Multi-platinum and Grammy-award-winning musician and producer Wyclef Jean made a name for himself in the 1990s both as a solo artist and as a member of The Fugees with his political and socially oriented hip hop. These days, he makes as many headlines as the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to Haiti in his efforts to bring attention to development in his native Haiti. Wyclef speaks with AQ about his nonprofit, Yéle Haiti, and pushing green initiatives.
Editor's Note, November 27, 2011: the New York Post reports that Yéle Haiti spent less than a third its funds in 2010 on emergency efforts—only $5.1 million of the $16 million collected. In a statement, Jean denies the allegations, saying the article is "misleading, deceptive and incomplete."
Americas Quarterly: Tell us why you started Yéle Haiti. What are its primary goals?
Wyclef Jean: I left a small village called La Serre, in Croix-des-Bouquets in Haiti, when I was 10 years old. When I came to America, I noticed that there were stereotypes [that affected] how Haitians were being treated here and back home. It always started with youth. I thought if I could find a way to get the kids in Haiti and [Haitian] kids in America to become proud of their heritage and raise their self-esteem, it wouldn’t be a charity. It would be a movement. I wanted kids to walk around with their heads [raised] proud.
AQ: Are the challenges facing young Haitians today different from those their parents faced, or different even from what your generation faced?
Jean: Every generation is going to face something different. My generation faced starvation (over the course of) many hunger crises. Families fled Haiti because of Baby Doc’s coup. [Ed note: former Haitian leader Jean-Claude Duvalier was nicknamed Bébé Doc] Some were killed. But I think the generation living in Haiti today has it worse. Without a stable government, kids face constant threats of violence. There are no opportunities, no jobs being created. These kids, when they go to school, go to school hungry. And a lot of them have to walk around with a gun 24/7.
AQ: What is Yéle’s role in achieving political stability for Haiti?
Jean: Job creation is very important. When I say Yéle is a movement and not a charity, I’m thinking about how we can [provide skills training] and create jobs. Yéle can be a strong [stabilizing] force for Haiti in the long term by empowering youth.
AQ:Timberland has agreed to put the Yéle logo on one of its boot lines to raise money for reforestation. How did that start?
Jean: I connected with Jeff [Swartz], the CEO. Timberland had never done an endorsement agreement before [but] Timberland’s whole thing is tree planting, and that is very important to Haiti. [Ed. note: deforestation now affects 77.5 percent of the island’s land area.] The fact that Timberland would share a logo with Yéle shows that there are people who care and would love to help Haiti. AQ: How will you promote this initiative?
Jean: Well, everything comes from the ground. If you look at the Dominican side [of Hispaniola], the Dominican Republic, of course, is more green than Haiti. Why? It’s because when [Haitians] needed to make fire to cook for their family, they cut down trees. We need to re-educate people and tell them, “You know what? It’s not cool to cut down trees. Let’s work toward being a green environment because that’s what we were at one time.”
AQ:Yéle has been helped by celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Matt Damon. How crucial is exploiting celebrity, including yours, for the promotion of Haitian development?
Jean: As someone who comes from show business, I can tell you there’s no other way to bring awareness. The cameras follow the celebrities. When you have celebrities who are actually doing something and feel it is part of their social obligation to help, this is where the fire sparks. AQ:Does former President Bill Clinton’s new role as special envoy to Haiti fit in with that?
Jean: President Clinton is perfect for this position. He has a natural love for Haiti and was the only president who actually did something. He and Hillary spent their honeymoon there. And his prestige means that he will bring a lot of other eyeballs to the table as well. It will be up to Haitians to decide what to do with that attention.
AQ:What’s next for Haiti?
Jean: What I hope for the future of Haiti is tourism and job creation. Haiti was the first black republic of the world, and that’s incredible. The island has so much history, but people are scared to visit because they think they’re going to get shot. As for myself, as a young Haitian and as an entrepreneur, I have two visions: one is a Yéle center—a facility that consists of a sports facility, a Wyclef Jean cultural school for music and arts, and a place that teaches about the environment. I want to see that happen before I shut my eyes. And on the entrepreneur side, I have the Jean Group, which is a bunch of young entrepreneurs doing our thing. We have a lot of work to do.
AQ:And, what makes you believe that there is a better future for Haiti?
Jean: What gives me hope is reading about the struggles of Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Gandhi, and JFK. At the end of the day, past the unrest, there will be change. Whether I see it, or you see it, or future generations see it, depends on us working toward that change.