Annette Huelskamp, also known as Shega, accepts her award for Best Female Voice at the 2022 Kilimandjaro Music Awards in Toronto on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Photo from Flashback Visuals
The connections between Western Ohio and the nation of Haiti are few and far between.
But one connection — in the form of a Maria Stein nurse and singer known as Shega — may provide significant hope for an entire people, especially now that she has become internationally recognized and acclaimed.
“I am telling you, this was breathtaking,” said Annette Huelskamp, who works as a nurse at Upper Valley Medical Center and has a double life as Shega. “I was nominated at the Kilimandjaro Music Awards in two categories, Best Female Artist and Best Female Voice.
“I did not win Best Female Artist, but my heart was racing when they announced the 10 nominees for Best Female Voice. That feeling is not fun at all. But when they announced my name, I was in tears. It was all worth it.”
Going to Toronto for the KMAs, which have celebrated African artists living in North America since 2015, was the experience of a lifetime for Huelskamp.
And to think that it all started in Plaisance, Haiti, makes her story even more remarkable.
A voice in the choir
“When I first met Father Andre, a pastor at my parish, I was 10 years old,” Huelskamp said. “I was directing a little choir in church, and he said it was the first time he saw a little girl doing that. I was doing it so well, despite not formally knowing how to do it, that he called me up to the altar in front of Sunday Mass. He asked me who my parents were and what my name was, and he gave me a Bible. This Bible helped me be who I am today, which is a nurse.”
For Huelskamp, who taught herself English by singing along to Madonna, Britney Spears and Celine Dion songs, as well as studying a dictionary, music provided an opportunity even before she began singing professionally.
“So I taught myself English, and I told Father Andre, ‘Oh, I can speak English. So when I come to you, you need to speak English to me so I can practice it,’” she said. “He said, ‘Oh, I’ll give you somebody to practice.’”
This was how Huelskamp first got introduced to missionaries practicing medicine for the community.
“I would go there and practice with them,” she said. “And then I was able to sing and emcee for the going-away parties that were held whenever the missionaries left the parish. I was always the star.”
But in Haiti, music is not seen as a viable career path.
“In Haiti, we cannot make music as a career,” Huelskamp said. “We come from a poor country. You’re not gonna go far, because it takes a lot. Parents don’t believe that music is something where you’re going to succeed.”
Huelskamp went viral after she won a radio contest by singing Shakira’s 2010 World Cup anthem “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa).” It was not until after she moved to the United States and became a nurse through Wright State’s Lake Campus in Celina that she began pursuing a music career seriously.
“When I came here, I wanted to go to school anyway,” she said. “So after school, I was still writing here and there, but nothing professional. It wasn’t until 2018 that I released my first download, which I did not promote at all, because I was still in nursing school. And then it was just two years ago in 2020 when I really started going out there. And now two years into my career, I have a trophy.”
The way Huelskamp first got noticed in Maria Stein was familiar.
“Annette came to Maria Stein in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti,” said friend and Maria Stein resident Penny Bishell. “I was living there, and she joined our choir at St. John the Baptist Church. And I said from the first day she was just a breath of fresh air. She is younger than I am, and she just loves life. She is a very positive person and loves others.”
But the journey to becoming a medical professional and leaving for the United States was far more complicated.
A born helper
Huelskamp still communicates with her family and media in Haiti weekly by phone.
She says that she talks to her father about soccer, much more now that the World Cup is back on television.
“I am not an artist to my family,” she said. “I am Annette. Of course, they call me Shega, but I am still the daughter. I can be on stage doing something, and my dad calls me and asks me to do something. My mother will ask me to carry her suitcases.”
Huelskamp said that her father wants her to bring her trophy when she visits so they can touch it, and he is proud of her success.
But things were not always so certain.
When the 2010 earthquake struck, Huelskamp was in school. She considers herself lucky that she was not among the up to 300,000 dead.
“I was the lucky one to be alive,” she said. “So it wasn’t because I was the best, but that’s why life is so important to me. That’s why every life that I touch, I just left my mark and leave something positive.”
And the significance was not lost on Huelskamp’s father, who believes God saved her.
“He said, ‘It is because you have a great heart. You have a mission. Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep being kind to people and keep being generous,’” she recalled.
But even before that, it was apparent that Huelskamp had a passion for helping others.
As a child, she remembers helping an elderly man stop his foot from bleeding after cutting it while walking around a nearby creek.
“He was bleeding, so I tore part of my skirt and tied his foot up to stop the bleeding,” she said. “I was only 10, and he gave me a blessing. This was a little thing, but for him, it was a lot.”
Everything changed when Huelskamp met her husband Ben, a missionary from Maria Stein.
“I found love when I was in Haiti, and then I came to Maria Stein to follow him,” she said. “Ben was a missionary, and he brought me here and I fell in love in Maria Stein.”
