The treacherous path to greatness: Musician The Verse talks about leaving Haiti

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The Verse lifts spirits in a public performance at a BART station.

The Verse performing on Thursday, January 19, at The Mary Jane Cannabis Consumption Bar, 2340 Harrison in Oakland, for The Smoking Word event, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Free Admission.

by People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, Oakland Bureau Chief

I met Andre A. aka The Verse in the Montgomery BART station in San Francisco. My youngest daughter and I were waiting for the train after catching a movie, when she wanted me to pay more attention to the musician that was making music on the platform. I was halfway listening before, then decided to pay more attention when I noticed how unique and captivating his lyrics, voice and guitar playing were. We listened for a while, then I approached him to get his information so that I could interview him.

When we talked, I found out that he was Haitian and from Haiti. I was interested in hearing more about his life, with him being from the first Black republic to militarily free itself from slavery – on Jan. 1, 1804. Since Haiti’s liberation, the US, France, Canada and other Western powers have waged an unceasing war of imperialism, that made Haiti pay France for the slaves lost and allowed foreign militaries to occupy Haiti on more than a few occasions, while stealing its resources and raping and killing its people.  

I had been to Haiti twice, once right after the 2004 coup on President Aristide and then again right after the 2010 earthquake. Black people from the US owe the fact that we are not picking cotton, tobacco and sugarcane currently to the serious, dedicated warriors of the Haitian Revolution. The white Western slave loving world never forgot this. Haiti is under US occupation right now, after US and Colombian paramilitary personnel assassinated sitting Haitian President Jovenel Moise last year at his home in Haiti.

Check out The Verse as he tells us about his life and the treacherous paths that he has lived through. You can catch The Verse performing on Thursday, January 19, at The Mary Jane Cannabis Consumption Bar, 2340 Harrison in Oakland, for The Smoking Word event, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Free Admission.

JR Valrey: Can you tell me when you knew that you wanted to be a musician? What age were you and what’s the story behind it?

The Verse:  I grew up singing in choir, but as a child I originally wanted to be a paleontologist. Then I discovered acting and decided I wanted to be an actor. After auditioning and being accepted into the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NY, NY, at age 17, I realized I didn’t have the necessary funds to attend the school and move to NY that year, and no one was willing to help me navigate this issue. It was then that I decided I would pursue a life of music because I could play music for free and display my skill set easier with music than I could with acting, thus giving a chance for more opportunities. I had been torn between music and acting up until that point. 

JR Valrey: How and when did you learn to play the guitar?

The Verse: I taught myself how to play the guitar as I wrote songs. I just did it all by ear. I used the guitar as a bass, and eventually started learning chords to compliment the bass lines of my songs. Then I started learning the keys, and continue to learn as I go. 

JR Valrey: What was your life like in Haiti, and what brought you to the United States? 

The Verse: I grew up on a mission field, which was a missionary hospital compound. To understand my story, it is important to understand the impact of the religious missionary corporations and Red Cross type corporations which attract many opportunists and a few sincere souls to Third World countries.

My witch doctor uncle and his accomplices were unable to kill me and I was eventually forgotten by them in their distant village. 

My birth family originally practiced Vodou, the same religion that Haitians used to free themselves from slavery. Of course, Christianity condemned Vodou because white Jesus made a fortune from slavery. A major white Christian religious figure, Pat Robertson, made a statement in the year 2010 after the Haiti earthquake saying essentially that God was punishing Haitians for making a pact with the devil to free themselves from slavery.

As a reply to that statement, I can only say the same thing Jesus said when the Pharisees accused him of using the power of the devil to cast out demons: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Therefore, to suggest that Vodou is/was devil worship (used to end slavery in Haiti), is to suggest that slavery was/is the work of God – something Christians once believed.        

