Mach-Hommy: Balens Cho
Haiti is more than just a character in Mach-Hommy’s music—it’s the lens through which he views the world. Once one of the richest and most lucrative colonies in the Americas, the country famously played host to the West’s first successful slave revolt and remains an example of what happens when Black people take ownership of their labor, land, and capital: Punished with the present-day equivalent of $21 billion in debt to its colonizers—compensation for the enslavers’ “property”—the island nation is still reeling from its colonial history.
This context gives Mach-Hommy’s new album Balens Cho a sense of intimacy and immediacy. The Haitian-American MC doesn’t need to quote Fanon or other scholars to illustrate the effects of colonialism. He reflects it through depictions of the people within his sphere, like the brother-in-law who flees to Europe to study art, never to return, or the father whose social capital turned to dust in Mach’s hands after he died. He’s clearly scarred, but his defense mechanisms rely less on violence than they do on protection—of his heart, his mind, and his body.
Balens Cho contains no shortage of cheeky one-liners (“Your flow trash, plus you psoas like the muscle”), but they feel more matter-of-fact than a flex, a tool for Mach-Hommy to burn his thoughts into your brain. He wields his voice with intention, from gravelly croons on hooks to rhythmic flows in his verses. The brief interludes—which feature Caucasian interlopers to Haitian culture and sound like clips from vintage broadcasts—are somewhat jarring, making it difficult to become immersed in the images Mach-Hommy paints. They’re a reminder of the voyeuristic nature of listening to music this intimate as an outsider to the environment in which it was created; a mirror for some, a telescope for others.
If Mach’s approach seems somewhat combative, it’s likely by design. He makes no effort to make the music more accessible and often seems to attempt the opposite. His early fan base was small but passionate, and until very recently, you had to work hard—and pay a lot—to find his music. Even parsing the lyrics requires extra effort; they’re not available where you’d expect to find them, and transcriptions that pop up online are quickly struck down (as he reminds us on “Magnum Band Remix”: “Chain snatching to DMCA, either way, your link gone”). And because Haitian Creole varies from region to region, some of the lyrics in his native tongue may be tricky to interpret even if you speak it fluently.
Balens Cho feels softer and smoother than his last LP, this spring’s Pray for Haiti. Much of that can be attributed to Montreal producer Nicholas Craven—who produced half of this album’s eight songs—and Sam Gendel, a virtuosic instrumentalist whose saxophone is the second-most expressive voice on the record. It often serves as an instrumental foil to Mach-Hommy’s voice; Gendel’s extended outro on “Wooden Nickels” seems to mirror the end of “Traditional,” the two instruments in conversation with each other.
Even when it’s somber and elegiac, Balens Cho is devoid of self-pity. “What happens when conditions ain’t livable?” he asks knowingly on “Traditional.” “What happens when your vision ain’t visible?” The stories he tells here are not merely his own. He understands, better than most, the role of mythmaking in reshaping reality. Often, all it requires is a perspective shift; a statement like “All space programs derive themselves from Africa” might seem radical until you dig deeper and find that the oldest astronomical sites are found in Africa, where ancient astronomers named constellations centuries before the Greeks. Part of Mach’s genius is that he forces you to meet him halfway, to seek that which lies outside oneself. For those who do, the rewards are plentiful.
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