Hip-hop star brings help - and hope - to Haiti

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

When residents in the slums of Haiti's capital want to express rage or joy, they often throw a street party. Musical bands march through town, gathering crowds that almost overflow into the trash-filled canals that line the streets.

That was the scene when Grammy Award-winning Haitian-American hip-hop star Wyclef Jean - one of the founders of the hit group The Fugees - showed up in the Cité Soleil slum earlier this month.

One man standing on a truck yelling "Vive Wyclef!" said he thinks Mr. Jean will help him get a job. Others said they love Jean for the work he's doing for the Haitian people.

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Jean's Yéle Haiti organization - launched last year to find and fund groups working in education, healthcare, and the environment - is already making a difference in the neediest communities. And it is an increasingly visible - and audible - force for change across the country.

Jean's early success here, observers say, lies in his star power and reluctance to get involved in politics. This uniquely positions him to be a unifier in a stratified country, bringing together rich and poor, black and mulatto, and those in opposing political camps.

His willingness to appear with both rebel leaders who helped drive former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power and pro-Aristide gangsters has irked some here, but even critics who question the long-term impact of Jean's humanitarian efforts don't deny the sense of hope he is bringing to the hemisphere's poorest people.

"Wyclef is one of the few people who is really able to bridge a divide in Haiti, reaching out to gang leaders, business leaders, donors ... this is very exciting," says Caroline Anstey, the World Bank's country director for Haiti and 15 other Caribbean countries. Ms. Anstey says Jean has enabled development projects to continue in dangerous areas in part by providing hope to the residents. "His focus on music and sports and young people is a very, very hopeful approach because it's really focusing on the next generation and bringing hope to people who up to now have had very little hope."

A 'movement,' not a charity

Jean describes his motivation for starting Yéle Haiti in broad terms. "I think what happens is you're born and you die, but there's this little space in the middle and from that little space emerge some of the greatest people with the greatest responsibilities. How did I get to that space? I don't know. My dad was a minister so he was always talking to us about giving.... I came to my country to help."

Today, Jean sees Yéle as an expanding movement. "I always say that Yéle Haiti is not a charity. It's a movement. We don't really need your charity, we need your movement. So physically do something."

Yéle partnered recently with the Haitian cellphone company ComCEL to provide scholarships and other support for youths attending L'Athletique d'Haiti, a sports and tutoring program, and to rebuild schools and provide scholarships for children in Gonaives, a town devastated by floods in 2004.

Robert Duval, a former local soccer star now revered for his creation of L'Athletique d'Haiti, says his group gets a boost not just from the funds Yéle provides. "We've been here eight years, and we've been doing a relatively good job," he says, "but now Wyclef puts so much electricity into the job that we get to be known more, and people get excited, and then the best comes out."

Bringing hope

Today, through Yéle, 20 schools have been rebuilt, more than 2,000 people who weren't regularly receiving basic food now are, 1,700 previously unemployed men and women of all ages are working to clean the streets, and 3,754 students are receiving scholarships. With ongoing support from ComCEL, Yéle has pledged to almost double the number of scholarships in 2006, and is rolling out program expansions in higher education, environmental awareness, sports, food distribution, and HIV prevention.

And Yéle, from the Creole word for "cry" or "yell," is growing louder, with more initiatives being done through music.

Jean recently emceed a hip-hop contest in the Bel Air slum as part of the USAID-funded Clean Streets project. From 50 contestants in three different slums, Haitian rap star "Jimmy O" Alexandre and Jean selected four from each neighborhood to perform in Bel Air.

The crowd and Jean himself were stunned by the show. "I held my tears back because I'm a tough guy, but it was very emotional," Jean later said. "I mean, there was hope in their eyes. They're super stars in their own country, and the world just doesn't know who they are yet, but they're going to know."

Jean, who said he learned to speak English by rhyming, says hip hop is universal and the best way for youths to communicate. He says he wants these Haitians to see themselves on television and to be discovered by the world. That's why he purchased Haitian TV station Telemax. One station feature will be the live finale of the hip hop competition.

ComCEL Executive Director Bernard Fils-Aime said the movement also involves broadening the horizons of the wealthy elite by connecting them with the poor majority. ComCEL and Yéle plan to do this by organizing soccer competitions between different kinds of neighborhoods, and through school trips to plant trees.

Jean says he hopes to produce all kinds of Haitian musicians through his label Sak Pasé (What's Up) Records. "I think the Haitian people are just the coolest in the universe, you know? And I want to always let them know, y'all are jazzy, y'all are sexy, and don't let anybody twist that," he says.

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