movie, but the backdrop is entertaining at the same time. The other day, I was reading an article by an actor who was at Cannes [Film Festival, France], and he said something that I have always believed in: ‘film is the director’s medium, period.’ And that’s so right. Actors? Sure, we do what we do, but directors capture the brilliance in any film.”

Pras’ initial vision for the film was to look at the devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake, and although he had no idea what was going to transpire from this emotional visit to his homeland, what evolved was seriously ground breaking.

“When I thought about everything that had happened, and saw the turmoil that Haiti was in, I decided to call Michel [Martelly], and I told him he should run for President. For me, Michel’s story is about understanding the timing of history. We have seen it from the existence of mankind: in WWII, when Germany was pounding on different European countries like England, it was Churchill’s moment.”If that hadn’t happened, maybe he wouldn’t have been as popular as he is today, right?"

I ask Pras how often he is in touch with Michel, who is now three years into his five-year term, and whether he thinks he is enjoying the challenge. Perhaps I worded that wrong...

“I don’t know if he’s enjoying the challenge, but he’s ticking along,” Pras replies, adding that corruption has been imbedded in that world for, ‘like... ever’. “But you see, it comes with the territory. If this guy was to totally eradicate corruption in one year and change the Haitian economy in some way, rising them to the top economy in the world, then forget the Nobel Prize, this guy would be an actual Saint! [laughs]. Things are not easy, that’s for sure. Some Haitians will say there’s been way better progress than they’re used to since Michel took over, and of course some will say he isn’t good enough.

“What you have to remember is, the whole world is going through a shift, and that’s not a secret, especially after the global recession we’ve had. The world is no longer isolated; now, we’re all interconnected and affected by each other’s decisions, to a certain extent. At the end of the day, the movie we were making was really about hope; you have got to believe in something, and if you have good intentions, then you can bring down a mountain. That’s what it is, you know?”