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28091: Hermantin(News)Wyclef Jean brings hip-hop hope to Haiti (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Wyclef Jean brings hip-hop hope to Haiti

By Letta Tayler
Newsday Staff Correspondent

March 9, 2006, 8:51 AM EST

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- "Yo! Back up!" Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born hip-hop star, was shouting to a mob of Carnival revelers. "We can't be responsible for somebody being eaten by a lion!"

It was supposed to be the realization of Jean's childhood dream. Decked out as Haiti's revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines, complete with a tri-cornered hat, swashbuckler's boots, glittering sword and ruffled shirt, the former Fugees front man would ride a float in Haiti's biggest festival, a real lion at his side, capping a heroic return to his ravaged birthplace from his adopted homes of Brooklyn and New Jersey.

But the king of beasts wasn't having it.

Seven times a trainer tried and failed to coax Major, the 450-pound feline, from a truck into a display cage on the Carnival float. One foray was aborted after Major leapt into some bushes, dragging the trainer by the leash. Eventually, the float left without him.

Seemingly impossible dreams are nothing new to Jean. With the same vision - some would argue naiveté - that prompted him to try bringing a contrary lion onto a Carnival float, he is vowing to rebuild his broken country largely through the power of music, aided by Yéle Haiti, the nonprofit group he founded last year.

"Just when you think it's over, that's when the lightning and the thunder is going to come," vowed Jean, a Nazarene preacher's son. "You know what I'm saying? Maybe Haiti won't change in a dramatic way, but it will change. It already has."

"The wind is turning!"

Jean jumped on the float, grabbed a microphone and began to belt his pumping Carnival chant: "Van vire! Van vire!" (Haitian Creole for "The wind is turning! The wind is turning!") Then he rolled into the reveling throngs of Port-au-Prince.

For five days last week, Jean moved through Haiti at breakneck speed, rallying support from grassroots leaders, gang members and socialites in a country convulsed by lawlessness and divided by class and race.

But in the hours before Carnival, he was enjoying a rare quiet moment on the sweeping terrace of a luxury hotel perched high above the stifling capital. He wore camouflage pants and a Yéle Haiti T-shirt. His hair was braided in immaculate corn rows. A diamond-studded medallion of Christ's face dangled from his neck.

Far below him stretched the capital's squalid slums, including the notorious, gang-ruled shantytown of Cité Soleil. "Just to think that I went from there to here," he said, his voice incredulous, as a waiter in a white uniform served him pasta with julienne vegetables.

As a young boy, Jean lived in the rural counterpart to Cité Soleil, sharing a mud hut with five relatives in the dirt-poor town of Laserre in central Haiti. The hut had no running water or electricity.

"I rode a donkey to school. I never had more than two pairs of pants and one pair of shoes," Jean said. Sometimes, he added, he had no pants or shoes at all.

The tough Marlboro housing projects in East Bensonhurst, where he arrived from Haiti when he was 9 and spoke only Creole, seemed luxurious in contrast. "We got yellow cheese, government cheese. I thought I was rich - the white man be giving us cheese," Jean remembered. "And he was wearing a uniform!"

Worried that Jean was getting into trouble, his mother got him a guitar to keep him busy. The family moved when Jean was a teenager to East Orange, N.J. It was there that Jean helped form the Fugees - short for refugees - a band that sold more than 20 million records with its innovative, reggae-and-R&B-inflected hip-hop.

Now 36, Jean has millions of dollars, a lavish home in suburban New Jersey - he won't say where, wanting to protect his privacy - and is trying to give something back.

"Yéle Haiti is about making kids feel that no matter what, their dreams can come true," he said. "I stand up for them. The story of me is them."

"Yéle," the title of one of Jean's songs, is a cry for freedom in Creole. With a budget of $1 million last year, mostly from a Haitian telecommunications company, Yéle Haiti rebuilds schools and provides scholarships and soccer programs to slum children. It also helps run a program to clear the mounds of garbage that pile up everywhere by paying legions of street cleaners.

Some skeptics say Yéle Haiti's programs are a drop in the bucket for this former French-ruled slave colony, where half the population is illiterate, more than two-thirds of the people live on less than $2 a day, and more than 70 percent of the workforce is unemployed.

"These rich people come, they make big plans, and they go," said Jean Roland, 22, an unemployed construction worker, as he loitered on a filthy street corner in the capital. "We're left here with the same old mess."

Jean, Roland said, may be more interested in returning to Haiti to boost his own fame than to change Haiti.

But supporters say Jean is onto something far more intangible and powerful than cleaning a road or building a school: restoring hope and pride in a country that has lost much of both.

"He sends an important message to Haitians of similar humble origins, that he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth and if he can make it, they can," said Mamadou Mbaye, the Haiti director of the United Nations World Food Program.

And one of the best ways to make it, Jean tells this country, is through music.

For months, the World Food Program couldn't deliver food in Cité Soleil because shootouts between gang members and UN peacekeepers made it too dangerous to enter. But using his contacts in the Haitian hip-hop community, Jean last summer enlisted Cité Soleil rappers to persuade gang members to let local musicians truck in the food.

