What is Wyclef Trying to Save in Haiti?

Peter van Agtmael/Magnum, for The New York Times

Published: July 15, 2011

Wyclef Jean was in a rare state: nervous. He was trying to stick to his new role of wonky Haitian statesman, but the road kept distracting him. We were driving through Port-au-Prince as dusk fell, and he would interrupt his own discourse on trade rules or egg imports to ask the driver why a fire was burning on the roadside or to complain that our headlights were tempting danger or to mumble that the police escort, which he suspected of working for the opposition, shouldn’t sound its sirens.

It was three days before Haiti’s presidential election, on March 20. Jean, a Haitian-born rapper, producer and star of the now-disbanded Fugees, had mounted his own run for the presidency but was disqualified from the race because he lives in the United States. When I went to Haiti to meet him, he was stumping for Michel Martelly, a musician who goes by the stage name Sweet Micky, has a well-known history of public nudity and has admitted to using crack cocaine. Martelly might have been the candidate, but with Jean performing at many campaign stops and making the longer speeches, it often seemed as if he were the one running. Jean’s role was to revive the support he had garnered during his own campaign and transfer it to a candidate who was a somewhat less famous version of himself. (It worked. Martelly would be inaugurated as president of Haiti in May.)

Martelly sought the presidency; Jean, something more elusive. Before the 2010 earthquake and more loudly since, he has spoken of wanting to save Haiti from its miseries: crime, corruption, cholera, anemic job growth, swarming tent cities, fruitless aid and deep mistrust of the state. With his pal ascending to power and a whiff of hope in the air, Jean finally has his chance. At 41, he is striving to become a man of influence. While Jean plainly wants to do something for Haiti, there is also, it seems, much that he wants Haiti to do for him.

From a whitewashed hotel in the hills, we descended toward Cité Soleil, Haiti’s most notorious shantytown. Along the route were houses and shops chewed on or swallowed whole by the earthquake 14 months ago. Darkness was coming, and the street life fell away as we approached. Jean now claimed to hear a report on the radio of threats to Martelly’s convoy made by supporters of the rival presidential campaign. “They’re saying our candidate can’t get into Cité Soleil,” he said, treating it more as dare than discouragement. “And I’m bringing him into Cité Soleil.”

All at once, a throng encircled us, climbing onto the vehicle. These men were on Sweet Micky’s side. Jean’s aides, thumbing their BlackBerrys, said shots had been fired in Cité Soleil. But this, apparently, was no reason to alter our plans. The bodyguards pried open the doors of our S.U.V. and told us to run toward a stage that had been set up in the middle of the shantytown. The crowd surged around us. We were enclosed by a ring of bodyguards, but I could feel hands searching deep into my pockets. The scent of sweat and rum and panted breath surrounded us.

We somehow made it to the stage. Below Sweet Micky and Jean was a sea of screaming faces. Martelly delivered his speech, promising a break from the past, leavening the message with a song. But he was merely the opener. Jean, wearing a blue plaid shirt, low-hanging jeans and black Timberlands, exhorted and sang in his raspy, quivering voice. If Haiti is to change, he thundered, it must begin with Cité Soleil.

A crazed man approached. Everyone ignored him except Jean, who bent all the way over to hear him. A slip or pull would have plunged him into that vast human crush, but Jean, who can be paranoid about Haitian officialdom, about its police and politicians, seemed the only one in the campaign not afraid of its crowds. This was, his brother, Sam, later speculated to me, because of something Wyclef perceived growing up in the bleak landscape of the Marlboro projects in Brooklyn, New York: when among Haitians — perhaps only among Haitians — you are safe.

As we returned to the S.U.V., a loud crackle punctured the night. The crowd dispersed. The security men, armed and protected by bulletproof vests, said it was semiautomatic gunfire.

Afterward, Jean continued his soliloquy. “How did I get in this situation?” he asked. “I’m just a rock star.” There were several other shantytowns on the evening’s itinerary. Jean put his hand on my shoulder: “Guess what? You with the right dude, you hear me? Nothing’s going to happen to us, baby, you feel me? We live for a reason, right? And we better die for the right reason.”

As a boy in the Marlboro projects, Jean said that his favored mode of breaking into a home was to pick the front-door lock, then exit through a window. His Haitian crew would arrange a stack of mattresses below to catch him. “My nickname in the ’hood used to be Speedy, you know what I’m saying?” Jean told me. “You know why they called me Speedy? I would get into your house, and I would get out in 30 to 31 seconds.”

He arrived in Brooklyn at age 9, the son of a Haitian garment worker who moonlighted as a Nazarene minister and named him after John Wycliffe, an early translator of the Bible into English. (His last name is pronounced “Jean, as in Jean Paul Gaultier, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” his brother wrote in an e-mail.) Jean’s reception in America was full of taunts. “You know what HBO is?” his peers would ask. “Haitian Body Odor.” His brother, Sam, told me that the two of them were regularly mugged. But Wyclef soon made the leap from victim to aspiring thug. His solution to displacement, he told me, was to cleave to those who understood him “automatically.” He surrounded himself with a group of Haitians who protected one another.

Jean was shaped by the usual crosscurrents of immigrant life: speaking Creole at home and grappling with English in school; playing in his father’s church band and succumbing to less-lofty neighborhood temptations; realizing his good fortune in escaping Haiti yet clinging to his fellow Haitians in Brooklyn.

Inspired by the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash and other rap artists, Jean began to freestyle. His father, Gesner Jean, loathed rap, but the elder’s influence was still present in the son’s music. Sam Jean recalled how his brother called himself the “preacher’s son” and used a preacher’s metaphors: “crucifying” opponents; slaying them without chance of “resurrection”; selling them as Joseph was sold into Egypt.

Meanwhile, he was regularly escorted home by the police or castigated by neighborhood elders for fighting and stealing and other activities that he hesitates to detail. When a young cousin was killed, his father tried to improve things by moving the family to New Jersey cities that were hardly more peaceful — first East Orange, then Newark. His mother’s response was more effective; she took note of his musical gifts. One day, according to family lore, the church’s accordion player fell sick, and Jean began to play the instrument, without prior experience. He is said also to have learned the organ, drums and trombone in this way. His mother bought him a guitar when he was in his early teens. “Replace the gun with this,” Jean recalls her saying.

Jean found in the instrument a power to command respect. “I just always remembered the hardest dudes, like, ‘Yo Clef, come play that Bob Marley tune you be playing’ — and this is in the ’hood,” he said. “I’m going make y’all respect the Haitians — by any means necessary.”

Before long he started the Fugees, with his close friend Pras Michel and the singer Lauryn Hill; then came his successful solo career and his work as a hit-making producer for Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston, Shakira and others. But Jean decided he wanted to make his mark in Haiti. He had done philanthropic work there for years, but the 2010 earthquake, which the United States Agency for International Development said killed as many as 85,000 people, gave him a fresh sense of urgency. He began to see what his legacy might be: the singer who “lived in New York his whole life” and “did a few charity things,” as he put it. “No, it’s like, we have to find a way to push these people forward — even if it’s an inch forward.”

Jean has been trying to push people forward since 2005, when he founded the charity Yéle Haiti. But its reputation has been marred by accusations that range from incompetence to outright malfeasance. As donations poured in after the earthquake, experts began to scrutinize Yéle’s tax filings and found it difficult to tell where Jean’s aid to others ended and aid to himself and his associates began. The filings listed several activities with virtuous goals: feeding slum dwellers; underwriting scholarships; paying people to collect trash. But many details rang alarms. In some years the foundation’s expenditures were greater than the money it raised (2007 revenues: $79,129; 2007 expenses: $569,050), and it spent vast amounts on salaries, publicity and travel. Yéle repeatedly bought services from companies that Jean co-owns. It leased office space from one of his businesses, bought $250,000 in television time from another and even paid Jean for performing at a concert to benefit Yéle. The justification the charity gave in its I.R.S. form — “the fees paid for these services are substantially less than market value” — did not square with Jean’s declared willingness to sacrifice for his country of birth.

“Avoid this organization” is the simple advice of Ken Berger, chief executive of the philanthropic watchdog group Charity Navigator, when asked about Yéle. “What are the priorities of this organization? Is it really mission-driven, or is it more supporting the celebrity and financing him and his personal career?”

One of Haiti’s leading businessmen suggested to me that it might be a mix of the two. Maarten Boute, the Belgian-born chief executive of Digicel Haiti, a cellphone company that is among of the country’s largest enterprises, knows Jean socially, and the assessment he offered, equal parts admiring and critical, distilled much of what I had already heard. Boute cast Jean as a well-intentioned man who wants to bend Haiti’s trajectory but doesn’t quite know how. Boute praised Yéle’s relief work — for example, the distribution of rehydration kits during the cholera outbreak, which he witnessed. But, compared with the best charities, Boute said, Yéle’s work fails to “solve the problem at the roots”; it focuses too much on its own visibility. And when Boute sees Jean swirling through Port-au-Prince in a hulking S.U.V., surrounded by his boys, looking very much like a rapper en route to a bottle-service-only club, it leaves Boute wondering. “It’s quite difficult, even speaking to him,” he told me, “to really understand what are his real motivations.”

Last year, Jean tearfully acknowledged some of the poor accounting practices at Yéle. When he began his candidacy for president, he stepped down from Yéle’s board, but he remains deeply involved in its work, and he and those around him insist that his intentions are sincere. As his brother put it to me: “If Clef needed Yéle to make money, he’d be in big trouble.” Wyclef himself favors a language of martyrdom when speaking of his return to Haiti. Of his run for office, he asserted, “To be the president of Haiti is a sacrifice.” He ran, he says, because those in power were failing. And he points to the fact that even after being disqualified, he has remained involved: he speaks of wanting to spend more time in Haiti, to shape its trade policy, get laptops for its children, advise its new president, build a business in the country. “They probably assumed that, O.K., after they rejected me, I would move on,” Jean said. “But my mission for the country is deeper. You read books, and you see men that define times. Your date of birth is set; your death date is set. But there are moments where history splits — like how A.D. and B.C. split in the middle.”

I don’t know who sent those chicks, but they was off the hook!” a sideways-hatted young man said, striding into breakfast at the Karibe Hotel. He belonged to the entourage of the rapper Busta Rhymes, whom Jean had brought down to perform at a campaign rally for Martelly, after the visit to Cité Soleil. Busta had been robbed at his own concert the night before, but there seemed to be no hard feelings this morning, because someone had sent some Marabou women, a term for mixed-race Haitians, upstairs to meet the entourage. Now more members of the group came down, joined by one of the women — voluptuous and young, her eyes darting nervously about.

We were headed to Les Cayes, one of the largest cities in Haiti, 120 miles away. As we left Port-au-Prince, the brown earth turned green and caked riverbeds ceded to lush coast. The population thinned, as did the number of armed foreign peacekeepers. The bay was to one side, palm groves and paddies to the other. “This is more what the whole country should look like, you know what I mean?” Jean said, looking out of the window.

His thoughts switched to his daughter, Angelina. It was her sixth birthday. He felt guilty for missing it and was in charge of getting a white pony for her party. He was trying to reach his wife, Claudinette, to whom he has been married since 1994. At last, at 3 p.m., success: he sang “Happy Birthday” over the phone to his daughter back in New Jersey.

Driving through the countryside, he buzzed with ideas of all that he could do. When he saw machinery lying fallow, he cited it as proof that Haiti has equipment but needs more skills, and he made a mental note to work on vocational schools. “We have to be able to negotiate our national production at some kind of level,” he said, “like, we can’t be reduced to just dirt.” He asked me what I’d heard about the One Laptop Per Child project, an American initiative to provide cheap computers to developing countries. He and his driver debated the merits of build-operate-transfer project financing, in which governments grant concessions to private companies to improve infrastructure. The coastline appeared again, and seeing it reminded Jean of his commercial ambitions. He mused about building a massive hotel on the beach, called the W. J., that would pay him to perform monthly. “You know how Sinatra did Vegas?” he said. “So why can’t Wyclef do Haiti?” This led to another idea: he could build one of those much-needed vocational schools near the hotel to train Haitians in the hospitality industry.

