“There’s a big controversy about embracing the Vodou culture,” said 25-year-old Riva Nyri Précil, a singer, dancer, artist and Crown Heights resident.
“Speaking Haitian Creyol is also frowned upon, because it’s considered an informal street language,” she said.
She tells the story of how, growing up in Haiti, people were encouraged to master the French language. And if the young Précil snuck and spoke Creyol or even sang Vodou songs, her friends would get in trouble for hanging out with her.
“Even today, years later,” she said, “when I told the illustrator that my children’s book was going to be in Creyol, he asked me, ‘Why are you writing it in Creyol? Are you writing it for poor people?’
“And I was like, ‘No, I’m writing it for the people of Haiti.’”
“Whether you speak Creyol or not or practice Vodou or not, it’s all a part of the aesthetics of Haiti; it’s inside of the traditions,” said Précil. “And I love everything about Haiti’s traditions– the language, the dance and the music. They have the most raw beauty you’ll ever experience.”
Précil was born in Brooklyn, New York, but moved to Haiti when she was 5 years old. Her mother—a journalist and Brooklynite of Irish and Russian background—decided to relocate with her daughter and Précil’s father—a lawyer from Haiti—after she was offered a job working as Haiti’s foreign press liaison.
Suddenly Précil found herself in a country and around people entirely foreign to her. Quickly, she had to learn French. She had to learn Creyol. She had to learn the culture.
Living in Haiti, Précil said, definitely awakened the artist inside of her. She started beading, dancing, singing, painting. She even took classes with the legendary Haitian sculptor Tika.
“Everything around you in Haiti is so inspiring,” said Précil, “You cannot help but to fall in love with its beauty.”
Précil’s mother moved her back to Brooklyn when she was 15, after the political situation in Haiti began to grow dangerously unstable.
She was accepted to LaGuardia High School of Music and Performing Arts and then went on to study at Loyola University in New Orleans, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music therapy.After college, she worked briefly in the neonatal intensive care unit at a hospital, providing musical therapy for its patients before deciding to devote herself entirely to music and art.
Today, she is gigging locally with her new band in small venues across the city, while recording her first album of traditional sacred Haitian songs fused with elements of soul and R&B.
She describes her music as “kind of like if Sade or Erykah Badu were to have a Haitian album. ”
Her next big performance will be on Saturday, May 31, at the ShapeShifter Lab, a part of the Selebrasyon cultural festival.
She’s also putting the finishing touches on a children’s book entitled, “Anaelle ak la Sirèn” (Anaelle and the Mermaid) about a little girl who loses her hat under the sea and goes on an underwater adventure.
The book is written in Creyol and superbly illustrated with colorful images of cultural references and landmarks that will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in or visited Haiti.
“Most [children’s books in Haiti] are from other countries that are translated, so they don’t have books written for them or about them that they can relate to,” said Précil. “I wrote this so that Haitian children can see themselves and their culture in a book.”
Précil also has her own jewelry line called Love, Nyri, handmade metal work– hammered brass, coppered nickel and some gold—decorated with crystals, precious stones, and painted with her signature use of the “vèvè,” (pronounced veh-veh), religious symbols commonly used in Haitian Vodou.“The goddess of love is represented by this really beautiful heart, and I use that in my jewelry,” said Precil about her decision to incorporate vèvè paintings and inscriptions as wearable art.
“I want to make my fellow Haitian peers feel that it’s okay and it’s cool to wear an earring that has a heart that may be connected with a Vodou symbol.
“A lot of people unfortunately have people around them that encourage negative stereotypes against other cultures and even against their own culture,” she said. “My vision is to bring the Haitian culture into the light; to re-introduce it to the international community and also the Haitian community.
“I’m trying to create an aesthetic so that when people hear the album, read the stories, see the art, they associate it with beauty. The beauty that is Haiti.”