Introducing: Francis Mercier
Introducing: Francis MercierFebruary 27, 2023
Beatportal’s Ana Monroy Yglesias digs deep with Haiti-born producer Francis Mercier on sample clearance, the super-success of “Sete,” his hot new single “Kamili,” and his reimagining of the Afro House sound.
Make no mistake, “Sete” was one of the most undeniable dance tracks of 2022, and for New York-based, Haiti-born DJ/producer Francis Mercier, it was a game-changer for his career, one he’s very grateful for and proud of. After its release on March 25, “Sete” hit No. 2 on Beatport, Spotify’s Viral Top 50, and Shazam’s Top 50 Global Discovery. It’s a techy Afro house groover heard worldwide, and Beatportal decided it was time for an important electronic conversation.
“For me, its success is really satisfying because I’m able to reinvent a classic and bring this kind of African sound to the main stage, to a big platform and to give it global visibility,” Mercier told Beatportal on a Zoom call from his New York home studio. “To be able to sign an Afro house record to one of the biggest record labels in the U.S., Insomniac, is an honor. And to be able to have BLOND:ISH be a part of the project was a big treat for 2022. It brings me a lot of happiness. It makes me feel like I’m doing a record for the people, a big cultural movement, shedding light on original music and the culture as a whole.”
The upbeat track features legendary Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, via a sample of their 1999 song “Se Te Djon Ye,” on which they tell the powerful story of how they were once ashamed of being blind, but their faith helped them through difficult times and to understand a handicap is nothing to be ashamed of. The original track is slower and more bluesy, while “Sete” brings it straight to the dance floor and likely to many ravers who weren’t aware of the duo before.
This is why it’s so important to Mercier to go through the often-arduous process of sample clearing, so that the artists get their publishing and featured artist credits, and hopefully many new fans. It means a lot to him to be able to make a track with Amadou & Mariam, even more so that they gave their blessing and said they love it. The two years it took for the track to see the light of day was clearly worth the wait, and the dance floor was ready to receive it.
“100 percent, [crediting the sampled artist] gives the record more authenticity. How are you going to make an African record and sample a classic from India or South America and not credit the original? That’s not honourable. So, for me, I go all the way to pay homage to the original artists and to create a meaningful piece of art,” Mercier asserts.
The idea for “Sete” was born during the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, when Mercier had more time to work on music and really explore his sound, without being rushed to hit deadlines or adhere to certain styles. “I wanted to rework African classics. I wanted to go back to my roots, back to the music that inspired me, that music I was first exposed to.”
And that’s how he found his fresh sound and flow, making Afro house by sampling classics from the African diaspora he heard as a kid growing up in Haiti. Before the pandemic, he felt he had to make whatever the label that was releasing his music wanted, but now that he’s gotten recognition for “Sete” and has found his sound in Afro house, he feels free.
“Sometimes, being restrained actually gives you freedom. Sometimes, defining yourself is what gives you freedom,” the producer muses. “You can actually perfect a style and give it your own touch, be the future of it. Whereas if you don’t really have a style, you’re just gonna fit in with what’s hot, what’s working, what’s in the club, and you’re just chasing, you’re never free… Having a project that worked, having an identity, gives me so much confidence and capacity to be creative in the studio.”
You can really hear it in his releases too, that freedom and expansiveness on each record.
His latest track, and first of 2023 is “Kamili,” featuring co-production from Zimbabwean DJ/producer Nitefreak, a regular collaborator of his signed to his Deep Root Records, and soaring, heart-piercing vocals in Swahili from Kenyan percussionist, performer, and teacher, Idd Aziz. “Kamili,” released on Higher Ground, has already hit No. 2 on the Beatport Afro House chart. On the driving, powerful track, Aziz sings his and his mother’s grief for his brother, who has been missing for over 20 years.
On the producer’s next track coming out on Insomniac, due out in March, he sampled GRAMMY-winning Jamaican reggae band Black Uhuru’s 1979 track “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” He describes it as a reggae house record and Black Uhuru as the other biggest reggae act in Jamaica, next to Bob Marley. (A large Bob Marley hanging sat behind Mercier in his studio as we spoke over Zoom).
He made the track three years ago, and again, had to wait to get the sample cleared, and he’s excited for the world to finally hear it soon. And as these many of these heaters he made in 2020 take quite a bit of time to see the light of day, most of them still felt fresh and ready to go when they were finally about to come out, so he left them as is.
