Claire Prentice, writing for The Scotsman, offers this profile of Haitian musician Wyclef Jean in anticipation of a possible announcement of a run for the Haitian presidency in the forth coming elections.
Two years ago Wyclef Jean released a song titled “If I Was President.” Last week life imitated art as the star arrived in Haiti to meet with lawyers amid rumours that he is considering running for president of the devastated Caribbean country. If he decides to stand, analysts say the Haitian-born star, viewed by many in Haiti as the country’s prodigal son, would easily win the presidency in November’s election.
Jean, who came to prominence with The Fugees, is hugely popular in his birth country where 80 per cent of the population live below the poverty line. Asked about the possibility of running, Jean told reporters: “I can’t sing forever.”
But the 37-year-old hip-hop singer, known as Clef by family and friends, is keeping his cards close to his chest, adding: “If we decide to move forward, I am pretty sure that we have all our paperwork straight.” Also in the frame is Jean’s uncle, Raymond Alcide Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States since 2005, who announced his intention to run last week. Candidates have until 7 August to formally enter the race.
Though the singer’s popularity will help, critics have questioned how well qualified he is to run the Caribbean country at one of the most challenging times in its history. Haiti’s infrastructure is still in ruins after January’s earthquake, and the tiny nation has an unenviable history of corruption, political murder and macabre authoritarianism. For years under the control of the chilling “Papa Doc” Duvalier and the Tonton Macoute, his voodoo-inspired, machete-wielding thugs, Haiti has lurched from political crisis to political crisis before being punished again, this time by nature.
Jean has an undeniable way with words, a useful skill for a politician. And he wouldn’t be the first celebrity to be tempted by the world of politics, but he may need the people skills of Ronald Reagan, the glamour of Imran Khan and the muscle of Arnold Schwarzenegger to make an impact in his homeland.
Despite emigrating to America with his family as a boy, Jean has maintained his Haitian citizenship and was made an ambassador-at-large of Haiti by the country’s president, René Préval, in 2007. Supporters point to the former Fugees star’s humanitarian work, not to mention his evident business nous. However, his track record isn’t unblemished.
After the magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck in January this year, killing an estimated 230,000 people and leaving more than a million homeless, Jean swung into action, travelling the world to secure aid. Within 24 hours he had raised more than $1 million through his humanitarian Yéle Haiti Foundation. But his charity came under fire after website The Smoking Gun accused him of using money from the foundation for personal gain in the years prior to the earthquake.
One report claimed Jean paid his own Haitian TV station $250,000 using money from the charity. Though Jean publicly admitted that his foundation had made operational mistakes and had got behind on taxes, at a tearful press conference he said: “Have I made mistakes? Yes. Did I use Yéle money for personal gains? Absolutely not.”
The singer, who has made no secret of his desire to become a 21st-century Bob Marley, was born the son of a preacher in Croix des Bouquet, Haiti, in 1972. The family lived in a tiny hut with no roof and dirt floors. They fled Papa Doc’s son Baby Doc’s brutal regime and moved to New York when Jean was nine, settling as illegal immigrants in the Marlborough projects in a poor neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Jean recalls looking out of the window of the plane, catching his first glimpse of New York, and saying to his brother: “We have arrived. The city of diamonds. We’re rich now.”
The family later moved to New Jersey and Jean got a job at the local Burger King, though was later fired. As a teenager he defied his strict disciplinarian father and dabbled on the wrong side of the law. Aged 13, he got his hands on a shotgun and along with a cousin held up a grocery store. Aged 16, he stole $500 from his father’s church. Driving away from the church with the money on the passenger seat, he described having an epiphany and seeing that music could be his passport out of the ghetto.
The turning point came when Jean teamed up with Lauryn Hill and his cousin Prakazrel “Pras” Michel to found The Fugees in the mid-1990s. Their album The Score sold more than 18 million copies worldwide and earned them a Grammy Award. Jean later said of the band: “The Fugees never wanted to be famous, the Fugees was a movement beyond the music – that’s why I called it Fugees, short for Refugees.”
In 1997, Jean announced his intention to go solo, and went on to have a number of multi-platinum solo projects, including the Grammy-nominated Gone Till November. Like many hip-hop artists, Jean has taken personal control of nearly every aspect of his career, setting up his own record label, Clef Records, producing, composing and arranging his own work as well as other artists in his midtown Manhattan studio, Platinum Sound.
One of the most in-demand producers in the business, he’s worked with everyone from Bono and Mick Jagger to Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan. But his greatest successes have come from producing and collaborating with artists such as Destiny’s Child, Shakira and Whitney Houston. In 1994, he married fashion designer Marie Claudinette and the pair adopted daughter Angelina in 2005 from Haiti.
The Fugees briefly reformed for a reunion tour in 2005, though the album which was said to be in the works never materialised amid rumours of infighting.
Pras told website AllHipHop.com: “Before I work with Lauryn Hill again, you will have a better chance of seeing Osama bin Laden and [George W] Bush in Starbucks having a latte, discussing foreign policies, before there will be a Fugees reunion.”
Many poor Haitians will be praying that Jean’s magic touch in the world of music might help transform the country. The lyrics to his song If I Was President read: “An old man told me, instead of spending billions on the war/we can use some of that money, in the ghetto.” But the chorus is more sombre: “If I was president/I’d get elected on Friday, assassinated on Saturday/and buried on Sunday.” Given Haiti’s murky political past, Jean’s fans will be praying the song is not a prophecy.
The profile appeared originally at http://news.scotsman.com/features/Profile-Wyclef-Jean.6450635.jp