The moment Michael Brun walks into Cafe Erzulie, a Haitian restaurant in his current neighborhood of Bushwick, he waves me over to the bar. Whenever possible, he goes out of the way to support small businesses within the local diaspora, especially if they happen to carry his favorite beer from his hometown of Port-au-Prince. He’s wearing a canary-yellow hoodie and slightly sheepish smile, as though even he can’t quite believe everything that’s been happening to him lately.
Brun has a lot to smile about. Over the course of the last five years, he’s risen to become the most famous DJ and producer to come out of Haiti. This past summer, he opened for Colombian mega-star J Balvin on tour and the duo’s collaboration, “Positivo,” was selected as Telemundo's 2018 Deportes World Cup song. An unlikely fusion of Haitian roots music and electronic music, his eminently danceable beats defy easy categorization. Tracks like “Bayo” and “Wherever I Go” have become global smash hits.
By the time he was a college sophomore in the U.S. on a full scholarship, Brun was already living a double life. During the day, the 19-year-old was a top student in his university’s pre-med track, but in his free time, he was uploading tracks to SoundCloud and playing parties. One of those got noticed and almost overnight, Brun went from cramming for chem tests to spinning alongside EDM heavy-hitters like Avicii, Calvin Harris, and Armin Van Buuren in front of tens of thousands of revelers.
It’s the kind of success most twentysomethings would dream of, but Brun found himself wanting more. He started turning back to his homeland for musical inspiration and looking for ways to change some of the negative perceptions surrounding Haiti. By throwing pop-up block parties in Port-au-Prince’s ghettos like Jalouzi, creating scholarships in collaboration with Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ), and sharing the spotlight with some of Haiti’s top musical talent on his Bayo tour, he hopes to give something back to the country he loves.
He took a break from his grueling schedule to grab a beer and talk about Haitian dance music, making a difference, and why we all need a little more positivity.
This might be the first time I’ve ever tried a Haitian beer. What’re we drinking exactly?
Prestige, which is this beer right here, has been around for over 40 years. It’s honestly my favorite beer. It tastes great, but more importantly, they support the country and the local workforce. They employ a few thousand people in Haiti, all of them local.
So if I go to a bar in Port-au-Prince…
If you go to a bar anywhere in Haiti, you’re going to see Prestige literally everywhere.
There isn’t much of an electronic music scene in Haiti. What did you listen to when you were a kid?
When I was growing up, I’d listen to whatever my dad was listening to. He loved anything from the late ‘80s early ‘90s. He was also a producer and he had a band. They played new age kompa, which is traditional Haitian dance music, but merged with new wave pop.
That sounds awesome. Were there other Haitian artists mixing things up like that?
As I got into making music, I really made an effort to see what the legends had done. Boukman Eksperyans fused traditional roots music called rara and rasin with rock guitars, bases and amps. Tabou Combo mixed together big band jazz with funk.
Do you find yourself turning back to some of their work for inspiration?
I felt like since they had done those genres, I wanted to fuse electronic music and hip-hop in the same way. I started taking kompa and rara and rasin and Haitian classical music and fusing it with electronic music and pop and R&B.
Is there even a name for what you’re doing?
No, not really. When I was deep in EDM around age 20 and 21 and playing big festivals like Coachella, Ultra and EDC, I realized I wasn’t pioneering anything. I could see that it wasn’t shifting culture or creating anything that hadn’t been done before. It took me a while to step back think about all the elements of that genre that resonated with me as an artist, but also that I could utilize to create something really new.
Um, hold on, can we just rewind to the fact that were even up on those stages at that age? Do you remember what the turning point was?
End of my sophomore year. I got scouted by this DJ that I really looked up to called Dirty South. It was a DM on Twitter, so I just ignored it. I thought it was fake, but then he contacted me again and asked for a track to sign to his label. So I sent him one and I didn’t hear back for a couple weeks.
I’m guessing you figured that was that.
This was February and by the beginning of March, he wrote back saying not only did he want to sign the track, but also that he was playing Ultra and wanted me to come down. It was Wednesday and I remember I had a chem test on Tuesday. So I took the test, flew down to Miami and played this event. Then on Friday, he was like, “Why don’t you come to my set?” He called me out, so we played my track together in front of 20,000 people. It was surreal.
