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Credit: Oscar Suzane

On Cue: Francis Mercier’s Afro house impact

The Afro house movement has blown up far beyond its continent of origin, and Francis Mercier is on a mission to bring its sounds to an even vaster audience. Alongside his On Cue mix, Megan Venzin meets the Haitian DJ and producer in Miami to learn more about how his Deep Root Tribe imprint is shining a light on the genre, and what its growth means for the label boss himself

The skies are finally clear. Hell yeah! A break in stormy weather means it’s time to join an enthusiastic crowd at Toejam Backlot, where one of Miami Music Week’s largest Afro house showcases is breaking new ground. Inside, syncopated drums, synth-scored progressions and intermittent chants transport us far from Wynwood’s graffiti-covered streets to somewhere fresh. Serving as our tour guides for the night are artists from five separate continents. Among them are longtime Afro house champion MoBlack, Turkish tech-house producer Mahmut Orhan and Zimbabwe’s Nitefreak, each on hand to bestow their unique perspectives and melodic stylings to the dancefloor.   

“This is the best party I’ve been to all week,” says Ashley P, a human resources professional by day and a leopard-print donning reveller by night. “The energy is just too good!” Thousands more share her sentiment, as strangers-turned-friends lean into a vibe that’s all about the music.   

Hosting the event is Deep Root Tribe, a New York City-based imprint with a sonic influence that extends far beyond the five boroughs. This is reflected in the range of accents among the audience members who pack into the art-filled space, not to mention the soundtrack that pulls its dreamy textures from an expansive cultural palette. It may not be South Florida’s biggest open-air venue, but tonight it feels like the entire world is right here. 

Deep Root label boss Francis Mercier is in his element when he takes the stage for his closing set. With hands in the air, the Haitian producer sings along to ‘Gorah’, inviting listeners on a thrilling ride with his emotive and groovy ‘Midnight Mix’ treatment. Its words are in the Naath/Nuer language, but the intention behind Nitefreak and Emmanuel Jal’s popular track isn’t lost in translation — its powerful chorus seeks to rally and connect. As the volume builds, a group to our left gathers in a circle, and shouts to the sky in a moment of release.  

This is not your typical club night, but rather a full-blown family affair. Colourfully clothed dancers add vibrance to the stage, and soon, Bronx-based musician Curtis Watts adds a layer of live percussion, fervently banging a hand drum that slings loose from his shoulders. TikTok sensation and Afrobeats artist Yung Wylin enjoys a moment in the spotlight, too. Mercier’s plan is all coming together.   

“It’s clear that there’s a movement and there’s an interest for the genre,” he tells DJ Mag cheerfully after fans clear out. “It’s growing step by step — if it wasn’t growing, you wouldn’t be able to throw a 2,000-person show like this!”   

This is no small feat. The Deep Root Tribe showcase shares its Saturday night slot with pioneering South African star, Black Coffee, who’s headlining his own sold-out gathering at Factory Town down the road, with Pablo Fierro dishing out his hallmark brand of ancestral-meets-tech-house beats in a side room.  

This scheduling challenge might push other artists toward a competitive mindset, but that’s hardly Mercier’s style. His approach to business always coincides with the belief that a rising tide lifts all boats, and in this case, a packed evening of African-inspired beats is proof that his genre of choice is having a well-deserved moment. This is good for everyone.  “To continue expanding, you have to be innovative,” he reveals of what drives him forward. “You have to be willing to put other people out there. The concept of a one-man show — it’s not it.” 

Mercier is the epitome of a team player. Hailing from an island country struck by political unrest, his lived experience fuels a mission to empower and unite — the philosophy required to push a movement forward.  

Shot of the Francis Mercier Discusses Afro house in Miami
Credit: W South Beach

 “It doesn’t matter how big you are — the moment you start to forget about your community and where you came from is the minute you become irrelevant.”  

Mercier grew up in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. At age 18, he relocated to the Northeast US and enrolled at Brown University, where he studied applied mathematics and economics. Despite juggling an intense Ivy League course load, he still made time for his passions, working independently as a promoter and DJing parties until it was time to hit the books again.  

“It was complete madness!” Mercier exclaims during a follow-up call after his exciting Miami Music Week has concluded. “But then again, I’m doing the same thing now. I have my artist project. I’m managing six artists. I have the label. I have five screens opened up all the time.” He gestures to the devices on his desk before lifting his hands to his face. “Every night, before I sleep, I’m like, ‘oh my god!’” Even under the heft of an extensive to-do list, it’s nearly impossible to detect signs of stress in Mercier’s sunny exterior. For a musical overview of his cool disposition, pop on ‘Hustla’ with Emmanuel Jal. The airy and percussive cut, which landed on Diplo’s Higher Ground imprint in 2023, speaks to our subject’s go-getter nature — he’s always been about that grind.   

