A report by Michael Love Michael for Paper Magazine.
I was supposed to meet Jessie Woo in Flatbush for Haitian food, but she had other ideas. The comedian, TV and internet show host, singer-songwriter (and 2019 PAPER Predictions nominee) pulled up in a black Escalade with tinted windows outside my office 45 minutes before our scheduled meeting time.
When I got in, Woo, phone in hand, filming an Instagram Story, greets me. “Sak pase!” she yells, the jubilant Kreyol greeting for “what’s up?” “You know I had to come through,” Woo says. “We Black. It’s too damn hot to take the train… shit!”
Woo’s debut EP, Moods of a Cancer, which came out in June around her birthday, plays on the car stereo. It’s nice to sit in an air-conditioned vehicle of luxury and just listen. The EP boasts a range of playful, catchy, and sexy slow-to-mid-tempo jams, including “Trap Phone,” “Make It Last,” and “Unattainable,” that will please R&B traditionalists and modernists alike. Then there are interludes incorporating Woo’s outrageous online persona: “Zozo Appointment” (“zozo” is Kreyol for dick) and “No Wig,” a funny pronouncement that wannabe suitors should either accept her bald, or not at all.
But one standout poised to launch Woo into a broader stratosphere is a song she co-wrote called “Vacation.” The song, a cultural fusion of dancehall-tinged pop, traditional kompa, the méringue-based dance music of Haiti, and R&B, innately possesses the energy of a hit. Woo sings in Kreyol (the Americanized spelling is “Creole”) and English on the catchy track, which invites listeners from all backgrounds to “party like Haitians.” The way “Vacation” sounds and feels is no accident. The formula of the track was largely engineered by Shaft, the founder of KSR Records and co-writer of Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” Remember when that song was everywhere? In New York, spontaneous, public dance parties incorporating all people — Black or white, young or old, rich or poor — broke out anytime it played from any stereo. “Vacation” feels like that.
We are driving to Woo’s favorite Caribbean spot for lunch, a place she spent lots of time at in between jobs. Her story is one of incredible perseverance: the Haitian-American moved to the New York area almost four years ago with a master’s degree in journalism. After spending some time on the job hunt, down on her luck and with stifled creative inspiration — spiraling, she says, into a dark depression — she began posting comedic bits and videos of herself singing on Instagram. Woo says of her videos at the time, “It was all I could do to not kill myself. I had come to New York and was suddenly questioning everything. I really think God pulled me through that time.” Little by little, Woo built a loyal, engaged audience.
She then got a chance hosting gig on BET’s news show, BET Breaks, that became a catalyst for the success that has since followed. In little more than a year’s time, Woo amassed a following of over a half-million, gained sponsorship opportunities through Black-owned, indie, and mainstream beauty and fashion brands, and launched a stand up career and a traveling live series called Seeeester Talk Live, in which she gets candid about everything from zozo appointment mishaps and reality TV reviews to political issues of the day, from skin-bleaching and LGBTQ rights to gun reform. Woo’s increased visibility as the self-proclaimed “Seeester Of House Haiti” led to her being cast on Love and Hip Hop: Miami, which documented the ups and downs of her recording career. Not to mention, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Woo has been outspoken about her own traumatic past, which includes sexual assault and abuse.
The real Woo, up close and personal, is not so different from her online persona, an intoxicating mix of down-to-earth candor, and the funniest parts of her Haitian culture that she makes familiar rather than alienating. The face-beat is even more on point, and the wig (what Woo often calls her “peruk” online) is even more secure. We trade stories about my childhood love of Trina’s raunchiest lyrics, and she tells me about Sweet Micky, who she was not allowed to listen to as a child by her mother. “She didn’t know then but she knows now how much I love shit-talking and filth,” she says, cackling and leaning in close. “Just give me the dirty dirty.”
