PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—The shoeless kid from the countryside who once rode a donkey to school peered out of the helicopter and belted out a scream as it lifted off.
“Yoo-hoo!” he shouted, a mischievous grin lighting up his face.
Wyclef Jean, the Haiti-born hip-hop producer, former Fugees member and now solo artist, should be in Miami or New York promoting his new album. Instead, he is touring Haiti aboard a U.N. military helicopter with a trio of A-listers he hopes will help him bring hope to his country.
“My responsibilities have grown beyond music,” Jean says. “For me, music happens to be secondary now. And the mission of the country happens to be first.”
At 37, Jean is not just a creator of chart-smashing hits. He is a Haitian profoundly connected to his politically ravaged nation, a place of abject poverty, dysfunctional politics and vexing social ills.
These days, he is trying to use his celebrity status to bring millions of dollars to Haiti, essentially deploying his Yele Haiti Foundation to help build schools, train teachers, feed and educate children, and put to work women living in some of the country’s grittiest slums.
While other groups organize the actual projects, Yele provides the management, some financing—and the Wyclef Jean branding from a celebrity who remains a Haitian citizen.
A decade ago, Jean wrapped himself in the Haitian flag, walked onto the stage of the Grammy Awards ceremony to accept the prize for the Fugees’ multiplatinum album, The Score, and created a revolution among countless Haitian youths.
Instantly, being Haitian was no longer a badge of shame.
In the years since, Jean has lent his name to other people’s social causes, experimented with a Creole-infused album, and been the rainmaker behind numerous hits such as Destiny’s Child’s “No, No, No” and Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie.”
But he left his recording label and almost disappeared from the spotlight after his preacher father, Gesner Jean, was killed when his Bentley accidentally rolled over him in 2001. Now Wyclef Jean is back, with a renewed zeal to help his country.
“Once my dad died, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was so confused,” Jean says. “Some thought I was drowning. But I was actually getting baptized.”
Today, he is asked frequently whether he has presidential ambitions. The Bob Marley-inspired dreadlocks are gone, and he has been named a goodwill ambassador by Haitian President Rene Preval. But Jean says he is not interested.
“I’m talking about the same things I’ve always been talking about,” he said a few weeks before his Haiti visit as he dodged New York City traffic in a silver Rolls-Royce. “I don’t have any political ambitions, but the people of Haiti have political ambitions for me. I feel that the way I am moving, I’m doing more than a president.”
Last year, he brought Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to Haiti and pleaded for support on the Caribbean nation’s behalf before the World Bank and the U.S. Congress. And the year before that, he bought a Haitian TV station, Telemax.
On a recent Sunday, the mission to change Haiti led Jean to temporarily put aside his fear of flying and show off another side of his beloved country.
He was hoping that his fellow helicopter passengers—fashion model Petra Nemcova, Sony BMG executive Lisa Ellis and Joelle Adler, head of Diesel Canada and founder of a foundation that has raised millions for impoverished children—would be moved to partner with him in programs to help Haiti’s youth.
“When they call it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere ... that is what really gets to me,” Jean says in a chat during the flight, arguing that the country has lots of potential. “It’s poor in the environment, but it’s the richest country in the hemisphere.”
Jean’s good intentions haven’t always translated into success. His first charitable effort, the Wyclef Jean Foundation, failed because of a lack of focus and support.
Now, Yele Haiti has combined the concepts from that effort—using music as a tool for development—with the idea of cooperating with nongovernmental groups already working in Haiti.
“It’s a vehicle for projects,” said Maryse Kedar, president of Yele Haiti.
But in a country where more than half of the 8.5 million people are younger than 25 and there is no shortage of problems, Kedar acknowledges that the foundation faces an uphill battle.
“We know what we are doing is a drop in the ocean when we look at the amount of youths out there who do not have access to our programs,” Kedar said.
This stark reality is not lost on Jean. “If you want to change a country, unfortunately you are not going to be able to help eight million people at one time,” he says. “But if you can get one or two and three and start to make that change, that will make a difference.”
That is where collaboration comes in.
