Haiti’s Hip-Hop President?

If I was president…
…instead of spending billions on the war
We can use some of that money in the ghetto.

— Wyclef Jean’s “President”

Profound words. And with their author now in the race to become Haiti’s next president, it might be easy to think they’re on the verge of becoming reality. On August 7th, the Grammy-winning artist announced he wants to lead his homeland–still reeling from the disastrous effects of the January earthquake.

“It’s a moment in time and history,” Wyclef declared to the press during his announcement. “America had Barack Obama and Haiti has Wyclef Jean.” True enough, plenty were ready to dub Obama the “hip-hop candidate” during the height of his campaign. Clef is clearly hoping for a Creole-style repeat.

And like Obama during the campaign, Wyclef seems more than willing to adopt the role of the “blank slate.” His rhetoric, his platform, his promises–all are vague enough for folks to interpret, project and read into them whatever they hope. At this early stage, though, the question has yet to be answered: what kind of substance will step up to fill in the blanks?

On the surface, the answer is simple. Going off his music it seems that Clef is poised to launch the spirit of Third World struggle onto the international political stage. Since storming onto the scene fifteen years ago with the Fugees he’s been painted as the hip-hop generation’s Bob Marley. Well before being crowned the ambassador-at-large for the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, he was calling on Marley’s spirit, pulling from his own nation’s rich musical traditions and translating both into a rebel aesthetic that testified to hip-hop’s global reach. It’s this Wyclef–Wyclef the artist–that we’ve heard on “Gone ‘Til November” and “Diallo,” who spoke so eloquently against the NYPD’s horrifying abuse of fellow Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. One has to admit that if this is the Wyclef seeking Haiti’s highest official post, then it is a great day for the Haitian people.

Sift a little deeper though, and Clef the candidate looks very different. Per Time magazine, Wyclef sees his trajectory following that of another artist-turned-statesman: Ronald Reagan. It’s a chilling statement to make; most Haitians remember how vociferous a supporter Reagan was of the corrupt and murderous regime led by dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

The jarring contradiction–between style and substance, celebrity and principle–is one Clef hopes to ride all the way to Haiti’s National Palace. It also explains why some have been less than enthusiastic about his bid.

First among these was Sean Penn, who on the same day stated to CNN that he is “suspicious” of the artist’s motivations. Penn, who has been doing consistent relief work in Haiti over the past six months, admits he knows little about him, but that “[o]ne of the reasons I don’t know very much about Wyclef Jean is that I haven’t seen or heard anything of him in these last six months that I’ve been in Haiti.”

Then came the discord from Clef’s own peeps. Fellow Fugee Pras, also Haitian, told the Associated Press that he didn’t plan to support his former bandmate. “You’ve got 1.2 million people living in tent city right now. What are the plans to get these people out?”

Ultimately though, the problem with Wyclef isn’t his lack of a plan; it’s whether that plan will actually be in the interests of the Haitian people. In an article for the San Francisco Bay View, Charlie Hinton urges readers (in his caps): “PLEASE SPREAD THE NEWS: WYCLEF JEAN IS NOT A FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE’S DEMOCRATIC MOVEMENT OF HAITI.”

Hinton is a member of the Haiti Action Committee. The movement he is referring to is one as old as Haiti itself–pulling on the legacy of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s and the revolution that overthrew colonialism, running through the rebellions that deposed US-backed dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986. Six years after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed in a US-backed coup, it is a movement that continues.

Despite his claims to the contrary, it is a movement that Wyclef has never represented. In order to figure out why, it’s necessary to go back a little bit.


After the strongman Duvalier was brought down in ‘86, Haiti went through a quick succession of presidents. Between Duvalier’s departure and Aristide’s rise, power changed hands no less than six times. Unelected and often incompetent, these leaders faced a popular movement that had only recently brought down a fifty-year dictatorial dynasty. General strikes, demonstrations and protests were a frequent occurrence, often under the threat of harsh treatment at the hands of police and military alike.

