“Se Kongo nou ye/ Se nèg Nago nou ye” : A Call to Remember, Change, and a new Direction in Haiti from Zenglen”


“Se Kongo nou ye/ Se nèg Nago nou ye”: A Call to Remember, Change, and a new Direction in Haiti from Zenglen”

by Celucien L. Joseph, PhD


In his exegetical analysis of the popular song, “fidèl” (“faithful”) by the well-known Haitian band Zenglen, the eminent Haitian scholar and writer Dr. Celucien L. Joseph draws lessons from the lyrical song and its ideology to discuss the power of Haitian ancestral heritage and rethink about Haitian future, as well as envision a new direction in society by emphasizing the role of art to conscientize the Haitian people and foster human flourishing and national progress.


Since the fall of the Duvalier regime in the 1980s, the Haitian artist (poet, novelist, musician, comedian, painter) has been playing a crucial role in Haitian cultural history as the voice of reason and the national conscience of the Haitian people. The Haitian artist has also assumed the role of a protester against the existential political bankruptcy of the Haitian state, the progressive decline of Haitian culture, and the enduring cultural amnesia in society. He is also a cultural critic that assesses the current state of affairs of the country by engaging in the dynamics of the country’s past, present, and future. He construes himself as an ethical guide to the people, the agent of transformation, and a coach and mentor to the new generation. These various pointers and signifiers could be observed in the rhetorical lyrics of Haitian musical genres (or musical syles), including mizik rasin, rara, twoubadou, rabòday, etc, as well as in the rhetoric of resistance and liberation embedded in the lyrics of Boukman Eksperyans, Zenglen, RAM, Boukan Ginen, Simbi, Racine Figuier, Kalfou Lakay, Rasin Kanga, and a host of others.

The Haitian artist, who works within this tradition of protest and cultural enlightenment, does not sing the poetic praise of Haitian charlatan politicians nor does he take their side on matters of politics, economy, governance, NGOs, and Haiti’s diplomatic relations with the most powerful nations, and the so-called the International Community. Rather, he narrates a song of poetic justice that condemns their unethical political habits and practices, immoral human behaviors, and egocentric ideologies that are often detrimental to the politico-economic progress and human flourishing in Haiti. For the artist, charlatan Haitian politicians have not always been faithful to the Haitian culture and the ideals and promises of the Haitian Revolution. Incontestably, they have been a force of resistance to political change. Their historic failure lies in their inability to cast a new political vision and their unwillingness to build a strong network system that will prioritize the basic needs (economic, health, educational) and welfare of the Haitian people. Using his songs as an emancipative weapon to effect revolutionary change and awaken the Haitian people, the artist-poet takes sides with the marginalized masses and the peasant class or rural dwellers who are often viewed as the underdog of history and “les rejetés” /” the outcasts” of (Haitian) modernity.

Nou pa ka Bliye/ We must not forget

In the song below “Fidèl” (“Faithful”) by the famous Haitian band Zenglen, is an example of the role of the artist as prophet, preserver of culture, and a force against imperial culture and neo-colonial mindset. The song “fidèl” is probably the most cherished melody in the Band’s 1990 album, aptly called “An Nou Alèz”/” Let’s be happy”—an expression that encourages a positive and joyful attitude in life. Indeed, the beautiful lyrics in the album recommend the Haitian individual and the collective to embrace happiness, pursue national peace, and to find reasons within the Haitian culture and tradition to be content and live harmoniously as a community and people that share a common history and identity.

In this famous song, the artist makes an urgent call to the Haitian people to remain “faithful” (“fidèl”) to the Haitian culture and to never forget Haiti. The Kreyòl adjective “fidèl” is derivative of the French “fidèle,” meaning to remain constant, such as being faithful to a promise; faithful to one’s ideals; steadfast to the collective memory; remaining loyal to a tradition; and staying true to a cause. In sum, the urgent call to stay “fidèl” is also a summon to remain true to national convictions, the shared allegiance of the Haitian people, and the common beliefs and ideologies that bind them together as a nation. What are those characteristics and national markers?

In the song, the artist infers that to abandon Haiti and the ancestral roots is an act of betrayal and cowardness. Thus, he could make a clarion call to his people to embrace their cultural identity and “remember” their ancestral heritage:  

« Ayisyen nou ye,

Se Kongo nou ye

Men se Kongo nou ye

Se konpa nou jwe

Nati Kongo nou ye, nou ye

Se konpa nou jwe

Se nèg Nago nou ye, nou ye, nou ye

Se konpa nou jwe »

[“We are Haitians

We are Congolese

But we are Congolese

We play Kompa

We are of Congolese descent, we are

We play Kompa

We are a Nago people, we are, we are

We play Kompa.”]

