On December 19 when popular hip hop deejay Cipha Sounds of New York’s Hot 97 claimed he was HIV negative because he doesn’t “mess with Haitian women,” he may not have realized the long, ugly history of stigmatizing Haitian-Americans in which he was taking part. New York City filmmakers Jeremy Robins and Magali Damas, whose new documentary The Other Side of the Water explains the true history behind the controversy, reached out to the station Wednesday to offer Cipha Sounds a private screening as a means of understanding the raw nerve he hit with his comment. The duo suggests that it be included in the sensitivity training that the station has ordered the deejay to undergo.
The film, which will premiere on public television’s World Channel on January 12 as the opening episode of the National Black Programming Consortium’s series AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, co-presented by American Public Television (APT), explores the dynamic story of New York’s Haitian-American community. Its people have not only suffered the hardships of their homeland, but they have been accused of spreading AIDS to America during the 1980’s and been the ongoing targets of police brutality and racist immigration laws. The film centers on a vibrant cultural pride movement that sprang to life in the streets of New York in response to these attacks, led by an unlikely traditional processional band called DJA-Rara (Dance Joy Ancestors-Rara), which has been rallying the community for the past 20 years.
Playing “rara”—a style of music which is part carnival, part vodou (voodoo) ceremony, and part social protest—DJA-Rara (pronounces JAH-Rah-Rah) began with the spontaneous explosion of cultural pride on a Brooklyn street corner two decades ago. Throughout the 90s when the U.S. government declared that simply being Haitian was an AIDS risk factor and Haitians were being fired from jobs out of fear, the band became the driving force of the “Haitian civil rights movement,” which for the first time asserted Haitian pride and stood up against discriminatory practices. The film explores the dramatic journey of the band, which fights not only against outsiders’ ignorance, but also against the internal struggles of the community grappling with the evolving meaning of Haitian-American identity.
The Other Side of the Water is being broadcast on the one-year anniversary of Haiti ’s devastating earthquake, and serves as a vital insight into the richness and complexity of the Haitian community. “The ultimate goal of this film is to shed light on one of the great untold stories of New York history, and to give context and nuance to often-misunderstood aspects of Haitian culture,” explains Magali Damas, co-producer of the film. “We feel that the film would help Cipha Sounds gain appreciation of the Haitian culture and understand the ostracism this community has long battled.”
New Yorkers can catch the film at 7 pm on January 12 on WLIW World , directly after the short film Haiti: One Day, One Destiny, which follows filmmaker Michele Stephenson as she visits Haiti six weeks after one of the world’s most devastating earthquakes.