“Ayibobo” is another collab of Mercier’s with Nitefreak, released on Deep Root Tribe in June 2022. This uplifting, driving Afro house record wasn’t built around a vintage sample, instead featuring Haiti-born-and-based singer Lenny Auguste, singing a message of hope and resilience aimed at fellow Haitians. “It is a very dear record to me. It’s my only record where the vocals are in my home language, Haitian Creole,” Mercier says.
“The record has a very powerful meaning. It’s about freedom, and pushing yourself to get what you deserve, and has a political significance because Haiti’s in a very difficult political situation where there’s a lot of kidnapping, there’s no future for the youth. So basically, this record is about telling people not to give up and to keep your faith and to stay positive. I have the chills right now… [The singer recorded it] in Gonaïves, the city in Haiti where independence was proclaimed, and it was really challenging for the vocalist to sing it because there were riots in the streets… and you can feel the emotion in the record.”
Sometimes divine timing really does work its magic. Mercier had been getting tired of tech house and knew something else was coming “for the underground, for the unknown.” He launched his Emvafaya alias in early 2020, to give himself freedom to explore deeper, more melodic sounds and even had a few Emvafaya shows right before the pandemic. And when he had the time and space during the COVID-19 shutdown to really explore his sound and revisit the African and African diasporic music of his youth further, it clicked.
He dropped his first two Afro house tracks in 2021, reimagining Ivory Coast Afro pop quartet Magic System’s “Premier Gaou” and “Bolingo Naga,” which he released as his Emvafaya alias and features a sample of Congolese singer Bibi Den’s Tshibayi, on BLOND:ISH’s Abracadabra Music. Later that year, during Christmas time, he DJed in his home country for the first time. He was invited by Deep House Bible — one of the founders is Haitian — and feels that it was one of his best performances to date, enhanced by its significance and live percussionists accompanying him.
Mercier was inspired to start DJing after seeing Armin van Buuren show, saving up for a controller and playing his first gigs at college parties, which he’d land by reaching out via Facebook to the people throwing them. His entrepreneurial spirit and determined proactiveness has fueled his career in dance music and constantly pushed him forward. He was also trying to break into DJing at New York clubs, but obviously it’s a hard market to crack without a sizable following, so he played at restaurants and also started throwing his own parties and hired people to invite their friends.
This led him to start an event planning and production company, which evolved into Deep Root Records, which he co-founded with fellow entrepreneur Ajamu Kambon in 2014, which has evolved to include the label (plus three sublabels), artist management and music licensing. Deep Root allows Mercier to uplift fellow artists with the skills he’s gained along the way as he’s done so for himself, to support their growth and build a collective of like-minded dance music producers. In addition to the main label, there’s Deep Root Underground, and Deep Root Tribe, representing the Afro house sounds of Nitefreak and more. Mercier says it’s been his way to figure out how to not rely on other people and be more hands-on himself.
It is also a genuine balm to the cutthroat New York scene, which he describes as competitive, fresh and filled with sounds from around the globe, but very territorial and not a supportive community. He’s been doing his thing in New York for 15 years and hopes that there will be more support of younger artists in the city and across the scene, which is what he tries to do with Deep Root, “to be more open and supportive.”
For several years, Deep Root has been hosting regular showcase parties in New York at venues that have included The Williamsburg Hotel, Public Arts, Somewhere Nowhere, as well as on yachts(!), programming their artists alongside very special guests like Eelke Kleijn, Roger Sanchez, Alex Cruz and more. He’s also brought Deep Root on the road, with parties during Miami Music Week.
Mercier has another big year ahead, with more anticipated releases and big bookings. He’ll be making his Coachella debut this year at the beloved electronic music stage, the Yuma tent, on Saturdays of the massive April fest. Ahead of the event, you can also catch him and his rhythmic global house sound at venues like Flash in Washington, D.C., Spybar in Chicago, and Soubois in Montreal, with more shows to be announced soon.
When asked what his biggest goals and dreams for the year(s) ahead are, he is set on keeping things moving forward. He has his eye on staying in the game for the long haul, to keep growing and touring in more places, with a healthy dose of sold-out shows, and to present his music on a global scale. Don’t bet against him achieving on every single level.
Ana Monroy Yglesias is a freelance music journalist based out of Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter.