When Wyclef Jean announced his bid to run for President of his beloved homeland of Haiti in August, few could imagine the dizzying whirlwind that would engulf the multi-platinum-selling rapper, singer and producer. With his troubled country recovering from a devastating January earthquake that left an estimated 230,000 people dead, 300,000 injured and well over 1 million homeless, ‘Clef was forced to abandon his presidential ambitions after he was ruled ineligible (he did not meet Haiti’s 5-year residency requirement to seek office).
Amid the turmoil of that time, Wyclef Jean endured death threats, doubts and questions surrounding his political intentions. Yet, as Haiti continues to struggle through post earthquake rebuilding and a recent catastrophic health crises of a cholera outbreak, Wyclef remains the embattled nation’s most vocal and passionate champion. With the socially conscious music visionary set to release his December 7 EP If I Were President: My Haitian Experience, Clef looks back at his dramatic presidential run, explains why he is still optimistic for the future of Haiti and why he will never stop making music.—As Told To Keith Murphy
“Why am I still positive about the future of Haiti? When I came to the United States, one of the classes I had to take was Black history. I would learn about people like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman and her Underground Railroad and the writings of Frederick Douglas all the way up to Martin Luther King. When you read those stories of slaves trying to find their freedom you know there was always somebody asking, ‘How do we keep hope when every two seconds they are lynching one of us or burning us up?’ One of the characteristics of being a leader is having a vision. And my vision is this: The country of Haiti cannot stay at the state that is in forever. It’s impossible.
So within my lifetime what I have to do is try to push progress a step forward. Then the next youth will push it a step further after me. I have two choices within my lifetime. I can either die trying to do something for Haiti or sit back and watch nothing be done. There is a problem of modern-day slavery in Haiti. Eighty percent of the population there is collecting a dollar a day. People can’t read or write…the illiteracy rate is so high. The other big problem is job creation. I feel with the reconstruction process for the country and the billion that’s coming in, we should start tying the youth of Haiti to these programs that are starting up.
The reconstruction plan right now is a billion dollars per year. The donors in that plan could be responsible for 500,000 kids through an educational program where they could give some of the youth a free education for a very long time. We’ve seen it done in other countries. But the fact that there are no jobs in Haiti is troubling. What happens in America when there is a need for jobs like it is today? Somebody steps up and says, ‘Let’s build more bridges, tunnels and roads.’ So this is an opportunity to put people in Haiti to work; to rebuild their own country.
I came from a small village in Haiti. I used to ride a donkey to school. So I have absolutely nothing to be bitter about how my Presidential run ended. Politics is comparable to boxing. It’s different than the music industry. That’s why artists are scared to get into politics. Most artists feel like they have to protect an image. They will send money to a cause, but they are not going to get into the ring. Artists want to be popular. Politics is not like that. When you come out and stand for something, you are going to get booed. Usually criticism is used for distraction. That’s the art of war. But the thing about it is, even throughout all the criticism I have been able to keep my focus.
Understand that when [I was attempting to run for President of Haiti] critics came from all over…I was getting the woodworks. People would walk up to me like, ‘Man, you look at great as ever…stress doesn’t do anything to you, huh?’ But what happens is I have to compare what I’m going through to what MLK went through. To what Nat Turner had to go through…I’m talking about the people that had to come in through the back door. Or the people who were in their crib and the next thing you know they look out the window and see a Klan’s cross being burnt. So what I went through when I was trying to run for President in Haiti, that doesn’t compare to the other things I mentioned.
The closet thing to that struggle was the death threats that we were getting in Haiti. This dude called my phone like, ‘You have a pretty daughter and wife,’ in Creole. I just said, ‘Listen you punk…show me your face.’ That resulted in me having to get my wife and my daughter out the country. But In Haiti if you know there is going to be an attempt on your life you have the right to arm yourself. And I got heavily armed and just waited. That was the only time I felt like, ‘Oh man… these motherfuckers are going to kill me.’ It was definitely real.
The only way going from running for President of Haiti to making an album would have been impossible is if my music was not political. My music has always had a social tone in it. Why do you think every rapper says the line, ‘Gone to November?’ It’s a song about making runs. As I was running for the presidency I always kept a diary. So on my upcoming EP If I Were President: My Haitian Experience what you are getting is the first chapter of this year and all what I went through. But guess what? This is for real. This is not like some rapper saying, ‘Yo, I just shot 17 people and I got the crack in my hand.’ With this release, I’m telling that immigrant story. I’m telling you about the death threats; the rifle by my bed. I feel like my music has to represent what I was going through at the time.
I don’t want people to pick up this EP like, ‘Yo, this dude is going to have a whole album talking about his struggles.’ This is just the first chapter. The entire project represents the Haitian experience: love, peace, passion, war, and lust. And you don’t want to miss my tour. I’m going to have the drums come directly from the hills of Haiti. We are going to be playing with 100-year-old instruments that look like they are not supposed to have sound coming out of them. We are going to bring the artwork of Haiti as well as the food to the shows. I’m inspired by Feli Kuti…even the play on Broadway. I’m hoping that when people come to The Haitian Experience they will leave thinking, ‘Yo, I have to go to Haiti!’ I want to show the world a different kind of Haiti than what’s always portrayed.
I have a lot of Twitter fans and Facebook fans. And they are like, ‘Yo listen, man. All of that political stuff is cool and all, and all that singing is cool, but we want to hear you spit again!’ So we did a two-part mixtape. Part one of the mixtape was with DJ Drama called Toussaint St. Jean: From the Hut, To the Projects, To the Mansion. The next mixtape will feature Wyclef and DJ Whoo Kid. My A.K.A. whenever I spit is Toussaint, who was a general in the Haitian revolution. Whoo Kid is Haitian and I’m Haitian. We have some unfinished business in the streets that we have to handle. We are calling it Haitian Superheroes. We are looking to release it this December. I know y’all are going to download it.”