Haitian-Immigrant Artists and the Political Aesthetic of Migration in Brazil’s Polarized 2018 Presidential Campaign

By Caetano Maschio Santos (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul)

*This article also appears in SEM Student News 14.2, Fall/Winter 2018.

I write during the first round of presidential elections in Brazil, between candidates Jair Bolsonaro and Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro, a congressman with a military background and openly racist, chauvinist, conservative, and xenophobic opinions, runs as a member of the right-winged Social Liberal Party (PSL).[1] Backed by the army, landowners, Evangelical church leaders, and businessmen, Bolsonaro leads most public opinion polls, incarnating the idea of a national savior. Haddad, ex-mayor of São Paulo and Education Minister, runs as a member of the leftist Workers Party (PT).[2] Although widely credited with raising living standards for the poorest in the country and projecting Brazil onto an international political and economic stage, the party is also associated with corruption scandals and Brazil’s present economic and political crisis.[3]

It was during PT’s first term (2002–2006) that Brazil, ascending in its importance within the South American and international political sphere, was appointed with the task of leading a United Nations mission (MINUSTAH) to “stabilize” Haiti after Jean-Bertrand Aristides’ ousting in 2004. The approximation between the countries would later contribute to an unprecedented migration wave of Haitians to Brazil, after the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. A perceived cultural proximity between Haitian and Brazilians, the benefits of a strong economy, the leadership of MINUSTAH and PT’s creation of a special humanitarian visa for Haitian immigrants are some of the elements that factored into Haitians’ decisions to migrate to Brazil (Uebel 2015; Audebert 2017).

Since 2017, I have been conducting fieldwork with Haitian immigrant artists in Southern Brazil, research that resulted in a master’s thesis in ethnomusicology concluded last April (Santos 2018). As a consequence of that work, I continue to participate in WhatsApp groups created and maintained by these migrant musicians, where Haitians living in various parts of the country showcase their musical production, exchange ideas about music and life in Brazil, pass along job offers and flight ticket promotions, amongst other things. Within the group Artistas Haitianos no Brasil (“Haitian Artists in Brazil”), many members made public their dismay at the possibility of a Bolsonaro victory, sharing videos, news, memes, and testimonies of uneasiness in growing frequency as election day drew near.

In the midst of the presidential elections, a music video clip by Haitian group Surprise69 began circulating in those groups, its title “Lula livre” (Free Lula).[4] Surprise69 is a rap kreyòl and reggae group formed by Mariolove, Elnegroflow, and RealBlack, artistic names of three Haitians immigrant artists living in São Paulo. According to its members, Surprise69 aims to help Haitian immigrants within and outside Brazil through art, encouraging them to pursue their dreams and vocations.[5] Through WhatsApp, I interviewed MarioLove and Elnegroflow, who offered a written statement about their song for inclusion in this article. Due to its length, I include the original Portuguese and a translation of their main assertions:

É pra apoiar o Brasil e especialmente Luís Inácio Lula da Silva que é um grande herói, um político que foi preso inocentemente como Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela por lutar por uma pátria. O PT pegou o Brasil em 2002 quebrado, devendo ao o FMI, pagou a dívida, aonde o povo brasileiro não tinha direito a uma faculdade a uma vivência boa, a um carro popular, a um emprego na classe alta. Lula quebrou toda essa barreira colocou pobre na sociedade igual a rico, a taxa de desemprego era menor e a economia do brasil estava boa, o real tava quase igual ao dólar no governo da Dilma. . . . Não queremos rivalidade, desigualdade, queremos que os brasileiros tenham possibilidade de fazer coisa melhor que brigar entre nós. Precisamos de união porque somos uma só bandeira, uma só pátria, pelo que Lula sempre lutou. O partido PSL que foi eleito diz que tem muito câmbio pro Brasil: realmente claro que ele tem muito câmbio para o Brasil, tirando direito dos pobres (décimo terceiro, bolsa família, INSS, aposentadoria).

