Singer-Dancer Riva Nyri Précil Galvanizes A Haitian Diaspora Through African Folklore
Riva Nyri Précil was born in the United States, but raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Her mother (of Irish-Russian descent) left her involvement with New York’s Haitian community to further help restore democracy in Haiti using her radio show. Précil’s Haitian father worked as a journalist and lawyer. From her upbringing, Précil learned to be multidimensional and has spent a majority of her life honoring her creative impulses through singing, dancing, painting, writing and jewelry-crafting. As a child, she’d perform all over her native island , including at the prestigious National Palace.
She and her family migrated to New York City when she was 15, where she enrolled at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts and majored in vocal performance. Examining her life trajectory, it becomes evident that Précil maintains the tenacity to seek what feeds her soul and nourish it. When settled in the concrete jungle, Riva got involved with her local gospel choir and began attending classes that taught her how to perfect jewelry-making. A Haitian national placed in contemporary USA, Riva’s made a humble career of spreading “love and light through traditional song and dance while uplifting Haitian culture.”
Her home, a Brooklyn apartment filled with African art and sculptures, is also trimmed with candles and laden with the soothing aromas of burning incense. Her space is shared with her husband and bandmate Monvelyno, who is a guitarist and the muscle behind the production of her music. With his help, Riva released her debut album in 2015, Perle De Culture (Pearl of Culture) that is a sonic melding of traditional Haitian instrumentals and jazz. Her jewelry company is called “Love, Nyri” and her children’s book, written in Kreyòl, is titled Anaëlle Ak Lasirèn (Anaëlle with the Mermaid).
Today, she teaches a dance series called “Tout Se Pa” (Everything’s A Step or No Wrong Steps) once a month to other women who seek the practice of meditation, healing and evolution through African movement. In wake of recent events, VIBE sat down Riva to discuss Haitian politics, spirituality, self care and the ways in which she hopes to impact the world. —Bianca Salvant
VIBE Viva: Why do you feel the need to amplify Haitian art?
Riva Nyri: We are currently living in a time when our Haitian music and art is being westernized more than ever before. I want to challenge people to embrace their roots wholeheartedly without reserve or shame. The world has demonized Haitian Vodou, watered down the revolution and focused on everything but the positive aspects of our beautiful culture. I want to change this through music, dance and art.
With your art, you’re hoping to teach your audience something they don’t already know?
Yes, I want people to feel connected to their roots, most importantly. If they’re Haitian, I hope I can help them reconnect with their traditions; pique their curiosity. That will lead them to discovering more. If they’re not Haitian, I’d hope they can feel the message, rather than try to use their logic. They’d have to be open to allowing the music to transport them to another realm and break down the language barrier. It can be a truly beautiful experience. I also believe Kreyòl is a language that needs to be preserved and cherished more. So I speak it often and that is how I communicate in my songs.
What is it about music, though, that can be so healing?
Music and dancing carry powerful healing vibrations. It’s a full body connection. For me, music has always been therapeutic. It doesn’t matter what I’m going through, I can find solace in it.
How does the community respond to your passion for unpacking these themes?
Last year, I started teaching Haitian folklore regularly; it’s really picked up this year. I’m very excited about how my classes have been received. I’ve been able to travel with my workshops to Haiti. Eventually, I’d like to produce a show with my team.
Juggling your multiple projects, do you find self care difficult to tend?
I take self-care very seriously. I’ve made it a point to never neglect this because it is a part of my spiritual journey. If I feel a lack of inspiration, I meditate, light some candles, take a bath or get a massage. I try to reconnect with my source again. Often, I find inspiration through creation. All I have to do is push myself to continue through the process, even if I hit a wall. In this way, things come out unexpectedly.
What influence does your family play in your creativity?
I’m the youngest of three girls, and my middle sister is a singer-songwriter. The eldest worked in the industry and has a lot of love for music. My dad played instruments and was always dancing to kompa. My mom always encouraged me to explore my talents. As a child, she sent me to art camp, bought me art supplies and motivated me to take acting lessons. She’s always been my biggest cheerleader.
When I was eight or nine-years-old, I was teaching a weekly mixed media art class to kids in my neighborhood in Haiti. I began performing on Haitian television and nightclubs by 10. At 12, I was playing lead roles in historical Haitian theatre plays. Being so close to the beach, I started making jewelry using seashells, beads and crystals.
You’ve garnered over 43,000 followers on social media and your platform is growing. What do you think about how the Internet is motivated by trends? Is that something you subscribe to?
It definitely comes with its set of challenges. I, though, just try to stay focused on my purpose. I don’t want to lose sight of what my greater goal is. If I let people get in my ear or follow trends to gain bigger popularity, I’ll lose sight of what’s most important to me. All I want is to be able to spread love and light through traditional song and dance while uplifting Haitian culture.
You believe in spreading that gospel so much that you wrote a children’s book. Can you expound on it?
I am a big advocate of the Kreyòl language. So I wrote a book called Anaelle ak La Siren. I was surprised when I learned there weren’t many children’s books in Kreyòl. Majority are in French and they don’t contain the mysticism of Haitian culture. I wanted to see stories about our mermaids, our spiritual life and let that narrative manifest.