Hip-hop, more than most pop genres, is something of a pulpit, urban fire and brimstone garbed in baggy pants and backward caps. So it’s little wonder that one of the music form’s icons, Haitian-American superstar Wyclef Jean, is the son of a Nazarene preacher — or that he likens himself, as a child of the Haitian diaspora, to a modern-day Moses, destined to return and lead his people out of bondage. Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake, which ravaged the western hemisphere’s poorest country and killed more than 200,000 people, was the biblical event that sealed his calling. After days of helping ferry mangled Haitian corpses to morgues, Jean felt as if he’d “finished the journey from my basket in the bulrushes to standing in front of the burning bush,” he told me this week. “I knew I’d have to take the next step.”
That would be running for President of Haiti. Jean told TIME he is going to announce his candidacy for the Nov. 28 election just days before the Aug. 7 deadline. One plan that was discussed, loaded with as much Mosaic symbolism as a news cycle can hold, called for him to declare his candidacy on Aug. 5 upon arriving in Port-au-Prince from New York City, where he grew up after leaving Haiti with his family at age 9. “If not for the earthquake, I probably would have waited another 10 years before doing this,” Jean says. “The quake drove home to me that Haiti can’t wait another 10 years for us to bring it into the 21st century.” Jean sees no contradiction between his life as an artist and his ambitions as a politician. “If I can’t take five years out to serve my country as President,” he argues, “then everything I’ve been singing about, like equal rights, doesn’t mean anything.”
It’s tempting to dismiss this as flaky performance art, a publicity stunt from the same guy who just a few years ago recorded a number called “President” that included the refrain “If I was President.” But Jean’s chances as well as his motives seem solid. And there are good reasons for Haitians — and the U.S.-led international donor community, which is bankrolling Haiti’s long slog to the 21st century — to take this particular hip-hop politician seriously. Pop-culture celebrity hardly disqualifies you from high office today. (The last time I looked, an action hero was still running California.) And in Haiti, where half the population of about 9 million is under age 25, it’s an asset as golden as a rapper’s chains. Amid Haiti’s gray postquake rubble, Jean is far more popular with that young cohort than their chronically corrupt and inept mainstream politicians are, and he’ll likely galvanize youth participation in the election.
More important, Jean stands to prove that fame can do more than lift voter turnout — or raise millions of dollars for earthquake victims, as his Yéle Haiti (Haiti Freedom Cry) foundation has this year. His presidential run, win or lose, could build a long-awaited bridge between Haiti and its diaspora: a legion of expatriates and their progeny, many of them successful in pursuits spanning every field, who number 800,000 in the U.S. alone. International aid managers agree that Haiti really can’t recover from the quake unless it taps into the education, capital, entrepreneurial drive and love for mother country that Jean epitomizes — even if his French (one of Haiti’s official languages) is poor and his Creole (the other) is rusty. “A lot of Haitians are excited about this,” says Marvel Dandin, a popular Port-au-Prince radio broadcaster. “Given the awful situation in Haiti right now,” he says, “most people don’t care if the President speaks fluent Creole.”
Jean’s celebrity candidacy at least promises to keep an erratic media more regularly focused on Haiti’s awful situation. International donors have pledged some $10 billion in aid, but seven months after the earthquake, mountains of shattered concrete still choke Port-au-Prince’s streets, and more than a million people remain homeless, trapped in squalid tent cities as a sclerotic government bureaucracy and loosely organized aid groups struggle to relocate them to decent temporary shelters. The Caribbean hurricane season, which reaches its peak in about a month, threatens to make conditions even uglier.
Jean has spent most of his life trying to show the world the positive side of star-crossed Haiti. Despite his Brooklyn and New Jersey upbringing — where he recalls weekly “beat up a Haitian” days at his schools — he proudly embraced the nation, even when, in the 1980s and ’90s, Haiti was an abject byword for boat people, AIDS and dictators. “A lot of us focused on assimilation in the U.S.,” says Jean’s younger brother Sam, a New York entertainment lawyer. “Clef was unabashedly proud to be Haitian long before it was in vogue.” So much so that Jean never took U.S. citizenship, instead carrying a Haitian passport on his international concert tours.
Jean brought Haiti and its culture into his Grammy-winning music too. As a member of the groundbreaking hip-hop group the Fugees (short for refugees) in the mid-’90s, and then as a solo act, Jean built compas, rasin and other Haitian rhythms into hits like “Gone Till November.” His work earned him a reputation as Haiti’s Bob Marley, helping foreigners unearth the vibrant culture so often buried under the misery. Not that he left out the misery: like Marley’s songs, Jean’s exude a raw but poetic social content. The video for his 2007 hit “Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill),” which examines exploitation both sexual and national, is set in a camp for refugees facing deportation. Now he wants to move beyond music. Jean has gotten so involved with not just the culture but the cause of Haiti that he feels it’s only logical to follow other artist-to-statesman career trajectories. (He mentions Ronald Reagan and former Czech President Vaclav Havel as examples of the type.) Yéle Haiti has secured scholarships and aid for thousands of destitute Haitian kids; since the earthquake, the Yéle Corps has given Haitians jobs removing rubble and housing the displaced. Jean sits through the kind of development conferences in Washington and Europe that would bore most do-gooder celebs to tears. “I want to be part of a different kind of celebrity,” he says, “one that thinks not just about charity but policy.” He’s been noticed; in 2007, Haitian President René Préval appointed Jean as an ambassador at large.