We did it to support Brazil and specially Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who is a great hero, a politician wrongfully arrested like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, for fighting for a nation. PT assumed a government with the state financially broken, owing to the IMF (but paid the debt), and where the Brazilian people didn’t have opportunity to go to college, to a good living, a popular vehicle, or good paying jobs like the elites. Lula broke this barrier, made poor people the same as rich people, lowered unemployment rates, the economy was good, the Brazilian Real (BRL) was almost the same as the US Dollar in Dilma’s government. . . . We don’t want rivalry, inequality, we want Brazilians to have something more than just fighting amongst us. We need union because we’re one flag and nation, what Lula always fought for. The elected party, PSL, says it has many changes for Brazil, and indeed, it does: to take away the rights of the poor people, social benefits, and make the rich richer.

Surprise69's logo.

The “Lula livre” video starts with excerpts of a political speech by Lula along with images of the political leader. It proceeds with footage from PT’s previous and current political advertising campaigns throughout its entirety, along with short glimpses of Elnegroflow and Mariolove (see figure on next page). Just before singing begins, we hear Lula saying “a doença pior que existe na humanidade é o preconceito” (the worst disease in mankind is prejudice). The beat is a mixture between a breakdance drum riff and a dance style song, and the lyrics address the desire for a better society in Brazil, including one without racial prejudice—as Uebel has shown, a racializing gaze is preponderant on mediatic and mainstream discourse about black migrants in Brazil (Uebel 2015). The chorus directly references the upcoming election, inciting Brazilians to make a vote for change, a vote for Fernando Haddad: “Vamos, vamos brasileiros! Vamos votar Haddad!” (Come on, come on Brazilians! Let’s vote Haddad!). Hosted on Surprise69’s Youtube channel and Facebook page, the video has not received many views and has remained primarily within virtual networks of the Haitian diaspora. Nonetheless, it contributes to a significant portion of Haitian immigrant music-making in Brazil that deals with migration and the specific conditions faced by Haitians as black labor migrants in Brazil (see Santos 2018). Amongst previous examples of politically inclined music-making by Haitian immigrants in Brazil, songs such as “Ayisyen kite lakay (Brain Drain)” by Alix Georges and “Immigrant Life (I Need a Girlfriend)” by Dady Sèmale highlight the plights of the Haitian people and the challenges of migration.

Surprise69’s members: MarioLove, RealBlack, and Elnegroflow.
Image courtesy of Elnegroflow ©

Lula (top), Elnegroflow (left), and MarioLove (right) in “Lula livre.”
Video screenshots.

Albeit marginal in the present political disputes, “Lula livre” can be viewed as a grassroots demonstration of support for a PT candidate by Haitian migrants responding to: 1) the newly implemented immigration policy; 2) the politics of cultural diversity financed during PT’s government; and 3) to PT’s fight for social justice through a championing of the lower classes in Brazilian society. While direct political participation of Haitian immigrants, and specifically artists, in Brazilian society is not a pronounced phenomenon (as with their musical production and lives, it is severely ghettoized), their political positioning through communication networks, digital media, and music-making is evidence of the political aesthetics of migration (Bohlman 2011), through their struggle to be seen and heard. In a moment when the political climate has become increasingly polarized and intolerance has risen—supporters of Bolsonaro have promoted acts of violence during the campaign, mainly aiming at Afro-Brazilians, PT supporters, and LGBTQ individuals, including one confirmed homicide—Haitian artists’ position as black immigrants in Brazil presents an intersection of racism and discrimination against non-citizens. Despite the fact that migrants are not allowed to vote, and that Bolsonaro’s discourse legitimates xenophobic and racist attitudes, Surprise69’s song demonstrates how some Haitian artists strive to place themselves politically through their musical creation, demonstrating their will to participate politically in Brazilian society. As scholars, including Gage Averill (1994, 1997) and Elizabeth McAllister (2000, 2011) have pointed out in different contexts, the political engagement of Haitian musicians throughout the history of popular music in Haiti and the Haitian diaspora remains a distinctive trait of Haitian culture.


On the day prior to the final elections, I went to visit Haitian friends at Btag Studio P.Swark, a Haitian (home) studio in the nearby city of Canoas and the life project of Haitian rap kreyòl artists and cousins Jocelyn Preval and Akim Merissaint Dorvilus. The elections came up in our conversation and Jocelyn seemed upset with the expected victory of Jair Bolsonaro and concern for recent immigrants: “A gente não sabe como vai ser, pra nós” (“We don’t know how it’s going to be, for us”). When preliminary poll results started broadcasting on TV and the internet, Bolsonaro’s victory was already foreseeable. Immediately, members of Artistas Haitianos no Brasil started sending screenshots of the results and photos of media coverage. Someone even commented humorously on the low price of plane tickets from São Paulo to Port-au-Prince as a good opportunity for leaving Brazil now that Bolsonaro had won.

