Two weeks ago, Wyclef Jean hosted a dinner at trendy Manhattan restaurant Tao for roughly three dozen educators, politicians, spiritual leaders, and friends during which, under the watchful eye of the all-knowing Buddha that looms large over the main dining room, they hatched a strategy for his bid for the presidency of Haiti. Among those in attendance were Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, spiritual adviser to the late Michael Jackson, and members of the National Assembly of Haiti. Though the Haitian-born, New Jersey-bred Jean only officially declared his candidacy Wednesday, this dinner served as the unofficial launch of his campaign, with the assembled dignitaries acting as advisers.
“He understands the importance of Haiti not being viewed as an international charity, but as an international investment, which is vastly different,” says the rabbi.
“The conversation revolved around the hows and whats of getting a positive message out,” Rabbi Shmuley said in an interview Wednesday. “What is the central message, how do you organize your focus, what kind of opposition could he expect from the existing political structure, how might Haitian citizens react. The purpose of the dinner was for us in the U.S. to meet with the Haitian dignitaries to talk about the country’s problems and decide if Wyclef was the right fit to fix them.”
The answer, evidently, was a resounding yes.
“I’m definitely in support of his run for presidency,” says Rabbi Shmuley. “Haiti needs someone with international standing to galvanize the world’s support, reach out to the youth, and inspire the Haitian people to build from the ruins a new and unique society.”
The ruins of which Rabbi Shmuley speaks are, of course, the result of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 residents of the tiny island nation in January. Jean was already an active political activist both here and in Haiti, and the devastation inflicted by the earthquake is the driving force behind his candidacy.
• When Pop Stars Become Politicians“If not for the earthquake, I probably would have waited another 10 years before doing this,” Jean, who rose to fame as a founding member of hip-hop supergroup The Fugees, told Time magazine. “The quake drove home to me that Haiti can’t wait another 10 years for us to bring it into the 21st century.”
A vote is scheduled for late November to elect a new leader to replace President René Préval, whose terms ends in February. Jean, who has always maintained his Haitian citizenship, which is a prerequisite for running for the presidency, has lately been taking other necessary steps, such as getting fingerprinted by the judicial police, to enable his candidacy. (Jean’s uncle, Raymond Alcide Joseph, has been the Haitian ambassador to the U.S. since 2005.)
Wyclef Jean raps about his vision as president of America in 'If I Were President'
Jean’s motivation for running, according to those who know him, is less about politics and more about his strong sense of humanity. Indeed, according to former manager David Sonenberg, who first met Jean as a 17-year-old starring in an off-Broadway play and was immortalized as the rapper’s day-off golf partner in The Fugees’ song “How Many Mics,” Jean’s worldview can be gleaned from the subject matter of his songs.
“The nature of his songs are about humanity, nurturing, caring,” says Sonenberg. “He has an enormous heart and a generous spirit and has always been deeply committed to helping the people of Haiti in any way possible.”
Or at least getting attention for them. Case in point: Last year Jean released From the Hut to the Projects to the Mansion, a concept album featuring a title character named Toussaint St. Jean, who is loosely based on Toussaint L’Ouverture, the 18th-century Haitian revolutionary hero who helped gain notoriety for the country on the world stage. That album didn’t sell anywhere near the 20 million copies of The Fugees’ The Score, which still ranks as the bestselling hip-hop album of all time, but it served as a commentary on surviving the gritty Haitian streets in much the same way The Score depicted life in the ghettos of New York and New Jersey.
More germane to his presidential bid, Jean in 2005 founded the Yéle Haiti Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has helped provide jobs, food, education, and health-care services to the nation’s citizens. (Jean was accused of misusing funds from Yéle, a charge he vehemently denied. The Internal Revenue Service filed papers on Wednesday in New Jersey claiming Jean, 37, owes $2.1 million in back taxes, according to documents obtained by The Smoking Gun.)
Although musicians aren’t usually known for their business acumen, Jean has made rebuilding Haiti’s infrastructure via foreign investment a key talking point. He pronounced Haiti “open for business” as he rang the Nasdaq’s opening bell to commemorate the earthquake’s six-month anniversary in June, for instance. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Jean, who emigrated to the U.S. at age 9, noted that “the infrastructure, the reconstruction of Haiti, should not only [involve] international contractors, but there should be local Haitian contractors, too.” He also said the country needs to focus on national production and exportation of goods.
“He understands the importance of Haiti not being viewed as an international charity, but as an international investment, which is vastly different,” says Rabbi Shmuley. “He realizes that Haiti’s resources need to be developed.”
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Peter Lauria is senior correspondent covering business, media, and entertainment for The Daily Beast. He previously covered music, movies, television, cable, radio, and corporate media as a business reporter for The New York Post. His work has also appeared in Avenue, Blender, Black Men, and Media Magazine, and he's appeared on CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC Radio, and Reuters TV.