It was against this backdrop that Aristide’s profile began to grow. Originally a Salesian Catholic priest, Aristide came under increasing sway of liberation theology and involved in the movements against poverty and for participatory democracy in Haiti. In January 1988, he told the National Catholic Reporter that “the solution is revolution, first in the spirit of the Gospel; Jesus could not accept people going hungry. It is a conflict between classes, rich and poor. My role is to preach and organize…”

When Aristide was elected in 1990, it was with 67% of the vote–a clear majority. His promises–to sweep out corruption, double the minimum wage and put an end to the pillaging of the country’s economy by foreign powers–were understandably popular. Few voices could possibly disagree, but some did. Chief among them was Haiti-Observateur, a right-wing Creole-language newspaper founded in New York in 1971.

When Aristide was elected in 1990, Haiti-Observateur decried him. When he was deposed in a coup in 1991, Haiti-Observateur applauded. When the FRAPH–a paramilitary organization bankrolled by the CIA–was formed in 1993, the rag cheered as it roamed the country murdering Aristide supporters. After Aristide returned to Haiti in 1994 and was reelected in 2000, the newspaper opposed him every step of the way.

In February 2004, when bands of gunmen–many with connections to the FRAPH and the CIA–were overrunning the north of the country, Haiti-Observateur once again found reason to fan the flames.

On February 25th, three days before Aristide was flown out of the country, Wyclef Jean told MTV that he fully backed the coup-makers. “I don’t consider those people rebels,” he said. “It’s people standing up for their rights. It’s not like these people just appeared out of nowhere and said, ‘Let’s cause some trouble.’ I think it’s just built up frustration, anger, hunger, depression.”

In the midst of the fractured and unrepresentative reporting to which the mainstream media seems so adept, and with virtually no Haitian voices reaching the American public as the coup gained steam, Wyclef served a crucial role: the de factor everyday Haitian, a man whose words may as well have been plucked straight from the streets of Port-au-Prince.

What MTV didn’t report was that Wyclef is the nephew of Raymond Joseph: publisher of Haiti-Observateur. If Joseph’s name rings a bell, that’s probably because he was granted the post of ambassador to the US in the aftermath of the coup.

Thus began the spinning of Wyclef’s image: the reality of his privileged familial connections was papered over with a kind of Third World ghetto superstar populism. For that past six years, if Wyclef has said it, it’s been largely assumed that the populace of Haiti are nodding their heads right along.

The dangers of this kind of “innocence by association” goes well beyond his uncle. In fact, some of the other company Wyclef has kept in his time makes Uncle Ray look warm and fuzzy by comparison. In 2006, Clef produced the documentary Ghosts of Cite Soleil, which in his article Hinton calls a “hit piece” against Aristide.

Key among the film’s interviewees was one Andre Apaid, a well-known industrialist and key backer of the anti-Aristide insurgency. Apaid isn’t even a Haitian citizen; he was born in the US but maintains permanent residency in Haiti. Outside of the Ghosts doc, one will be hard-pressed to find anything positive about this man. His Alpha Industries, one of the largest assembly factories in the country, has been described time and again as a sweatshop–so one can easily fathom what he thought of Aristide’s attempts to double the minimum wage. His father, Andre Senior, is a self-identified “friend” of the Duvaliers.

According to the Center for the Study of Human Rights, Apaid also has on his payroll Thomas “Labayne” Robinson, a violent gang-leader in the slum of Cite Soleil. The Center’s report provides rather incontrovertible proof that Apaid has hired Robinson to kill supporters of Aristide.

Ghosts also positively profiles Louis-Jodel Chamblain, a key leader in the coup. Chamblain’s military and paramilitary experience goes back decades–from a sergeant in the military junta that prevented democratic elections from taking place in 1987 to main leader of the FRAPH in ‘93, to architect of the Raboteau Massacre that killed as many as fifty pro-democracy activists in April of ‘94. The only reason Chamblain walks free through Haiti today is that the murders he carried out were done so in the name of the ruling regime. Hardly the spitting image of rag-tag freedom fighters “standing up for their rights,” as Wyclef has called them.


In Hinton’s view, no election held in Haiti’s current condition will be fair. Aristide remains in exile in South Africa, and his party, Fanmi Lavalas, the most popular in all of Haiti, is legally prohibited for running candidates. And this proscription is most heavily enforced by foreign guns.

“A United Nations army, led by Brazil, still occupies Haiti six years after the coup,” says Hinton. “Their unstated mission, under the name of ‘peacekeeping,’ is to suppress the popular movement and prevent the return to power of Aristide’s Lavalas Party. One must understand a Wyclef Jean candidacy, first of all, in this context.”

