Arcade Fire, Haiti, and Social Change Through Art

I’m not trying to tell other people’s stories. We’re just trying to allow an experience to change you.

– Win Butler, Arcade Fire1

How does an artist engage the othered culture without misappropriating it, fetishizing it, and consumerizing it, all so that it is palatable to the white, middle-class listener? Pop culture has provided plenty of fodder for the debate, from Miley Cyrus’s twerking to Macklemore’s Grammy wins, and the general consensus among those thinking about it seems to be that no one is getting it right. However, if we shift our focus away from the limelight to the slightly less mainstream, we find a band whose latest album is characterized by dialogue with a culture not their own, and who, in my opinion, gets at least some of it right.

The papier mâché heads that appear in much of the marketing for the Reflektor album are borrowed from Haitian carnival.

Exploring themes like death, love, and technology with the lyrical depth for which they are known, Arcade Fire brings a new sound to their latest album, Reflektor, thanks in part to the influence of Haitian music. Arcade Fire captures the spirit of the Haitian festival carnival while communicating themes relevant to a largely North American audience. Musically, the parallel is most apparent in the song, “Here Comes the Nighttime,” but it is sustained thematically throughout the album.

In an article published in the journal Ethnomusicology, Gage Averill dissects the composition of the carnival festival through the categories anraje and angaje. He describes anraje as “a charged or exuberant emotional state, used to describe people caught up in carnival ambience” and angaje as “politically committed.2 In carnival, the emotional and bodily involvement of the populace “create an event that pushes the limits of social control.”3 Because of its potential for mobilizing the population, the powers that be have a vested interest in controlling it, with carnival either serving as a catalyst for their agendas or as a “pressure valve”4 diminishing momentum for change. The festival thus becomes a locus wherein the contest for control over the individual bodies of Haitians is played out. In his article, Averill traces the development of carnival through three distinct historical periods, noting instances of its use both as a structure of complicity and as one of resistance.

The carnival atmosphere pulsates with popular energy bubbling just below the surface, bursting through in dancing, ritualized combat, vocal participation, and sometimes violence. “Haitian carnival,” Averill notes, “balances between a celebration and a deblozay (fracas, blow-up) in which images of disorder (dezód), chaotic mess (gagôt), and chaotic sound (tenten) characterize an event in which the desired ambiance teeters just short of chaos.”5 This is the outward manifestation of anraje, and it is the goal of musicians in carnival to facilitate this heightened state among festival goers.

“When a band has a crowd anraje,” Averill writes, “they have actualized their potential power; the music is fully persuasive and the event and context are deeply internalized.”6 The convergence of anraje with angaje, which speaks to the tendency of carnival to take on political significance, is precisely why carnival becomes the locus of “struggle over individual and collective bodies.”7

Arcade Fire’s entire album seems to be an experiment in anraje/angaje. Challenging social messages are embedded into pounding dance beats, often of Haitian influence. The two-part “Here Comes the Nighttime” is the song both most notably influenced by Haitian music and which most directly alludes to a Haitian context. The song criticizes misguided missionary work rooted in assumptions that Haitians both need to be educated about God and are impotent to solve their own problems. It muses, “The missionaries, they tell us we will be left behind, we’ve been left behind a thousand times.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler describes encountering “packs of missionaries with matching T-shirts that say ‘God loves Haiti’,” there to paint houses, to which Butler bitingly suggests the capacity of Haitians to paint their own houses if they are employed to do so. He pairs his critique of belief in Haitian impotence with a critique of the attitudes of many religious missionaries there: “Just the absurdity that you can go to a place like Haiti and teach people something about God. Like, the opposite really seems to be true, in my experience. I’ve never been to a place with more belief and knowledge of God.”

Last week, I attended Arcade Fire’s concert for the Reflektor tour in Nashville and found myself in a microcosm of anraje/angaje. I had the opportunity to participate as a volunteer with Arcade Fire’s campaign to raise money and awareness for community development organizations in Haiti. They work specifically with Partners in Health and Kanpe, both of which have long-term connections in the country and depend upon Haitians to run their operations on the ground. On the way to their seats, ready to move to Arcade Fire’s upbeat and danceable music, many fans stopped to learn about Partners in Health’s work in Haiti and to contribute to it. The show itself was peppered with references to Haiti and to Partners in Health. The commitment Arcade Fire seeks to promote in its fan base is not a shallow and fleeting commitment; rather, through thought-provoking lyrics and ample educational opportunities, they seek to move their fans to thoughtful, long-term action. The thumping bass and blaring riffs are the mechanism that internalizes the message and binds us together.

The style of the imagery used to launch the Reflektor album derived elements from Haitian culture.

To read the perspective of someone who takes a different view on Arcade Fire’s use of Haitian culture, check out this article by Jordan Darville.

1Doyle, Patrick. “Arcade Fire’s Win Butler Reveals Secret Influences behind Arcade Fire’s Reflektor.” Rolling Stone, October 22, 2013.
2Gage Averill, “Anraje to Angage: Carnival Politics and Music in Haiti,” Ethnomusicology 38, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 1994): 216.
3Ibid, 219.
4Ibid, 218.
5Ibid, 224.
6Ibid, 223.
7Ibid, 224.

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