After graduation, Tao Group’s Manhattan-based bottle service clubs provided the perfect atmosphere for Mercier to master the art of appealing to commercial tastes and commanding a dancefloor. “When I finished college, I had to pay the bills, so I had to throw in some hip-hop with my house hits,” he explains of early days navigating New York City’s booming nightlife scene. “The hip-hop culture was really big, people were really into it,” he adds, noting that he and his business partner at the time launched an events planning company rooted in the lucrative category. “We did it proper though,” he says, flashing a grin. For nearly four years he followed that path, building connections and honing his skills behind the decks.   

Eventually though, he felt called back to house music. In 2015, Mercier co-founded Deep Root Records with his friend and fellow entrepreneur Ajamu Kambon. Their vision brought to life a label based in the soulful aesthetic of classic house, elevated with an upbeat, futuristic touch.  

Over the next nine years, their platform would go on to spawn a successful boat party series on the Hudson River as well as multiple sub-labels — among them Deep Root Underground and the aforementioned Deep Root Tribe, which is now home to a sprawling roster of international artists producing within the Afro house lane. 

Enamoured by the genre’s rhythms and deep undertones, Mercier developed a culturally-informed imprint that is now on the cusp of meeting its 50th-release milestone. Deep Root Tribe’s signees reflect Afro house’s increasingly global footprint — artists come from across Africa, as well as Europe, the Caribbean, Asia and the United States. Deep Root Tribe’s event platform is similarly spreading: 11th July marks the imprint’s Ibiza debut at Cova Santa, thus adding the clubbing hotspot to a growing list of worldwide pop-ups. And while its New York-based head honcho celebrates these intercontinental successes, he believes that Afro house has yet to reach its full potential.  

“I love to push it. I love to help other artists. I’d love to expand my profile, expand the genre, and assist in any way I can, but it’s not easy,” Mercier says, revealing his concern for factors that could be limiting further reach. “To be honest with you, I’d like to see more effort from the pioneers and the promoters to create more unity, and to be more supportive of the genre,” Mercier offers up candidly. He’s quick to wax back to his “better together” stance. “It doesn’t matter how big you are — the moment you start to forget about your community and where you came from is the minute you become irrelevant.”   

Francis Mercier DJing
Credit: FYM Agency

Mercier wants to reverse what he sees as a troubling trend. To shine more awareness on this issue and educate music fans, he hosts another first-ever event during Miami Music Week — a panel at W South Beach coined, “Francis Mercier Discusses Afro house”. The long-running Winter Music Conference is a thing of the past, but this talk seeks to fill in the gaps with an open conversation among industry thought leaders and the public regarding ways to preserve Afro house’s history, and bring it into the future. 

“African music in general has influenced so many genres over the past 100 years — pretty much every genre of new American music goes back to Africa,” Head of Insomniac Music Group, Joe Wiseman, chimes in during the panel. “It all goes back to people’s desire for that simple four-to-the-floor beat — that’s the heartbeat. Afro house is really about the roots of dance music.” Wiseman points to his experience signing ‘Sete’ — Mercier’s pumping collaboration with BLOND:ISH and Malian musical duo Amadou & Mariam — as a pivotal moment for the major record label. Coined as the “song of the summer” by tastemakers like BBC Radio One’s Danny Howard, ‘Sete’ quickly became one of Insomniac’s most successful tracks of 2022. It also showed label executives that demand for Afro house is lava hot.   

‘Sete’ melds Amadou & Mariam’s vocals and instruments with modern tech-house production elements, honouring the music’s roots through a modern lens. 

Another panel member and showcase performer, Bheki Mabhena aka Nitefreak, raises concerns that less thoughtful treatments could lead to dilution. “As much as you try to add the essence of other cultures, the word Afro house still needs to shine in the genre,” the Zimbabwe-born artist says in a follow up call. “If you go to someone that grew up in Ivory Coast, you hear drums, you hear chants, you hear bongos, you hear koras. You hear all those African elements of instruments, but you’re not hearing that in what we’re calling Afro house now.”  