Woo zooms constantly between her normal speaking voice, loud with a light Southern lilt, and her thick Kreyol accent to emphasize certain points, made even heavier for comedic effect. Either way, in a time when President Trump can off-handedly dismiss Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries, Woo’s homeland representation, as a Haitian and as an American, is more important than ever.
“I’m trying to represent for younger generations of Haitians,” Woo tells me. “That’s why I celebrate my culture online. And that’s why I had to put the kompa breakdown in ‘Vacation.’ This mom the other day, she left me a comment: ‘My daughter who’s seven heard this song. Jessie’s saying party like Haitians! That’s us, we’re Haitians!'” I was in tears when I saw that. Music kind of goes places that other genres don’t. So kids remember words very well. Then, when you have Haitian kids who don’t really hear Kreyol like that, other than at home, they hear somebody singing Kreyol, and they see themselves reflected. When I was little I would hear Wyclef [Jean] and be like, ‘Oh my God, he’s Haitian like me!’ When I get to do that for kids, it’s like, oh shit. It kind of comes full circle.”
I tell her the song is a point where her message is completely unified. It’s about partying and searching for a night of escape in the verses, but it’s clear by the vibrant midpoint —when the synths hit higher pitches as Woo sings “gouye” and “rele,” Kreyol words that essentially encourage people on the dancefloor to twist and shout — this is not just a one-woman search for freedom, but for all.
“I was scared of losing people by singing Kreyol on an English-language song,” Woo admits. But then hearing “Vacation” live in the club changed all that. “I’m truly a Cancer in that I’m not much of a club person. I’m in bed, no wig on, head wrapped and shit by 10 o’clock, watching Housewives. But my producer dragged my ass to the club and a DJ played it and to see people respond in real time, not knowing it’s me is beyond what I can describe. Now, I’m like come vacation in Haiti! It’s really not what people think.”She continues: “It’s so poppin’ to speak Spanish, it’s so poppin’ to now have Ebo, and Afro beats are so big, but it’s like, What about the motherland? What about the island motherland? Haiti? Why are we not speaking Kreyol in our music and embracing that?”
While the song has thus far enjoyed positive reception in New York, even getting rotation on the radio, Woo says it has been harder to break through in hometown of Miami. Woo’s move to New York was also prompted by how small the music scene was there. While artists from City Girls to Trina have found massive success, Woo found it difficult to stand apart. But in New York and online, “There’s room for everybody,” she says. Online, Woo launched a #gouyadchallenge, where people upload videos of themselves dancing to her music. “Like, you might think, I’m not Haitian but I’m going to do a gouyad challenge, and gouyad is how we party,” Woo explains. “It’s the close dancing, it’s the romance. Sexy. It’s the rotation in our hips. It’s you know, ‘many women wonder where my hips…’ Phenomenal, like Maya Angelou said. That’s what gouyad is about, the romance in our culture. To see people who are not Haitian do it, I’m like, damn, that’s a lot. I’ve broken down a lot.”
When we pull up to the restaurant, called Kombit, Woo is greeted warmly by the owner. There are only a few people eating. Moods of a Cancer is already playing over the speakers. We look at the menu. I ask Woo what she’d recommend, and she winks at me and orders family style. Soon, the table is filled with Kreyol-style wings, legumes san viand, a flavorful vegetable stew made from cabbage, chayotes (militon), carrots and lima beans; stewed poule, a skinless quarter leg of chicken; red snapper; plantains; and d’ri djon djon, which is black rice.
Shaft and Woo’s manager soon join us and then the restaurant manager brings out bottles of chilled champagne.It’s clear that from Woo’s casualness about everything that this is one way she hangs out with friends. She tells a funny story about going on mission trips to Haiti as a girl with her mother, a devout Christian, and eating goat. Her eyes widen as she’s shrugs,”I’m sorry, PETA might hate me, but I loooove meat. That’s how I first knew.” She segues: “You know, in Haiti, everybody loves Jesus so they’re like” — switches to Haitian accent —”Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior today? Are you filled with the blood of Jesus?
I speak to Shaft, who shares about Woo’s success, telling me the two met several years ago and she, having been burned by the music industry before (“shady people who don’t do what they say they will,” Woo explains), was hesitant to sing again. Eventually, as Woo gained more attention online, she gained the confidence to approach him. The two struck a deal, and Shaft is helping audiences connect to Woo as an artist and as a cultural force. Moods of a Cancer is just a preview of what Woo has in store. Shaft says Woo recorded enough material for three EPs, and some of it goes more into who Woo is offline.
But in person, Woo is never afraid to go deep.
Somehow, the subject of American history comes up — including Haiti’s impact on it, and how it gets displaced by white supremacy. “Where are you from?” she asks me.
I tell her I grew up around Chicago and northwest Indiana. “You need to know that,” Woo says, putting her hand firmly on my shoulder. She reminds me of Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, best known as the first permanent non-Indigenous settler of what would become Chicago. Woo knows her history as a Black woman, and feels it is vital that other Black people know theirs.
“Growing up, my mom, my grandma, always made sure I was very, very aware of who we were,” she says. “In Miami, it was rough because Haitians just had this bad name for so long. But that was America, too. Remember in the 80s under Reagan when AIDS became an epidemic and the CDC tried to single us out and say it came from Haiti? Like 80,000 Haitians marched and almost broke the fucking Brooklyn Bridge.”
Mind you, this is not unlike President Trump’s racist remarks last year that “all Haitians have AIDS,” and that people from Nigeria would never “go back to their huts” upon seeing the United States.
“But my mom is very funny,” Woo says. “She would soften a lot of blows with her humor. She would say things like, ‘Jessica, it’s us that teach these white American people how to take shower, you think they know how to take shower? You think they know how to season their food? No! It was us.’ She was talking mad shit. And guess what? I’m going to school as a girl, repeating what she said: ‘Y’all don’t even know how to season your chicken!'”
Nevermind Haiti’s status as the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the first country to abolish slavery, and the only state in history established by a successful slave revolt, led by general Toussaint L’Ouverture. Or how American presidents have, as Woo says, “raped the economy, raped the people.” As of 2014, the United Nations Development Program estimated that Haiti’s national poverty rate is 58.6%, with those living in abject poverty at 24.7%, an estimated quarter of the population. With issues like structural violence and corruption continuing to plague the country, it’s likely those figures have not improved by much.
“And the same things that you see going on in Haiti happens everywhere,” Woos says. “My thoughts and my prayers are always going to be with the people of Sudan, any Black country, period. But it was like, what was going on in Sudan, it was happening in Haiti, too. It’s always happening. You see it just happened in Puerto Rico [after Hurricane Maria]. All of that stuff happens but for some reason when it happens in Haiti, it’s Oh my God, they are wild. No.”
I suddenly realize that over two hours have passed. We wrap lunch, and I say goodbye to Woo’s team. Woo walks me to the Escalade that will take me home. She really wants to drive home what it is she stands for, beyond her entertainment career, beyond her online presence. She whips out her phone, and holds it up for her followers, to record an Instagram Story. “Look who I have with me today! Thank you for coming! I love you,” she says, and kisses me on the cheek.
On the ride home, as I listen to Woo’s EP again, I think of the hardship she endured to become a voice for her people, to help America gain a deeper understanding of where she comes from.
Here was one thing she said that really stood out:
“Us Haitians want a revolution, too. We want to be respected. We want to stop having these governments that are not really looking out for us. They’re looking out for themselves and their personal relationships with other leaders in other countries. And when they’re done shitting over here, they’re going to go live their rich lives. But the people still don’t have a democracy. The economy’s struggling. But still, despite all that, Haitians are beautiful people. Smart, very intelligent, perseverant. Our parents taught us that everything is school, school, school. Having a better life. It’s either, ‘L’école, l’église, lakay.’ That’s school, church, home.”