When Wyclef Jean heard that Haiti had been hit by a 7.0 Richter earthquake on January 12th, he sprang into action. Jean, a proud Haitian by birth, a member of the diaspora that immigrated to the United States in the late 1970s, immediately went to Port-au-Prince to make himself useful. Upon arriving, his first instinct was to check in with Haitian president René Préval. “I landed the day after the quake,” Jean says. “I looked into Préval’s eyes, which were anguished. And he said, ‘Man, you don’t know what you’re going to see when you get on the other side of Port-au-Prince. It’s the apocalypse.'”
Jean soon saw for himself. Port-au-Prince was in wicked ruin. Children were lying in alleys on cardboard boxes, missing limbs. Morphine was in short supply, so the seriously injured were writhing in pain. More than 230,000 Haitians were declared dead. Tent cities without sanitation services were spontaneously erected. Humanitarian aid was coming in from all across the globe but not fast enough to alleviate the mass suffering. “Everything was so bad,” Jean recalls. “Everything was broken. It was a body blow hard to put into words.”
Eight months later, Haiti’s problems can hardly be overestimated. Forty-seven percent of the population is illiterate; the country cannot produce enough food to feed itself. Due to a primitive health care system that was dysfunctional long before the quake, the infant-mortality rate in Haiti is the worst in the Western Hemisphere. A staggering portion of Haitians of voting age are in their twenties or younger. Most of the 9 million citizens live on less than $2 a day.
What has disturbed Jean the most about post-quake Haiti, aside from the abject suffering, is how the nation’s political system has utterly failed the traumatized people. As Jean sees it, older politicians don’t understand the aspirations of Haiti’s teeming younger population. And so, on August 5th, Wyclef surprised the world by announcing that he’d run for president. “I’m energizing these kids on a whole new level, going into different rough areas, real rough areas where they have a lot of gangs, and saying, ‘OK, put down your gun for a job.'”
The old guard immediately shouted foul. “They called me a gang leader,” Jean says. Others, including Pras Michel, his former Fugees bandmate, questioned his experience and intelligence, comparing him to Sarah Palin. He was attacked for not being able to speak French, the language of the Haitian elite. Within days of his announcement, pundits challenged his candidacy, saying that because he had supposedly not been a Haitian resident for the past five years, he was ineligible to run.
Jean interpreted this as a telling sign that the establishment was afraid of him. “Just like Barack started a whole new youth movement, so can I,” he says. “We need a global president who can work with global donors. Haiti doesn’t need another local leader that all they do is speak French. I’ll get the youths organized all around the world. I know I’m fit to do it.”
The jet-setting Jean is the world’s most high-profile Haitian. At home, he is treated as a symbol of national pride — a rare success in a culture of brokenness. Jean is deeply learned in Haitian history, and imbued with an almost surreal self-confidence. His chief selling point as a candidate is an unshakable sense of his own righteousness. He cringes at the cartoonish image of himself as a flashy gangster riding private jets into Port-au-Prince for weekend photo-ops among the downtrodden and mismanagement of his Yéle Haiti foundation. Dressed in a striped suit with a red corporate tie, Jean came to the offices of Rolling Stone in New York on August 9th to discuss, for two hours, his hubristic decision to occupy the National Palace in Port-au-Prince, a monumental edifice currently in ruins.
Jean sees himself as representing a new style of leadership — pragmatic and progressive but still a rock star at heart. He’s as loved in the slums and shanties as Bob Marley, as loved in Davos as Bono. One of his closest advisers in his new political incarnation is Kerry Kennedy, the 50-year-old daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy. They are so tight, he jokes that he’s her “other brother.”
Some of his ideas are grandiose: He wants to tap his megawealthy friends to invest millions to turn Haiti into a tourist magnet. Other goals are more ethereal — he dreams of uniting all of Haiti’s warring gangs and tribes. “If it was just another pop musician running for president, politicians wouldn’t care to sit with me,” says Jean. “But my track record shows, from the U.N. to the World Food Program, that this is something I’ve always been doing.”
Are you worried somebody’s going to pull a fast one on you and say you’re not qualified?
Before I was in the game, everybody coveted my support. But once I announced, the opposition started looking to exclude me. They are thinking seven chess moves ahead on how they can checkmate me. I can’t ignore that. But I have lawyers.
What will you do if you can’t get on the ballot? Will you go away quietly?
If that happens, I have to be willing to accept that as law, and not provoke my people to erupt. At the end of the day, the law is the law. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to challenge the judicial system if we feel like there’s foul play. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, even if I am excluded. The movement will continue right up until election day on November 28th.
Why did you decide to run?
The earthquake taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of infrastructure — which is something we take for granted in America. No matter how much money you raise or how much awareness you bring to a cause, if a country has little to no infrastructure, you cannot get relief to the people. If you want to build infrastructure and generate real political change, you have to be involved in the political process.
When did you decide?
After the quake, so many candidates came to me, it was wild. One day I was sitting with my brother, and he says, “Clef, for Christ’s sakes, everybody’s calling you, asking for your support. You might as well run yourself. Because the Haitian youth aren’t going to trust power in the hands of anyone else.”
What is your message to them?