Did you ever think DJing would turn into an actual career?
No way. DJing was always just something I did for fun. When I was 15, I downloaded a crack version of Virtual DJ. I was doing mash-ups and they were horrible [Laughs]. Then when I was in ninth grade, some of the seniors said, “Yo, this is really cool. We’re throwing a party, do you want to DJ?”
You were originally on a pre-med track in college before you left to pursue music. What made you want to be a doctor?
Everything was about giving back to my country. My family was always involved in a lot of community-building projects. Something my dad taught me was that if you reinforce your area, it’s going to improve the entire situation of the country. I went to a good school and I had a good family and I realized really quickly that those things were incredibly rare. Anything that I could do to pass that on to other people was really important to me. There’s a hospital called Saint Damian in one of the rougher areas of Port-au-Prince and interning there was always part of my life.
Tell me a little bit about the hospital.
Saint Damian was founded by a priest who saw there was a need for pediatric care when there was none. As he started building his hospital, he realized that he needed to have medical knowledge in order to do good, so he went to school in his forties. That was a lesson to me, that if you truly have the motivation to do something, nothing can stop you. Whenever anything gets tough, I remember the story of how Father Rick became a doctor.
Even though you’re no longer on the path to becoming a pediatrician, it feels like a lot of your work in the last couple of years has revolved around giving back. Could you talk a little bit about your collaboration with Artists for Peace and Justice?
What I had wanted to do through medicine was support communities and change the image of my country. I felt like I had the opportunity to accomplish that as an artist on a much wider scale. In 2016, I did a festival which allowed me to take 100 percent of the ticket sales and create a scholarship fund. We created 33 scholarships for students at Haiti’s Artist Institute based on the success of “Wherever I Go,” a song we made together. I wanted people to understand that it wasn’t charity.
Could you explain that a little bit more?
Haiti is the country with the most NGOs per capita in the world. What I kept seeing was that so many NGOs just came in and bounced. That affects the economy in a really negative way because there’s no buying power locally. People don’t learn how to continue to take care of themselves. There are all these ripple effects that I don’t think anybody could have imagined could come from aid. I’m happy I had those thoughts early on about how much destruction can come from good intentions.
What makes your approach different?
Everything I do, I try to be deliberate and think it out as much as I can. I didn’t want to create handout situations for anybody. I wanted sustainable change. I wanted the students to understand that they created the festival, which created the scholarships, which was helping to support future talent. It’s cyclical.
Some of that work feels a little less tangible and a little more experiential. Could you tell me about the block parties you've thrown in Haiti?
The first one was like 50 people. I just DMed and texted fans saying, “Free show! Come have fun.” And then I did one in Jalouzi, which is a ghetto in Port-au-Prince. I got some of the really big Haitian artists to surprise everyone and perform there for free. It wasn’t for a look. No other reason than to create positivity. That’s when I realized what I wanted those Bayo shows to be about. “Bayo” means to "give in" in Creole. I wanted my tour to be about giving Haitian culture to the world. Whether it was music or art or visuals, I wanted people to experience Haiti through that lens.
That's definitely not the lens most of the world sees Haiti through the majority of the time. Do you feel pressure as a de facto cultural ambassador to change people’s perceptions of the country?
My music, my actions, my words—everything that I do, I want people to know what Haiti has been for me and what it can be for so many people. It’s been a life mission. And it’s not just me. There are so many other artists in the country that are doing amazing work. When making things, I always turn to the same source, which is home. All of my decisions, all of my art, stems from that well.
How do some of the other artists you’ve collaborated recently respond to that?
The reason I wanted to work with J Balvin was that he was on the same mission I was as an artist. What he wanted to do for Colombia, I wanted to do with Haiti. What Mr Eazi wanted to do for Nigeria was what I wanted to do for Haiti. First and foremost, create great art, but also show what the country’s about. There's more to Colombia than drugs and Pablo Escobar, just like there's more to Nigeria than email prince scams. It’s one of the biggest film industries in the world, not to mention the center of African music and by extension, one of the biggest hubs for world music. Nobody’s talking about the positive side. These stories need to be told and we want to be able to share them.