Shaun Fequiere was 7 years old when he first experienced the sting of discrimination. Classmates at his elementary school in Brooklyn had learned that his parents were from Haiti, where the main language is a French-based creole, and had started calling him “French fry” and “French poodle.” The teasing escalated, and at one point one child’s mother told Fequiere’s mom, “Go back to your country!” His parents moved him to a new, Catholic school, but the incident taught Fequiere to downplay his ethnic background.
“Even though the neighborhood is mostly black, Haiti is the lowest on the totem pole,” says Fequiere, whose parents moved from Haiti to Brooklyn in 1965, a year before he was born. “My heritage had brought me so much turmoil that I decided to keep it a secret. I desperately want to be a cool kid.” In high school, Fequiere started wearing Kangol brand beret-style hats and entertaining his peers with breakdance and rap routines. By then, his family had moved to neighboring East Flatbush, and Fequiere, who had adopted the name “Kangol Kid,” gained notoriety as a local performer. At parties, people would challenge him to breakdancing battles. “I never lost a battle. I created my own levitating move. I would be on the floor, and my upper torso would lift until I was standing,” he says. “That was the winning move.”
They’re hardworking, upstanding people who represent the best values of America. I want to see everyone given the chance that they deserve.
Fequiere met another dancer and a DJ, and they formed the rap group UTFO, which stood for Untouchable Force Organization, and began opening for hip hop giants Run DMC and LL Cool J. After receiving a recording contract, their single “Roxanne, Roxanne” was listed on the Billboard chart for five weeks in 1985. Yet Fequiere worried that he could no longer ignore his roots. “Suddenly, there was a rumor that there was a Haitian in UTFO, but no one knew who it was. It was so unpopular to be Haitian,” he says. “Kids would say awful things like ‘Haitians have AIDS.’”
Recent antipathy from some U.S. quarters toward immigrants, including those from Haiti, have reopened an old wound for Fequiere. “You can imagine how this feels right now,” he says. “It’s like I’m reliving those days again from nearly 40 years ago.” America has long since integrated and accepted Haitian culture, with musicians like Wyclef Jean proudly claiming their Haitian heritage. Today nearly 700,000 Haitian immigrants live in the United States. “Our culture has evolved, and we are role models in sports, politics, law, and entertainment,” he says. “I am proud of being Haitian.” In 2017, the Haitian Roundtable acknowledged Fequiere’s achievement as the first Haitian in hip hop. And his trademark Kangol hat is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Today, the father of four children works as a producer for a reality show and still performs hip hop.
Fequiere would like the U.S. government to recognize the contributions that Haitians have made to America and to reverse the 2017 decision to terminate the temporary protected status of 59,000 Haitians who have been living in the United States since a 2010 earthquake and a 2016 hurricane devastated the island. Fequiere would also like the government to find a way to provide a pathway to residency and citizenship for the estimated 11.4 million undocumented immigrants who are already contributing to the United States “They’re paying taxes and raising families here. They’re hardworking, upstanding people who represent the best values of America. I want to see everyone given the chance that they deserve,” he says, rather than be subjected to old, negative stereotypes. “There’s still a part of America that hasn’t recognized our growth.”