To equip a secondary school near Jean’s hometown of Croix-des-Bouquets, just northeast of the capital, with a computer lab, Yele teamed up with U.S.-based Teens for Technology, Chevron and Happy Hearts, a foundation begun by Nemcova after she barely survived the 2004 Indonesia tsunami.
“It’s exciting for us to have him here. We are very happy about this computer lab,” Neerwender Joseph, 19, said in halting English as he tried to catch a glimpse of Jean during the visit to Croix-des-Bouquets.
An hour later, his police-escorted caravan of gray Land Cruisers arrived in the teeming Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Soleil, where he changed out of a suit and tie and into a bright orange Yele T-shirt.
A few months ago, few could walk into the slum, then under the control of armed gangs, without fear of being kidnapped or killed. But on that day, Jean’s group pushed its way freely through thousands of residents. They gave him a hero’s welcome as he was carried on his bodyguard’s shoulders to see another of his projects, the Yele Cuisine restaurant.
A shoe-box space with brightly colored plastic tablecloths and a few wooden chairs, the restaurant is run by poor women. Ten such restaurants are planned for tough neighborhoods, with the Canadian Agency for International Development providing $500,000 and Yele $200,000 in addition to management, marketing and assistance in helping the women become self-sufficient over time.
“The idea isn’t just giving people food but creating a (micro-lending enterprise) where people can learn how to operate their own business,” Jean said as he prepared to sample the day’s menu of peas, rice and stewed chicken.
Although most rappers like to project a gangsta image, Jean is not among them, even though he admits selling marijuana as a teenager in New Jersey.
The eldest of five children—two of his siblings are also recording artists, a brother is a lawyer, and his younger sister is in college—he is married to Marie Claudinette, a Haitian-American fashion designer. The two met during his senior year in high school and have been married since his 20s. Two years ago, they adopted a baby girl, Angelina Claudinelle.
Jean credits his parents for the man he is now. His father went to the United States on a four-month preacher’s visa, but became an undocumented immigrant when his visa expired. While the father worked odd jobs, Jean’s mother, Yolande, worked as a maid and baby-sitter.
“That is where my whole character comes from, that idea `I can do everything,’” Wyclef Jean says. “I watched my father do construction in below-zero weather, work as a security guard and clean toilets. ... Once we turned 13, 14, he would bring us along and you were cleaning the bathrooms, and you couldn’t have an attitude about it.
“He would always do it with a proud attitude and say, `You will rise to the forefront one day.’”
Still, when he picked up his guitar, his strict father was not pleased. The father pulled him aside and said: “Tell me one Haitian that you know who has made it in music successfully.”
“I looked at him in his eyes and said, `Wyclef Jean.’”
Like many young Haitian immigrants, he was subjected to ridicule after he moved from Haiti at the age of 10 to a Brooklyn housing project. Teachers mispronounced his name; children taunted him.
Although revered by many here, Jean is not without critics. After he was photographed with two notorious gang leaders during a visit last year to Cite Soleil, some accused him of supporting the gangs. Jean replied that Haiti needed “every part of Haitian society involved if we are going to start healing as a nation.”
In a country where hope is all that most people can afford, Jean’s message resonates with Haitians, especially youths.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are poor,” he said in Creole after surprising some neighborhood kids in a Port-au-Prince plaza with a brief visit one evening.
“You have Wyclef, and Haiti is where he is from ... so don’t ever let anyone tell you that you’ve come from a poor country, because Wyclef looks just like you.”
“The future of the country has got to be with the kids, but nothing is going to happen if they don’t have some hope,” said Brad Horwitz, the head of Voila, a local cellphone company that was among the first to support Jean’s efforts here. The two have now teamed up to pay the school fees for 6,250 primary-school-age children.
Jean says he plans to continue to raise Haiti’s profile—even as he promotes his sixth solo album, “Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant.” Released last week, it fuses world beats and hip-hop to tell about the lives of immigrants in the United States.
“There is nothing wrong with Haiti,” he says, just hours before leaving for Miami and New York. “There is something wrong with us.”