However, if slavery is in fact the work of the devil, as all who were and are still victims of its racist institutions believe, then it makes no sense to claim that the only religion historically capable of ending it would be evil. So I say, as Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” You cannot use the devil to drive out evil. Therefore, the religion of Vodou cannot be deemed evil. Quite the contrary if anything. Religions in general have been used as financial institutions of control. Even Minister Farrakhan once said, “Religion is sick,” when he spoke on the subject. 

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The Verse

When the missionaries arrived after Haiti was forced to pay reparations to France for freeing themselves and they were exploited by the US through presidents such as Clinton and his First Lady, history was forgotten and food for the starving was the priority for the Haitian people. Foreign missionaries usually trade food and promise of unconditional love for religious loyalty while they make money off of poverty.

Unfortunately all religions are subject to the human flaw factor, and are often used for darker purposes than intended, as with the Christian-endorsed slave trade and the Jewish institutions that profited from black slavery as well.

I believe in God and though I am not religious per se, I have studied and respect all religions that I have seen in their true form.

Vodou, though it helped to establish the first free black republic, has also been subject to human flaws.

So it was that when I was conceived, my mother and father decided that they would leave the Vodou religion, as they felt their religious group was becoming too dark for them.

My uncle was a Vodou witch doctor, and he told them that to leave the religion would be to insult the Vodou gods. Like most religions, despite claims of unconditional love, once members choose to leave their church, they are often excommunicated. My father decided that he would choose to leave the Vodou religion anyway.

Then came the time of my birth. My family lived in a small village far from any medical facilities. When my mother went into labor she was forced to travel for days without any real transportation for most of her journey to the medical facility. I was actually born somewhere in the middle of her journey to the missionary hospital location. The exact date and time of my birth is unknown.

Upon arrival at the hospital, my mother had already lost much blood and eventually died despite receiving medical attention at the end. Upon her death I was put into the missionary orphanage until my father was able to travel away from his meager farm and his other children who also required his attention.

Longer story shorter, my father formed a relationship with the missionary family that personally watched over me during the time of that summer when all of the orphanage babies were assigned to various missionary families for individual care due to a virus that was sweeping through and killing all of the babies in the orphanage.

My father knew he could not afford to raise me now that my mother had passed away, so he asked the missionaries to adopt me under the condition that I was told my story and who my true father was when I came of age. 

The missionaries agreed to this. At the same time, the Vodou witch doctor (my uncle) heard of my mother’s death, and claimed that her death was a punishment sent by the gods for leaving the Vodou religion. He also claimed that my father must die for abandoning the Vodou gods, and that I too must die for being the son of my father and the ultimate cause of this calamity.

Soon after my father arranged for my adoption with the missionaries, he was murdered or assassinated by a mob.

The remnants of my birth family scattered around the country, and what was originally meant to be a joint custody situation between the missionaries and my birth family became a situation where the missionaries had sole custody of me.

The missionary compound I spent a large part of my childhood on had a huge wall surrounding it, dividing the foreign missionaries from the local Haitians. As this was the case, my witch doctor uncle and his accomplices were unable to kill me and I was eventually forgotten by them in their distant village. 

The people in the village where the missionary hospital was located knew who I was, and they knew my story, so I was seen by many as the lucky orphan boy who was adopted by the rich (in comparison) foreign missionaries. Many other Haitian locals asked the missionaries not to adopt me because they knew most missionaries did not truly embrace their culture, though many missionaries claimed to be one with the people. “We are simply white Haitians” was a popular European-American missionary saying, despite the obvious colonizing agenda. No matter how the locals felt, they treated me as kin every time they saw me in trouble outside the walls of the mission field or within. 

Black America doesn’t usually start to truly study the truth of America until after high school, when racism starts to be a more obvious limiting factor in their Black life.

Ultimately, I was adopted by the family of the missionary doctor who had attempted to operate on my mother before she died of childbirth complications. So I began my life in the European-American owned Haitian missionary hospital compound that partially embraced Haitian culture, but feared it much like white America does with Hip-Hop/Black culture.