Night fell over the highway to Les Cayes. We had spent the day much as we had the day before: making pit stops so that Jean and Martelly could get out of the car and wade fleetingly into the crowds; attending a rally or two, where speeches mingled with song; and, after dark, giving a concert. The mood in the convoy was festive; the concert tonight would officially conclude the campaign. But Jean was agitated, because photographs from his daughter’s birthday party had not yet arrived. Around 9 p.m., he called his wife again: “Send me pictures, send me pictures, send me pictures. Nothing. I didn’t get nothing, man.” He played for sympathy: “Can y’all send me pictures tonight, please? That’s the only thing I have. I’m in the middle of nowhere — please.”

We shared a pint or so of Roi des Coqs rum and went to the concert. An open square of the city was packed with thousands upon thousands of people, roaring as Jean, Martelly and others took turns performing. When the show ended, at midnight, several aggressive young men pushed past the bodyguards and onto the stage, grabbing T-shirts, wallets and rubber campaign bracelets. Typically, Jean’s instinct is to lean into the crowds, but this was too much even for him. He began to shout at the men. There was some pushing. And then Jean, arms violently flailing, began to spin around and around like a top, just like in kung fu movies. The thugs were stunned into retreat.

The following night, I was in my hotel room and noticed something peculiar on my laptop. I began to acquire a new Twitter follower every few minutes. I had been posting updates from Haiti, but why this sudden surge of interest? At midnight, I saw a message addressed to me: “Hey @AnandWrites is it true that Wyclef was shot?”

The next day, rumors circulated that Jean hadn’t been shot and had in fact been cut by glass. Before I left Haiti, Jean called to give me his version, which he said he hadn’t shared with the police because he didn’t trust them: He had been with a musician friend named FanFan and his driver. He got out of the car when someone needed a bladder break. He was on the phone, and “everything happened really, really fast,” he said. “When FanFan heard the pop pop, we couldn’t really make it out, you know what I’m saying? I looked at my hand, and my hand had blood in it, and my sneakers had blood in it. It still didn’t look crazy, because it was a graze.” He told the driver, “Let’s go to Karibe.”

Why the five-star hotel before the hospital?

“You know how I like to move in an entourage,” Jean told me.

Jean’s people eventually sent me what purported to be a medical report. It made matters even murkier. Splitting the difference between rival theories, it said that Jean was wounded by glass shattered by a projectile.

After the incident, Sam Jean made his brother promise that he would not return to Haiti for a while. Jean promised, then days later returned to Haiti anyway. He’s been back a few more times since. He can afford to dabble in a world of chaos and violence, Sam told me with resignation, because he himself has escaped it, because it is no longer really his.

“The Bible speaks of being in the world but not of it,” Sam said. “You can be in that world, but not be of it anymore.”


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4 thoughts on “What is Wyclef Trying to Save in Haiti?

  1. Petion-Ville’s chief of police laughed and said it was a glass cut, immediately after the media blitz started. He appeared on television.

    It first Wyclef had a bandaid over the scratch and the, the next day, he had a huge bandage and a sling. Photographs, at the hospital, showed a small cut, on the back of his hand, and a little blood.

    Sort of like the guy who starts a fire and then reports it.

    Always seeks center stage. When it was slipping away he created an imaginary attack.

    And the article starts with him worrying about headlights drawing trouble.

    What a pile of crap.

    He was never in any danger, wherever he went, in Haiti, unless it was from a cocaine overdose, if rumours are to be believed.


    1. Wyclef should go back to Brooklyn, where he is from.

  2. Wycle is an embarrassment.Come to think of it, so is Martelly.
    Problem is, Martelly is president and Wyclef is just a jerk.

  3. yeah, he may be a jerk, but he is our jerk. He is one of ours…
    and he has done more for the country than a lot of haitians ever had.

    and us Haitians need to stop treating the Diaspora as if they are not one of ours. They are the ones who make the Haitian economy roll. still

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