I think the youth in Haiti are hopeful. Even after the earthquake, you saw kids neatly dressed headed to school in spite of the devastation all around them. Children in Haiti have an incredible love of education. But many families simply cannot afford to send their children to school. I am not talking about going to college, I am talking about basic education, giving young people technical skills. With the billions of aid promised to Haiti, jobs will be created. We need an educated workforce, and that starts with the youth. I feel that if someone gives you their vote, that means that they’re putting their life in your hands. I feel it’s important, even if you don’t have all the answers yet, to address the nation and say, “This is what I want to do, this is what I’m waiting for, this is the roadblock, stay with me. You’re in a tent, I have not forgotten you, we’re working on a plan to get you out.”
One of the other candidates is your uncle, Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States. Will you really run against your own uncle?
Yes, it will just make it more interesting [laughs].
What are his weaknesses? There must be some, or you wouldn’t run against him.
He’s going to read this in Rolling Stone, I don’t want to get a whuppin’ …
Did he call you and say, “What the hell are you doing, Clef?”
We’ve spoken many times. My uncle has always been into politics. He started the first Haitian newspaper in New York, called Haiti Observateur. He was the first person to translate the New Testament into Creole. We had a lot of debates in the house. He has very strong views on how he sees Haiti. I see it different. I came to America. I lived in the housing projects of Brooklyn. But before the projects, I was in a Haitian hut. So the comparison is, for me, I went from nothing to something. Up from the hut. The American dream. I know American history, I know English history, I know French history, I know what happened in history. But as a 21st-century Haitian, am I going to dwell on those difficult days? Or am I going to say, “I have no time for what happened in the past. I know what it is, but we’re working towards the present”? That’s my whole campaign policy.
You are almost as well-known for performing Bob Marley songs as your own. Will you be breaking out “Redemption Song” or “No Woman, No Cry” while you’re campaigning?
“Redemption Song” is a great song. I would sing that song anywhere. I grew up in the church. My dad was a Nazarene minister. Bob Marley is like church. He had a way of bringing biblical stories to modern times and into everything that’s going on. As a poor Haitian, I could naturally relate to where he came from, listening to the struggle: “Them belly full, but we hungry”… or “Exodus, movement of Jah people.” You could take all of his music and use it as a political platform.
You were born in Haiti but moved with your parents to Brooklyn when you were nine. Was that difficult for you?
When we got to America, we were thrilled. We were even happy in the projects until, of course, they started teasing us, calling us “boat people,” “Go back to your country” and AIDS stuff. Automatically, we became rebellious toward the hazing. You could take our sneakers only so many times. My mom would tell you, “Clef was a very tough kid.” But after I’d seen cousins get killed, Haitian friends go to prison and get deported, I wanted to stand up for my people. I’ll always remember, my mom bought me a guitar, and she was like, “Whatever you’re trying to express, this is the best weapon for you to express it with.” And it changed me.
Was there tension between the African-Americans and the West Indians?
Yeah, big time. If you had a funny accent you were considered boat people. That’s one of the reasons I started rapping. I wanted to sound like them so I could explain to them we are from the same place.
What do you think the United States has done right? And, as a corollary, what has it misunderstood about Haiti?
The psychology of the Haitian people is important for people to understand. I call Haiti the last of the Africas in the Caribbean. If you spend time here, you will have a fuller understanding of the mystique and psyche of how quick these people can be with you, then against you. The United States has sent a lot of money to Haiti. But a lot of that money has been completely mismanaged. Why is it mismanaged? Because the United States has to understand that every place you go in Haiti is like a different tribe, and they have different agendas. You see a lot of money going into Haiti, and the population can’t read and write? On the list, it says “money for agriculture.” Are you kidding me? “Money for seed and fertilizer” add up to this? The money has to be monitored properly.
If you have an Achilles’ heel as a candidate, it’s the mismanagement you had in your own Yéle Haiti funds. You’ve called it an accounting blunder: What if a critic says, “If you couldn’t manage those millions, how could you deal with billions of foreign-aid dollars coming in?”
The situation in Yéle Haiti, the person that was managing those finances, that accounting firm, was not good, so what did I do? I brought in the right accountants, and we moved forward and made everything transparent. This is what’s called governance — to be a leader, you have to be willing to take responsibility, and that’s why I’m comfortable with answering the questions over and over again.
How does your mother feel about you running for president?
My mom’s basically just a church woman. She worked for me her entire life, so my whole existence is to make sure that she’s OK every day. I said, “Mama, you never wanted me to get into politics, you said it was dangerous, but I just want you to know that I’m thinking about running for the president of Haiti.” Surprisingly, my mother said, “If this is the move you want to make, then be brave about it, and understand it’s going to be heavy. So if you’re going to give your country five years, give them the best five years and make sure that you have a security team like Barack Obama” [laughs].
Do you worry about someone taking a shot at you?
If you look it up on the Internet, you’ll see my assassination was plotted a few times. The last time I went to Haiti, I felt a little uneasy when the government pulled the police force off of me. I had no security. No one wants to be assassinated. But the violence which lies in Haiti, it’s so much that people barely investigate it, it’s almost like, “OK, man, we told you, Clef, if you go here, you’re going in a high-risk zone.” But what should I do, say, “There’s a chance I’m going to get killed, so I’ll just sit back and watch this country topple to the ground in the next few years”? That’s not in my DNA.
What do you say to the people who think you should wait your turn? You are only 40, you have plenty of time.
I can’t wait. It’s a gut feeling. More than half of the country is under 21 — those are the people who need me. If I’m forced to wait, I feel like I will have done my country a disservice. There’s a way to restart this country and rebuild it from scratch.