But establishing her life in Ohio and even becoming an American citizen, as well as an international singer, could not stop Huelskamp from remaining invested in her birthplace.
Dreams for a homeland in peril
The nation of Haiti faces many problems today. Some of them stretch back all the way to its founding. Some of them are directly the result of the disastrous earthquake in 2010 that spurred Huelskamp to leave for a better opportunity in the United States.
“What I understand is that it is relatively absent,” said Theresa Schroeder Hageman, an adjust instructor of political science at Ohio Northern University, about the health system in Haiti. “They lack access to physicians, qualified nurses and educated clinicians in general, particularly more in the rural area. So actually getting what we consider healthcare in hospitals or seeing a licensed provider is very difficult.”
Huelskamp added, “People don’t go to the hospital because they have self-reliance. So we don’t have insurance. There is a high class and there is poverty, but we are poor more than anything. They don’t find resources.”
For a nation that has seen multiple epidemic crises, from HIV/AIDS to cholera and now COVID-19, things like the political instability and natural disasters that have been all too common make the situation that much direr.
“So when you have corruption and political leaders that are supposed to be utilizing revenue from the state for public goods, such as health care or sanitation, that wasn’t what was being done,” Hageman said. “It was being put in the pocket of the political elites. And this is the kind of legacy that is a very difficult cycle to get out of.
“Add in to that, because of where Haiti is located, they’re in a hotspot for natural disasters, hurricanes and earthquakes, and that’s been very difficult for them to get their feet under them. And healthcare is expensive. Somebody has to train physicians and nurses, build infrastructure, more hospitals, etc. This has been very difficult for them to do.”
Huelskamp, who refuses to give up her career as a nurse and in fact is so dedicated that she even wrote a song in tribute to her colleagues titled “Thank You Nurses,” believes she can help.
“I love to help people,” she said. “And one day, as an artist, when I get a lot of money, I’m going to go to Haiti and build a nice hospital, a big hospital. This is one thing we are lacking. I am a nurse here, and I am giving care to people, but I want to take that and bring it home too. Some people in Haiti in their 50s and 70s have never seen a doctor. Can you imagine that?”
But it takes a lot to run a hospital.
“It’s one thing to build a building and another to build the infrastructure to support the building,” Hageman said. “I believe what I read recently in Haiti is they don’t have a functioning electrical grid. So they utilize generators overwhelmingly to provide electricity for homes or businesses. So we can build buildings, and that’s great. But if we don’t also help build electrical infrastructure, and with our modern era now to think of the internet cables and all that type of stuff, it doesn’t do as much good.”
And Huelskamp is well aware of these challenges.
“The reason I want to build a hospital is I want people to be able to afford it,” said Huelskamp. “I want them to be able to have access. But there is no electricity there, and you can’t do anything without electricity. We lack a lot of things. But I know if I build a hospital between (the northern Haitian cities of) Plaisance, where I come from, and Cap-Haitien, I would have people from there and Gonaives. To put it in the middle, I would have a lot of people come there. I am not doing this to make money, I’m doing it to make people’s lives better because life is important.”
A changing life
For Huelskamp, who speaks and sings four languages, including French and Spanish in addition to Haitian Creole and English, it does not matter who she is singing to or caring for.
As thrilling as it was to perform in Toronto, live-streamed to a worldwide audience, Shega is available for performances with area organizations, too.
“If any organizations just want a little uplifting entertainment or positive motivation, she’s a very positive person,” Bishell said. “And I think she’d like to get that message through her songs out there to people that life is good and to live our lives as best we can.”
And even if she might still be staying humble and grounded, Shega thinks that the sky is the limit for how she can affect the world with her music.
“Anything you start in life, you have to have a ‘Why?’” she said. “Otherwise you will give up, and you cannot give up. You have to be devoted. I don’t do music just because I love music. I care so much for humanity and the happiness in the world. I am ready to move on, and I am not going to stick with one type of music. I’m ready to hit several topics, like hunger in the world, freedom of the people who fight for us and love.”
Shega has even written a song about Christmas in Ohio.
“Christmas in Ohio is very special,” she said. “I was hoping my producer can get it going, but everybody is busy traveling this time of year, but we are working to put it on track.”
And now that she has reached this level of success, Shega has been doing a media tour in Florida, doing interviews with local radio shows and meeting with producers and potential collaborators.
It is all part of a plan, though.
“I know I can find a good producer in Ohio,” she said. “I’m so used to working with big studios, but because I am moving forward, I want to start singing country songs too. I want to put my foot in the door here. I don’t want to do one thing and sing only for this category of people. I want to sing for anyone. I just want the well-being of humanity. I want to see people happy. And maybe one day I’ll be live on your TV.”
Huelskamp can be found on Youtube and Instagram under the name “ShegaHaiti,” as well as on Facebook as Shega Sageh.
Her music can be found on Youtube, Spotify and Apple Music.
Reach Jacob Espinosa at 567-242-0399.