Photographer Benoit Aquin
June 26, 2011

Earlier this year, Haitian rapper Mr. OK—freshly transplanted in Montreal from Port-au-Prince—grabbed the attention of globally-minded audiophiles with a digital EP called Me Mwen, brimming with images of ballers, angels and the beautiful panoramas of his native land. At first, some of the interest was due to the fact that Me Mwen was the debut release of Masala—label arm of the popular blog specializing in electro-tropical beats, which became net-famous in February when Google shut it down for allegedly posting contraband MP3s. But it was soon clear why Masala chose Mr. OK as its flagship artist: his percussive couplets felt like the lyrical version of ornate jail tattoos, the work of a seasoned musician who’s been recording for more than decade.

In fact, Kerns Olibrice aka OK has been rapping since LL and Kool Moe Dee were his primary influences. “When first I start making rap, everybody was criticizing: ‘It’s not our music, it’s not Haitian,’” he explains by phone from Montreal. “Now, I mix it with Haitian music and find the people who want to go that way with me. I put the voodoo on it. I always go in with the kreyol so when people hear my sound, they know it’s Caribbean.”

With the displaced logic of our times, however, OK found Haiti in a musical sense only shortly before leaving it physically, after moving to New York in 2009 to reconnect with family and discover a more prosperous life—a typical immigrant’s tale. He ended up in Quebec, where he found a day job in a clothing store and freelance work as a graphic designer. Eventually, he was introduced to producer Freeworm by the Masala crew at an earthquake fundraiser they threw. “When I started working with [producer] Benkele [in Port-au-Prince], we had the idea to put the kreyol with American stuff. So when I came to Montreal, my biggest concern was to find someone who can understand my genre. When I met Freeworm, it was the perfect alchemie,” he says, using the soft French ch.

The end result of that encounter was Me Mwen—five tracks that literally bridge the gap created by Mr. OK’s relocation. Considering the production duties are split almost evenly between partners in different hemispheres, it does so with a surprisingly seamless palette of sub-bass and snatches of traditional Haitian compas melodies, which sound something like francophone merengue. This central architecture is embellished by Schooly D-era scratches on the Benkele tracks, while Freeworm is more likely to modulate the bass frequencies into aggro dubstep distortion.

The title carries a similar weight. “Me Mwen is like, Here I am…” OK explains. “People from Haiti always ask me, Yo, what’s goin on, I don’t hear about you! When the Masalacism guys decided to work with me and put out my album, it was like the answer to all those questions.” In OK’s defiant kreyol, the words seem to take on double and triple meanings, speaking not just for his collaborators and countrymen but adventurers of all stripes.