Moments after Wyclef Jean took a seat at table one for an early lunch at Michael’s in midtown, a bodyguard of sturdy carriage advised moving to a different Breur Cesca chair facing away from the lunch crowd. “It’s for security,” Mr. Jean good-naturedly told the Transom from his new perch. Potential threats seemed unlikely among the growing congregations of media honchos with blazers and Hamptons tans, but this was a week where the musician-cum-Haitian presidential candidate saw enemies pounce from many corners.
Since Mr. Jean declared his political ambitions on Aug. 4, detractors have ranged from actor Sean Penn to a former band member to the anonymous callers who ominously suggest he “stick to singing” before hanging up. Then the $2.1 million tax lien the I.R.S. slapped on his New Jersey property became public. “In hip-hop, we have what’s called ‘the haters,'” Mr. Jean said between bites from a warm roll. “You constantly have to just brush the haters off and stay focused. That’s really what I’ve been doing.”
‘I think people underestimate the power of a musician,’ Wyclef said. ‘They think we’re not intellectual, we don’t study policy, we don’t know law and order. But we sing about it all the time.’
With weary eyes and a staid charcoal suit over an Alice blue dress shirt and striped tie contributing gravitas, Mr. Jean more resembled a businessman on a layover than a rap star moonlighting in politics. The ensemble drew admiring glances from the star-struck kitchen staff. He looks 40 years old, but pleasantly so. His hairline has retreated, but his face remains unblemished and uncreased. A Grammy-winning musician and the tear-streaked personification of the earthquake that ravaged his homeland earlier this year, Mr. Jean has become the most famous Haitian in the world-despite spending the past 30 years living in the tristate area. His popularity makes it difficult to ascertain whether he is running for president because he should or simply because he can. He is still tinkering with his talking points, too: In explaining his motivations, Mr. Jean meanders from “I was drafted” to “We can’t take another five years.” Something catchier may be in order.
No one has accused Mr. Jean of being a policy wonk-his platform emphasizing job creation and education is skeletal-but he believes the people dismissing him as a political neophyte aren’t listening closely enough.
“I think people underestimate the power of a musician,” he said. “They think we’re not intellectual, we don’t study policy, we don’t know law and order. But we sing about it all the time.” He listed his performances at Free Tibet concerts and the song “Million Voices” from the Hotel Rwanda soundtrack as examples of artistic and political intersection. Then Mr. Jean casually recited a few a cappella bars at the table. “Vision of Gandhi, courage of Malcolm X/ I envision Aristide the Haitian Pope,” he said with a sly smile.
Not everyone is eager to sign couplets from the Fugees’ 1994 album Blunted on Reality into law. “Besides the things about ‘Let the Third World unite,’ there’s nothing specific that he’s said with a clear or tangible political direction,” said J. Michael Dash, a professor of French at New York University and the author of several books about Haiti. “He’s a novice.”
So it seems likely that Mr. Jean’s policies will be influenced by those around him: He’s friendly with Bill Clinton; his uncle Raymond Joseph was the Haitian ambassador to the U.S. and is also running for president; and he recently hired New Partners, a political consulting firm run by Paul Tewes, the grass-roots organizer who served as Barack Obama’s state director for the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Jean may be the only member of the Viv Ansanm (“Live Together”) party he created, but he will not be untethered.
Similarly, Mr. Jean proved willing to trust the council of experts when it came time to order lunch. After the server recommended both the slow-poached Alaskan halibut and the seared Maine scallops, Mr. Jean queried further. “But which one is the best?” he asked. Halibut it was, an ivory fist resting atop bronze chanterelles and electric-green pesto.
The Transom broached the subject of Yele Haiti Foundation, an organization Mr. Jean founded in 2005 and resigned from last week. Since January, he has been dogged by allegations that the charity misused funds. Most damning were documents unearthed by snoopy Web site The Smoking Gun indicating that Mr. Jean and cousin Jerry Duplessis paid themselves more than $400,000 in foundation funds for appearance fees, rent and production costs. Mr. Jean denies intentional wrongdoing and insists a hawk-eyed battalion of new accountants and lawyers are tending to the $9 million that have been donated to Yele since the earthquake. “We were a grass-roots organization,” he said. “We made mistakes. It’s just about cleaning up and making sure everything is squeaky. Is my organization and my movement of what I’ve been doing since I been 19 an act of corruption and all of that? No. It’s basically what some artists go through.” Cubism, Surrealism, Misappropriation-you dig?
A rapper running for a nation’s presidency-even if the prize is a small, crippled island-is surely a victory for hip-hop, but Mr. Jean was never regarded as one of those leering goons that frighten the conservative punditry. The Fugees, his former group, sold six million copies of their 1996 sophomore LP thanks to Lauryn Hill’s sparkly talent, Bob Marley and Roberta Flack remakes and a pan-Caribbean sensibility for which Mr. Jean, as producer, deserves much credit. The trio has been estranged since the late ’90s (not including quickie reunions), and reconciliation appears unlikely.
In the wake of Mr. Jean’s candidacy, the group’s third member, Prakazrel Michel, has curiously resurfaced as a vociferous supporter of Michel Martelly, another singer vying for the Haitian presidency. “People are eating mud because they can’t afford to eat food and you show up in a private jet?” Pras asked the Transom, in reference to the plane that ferried Mr. Jean down to Haiti for his campaign announcement. He subsequently compared Mr. Martelly to Ronald Reagan as a “transformative” politician and suggested the Transom spend lunch with him as well. We passed, just brushing the Haitians off, one might say.
Mr. Detrick is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.