The shipments still are far too infrequent and some food still is being looted as it leaves the trucks. Still, said Mbaye, "Wyclef has opened doors for us. He can communicate with people in Cité Soleil to gain their trust. He walks the walk. He talks the talk."

Indeed, Jean has so much street cred that he has convinced aspiring young slum rappers to compete for the best jingle about such socially conscious topics as cleaning streets or protecting the environment. He plans to record the winning jingle for broadcast on Haitian radio and transport buses.

"Clean! Clean! If you want to build a better future, keep the country clean!" rapped a tough young performer named Mad Ass during an outdoor show for Jean in the impoverished neighborhood of Bel-Air.

"Pwop! Pwop!" ("Clean! Clean!") hundreds of spectators sang along, pumping their fists.

By returning to help his homeland after making it big - even skipping this year's Grammys and flying here on the red-eye to vote in last month's presidential elections - Jean also sends a powerful message to Haiti's tiny ruling class.

"He's a thorn in the backside of the elite, a pressure on them to help change their country," said Robert Duval, an influential industrialist-turned-philanthropist who runs a soccer program for slum youths with Yéle Haiti.

Jean draws a weary world's attention to Haiti the way that U2's Bono raised consciousness about developing nations' debt. It was Jean who wrapped himself in the Haitian flag when he went onstage in 1997 to accept the Fugees' two Grammys for their breakthrough album, "The Score." It was Jean who brought Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt here in January to urge the world to help this country. And it's Jean who constantly plugs his homeland's vibrant culture and gorgeous Caribbean beaches, exclaiming, "Haiti is the eighth wonder of the world."

Their life's work

Jean says his inspiration comes from his mother and father, who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s to escape the Duvalier dictatorship. (They took Jean up several years later. ) The Jeans re-established their Nazarene church in their adopted country and made it their life's work to help Haitian refugees and orphans.

"My parents taught me that one of the reasons in making it was coming back to help," Jean said.

Sedeck Jean, a music producer and one of Wyclef's three siblings, said the Fugee also inherited their preacher-father's ability to connect. "Our dad was incredibly charismatic, and 'Clef is like that," he said. "When he gets into his work it's 159 percent."

So skillful is Jean at building social bridges, some Haitians wonder if he's angling to run for president. Jean roundly denies it. "What I want to do for Haiti is what Sammy Sosa did for the Dominican Republic or what Bob Marley did for Jamaica," he said.

Perhaps Jean realizes his dreams are too flamboyant for public office. One minute, he's talking about buying an island off Haiti's coast to build his version of the Atlantis Resort, a massive, manmade complex of waterfalls, lagoons and a casino in the Bahamas. The next minute, he says he'll donate two of his 36 antique cars to Port-au-Prince slums to remind kids that they can make it out of the ghetto - undeterred by the risk that people who must scrounge food and shelter might strip the vintage sheet metal for roofing material.

And no matter that the lion he flew in from Los Angeles didn't get on the Carnival float. Jean is already looking into bringing an entire circus to the tour the country next year.

"Ninety-seven percent of kids in Haiti have never seen a lion," Jean said. "We've got to change that. We've got to open kids' eyes, make them say, 'Wow.'"

Jean is equally unorthodox about his security.

When he cruised with a bunch of Haitian and Haitian-American musicians into Cité Soleil, a neighborhood where most Haitians fear to tread, his only protector was Beast, his bearded, 6-foot-8-inch bodyguard. But there were no guns in sight on this day, only throngs of fans chanting, "Van vire! Van vire!"

Indeed, the event became one big love fest as the ebony Jean appeared on an outdoor stage with Roberto Martino, the light-skinned, affluent leader of the Haitian pop group T-Vice.

"The color divisions must end!" Wyclef shouted through a bullhorn.

Onstage with them were Cité Soleil gang members who'd helped let in the food aid. "Wyclef's visit will change things in Cité Soleil," said a reputed gang leader named Ti Blanc. "The tension between the bourgeoisie and the poor will soon clear up."

Maybe, but not on this trip. At Jean's next stop in Cité Soleil, a soccer program funded by Yéle Haiti, Martino suddenly found some of the cheering spectators stripping him of his wallet, his sunglasses and his bandanna.

"They were even trying to steal my hair," Martino said after he fled into the bus.

A powerful performance

And when Jean left his float at the end of Carnival, hordes of people stormed it, carting off instruments and a laptop. The crowds also tried to let the lion loose. "I thought they were going to kill me," said the lion tamer. The looting followed one of the most powerful performances of Jean's career.

"Everyone who wants kidnapping to stop, raise your hands!" he hollered in Creole as he dove on and off the carnival float. Hands shot up among an estimated half-million revelers who'd packed streets and climbed trees, tombstones and rooftops to catch a glimpse of the superstar.

Crooning to the melody of Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry," Jean sang an imaginary conversation with Haiti's President-elect René Préval, a darling of the poor.

I called Préval before the show and I said,

Dear President, the Haitian people need food.

Dear President, the Haitian people need jobs.

Dear President, the Haitian people need security.

Jean's band cranked up the tempo to a boisterous rah-rah, the rhythm of Carnival.

"And the president said," Jean bellowed, "Van vire! Van vire!'"
Copyright © 2006, Newsday, Inc.