Campaign 4: Celebrate Haitian art and culture, support Haitian artists. Haitians keep heritage alive through the arts


Sept. 2, 2005, 3:32PM

From Little Haiti to the big time for rapper Smitty
Knight Ridder Newspapers

MIAMI — Miami rapper Smitty does indeed have — as advertised on his
much-rotated single — diamonds on his neck. Built like a pit bull, all
shoulders and sinew, he is slouching on an over-stuffed couch in a lounge at
North Miami's Circle House studios. The mid-morning sun slides in through a
small window and dances on the coaster-sized, encrusted medallion hanging
from his thick neck.

"This is the biggest hip-hop studio in Miami," Smitty says. "They used to not
even let me in here."

But that was before he stared writing for Dr. Dre and Diddy, before he signed
with J Records and put together an album featuring the likes of Swizz Beatz,
Timbaland, Kanye West, John Legend and Scarface. Before the Biggie-sampled single, Diamonds On My Neck, dropped in May and became one of the hits of Memorial Day weekend, catapulting Smitty into Miami's hip-hop consciousness.

"It's a good time right now," he says. "I've been out on the road a lot
traveling, being out there in the clubs and things ... The record will be out
in September, so it's nice to be home for a little while and relax."

Home is the cracked concrete of Little Haiti. The 25-year-old rapper (born
Varick Smith) says he has two younger sisters and two brothers, raised by a
mother who works in billing at Broward General Medical Center, and a father
who he says has been in and out of jail.

"I call it the beautiful struggle. Even though we didn't have the best family
environment, we were loved people. Being on welfare with a parent on drugs,
growing up in Little Haiti taught me independence. It gave me the edge to
brush my shoulders off."

Smitty says hanging out on the street freestyling gave him a place to be and
the outlet he needed to stay out of major trouble. In 1997, he started
getting serious about rapping while in college at Florida A&M in Tallahassee.

"I got into school, luckily," he says with a grin. "I saw my whole world open
up. When I got to Tally, I thought this is good, but I've gotten this far, I
might as well go farther."

The summer after his sophomore year, he and a friend decided to drive out to
L.A, in his friend's beat-up '91 Nissan Stanza, to try and make inroads into
the rap game.

"We had to fill the car with water in every state, but we were so anxious to
get there it felt like we got there overnight," Smitty says. "We had saved as
up as much money as we could and got an apartment for three months figuring
if it didn't work out we'd come back and go back to school."

It didn't take long for Smitty to find work. A contact hooked him up with a
meeting at Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment, where he got some work
writing rhymes for some of its artists.

But his first big break came while stalking Dr. Dre on the set of the 2001
movie The Wash.

"I waited all day and all night for him," Smitty says. "Finally, he came over
and I just started spitting for him, the kind of stuff I figured he wanted to
hear. Two weeks later, I was writing for him for the 'Truth Hurts' album."
After he penned Hollywood for the soundtrack for The Wash, Smitty says he and Dre talked about a recording contract but nothing solid ever came from it. A few months later, another stalking — this time Diddy doing an appearance on
Jay Leno — landed Smitty another writing job.

"I told him I don't want to sign, I just want to write for Bad Boy Records,"
Smitty says. "He gave me a song to work on and I went home and wrote six or
seven verses. I don't even remember if they were hot, but the next thing I
know I'm staying in Puffy's penthouse on Broadway, writing for Bad Boy."

For Puff, Smitty worked on hit singles Shake Ya Tailfeather (which Diddy
performed with Nelly and Murphy Lee) and B2K's Bump, Bump, Bump and co-wrote three songs on the Bad Boys II soundtrack, which sold more than 300,000 copies its first week and remained No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts for four weeks.

Then he met Breyon Prescott, a businessman-producer-impresario with extensive industry connections. Smitty's manager, Calvin Valrie, introduced him to Prescott, who set off a bidding war among Arista, Capitol Records, Def Jam,
Elektra, Jive and J Records. In the end, Prescott says they chose J Records
because of its legendary founder Clive Davis.

