Wyclef Jean advocates for aid to Haiti before Congress
WASHINGTON - Grammy Award-winner and hip-hop star Wyclef Jean has played bigger venues to larger crowds, but the small audience he performed for Tuesday could make a big difference to his native Haiti.
He said the halls of Congress were as intimidating as Carnegie Hall.
Then, he slipped into the easy cadence of the world-renowned musician that he is, and the members of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Foreign Relations Committee were treated to passages of rap as Jean gently tapped the table for rhythm.
His rap recounted Haiti's grim statistics, how only 52 percent of Haiti's children go to school.
But he also spoke of hope.
"For the first time in my life," he said at a hearing on Haiti's development needs, "I see political parties trying to work together hand in hand."
Jean, Haiti's best known musician, was also all-business as he checked his notes to hit the main points: His country needs help in education, tourism, using arts for development and, above all, engaging the Haitian diaspora to invest more in their home country.
"I challenge the Haitians first," he said.
He asked lawmakers to push the Bush administration to quickly enact the Hope Act, a law that allows Haiti to export more to the United States. It passed Congress last year but still needs to pass some bureaucratic hurdles. This, he said, was "a signal" that investors needed to spend more money in Haiti.
The son of a preacher who went on to become a member of the Grammy-winning Fugees band concluded his opening statement, aptly, with a poetic touch.
"To live for yourself is to live selfishly," he told lawmakers, "but to live for others is to live eternally."
The members of Congress were falling over themselves to praise the 36-year old founder of Yele Haiti, a non-profit group that uses music to bring development to Haiti.
"We need more people like you, you are an example," gushed New Jersey Democrat Donald Payne.
"Sometimes we have trouble getting attendance, but since you're here, everyone wants to come," said New York Democrat Eliot Engel, the subcommittee's chairman, noting the large number of legislators present at the hearing,
Jean testified alone. Unusually, the top Latin American official of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Adolfo Franco, a man who determines the fate of millions of dollars in assistance, was relegated to a second panel.
"My gosh, you've got some great ideas," marveled Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton.
Before testifying, Jean was asked by reporters how he felt about going before a congressional panel for the first time.
Performing on stage was easy, he said, "but I always get nervous when I'm talking."
Elegantly decked out in a pinstriped suit and a yellow cashmere sweater, he was asked how he felt about wearing a tie.
"What we've learned in hip-hop growing up is, if I'm 36, I can't act like I'm 21," he said. "My mother would smack the hell of out of me if I were to show up in front of Congress with some . . . jeans."