Jacmel, Haiti — The smell of burning garbage and excrement fills the air as Wyclef Jean tours a slum outside this resort town. Shacks made of corrugated aluminum, with no electricity or running water, line the mud-and-rock streets. Mothers thrust their babies into the arms of the Haiti-born musician, as barefoot children in tattered shirts gather to touch his skin. In late November, Jean returned to Haiti to host Yéle-Fest, a weeklong arts and culture festival created to promote Haiti's tourism industry and the work of Yéle Haiti, a nonprofit group Wyclef founded to help respond to the Caribbean nation's overwhelming poverty.
The ex-Fugee speaks in Haitian Creole to the locals who have gathered, exhorting them not to give up hope. Rolling out of the area on a BMW motorcycle, Jean is trailed by kids on foot, on bicycle and a few on motorbikes, chanting "Wee-Clef! Wee-Clef!" As he rides into the Haitian countryside, Jean gathers a ragtag motorcade of bikers who jockey for position near him. Helmetless, he smiles and waves at passersby. On a scenic stretch of road between the Caribbean Sea and rolling green hills, Jean leans over and says, "Isn't my country beautiful?"
In addition to founding Yéle Haiti — the most comprehensive relief organization operating in the country — Wyclef has founded a Haitian record label, Sak Pasé ("What's Up?" in Creole), and is personally investing in Haiti's first luxury resort, hoping to spur a tourism boom and create thousands of jobs for the country. The musician's dedication to his home country has made him a mythical figure here, revered by everyone from slum-dwellers to president René Préval, who met with Jean during his visit.
During Yéle-Fest ("yéle" is Creole slang for "shout"), which kicked off on November 24th, Wyclef gave toys and cash to kids at a local orphanage, hosted a seminar to mark World AIDS Day and, on Friday, played a free concert on the beach in Jacmel — his first public show in Haiti in eight years — which was attended by more than 20,000 people. "Wyclef is like the Haitian Moses," says Jimmy O, the country's most famous rapper, who helped Jean judge a contest that challenged hopeful MCs to write about health issues. "He's coming to lead his people out of misery."
Wyclef grew up in La Sair, a small town outside the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. "Electricity didn't play a factor in my village — I had no idea what a television was," says Wyclef, 34. "Transportation was basically walking through mud, either that or a donkey." Wyclef's parents moved to America when he was a baby and left him with relatives. When he was nine years old, his parents brought him to Brooklyn. "When I left, I told everybody 'I'm going to be back,' " he says. "They told me that America is the country of diamonds. So I was like, 'I'm going to go cop some diamonds and bring 'em back here.' "
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; most of its 8 million citizens live on less than two dollars a day. Political instability, AIDS, catastrophic floods and violent crime have plagued the country for years. Founded in 2004, Yéle Haiti gets the bulk of its corporate funding from Voilé, the country's largest cell-phone provider, and operates nineteen programs that, among other things, distribute food, train teachers, improve sanitation and provide student scholarships.
On the beach in Jacmel Friday night, Wyclef told fans — some of whom had been camped out by the stage for more than eighteen hours — "It's time to build a new Haiti." He played a wide-ranging four-hour set, including hits like "Hips Don't Lie" and "Gone Till November," as well as traditional Creole songs, and invited numerous Haitian musicians to perform. The chaotic show was repeatedly interrupted as fans rushed the stage to hug the star.
Throughout his visit, Jean insisted on minimal security as he stopped to talk to hundreds of Haitians. "I won't turn anybody away," he says. "People may not have anything to eat. They think, 'Man, we're going to die today.' I always have to give somebody a minute. Maybe there's a word that I could tell them that would carry them to the next day."