"Clive gave us an incredible amount of leeway to make the album we wanted,"
Prescott says. "He also gave us a lot of support. The producers on this album
are the best in the business ... Hype Williams shot the first video. That
never happens unless maybe you throw a million dollars at him."

The video was out last week, the album, Life of a Troubled Child, is
tentatively scheduled to drop Sept. 23 and an episode of MTV's My Block in
which Smitty takes host Sway for a tour of Little Haiti, first aired Aug. 13.
At Circle House, Smitty has slouched so far into the couch he is practically
lying on his back. He tilts his head back and stares up at the ceiling,
enjoying the relative peace of the moment and contemplating his next moves.

"I want to do for Little Haiti what Biggie did for Brooklyn and Outkast did
for Atlanta," Smitty says. "I may or may not be the voice of Miami but I'm
one of the voices. And I'm pretty loud right now."


Haitians keep heritage alive through arts

By Arlene Barochin
Staff Writer
September 4, 2005

While the media portray images of poverty, death and political instability
from Haiti, some South Florida residents are trying to shed a positive light
on a different aspect of Haiti for the incoming generation.

Community members are passing on their culture and ideas through one of the
oldest forms of Haitian communication: art.

"Art is not limiting. Through art, people liberate themselves," said
Pascal "Kafe" Garoute, 47, of Lauderhill, lifelong artist and daughter of the
internationally acclaimed artist Tiga.

"Art for us is not an objective; it is a way of life," Garoute said.

Many Haitian artists share these ideals, and fear upcoming Haitian-American generations will lose sight of this part of their heritage. "Your children will know nothing about Haiti," Garoute said, "and that will
kill me."

To bridge the gap between the generations, artists such as Garoute and husband Christian "Kristo" Nicholas, 50, strive to expose the world to
Haitian culture through art. They founded Utopia Art and Entertainment Inc.,
a company based in their Lauderhill home, designed to share art with parents,
community leaders and youth.

"I want to see Haitians shining -- showing the world what we are capable of
doing," Nicholas said. Using a gallery in their Lauderhill home as the site
of the operations, the couple have hosted public gatherings featuring visual
artists, musicians and writers.

Utopia Art and Entertainment Inc. is one of the many programs recently
created in South Florida that use visual arts, theater and dance to educate
Haitian-Americans about their heritage. Garoute calls it a movement.
Haitian-born artist Jude "Papaloko" Thegenus, 40, of Miami, is a part of this

A former political activist and youth leader, Thegenus uses the arts as a
means of educating and voicing his opinions to the masses. Through Papaloko
Kids, a Miami-based educational group, he teaches children the powerful and
spiritual component of art through dance lessons, story telling, and drumming

"What is the Haitian culture? The stories, the fairy tales, the art," Thegenus said.

Berwick "Underscore" Augustin, 29, of North Miami, produces and directs plays
throughout Broward and Miami-Dade counties starring Haitian youth. The plays
address cultural issues Haitian youths face.

"What they know now is going to determine what the Haitian community
becomes," Augustin said.

Actor Genji Jacques, 31, of Fort Lauderdale, is one of the leaders in Mark-Jack Vision, a youth and young adult production company.

"I think it's important for Haitian youth to get involved; it gives them an opportunity to tap into their talent and take it elsewhere," Jacques said.

To preserve and promote the efforts of recent and historical artists, Eveline Pierre, 32, of Miami Shores, and Serge Rodrique, 35, of Miami, founded the Haitian Heritage Museum in Miami.

Although the museum is still in the planning stages, it has already played an
integral part in the South Florida Haitian community by hosting programs
targeting the youth.

"It will show the kids ownership," Pierre said. "It will raise their self-esteem and self-awareness." Pierre works with youth every day. Interns come into the office several times a week and are an integral part in coordinating and budgeting events in the upcoming year.

Cassandra Francois, 19, of Miramar, said her internship has taught her lessons about life and career. Francois, a political science major at the University of Florida, hopes the museum "opens everyone's hearts and minds to different people."

Copyright (c) 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
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