Six months after the earthquake, conditions remain horrifying. In an email, Hinton tells me that the million homeless Haitians are, “sleeping in tent and tarp encampments without sanitation in rain and hurricane season. Something like only 2400 temporary houses have been built… [There is] much corruption, with donated food and tents being sold on the street.”

Wyclef has of course paid lip service to this. In fact, despite positioning himself as “a man of the Haitian people,” Clef most likely knows (and cares) very little of their daily existence. And though insisting so on national television is sure to provoke cries of heresy, Wyclef may actually stand quite a bit to gain from the degrading state in which so many Haitians live.

The characters he has ingratiated himself with, though, may be in a much better position to leverage him into the National Palace. Wyclef’s well-publicized support for the American invasion in the aftermath of the earthquake has certainly provided an excellent cover for the US establishment, and they most likely won’t forget it.

“This is a demonstration election,” says Hinton, “being staged to give the aura, but not the reality of a popularly elected democratic government during a military occupation, and Wyclef Jean’s name might get enough people to vote that the occupying powers can claim the elections reflect the popular will.” As Hinton points out, less than ten percent of all Haitians voted in the 2009 Senate elections.

What Clef stands to gain if he wins is worth a lot more than popular support, though. The debacle surrounding his Yele Haiti foundation–in which he diverted donated funds back into payments for himself–starts to shed light on what might await “President Wyclef.”

With so little aid actually getting to the people who need it–roughly one million are without regular access to clean food and water–and with a corrupt, illegitimate government running the country, it’s anyone’s guess where the millions of aid dollars are actually going. It’s here that Clef’s almost certain misappropriation of Yele’s funds starts to take on a bigger meaning.

Charlie Hinton: “Although he’s left Yele Haiti, how he funneled that ‘non-profit’ money to his own business interests is a good indication of where he’s coming from. As a woman told me last week who got ripped off by him in a business deal, ‘there’s no money in music anymore. Yele Haiti is his new cash cow.’ And now he’s trying to tap into all the relief money that is hopefully waiting to rebuild Haiti, that makes the measly $9 million collected by Yele Haiti look like pocket change.”

In exchange, his relationship to the US already cemented, a President Jean would be able to keep ensuring the one thing that Aristide wouldn’t: a constant flow of capital. “As far as investment and business, this is the best time to invest in business in Haiti” he said in an interview to Esquire.com. Knowing his connections to sweatshop owners is enough to make such a statement take on an entirely new, wholly cringe-worthy meaning.

And what of the people? What of the ghettos and slums that Wyclef, in his most Marley-esque moments, insists are in such need of uplift and empowerment? A rarely told tale from the history of Wyclef’s model–Ronald Reagan–might provide some insight.

During his 1980 campaign for president, Reagan’s trail brought him to a South Bronx neighborhood still decimated by the riots that had turned it to a shell three years before. Standing in front of a burnt-out, graffiti-covered wall, he declared what his opponent, President Carter said almost word-for-word in the exact same location in 1977: “I’m impressed with the spirit of hope and determination by the people to save what they have.” This from the man whose presidency accelerated the neglect of poor neighborhoods of color.

For Reagan, such people are nothing more than set pieces in a photo-op. There is perhaps no better indicator what what President Wyclef Jean holds in store for the people of Haiti. It’s with them, however, that hope really exists.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hayate said on August 17th, 2010 at 8:32am #

    “America had Barack Obama and Haiti has Wyclef Jean.”

    What a sleazeball. A ronnie raygun in blackface.

  2. teafoe2 said on August 17th, 2010 at 9:44am #

    you mean The Great Con-moneycaterer?

  3. lichen said on August 17th, 2010 at 3:20pm #

    Yeah, Wyclef is a phony scumbag. A right wing american celebrity and coup/sweatshop supporter sure to follow the path of Haiti’s past dictators, and not Aristede, it’s only elected leader.

  4. beverly said on August 17th, 2010 at 6:07pm #

    “America had Barack Obama and Haiti has Wyclef Jean.”

    Constant chaos. Oppression and exploitation by the West. Earthquakes. Now a Haitain version of Obummer? Word to the Haitians: Run like hell. Or better yet, amass a crapload of weapons for revolution #2 and throw every asswipe with a western passport out of the country.