Wyclef Jean, “Clef” to his friends, is one of the reigning superstars of the hip-hop music world. His twenty-year long musical career has explored a variety of musical elements and styles beyond the world of hip-hop. He first enjoyed commercial success with the Fugees in the 1990s and has enjoyed considerable success as a solo artist since 1997. Jean has always been proud of his Haitian heritage. The textures and rhythms of Haitian music and culture have always played a prominent role in Jean’s music. Jean’s musical success and celebrity has afforded him the opportunity to serve as a cultural ambassador at large and spokesperson for his native Haiti.
Jean’s socially tinged lyrics and Caribbean rhythms have earned him the reputation as the Haitian Bob Marley. Marley was a role model for musical artists who wish to incorporate social and political themes in their music. Marley often used his celebrity status, as a reggae artist, to speak about social injustice and oppression in his native Jamaica and in the in the world at large. Jean adopts a similar approach in order to focus world attention on Haiti. In 2010 Jean decided take one step beyond Marley and run for political office in Haiti. The political climate in Haiti is notorious for corruption, cronyism, and violence. Jean explained, at the time, that he felt “called” to enter into the presidential race in Haiti. The motivating factor behind Jean’s decision was the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010. Jean’s couched his decision in semi-religious language and Messianic imagery, referring to himself as a latter day Moses for the Haitian people.
Jean was born in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti in 1969. When Jean was nine, he and his family moved to Brooklyn. The family moved to Newark, New Jersey when Jean was a teenager. He was deeply passionate about his music from an early age. He learned to speak English by listening to American rap records. His mother gave him his first guitar, in part, to discourage him from becoming involved in local gang activity. Jean quickly learned the guitar as well as numerous other musical instruments.
While still in high school, Jean formed the Fugees with his cousin Prakazrei “Praz” Michel and their friend Lauryn Hill. Michel is a Haitian immigrant as well. Jean, Michel, and Hill experimented with the traditional formula of hip-hop by incorporating different musical elements such as reggae and Haitian rhythms. The lyrical content of the songs focused on positive messages sung in a variety of languages. Columbia Records signed the trio to a record deal in 1993. At the time their name was Tranzlator Crew. They re-christened their band the Fugees after a legal dispute with another band with a similar name. The name Fugees pays homage to the band’s Haitian roots. “Fugees” is the shortened, Haitian-Creole version of “refugees.”
The recording career of the Fugees was incredibly successful but short lived. Their first album Blunted on Reality was released in1994. The Score was the second album and the album that made the band superstars. It produced a #1 hit hip-hop record, “Killing Me Softly,” which was a re-make of a Roberta Flack song. The band disbanded in 1997.
Jean released his first solo record The Carnival in 1997 featuring the “Refugee All-Stars.” The album blended a number of musical elements and featured a variety of guest artists including Cuban legend Celia Cruz, the Neville Brothers, and Bob Marley’s female backup vocalists. The record received critical acclaim and went multi-platinum. The album set the tone for Jean’s subsequent musical projects. Jean continues to explore various musical styles and continues to work with a wide range of musical collaborators such as Tom Jones, Shakira, Israeli violinist Miri Ben-Ari, Jones, Paul Simon, Norah Jones, and Mary J Bilge. Jean released an album of traditional Haitian Creole music called Welcome to Haitia: Creole 101.
In 2007 Haitian President Rene Preval recognized Jean as an ambassador at large for Haiti. Jean used his celebrity status to serve as a multicultural conscience for Haiti, hosting high profile charity events for Haiti.
Jean formed the Yele Foundation in 2005 in order to provide scholarships for Haitian children and to teach children about their rich cultural heritage. “Yele” is a Creole term that means “scream.” In a 60 Minutes interview on CBS, Jean explained that he chose the term, “Yele” for his foundation, “Because I want you to hear us.” The “you,” in question, is the world. In the same interview, Jean told Scott Pelley, “If I can get to a level where I start to get the rest of the world to care about Haiti, I feel that Yele has made a difference. The goals of the organization expanded after the 2010 earthquake to include emergency relief and food distribution.
Despite its good intentions, the Yele Foundation has been plagued with controversy and criticism over mismanagement, mishandling of funds, accounting errors, and filing exceedingly late tax returns. Jean admitted the errors and hired a Washington accounting firm to correct the problems.
Jean’s decision to shift from goodwill ambassador at large to the practical world of politics caught many off-guard, but is not terribly surprising for followers of Jean’s career. Although the decision seemed rash to some, Jean had in fact been contemplating a move into politics for some time. As mentioned above, the 2010 earthquake convinced Jean that the time was ripe. Jean’s political move was actually hinted at in his 2010 song and music video “If I Was President.”
Jean’s presidential bid was met with criticism and support. Some political observers welcomed his candidacy as a wild card and as a challenge to the political status quo. Others, such as Camille Chambers, the Director of the Haitian Platform to Advance Alternative Development, were very critical. “It’s a catastrophe,” he said, groaning. “It’s a reflection of the weakness of the political class of Haiti that the system is at the mercy of a mediagenic person who flies in from abroad.” The critics also cited Jean’s lack of political experience and his lack of fluency in French and Haitian-Creole as major obstacles as well.
In an article in the New York Times, Jean defended his candidacy by saying that he is a natural leader and that he will surround himself with “top notch policy experts.” Those more supportive of Jean’s presidential aspirations, such as the University of Virginia Haitian scholar Robert Fatton, made the argument that Jean’s celebrity status could invigorate the youthful population of Haiti, shine a media spotlight on the troubled world of Haitian politics, and open up sources of financial and cultural support for Haiti.
In the end, the Haiti Election Council disqualified Jean’s candidacy. Jean failed to meet that eligibility requirement that requires presidential candidates to live in Haiti five consecutive years prior to running for president. Jean was disappointed with the ruling but promised to continue his work and support for Haiti. In an article in The Washington Times about the Election Council’s decision Jean said: “I want to assure my countrymen that I will continue to work for Haiti’s renewal; though the board has determined that I am not a resident of Haiti, home is where the heart is — and my heart has and will always be in Haiti.”