People from all over the world came to work there from the French to the French Canadians – though Haiti would be better assisted if France would acknowledge her crimes against Haiti and act accordingly. Indians and Chinese as well came to the mission field, so it was a very diverse atmosphere within the missionary walls.

Many of the local Haitians were given work in the hospital and in the kitchens and such.

I was a child, so I didn’t understand or begin to look into the politics of the whole situation until looking back as a grown man. Much like how Black America doesn’t usually start to truly study the truth of America until after high school, when racism starts to be a more obvious limiting factor in their Black life.

My life in Haiti was a time when I was able to see “Black people” as just “people” because they were the majority of the people you would see every day, especially outside of the walls of the compound when I was allowed to go out on hiking trips or I snuck out on my own.

Any attempts of mine to look into my past or even my culture any more than what I had been told as a youth was always met with strong resistance.

The missionaries even changed my name after one had already been given to make me sound less Haitian. That’s a fact that I learned long after my life in Haiti, when I was forced to study my birth records as a prerequisite for the US Navy Seal application process.

Such acts are common in missionary and evangelist culture, as it was with the Native American children who were orphaned on the Trail of Tears and put into the white missionary schools only to have their names changed, their hair cut and their culture stripped.

The tactics to remove me from my culture mentally and replace it with white culture did slow my process of self-understanding, but it did not break me psychologically. I simply began learning more truths through osmosis.

Essentially, my relationship with the missionaries was very similar to Black America’s relationship with White America. An emphasis was always placed on white comfort, making a Black child’s search for truth in a white funded world a difficult objective to say the least. 

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The Verse wraps himself in a Haitian flag in honor of his homeland.

Being as I had no blood family left in my life, as I got older I began to wonder what my siblings would look like. Every Haitian girl or boy was now seen as a potential sibling. It got to the point where indeed I started to see all of the Haitians as relatives or my brothers and sisters despite the literal wall of colonialism that stood between us. I started to see the contrast in our living situations and I wondered why they were starving on Halloween night while I enjoyed large quantities of chocolate and candy after trick or treating within the European-American missionary walls. Those same questions that are asked by white missionary children are often quelled by white Jesus delusions of grandeur taught by their church.

I, however, though separated from them, still saw myself as one of the people – not a savior that just happened to make a living off of their poverty. This left me feeling the same way I imagine Moses felt as he grew up within the walls of the Pharaoh’s palace, watching on as his people were exploited.

I lived in India for a year on a mission trip when I was 10 and visited the US for a summer or two during my time still based out of Haiti, so I was able to see other cultures besides the neo-colonial and Haitian culture as well by the time I was 12. This gave me more of a worldview than I already had growing up in that internationally diverse environment.

My life in Haiti showed me that all Black life is connected, which is why the racist institutions do not want all peoples of African descent from Haiti, to the USA, to Africa to unite.

Ultimately, my life in Haiti opened my eyes to the reality of colonialism and how it operates around the world. I learned this from the European-American missionaries I grew up with as well. Most were opportunists and some were sincere, but the objective of the missionary and evangelist institutions was and is always to make money, like any other business at the end of the day. They just don’t promote that fact.  

My time in Haiti opened my eyes to the fact that all Black or African peoples around the world are truly just extended family members separated by institutions of racism. My time in Haiti showed me how resilient, kind and loving the people of Haiti truly are despite all of the injustices that they have been made to bear. My life in Haiti showed me that all Black life is connected, which is why the racist institutions do not want all peoples of African descent from Haiti, to the USA, to Africa to unite. 

Unity among Black people worldwide would force an end to racism. In Haiti there is a saying written on the flag. “L’Union Fait La Force!” Literally translated it means, “The unity does the strength.” Or “In unity is strength.” “La Force” or “The Power” or “The Strength” always reminded me of “The Force” mentioned in Star Wars movies. It is this force or this power that Vodou (which means Spirit) and other religions often refer to.  Even the Jedi are a concept from ancient Africa taken by Hollywood to make those movies; originally called Djedi. So may “La Force” be with you and unite us all. For unity among the people is truly the last step we have to take. That is what my time in Haiti showed me. In unity is strength. 

