[Look for your weekly fix from the one and only Henry Rollins right here on West Coast Sound every Thursday, and come back tomorrow for the awesomely annotated playlist for his Saturday KCRW broadcast.]
I have been curious about Haiti for many years. The history of the country is as fascinating as it is turbulent. My curiosity rose after the earthquake on Jan. 12, 2010. I wanted to see how things were progressing at this point and if there was any way I could contribute.
So, I went. I have been here for several days now, spending most of my time in Port-au-Prince, going to orphanages and playing with the kids.
I have been visiting tent cities, armed with soccer balls and soap, meeting the residents and listening to their stories. I was afforded a day drive to Port Salut — a beach town — but beyond that, it's been an existence in the aftermath.
Almost two years after the earthquake, Port-au-Prince is still in need of repair. Certainly work is being done; there is rebuilding almost everywhere you look. But it's a struggle nonetheless. By 9 in the morning, the heat and humidity are already climbing defiantly. The sun stands on your shoulders and exerts its considerable weight through the afternoon. By day's end, you are sapped.
An attempt to write about music in this environment could easily be regarded as gauche, I know this. However, all of the things I have been seeing and the people I have been meeting make me think about music quite a bit. And perhaps not in a way that would be obvious at first. I have been looking around, and thus far have been unable to connect with local music here.
The days have been very busy, sometimes starting hours before the sun comes up. The music that has been played to me in trucks as we negotiate the roads has been, for the most part, bad rap and background R&B played from a cellphone into the truck's system. In the evenings at the hotel it's lobby music and NGO types at the bar, patting each other on the back as they smoke and drink.
Dealing with what I have been dealing with for about a week now, I have needed to hear music that gets to the very core of human dignity. That word is huge. Dignity is why I have been bringing soap to these tent cities. It gives people a chance — if they can get enough water — to get cleaned up. It's not the solution, but it's not nothing.
So who have I been listening to in my room at night, to the point where my eyes well up? As you may have guessed, Curtis Mayfield. Of all the artists I have ever heard besides Stevie Wonder, it is Mayfield who stands up for the very marrow of human existence.
Listening to “Wild and Free” from the Curtis album is what I do as soon as I return to my air-conditioned box at the end of the day. I then start cherry-picking songs from his albums Back to the World, Roots, Live! and Sweet Exorcist.
What a man, what a message.
Yesterday I went to a tent city and met some of the men and women who live there. I asked them what they could use and they immediately said soap and some soccer balls for the kids. So I went to the market and got a lot of soap and two soccer balls. I gave them out and the group around me started struggling for the items. I had to cool down the tempers of two men who were almost going to start fighting over the things I brought. Grown men. Eight-cent bars of soap.
Back in my room, Curtis Mayfield's was the only music that sounded respectful enough of what's happening here.
In 1995, my bandmates and I performed at the Grammys. We were in the backstage area milling around, feeling completely out of place, when we saw Curtis Mayfield being wheeled past us. I remember the entire band inhaled in an awed, collective way.
His message, so beautifully rolled out over decades of great records, was as simple as life is dynamic and complex: human rights, human dignity. All delivered with incredible music and a thin, high voice that hits as hard as anything ever recorded.
In August 1990, lighting gear landed on him while he was onstage, paralyzing him from the neck down. When one considers what happened to him, it's almost as if he wrote all those songs knowing he would need them later. He passed away in 1999.
I would be lying if I said that I am having a good time here. It's tough, and every day puts me through a lot. That being said, I am glad I came, and I feel lucky to have learned so much and to have met so many. I plan to be a part of Haiti's reconstruction and future. I think it is incumbent on anyone who can to lift human dignity to the highest possible levels, maintaining one's own and helping to raise that of others.
Like Curtis Mayfield did.