Evidently, in this song, the poet-artist binds together nationality (“asyisyen”), ancestral group identity (“kongo,” “nago”), racial identity (“nèg”/ “Black”/” African”) and cultural markers or signifiers (“konpa”). To put it bluntly, we are Haitians, whose ancestral heritage and identity are originated from the Congolese and Nago people—among the other ancestral links represented in Haiti. Historically, the “Kongo” are a Bantu-speaking people, whose links are cultural, religious, political, and linguistic. They are a large group that spreads out across Western, Central, and North Sub-Saharan Africa. The “Nago” is an ethnic identifier associated with the Yoruba language group. In other words, the Yoruba people are also called the Nago people who are connected in religion, language, culture, politics, and tradition. By consequence, the Haitian artist identifies two dominant ethnic groups of African descent that constituted the Haitian nation to emphasize the African memory and presence in Haiti, and correspondingly, the common history that binds the Haitian people—regardless of their class, social status, education, skin color. Following the logic of Jean Price-Mars and his robust cultural nationalism articulated in his epoch-making book Ainsi parla l’Once (So Spoke the Uncle), published in 1928, the poet-historian gives primacy to the African heritage in Haiti by undermining Haiti’s other complementary heritages: European and native-indigenous American.

Art as Vehicle of Change

Putting on his historian glasses, the poet-artist in “fidèl” argues that national change always often links to resistance in Haitian history. Yet the Zenglen artist sees music (“konpa”) as a medium to effect cultural and political transformation in the country, and to bring the Haitian people together. He affirms his role in society as to “sow joy in everyone’s heart”/” nou ka simen lajwa nan kè tout moun”/ and the function of “Zenglen” is to prepare the way, an alternative path toward cultural revolution and national progress. The artist also emphasizes four other human virtues or qualities that are necessary to build the new Haiti and the promising future for the Haitian people: modesty, tenderness, love, and community.

He signifies that both love and tenderness will be used as catalysts to help move the country forward toward the new direction that Zenglen, through its art, is envisioning. The collective “nou” (“we”) is an imperative “plural” that must organize and search collectively for the new path of integral liberation and holistic renewal in the nation. The poet-artist insists that both mutual love and community will bind the Haitian people to achieve their end-goals. Accordingly, for the Haitian people “to go together” (“pou n ale ansanm”) and “to find another path” (“nou pran yon lòt chimen”), we must never turn our heads against love and each other, and without this fundamental human quality, the Haitian people will not be able to find the new path, move forward in the new direction, and create a new generation.

Lòt bò fwontyè/The Way Forward

The artist-poet, a member of the Zenglen group, believes that his band is a new brand that shifts the direction (“n’ale lòt bò fwontyè”) of culture and Haitian music. Zenglen means a new direction and a new path toward enlightenment (“Zenglen pe fè chimen an”). To remain faithful (“nou vle rete fidèl”) to one’s culture, heritage, identity, and African roots, is not only necessary for change; it is imperative for resistance and the next phase of evolution of Haitian music. For him, art will play a vital role in fostering a new mentality among the new generation of Haitian youth and contributing to the collective success of the Haitian people. Yet in four poetic statements, he exhorts his people:

“Sa k’ pou pranm pou m bliye music peyi mwen
Sa k’a pran m pou m bliye rasin an mwen
Sa k’ pou pran m pou m bliye music peyi mwen
Sa k’a pran m pou m bliye culture pa mwen”

[“What would it take for me to forget the music of my country?

What would it take for me to forget my roots?

What would it take for me to forget the music of my country?

What would it take for me to forget my culture? »]

Absolutely nothing!

The phrases “pou m” (“for me”) and “mwen” (“my”) appear four times in the stanza, and each individual occurrence reasserts the argument of the poet-artist. Both the phrase and the word stand emblematically for the collective voice and commitment of the Haitian people to (1) to never forget their art; (2) to never forget Africa; (3) to never forget their homeland; and (4) to never forget their culture. This call to memory and remembrance is both applicable to Haitians in Haiti and those in the diaspora. For the artist-critic, the call to the Haitian people to remain steadfast to their heritage and art will pave the way to a new country; yet the virtues of love, tenderness, community/konbit, and modesty are central elements in the process of rebuilding the nation that we so love: our Ayi cheri. The Haitian future is dependent upon these collective obligations and shared responsibilities.

Here is the link to listen to the lyric:

About the author

Celucien L. Joseph (PhD) is an award-winning Haitian writer and an interdisciplinary scholar with an emancipative intent. He currently serves as Professor and Department Chair of English at San Jacinto College in Houston, Texas. His recent book includes “Aristide: A Political and Theological Introduction” (2023).


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