I left Haiti for the US at about age 13. Due to political instability and uprisings, the missionaries were forced to evacuate the missionary hospital compound, and they had sole custody of me, so I was forced to leave with them. 

JR Valrey: What kinds of music did you grow up off of?

The Verse: I grew up on a wide variety of music. Whatever I could get my hands on. Everything from Gypsy Kings to Harry Belafonte to Martha & the Vandellas and Motown to the Beatles to Rage Against the Machine to Puff Daddy to Metallica to Sarah McLachlan to U2 to Wyclef Jean and classical music.

JR Valrey: Who is your favorite Haitian musician and who is your favorite Black musician from the US? Why?

The Verse: My favorite Haitian musician is Wyclef Jean because he’s very eclectic with his music and shows true concern for the Haitian people much like Sweet Micky. 

My favorite Black musician from the US is probably 2pac because his music influenced me and so many others I respect like Nipsey Hussle. 2pac was also a man of the people. Lauryn Hill and John Coltrane are also favorites of mine. Coltrane can freestyle and I respect that. One choice is not enough for me really.  

JR Valrey: How long have you been writing your own music? When and how did you decide when it was good enough to perform? 

The Verse: I have taken various breaks from music for personal survival reasons during my journey, but I was writing poetry before I started writing music. Then I started hearing melodies in my head and I picked up a guitar and wrote poetry to the melodies. Then I started hearing melodies that seemed to be speaking to me, so I played the melodies and wrote what the melodies were saying to me. That process has been going on for over 10 years now. I just write what I hear in my head. 

I actually refused to do solo cover songs until my confidence in my own work was at the point to where I respected myself as a musician who could compete as a great with any other musician. I decided my work was good enough to perform after I had written my first original full song on the acoustic guitar at about 17.

JR Valrey: How would you describe your sound?

The Verse: I would describe my sound as indescribable, but for the sake of the question I would call my sound genre “Acoustic-Hip-Hop/R&B-Rock&Roll-Soul.”

JR Valrey: Are you working on anything in the studio currently?

The Verse: I currently have an original album written and ready to record and am seeking investors for my full project called the “Beautiful Empire Initiative” (B.E.I.), which starts with studio recorded music and expands beyond.

JR Valrey:  I met you while you were performing at the BART station. What do you like about public performances?

The Verse: Indeed, and thank your little girl for drawing your attention to my music. The thing I enjoy about pop-up street concerts and public performances is the fact that great music always brings out the humanity in people. People in the street and the BART stations are usually so caught up in the rat race that they tend to become robotic in their thoughts and actions. 

When they stop to listen, my music tends to “take them to church,” as they say, and their spirits are lifted in a way that allows people of all walks of life to slow down and remember their own humanity. I’ve had grown people break down and cry and I’ve had babies laugh and ask for more. I’ve had homeless people empty their pockets to give me all of their coins after originally asking me for spare change when I told them I could only give them a song. I’ve had business people stop to offer me more opportunities to play my music for more people. I got punched in the face mid-song once, but that guy was not psychologically well, and most experiences are positive. I just like the fact that the music brings out the sometimes-forgotten humanity of humanity. 

JR Valrey: How could people hear and buy your music?

The Verse: I have a few $100 singles that people can buy via my website, I also have singles available for free streaming on YouTube and Spotify via my Instagram @iam_theverse. My TikTok is @iamtheverse. Free streaming is available via my website as well. As far as my upcoming album “Return of the Artist” is concerned, people can subscribe to the “Album Notification” email list via the website and as soon as I have enough investors to finish recording the full studio album, they will be the first to know.  

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau and is founder of his latest project, the Ministry of Information Podcast. He can be reached at and on Instagram.