Mabhena began producing Afro house in the aughts, and considered himself an avid listener well before that. He agrees that evolution is inevitable, and offers a simple solution to maintain the soul of the sound. “Until people understand what Afro house is and how it’s made, it’s not going to last,”  he cautions. “For them to totally understand, they need to collaborate with more Africans — that will show them where the essence is and where the whole term Afro comes from.” It’s a practice that has personally landed Nitefreak on Spotify’s New Music Friday list twice — first with ‘Kamili’ featuring Kenyan vocalist, Idd Aziz, and then secondly with ‘Gorah’, a collaboration with Emmanuel Jal from Sudan. “These are authentic songs,” he says.  

Not surprisingly, “authenticity” is a recurring theme throughout the panel. Mimmo Falcone names it as the driving force behind his work at MoBlack Records, the imprint he founded in 2013 long before Afro house went on its current global tear, and which is quickly approaching its 600th release.  “We are cool, I think, because we are in-between — we are not underground but also we are not commercial,” he elaborates of where the genre currently stands. “That’s why it’s even more important now that we keep doing a good selection and finding a good mixture of the two. Because at the end of the day, it’s always a matter of balance.”  

Francis Mercier posing for a photo in front of Ibiza's iconic sea stack wearing a black t-shirt and shades
Credit: Oscar Suzane

“All of my accomplishments stemmed from me trying to help someone. If you’re human — if you help someone — the universe will help you back.”  

While living in Ghana in the early 2000s, Falcone developed a deep appreciation for African music. Over the years, he watched Afro house transform from an alternative offering — something he heard mostly at intimate parties and day clubs — into the full-blown phenomena it is today.  

And what happens if labels begin to pump out shoddily produced Afro house tunes to make a quick buck? (Wiseman confirms he’s got a Britney Spears-sampling demo in his inbox to prove this reality is hardly far-fetched.)  “The risk is that you lose that coolness — one day, yes, probably you are more popular, you are more rich, but you can lose the authenticity,” Falcone says. “This is what I wish not to lose — the character, the personality.”  

Falcone pegs Mercier as an ambassador with the savvy and spirit needed to strike that precious balance. “He is probably one of the few artists and the people in the business of Afro house that really — since day one — has recognised what I did for this music,” he explains in earnest. “It’s not easy to get someone to notice you. That’s why it’s important to meet people that are honest like him, that actually give credit to those who deserve it.”  

Mabhena shares similar thoughts when asked how Mercier is doing right by those around him. “Francis is taking a lot of risks, that’s something I really respect about him,” he adds. “He’s sharing his spotlight — he’s really putting on so many people.”  

One of Mercier’s newest Deep Root Tribe releases is another example that echoes Falcone and Mabhena’s assessments. On 17th May, in honour of Haitian Flag Day, Mercier dropped his long-awaited ‘Imamou’, a collaboration with the Grammy-nominated Boukman Eksperyans — the Haitian band behind the 1998 original, ‘Imamou Lele’. 

In promoting the release of the emotional rework, Mercier revealed on social media how the state of his Caribbean home country hangs heavy on his heart. Despite the current political climate, the track’s hopeful and passionate progression, which comes from its warm keys, enveloping synths, and proud vocals, speaks to the potential and resilience of the Haitian people he knows as his neighbours. In its fabric is another call for connection — a notion that sits at the core of quite literally everything Mercier stands for.  

“All of my accomplishments stemmed from me trying to help someone,” he says matter-of-factly when we ask what he thinks to be his great strength. “If you’re human — if you help someone — the universe will help you back.”  

And with Mercier and Deep Root Tribe on its side, it appears Afro house’s next chapter lies in good hands. Listen to his On Cue mix below. 

Tracklist: 

Francis Mercier, Emmanuel Jal 'Hustla'
Moon J ‘Collateral Damage’
Rhodes, CamelPhat, Ajna (BE), Samm (BE) ‘Home (Samm & Ajna Remix)’
Francis Mercier, Boukman Eksperyans ‘Imamou’
AVÖ, Guapo, Cheb Rayan ‘Dana Dana (Ft. Rima)’
Miishu, Emmanuel Jal ‘YUMA feat. Nyadollar (Francis Mercier Remix)’
Novak x WUULA ‘Waka Waka’
Francis Mercier, Frigid Armadillo, Luedji Luna ‘Yara’
MoBlack, Benja, Franc Fala ‘Yamore (ft. Salif Keita)’
Francis Mercier, Nitefreak & Idd Aziz ‘Kamili’
HUMANS ‘TAKATA’
Francis Mercier & Magic System ‘Premier Gaou (Black Motion Remix)’

Want more? Read DJ Mag's feature exploring the UK Afro house renaissance here

Megan Venzin is DJ Mag North America’s deputy editor. Follow her on Twitter @Meggerzv