Hip-Hop Politics: Wyclef Jean in Haiti (Photos)

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>PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Wyclef Jean may be jumping full-swing into politics, but he's not afraid to bring his hip-hop heritage with him. In case you hadn't heard, Jean wants to be president of Haiti. He thinks his Hollywood connections will help, and he proudly announced to youth gathered in support that he will be the only president in the world to dance when "le rap kreyol" (Haitian hip-hop) is played.


If this sounds superficial, it is. But the charisma that made Jean into an international superstar is the same that drew street-clogging crowds to greet him in Port-au-Prince on Thursday.

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Onlookers said it was the biggest outpouring of support for a candidate since Jean-Bertrand Aristide--the hugely popular priest-turned politician and Haiti's first democratically elected leader--ran for president in 1990. And Jean is not even an official candidate yet. The electoral commission has to decide if he fulfills all the necessary requirements before confirming the candidate list on August 17. 

Yet from the massive, excited, tussling crowd of young Haitians, along with the national and international media waiting to meet him, you would think he was on a victory tour.

Media hounded him from his arrival in his private jet onto the tarmac at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, but it was the crowd awaiting him at the Centre Electoral Provisoire (CEP) that set everyone talking. 

Over a thousand youths (an accurate count is not available) were gathered, wearing "Fas a Fas" (Face to Face) campaign t-shirts and bumping to Jean's songs blaring from the carnaval-esque trucks covered in speakers. Larger-than-life portraits of his face were carried through the crowd and raised on top of the truck. 

When Jean exited the CEP office carrying his daughter--a perfect photo-op for a self-proclaimed family man--the media scrambled so wildly that they pushed him off course and set four-year-old Angelina into tears.

Jean then crowd-surfed over to the speaker-covered truck, clambering on top to address the crowd. He both referred to himself as Haiti's Obama and emphasized his Haitian identity; demonstrating the two sides of his early campaign's coin: to Haitians he speaks in Creole and talks about his Haitian passport; meanwhile, he uses his international profile and foreign connections for attention and protection.

Security was tight, and strong--my bruised toes and shoulders can attest to that--with UN trucks parked, national policemen patrolling, and private security surrounding the family.

CNN accompanied Jean on his private jet to Port-au-Prince, and the first stop on his arrival was a private residence in Petionville, a wealthy suburb of Port-au-Prince, where he met again with CNN, excluding an angry crowd of Haitian journalists. 

Later, when he spoke on Larry King Live, Jean said that he would not only be campaigning in Haiti because the whole world needs to be aware of the country and invested in this election. Some saw this as a troubling statement, given the centuries-old history of foreign involvement in Haitian politics, and complaints that the UN and international aid organizations are usurping Haiti's fragile autonomy.

Some Haitians worry about the validity of his citizenship. Everyone I ask about Jean starts by questioning his length of residency in the country. He needs to have lived five consecutive years here, but Jean's defense is to cite his role as a roaming ambassador under President René Préval, which necessitated jet setting. 

But why is Jean running for president? Some see it as an ego trip--and the public response here has certainly been enough to stroke even the most developed ego. But Jean was also clearly traumatized by the earthquake, and is frustrated that nothing concrete has yet been accomplished in the reconstruction. The tilted, crumbled buildings, piles of concrete, and tent communities filling every empty space--even cramped spaces, such as one lane of a road near my house in Pacot--manifest the continued struggles that displaced Haitians contend with. Jean has toured the camps numerous times.

Yet personal frustration, however sincere, is obviously not alone a qualification to govern and mend this largely failed state. Meanwhile, Jean's platform is, so far, mostly undefined. He identified his "pillars" as agriculture, education, employment, security, and healthcare, and in parting words added "infrastructure" to the list. But as one elite Haitian watching the CNN telecast in Petionville said, "Anyone, even I, can list the problems, the question is how to deal with them."

This did not seem to concern the pro-Jean crowds that shouted and chased Jean's motorcade as he left the CEP, waiving from his sunroof and receiving gifts of small bills from the crowd. Youths wearing "Fas a Fas" t-shirts followed him on motorcycles. While the crowd thinned as Jean's motorcade moved farther outside the capital, people were still lining up to see him all the way to Croix-des-Bouquets, his hometown eight miles outside the city.

Wyclef Jean woke Port-au-Prince on August 5, and brought new color to the international media's coverage of Haiti. He's still the number-one topic of conversation. But whether Jean can bring more than hype to Haiti is an open question--among Haitians as much as anyone. The morning after Jean's announcement, when I asked my taxi driver if he was planning to vote at all, he shook his head: "It's not worth it."

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Allyn Gaestel is a freelance journalist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who writes on international politics, social issues, and human rights. She is a former United Nations correspondent and National Press Foundation Fellow.

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