Despite the fact that the new president-elect has not yet taken office, official announcements of future measures and government officials have already proven some of his central campaign slogans false. Although posing himself as a politically neutral and incorruptible official committed to “cleaning” the country of corruption (“limpar” o país da corrupção)—Meu partido é o Brasil” (My party is Brazil) was a popular campaign motto, as well as Brasil acima de tudo! Deus acima de todos!” (Brazil above everything! God above everyone!)—Bolsonaro has appointed Onyx Lorenzoni, a confessed and judicially charged corrupt congressman, and federal judge Sérgio Moro, the same judge responsible for imprisoning Lula without clear proof of the alleged charges, as future ministers. Yet, as “Lula livre” demonstrates, within the noisy and heated political debate taking place in Brazil, Haitian immigrant artists make their voices heard through their music.


1. Tropes of nationalism, authoritarianism, morality, and Christian righteousness are woven into Bolsonaro’s platform.

2. Haddad has replaced former president Luís Inácio Lula da Silva in this election, currently imprisoned due to a questionable corruption conviction. An informative summary of the 2018 presidential elections is available, in English, at https://theintercept.com/2018/10/28/jair-bolsonaro-elected-president-brazil/.

3. Though not the only, nor the most implicated, political party in these investigations, PT has somehow paid the price for occupying the highest political post in the country, and for encouraging investigations of corruption by government officials. Driven away from power since 2002, the right-wing parties in Brazil took advantage of economic recession and indications of corruption by PT politicians. Along with powerful sectors of the media, these right-leaning groups succeeded in fostering growing political polarization. They turned PT into a synonym for corruption, first managing to impeach (on questionable legal grounds) president Dilma Roussef in 2016, and later by arresting ex-president and candidate Lula in 2018.

4. Likewise, since Lula’s imprisonment, Brazilian musicians have organized events that bring together music and left-wing political activism; the most significant of these being the “Festival Lula livre” (Free Lula Festival), which took place in Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2018. The act brought thousands of people together in the city’s center and featured MPB (Brazilian popular music) stars such as Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque—artists strongly associated with the fight against military dictatorship in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

5. You can find a video clip introducing the band at http://haitiaqui.com/surprise-69/ and visit them at facebook.com/surprise69tvvon.


Averill, Gage. 1997. A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey: Popular Music and Power in Haiti. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ———. 1994. “Mezanmi, kouman nou ye? My Friends How Are You: Musical Constructions of the Haitian Transnation.” Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies 3 (3): 253–71.

Audebert, Cedric. 2017. “A geodinâmica recente da migração haitiana nas Américas: Refugiados ou migrantes econômicos?” [The Recent Geodynamics of Haitian Migration in the Americas: Refugees or Economic Migrants?] Revista Brasileira de Estudos de População 34 (1): 55–71. http://dx.doi.org/10.20947/S0102-3098a0007.

Bohlman, Philip. 2011. “When Migration Ends, When Music Ceases.” Music and Arts in Action 3 (2): 148–65.

McAllister, Elizabeth. 2011. “Listening for Geographies: Music as Sonic Compass Pointing Towards African and Christian Diasporic Horizons in the Caribbean.” In Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora, edited by Regina O. Jackson, 207–28. New York: Routledge.

———. 2002. Rara!: Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Santos, Caetano Maschio. 2018. “Ayisyen kite lakay (Haitianos deixam suas casas): Um estudo etnomusicológico do musicar de artistas imigrantes haitianos no estado do Rio Grande do Sul.” [(Haitians Leave Their Homes): An Ethnomusicological Study of the Musicking of Haitian Immigrant Artists in the State of Rio Grande do Sul.] Master’s thesis, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

Uebel, Roberto Rodolfo Georg. 2015. “Análise do Perfil Socioespacial das Migrações Internacionais para o Rio Grande do Sul no Início do Século XXI: Redes, Atores e Cenários da Imigração Haitiana e Senegalesa.” [Analysis of the Sociospacial Profile of International Migration to Rio Grande Do Sul in the Beginning of the Xxist Century: Networks, Actors and Scenarios of Haitian and Senegalese Immigration.] Master’s thesis, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

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