Throughout his near 20-year career in music, Wyclef Jean has advocated for and espoused the resiliency of his embattled homeland, Haiti, with unwavering intensity.

When he catapulted to the upper echelons of hip-hop royalty in the 1990s as a member of The Fugees, Jean waved Haitian flags at awards shows and tied them around his tufts of dreadlocked hair in a proclamation of nationalistic pride. And when a massive earthquake devastated Haiti in January, Jean organized fundraisers and relief efforts through his charitable foundation, Yele Haiti.

Now, he’s poised to take the top leadership role as his country’s president as it continues to struggle in recovering from the natural disaster. It’s a massive undertaking for any candidate but a particularly colossal effort for Jean, 40, whose political résumé is lacking. He will be part of a formidable field of candidates that includes Michel Martelly, known as Sweet Micky, a supporter of Repons Peyizan (Peasants’ Response).Wilson Jeudy, a former mayor of Delmas in Port-au-Prince and Jacques Edouard Alexis, who has served two terms as prime minister. Incumbent President Rene Preval, cannot succeed himself under the nation’s constitution.

The hype surrounding Jean’s candidacy has nevertheless stirred an emotional response in Haiti. As the newly-minted politician walked to sign the paperwork for his presidential run, he was swarmed by a whirlwind of cameras, crowds of cheering supporters and billowing posters bearing his likeness.

After making his plans official, Jean spoke about the fundamentals of his campaign in an interview on “Larry King Live” on August 5.

“After Jan. 12, over 50 percent of the population is a youth population and we’ve suffered for over 200 years,” Jean said. “Now that our country has toppled, there’s a chance to rebuild from the bottom on up. Right now there’s a chance to bring real education to the schools, an infrastructure, security and proper jobs.”

According to a press release issued by Jean’s campaign, his platform will also focus on financing initiatives to promote agriculture and entrepreneurship.

Shawnta Watson Walcott, a pollster and pundit who conducted the 2005 presidential election poll in Haiti on behalf of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians, said Jean is indeed a viable candidate among political heavyweights despite his lack of political experience.

“Wyclef Jean’s world-class notoriety, native kinship and youthful energy is clearly a combination that distinguishes him from others in the race,” said Walcott. “And with a drastic shift in the demographic of likely voters his election bid seems to be both timely and fortuitous.”

Walcott, who also served as political director for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said the country’s elections have been of little significance for many Haitians since the January 12 earthquake, as reconstructing the capital’s infrastructure remains a major concern.

Many Haitian-Americans have maintained avid support for Jean throughout the earthquake’s aftermath and tout his work with Yele Haiti, which helped place 10,000 children in primary schools and raised $9 million to support relief efforts.

Jean stepped down as chairman of the organization hours before announcing his presidential bid. And while the group has faced scrutiny for financial inconsistencies, Jean said he learned “what works – and what doesn’t” in his experience as chairman.

“He’s Haitian and he was born in Haiti; of course he wants to see better for our country. He’s not trying to profit,” Washington, D.C. resident Shaika Therlonge, a Haitian-American, told the AFRO in a January interview.

And while few doubt Jean’s efforts to aid the island nation are sincere, the self-proclaimed Moses of the Haitian diaspora is an outsider in Haiti’s complex governmental structure. Jean has spent the past two decades of his life as an entertainer and philanthropist. But some question whether he can withstand the pressures of a full-time presidency and navigating a government many consider rife with corruption dating back decades.

“I think Wyclef’s candidacy is going to surprise a lot of people,” Florida Rep. Phillip Brutus, a Haitian-American from Miami and a candidate for U.S. Congress, told Time.com days before Jean announced his campaign. “But I fear that if you parachute him into the Haitian presidency, the culture of corruption and cronyism there may well eat him alive.”

Like Brutus, Haitian-American medical massage therapist Sergiana Bruno said she does not believe Jean is prepared to lead the island nation, citing his lack of experience and her fear the country will grow “more treacherous” under his command.

“The country will not become better until we have a politician who is rightful and optimistic in improving Haiti,” said Bruno. “One day, we would love to have more tourists to visit Haiti for vacation. We would love to have roads built, better education, and reduced poverty. Haiti can change to a better country with the right politician. After all, Haiti is a beautiful island.”

Furthermore, Jean must show he meets the nation’s basic requirements for presidency, which include living in the country for at least five consecutive years, owning land there and claiming sole citizenship in Haiti.

Although he lived in Haiti until age 9 before moving to New York and later New Jersey, Jean’s older brother Samuel told the Associated Press that he believed any residency restrictions would be waived because his brother has been Goodwill Ambassador to Haiti for three years.

Walcott said that while many Haitians see Jean as “part of the Haitian culture and a part of the Haitian lifestyle,” his megastar status could be either an advantage, or impetus for his undoing.

“The real question is, do see this musician as a politician and will he be able to take his American rock star prowess and transfer it into Haitian political life?” said Walcott. “Does he have the requisite understanding to actually execute the daily protocols of a commander in chief?  Those are the types of questions that are being asked as election cycle unfolds and voter responses will create the narrative of Jean’s candidacy.”

Jean’s fellow celebrities have been slow to embrace his turn toward politics. Actor Sean Penn told CNN that he was skeptical of the decision, and Jean’s fellow Fugees member Pras on August 6 issued a statement of support—for an opponent of Jean.

“I endorse Michel Martell as the next president of Haiti because he is the most competent candidate for the job,” Pras said in a statement, according to CNN. “Our beautiful homeland has experienced such devastation and I believe he is the only who can lead the country into a brighter future.”

But in Herschel Jordan’s eyes, Jean is already accomplished. For 14 years, Jordan has worked at Rosalee Beauty Supply in Newark, N.J., and each day he sees Eglise du Nazareen du Bon Berger—a church Jean’s late father once led—looming across the street. Jordan also remembers that Jean, like himself, was once employed at

 

Kristin Gray

AFRO Managing Editor