SANTIAGO, CHILE — Escápate conmigo otra vez, sings Ralph Jean Baptiste in his Santiago apartment, over a demo track of slow R&B beats. His rhythmic Haitian accent deepens the melody of the Spanish lyrics.
Although born and raised speaking French Creole in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, Baptiste, 29, writes all his songs in Spanish. He moved to Chile after Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, with dreams of a music career in tow.
“To get to audiences in Chile you have to sing in Spanish. They’ve never heard anything in French or Creole. I had to adapt,” he said.
Adapt—he says the word as if it is inherently natural to him. Baptiste has had to adapt daily to be accepted in his new homeland. Beat by beat, over nine years of performances, he built a name for himself, and in 2019, Baptiste was finally able to release his first album, Rafa.
Musicians have always been a nomadic sort, and Baptiste is no different. He had spent time in the Dominican Republic, where he learned Spanish, so after the earthquake struck, Baptiste chose to pursue his music in Latin America — unlike the 46,000 displaced Haitians who sought asylum in the United States He settled in Chile after short stints in Peru and Argentina.
Baptiste was among the first in what would become a surge of Haitian migrants in Chile. The country had granted fewer than a 1,000 visas to Haitians between 2005 and 2009, and when Baptiste arrived in 2010, only 713 Haitians received Chilean working visas — a marked difference from 2018, when 126,000 were granted.
Haitians were the first black, non-Spanish-speaking migrant group to arrive in Chile. They stood out. “When I arrived people looked at me strangely. They hadn’t seen Afros before. They touched my skin for luck,” Baptiste told AQ. “I have faced a lot of discrimination and rejection.”
When pressed to explain, Baptiste breaks into a broad smile and laughs. “I don’t like to remember the bad times.”
Beyond discrimination, being a migrant compounds the economic challenges that already exist for aspiring artists, said Dr. Marisol Facuse, who researches migration and music at the University of Chile.
“It is very hard for migrants to live off music, especially for migrants who don’t have networks, and Haitians are a community in Chile that isn’t very integrated culturally,” Facuse told AQ. “The question of survival is the biggest barrier.”
But survive Baptiste has, and his positive outlook provides a model of the kind of integration possible for migrants with the right support and attitude. His song “Aguante” (Endurance) sums up his experience living in a foreign land:
I had to leave everything and go far / to start from zero on a long road. / It has not been easy, but you have to move forward / cry and laugh / life has to be lived.
“I’m inspired by his character and strength,” said Charlie Checkz, who produced several of Baptiste’s songs, including “Aguante.” Checkz values the Haitian musician’s unique contribution to Chile’s musical scene.
“We combine rhythms — us as Chileans, and his Haitian music and culture. We put that in the music.”
Baptiste describes his music as worldly, priding himself on the unique fusion of styles he creates, mixing Chilean urban and cumbia sounds with African rhythms and North American soul. In his music videos, he celebrates Chilean traditions — such as performing the country’s national dance, Cueca — reflecting his embrace of Chile’s culture.
And in spite of the challenges, Baptiste notes that things are changing for the better. “Around three years ago there started to be more inclusion for migrants,” he said. In 2018, he performed at an annual festival for migrant artists, organized by Chile’s cultural ministry. Last year, he won a state-funded grant to support migrants in music, which enabled him to record and produce two music videos. Things were starting to look up.
However, the momentum he was building came to an abrupt halt when the mass protests broke out in Chile last October. The following months were tense and violent — people died in clashes with the police, festivals were canceled, and few people went out to concerts.
“I had to cancel all my shows. I haven’t been able to perform since November,” Baptiste said.
However, he is sympathetic to the struggle of the Chileans. It’s a frustration shared by the migrant community, he explained. In August 2018, Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, claimed to be “putting the house in order” when he signed a reform outlining stricter migration policies. Three months later, the government began flying some Haitians back to their country in what it called a “humanitarian return plan.”
“People who needed help, he just sent them back,” Baptiste said.
“Chile is a complicated country,” Baptiste added. “And Chileans are fighting for a fairer life. They should include migrants in that too.”
Baptiste believes his role as a musician is important in giving voice to his community.
“A lot of Haitians would like to say something, but they can’t because they don’t speak Spanish or they just aren’t heard,” he said.
“In my songs, I can pass on the message of what they feel.”
McGowan is a freelance journalist based in Santiago, Chile