Wyclef Jean: Preacher's son to rap star to presidential contender
Wyclef Jean, president of Haiti? It would cap the Haitian immigrant's trajectory from rebellious preacher's son to millionaire rap star to humanitarian worker.
The pastor there was Wyclef’s father, the Rev. Gesner Jean, a conservative minister who didn’t condone “secular music,” let alone Wyclef repeatedly sneaking out to visit clubs.
“No dancing, no movies, none of that,” recalls his brother, Sam Jean. “Growing up, that created a lot of conflict.”
Wyclef was eventually kicked out of the house. But to his father's chagrin, he continued to pursue music and gradually entered a world of drugs, money, and fame.
Following a common U-trend among rebellious preacher's sons – like Malcolm X and Franklin Graham, sons of Baptist ministers – Wyclef Jean would rebel against his strict upbringing only to turn around later in life to take the podium himself as a social activist.
Following the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 2 million more, Wyclef’s non-profit Yéle Haiti raised an estimated $9 million for the relief effort.
“He was one of the first people on the ground, helping bury hundreds of thousands of bodies, and seeing that the country needed real reform,” says Samuel Jean, who is acting as his brother’s campaign spokesman. “He said, ‘I couldn’t sleep with myself if I just walked away from this. I look at Haiti and think, I could help do something. You can raise money, you can raise awareness, but there comes a point where you’ve pushed that as far as it can go.’ ”
It was perhaps that same drive that pushed him in his music career, despite his father's outrage and refusal to attend a concert or purchase an album.
Wyclef was born in Haiti on Oct. 17, 1969. When he was 9, Rev. Gesner Jean brought the family to New York City. They later moved to Newark, New Jersey, where he headed a Nazarene church, a Protestant denomination known for its conservatism.
Tellingly, he named two of his five children after Protestant Reformation theologians, Sam says. Wyclef is an alternate spelling for John Wycliffe, the 14th century British preacher and theologian who translated one of the first Bibles into English. Sam’s middle name is Zwingli, after a 16th century Reformation leader in Switzerland.
Reverend Jean was unbending in his worldview. “My dad always let in the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” recalls Sam, who would attend the conservative Eastern Nazarene College in Boston, with a chuckle. “You would hear my dad just debating with them.”
That viewpoint extended to his children’s interaction with popular culture.
“We listened to a lot of Haitian gospel music growing up,” says Sam. “If we listened to [secular music], we listened to it very secretively.”
Wyclef had an ear for music and began playing guitar, piano, keyboard, and accordion in the church’s worship band. “People would come for the music,” recalls Sam. Wyclef was encouraged to play – to a point. Reverend Jean once kicked Wyclef out of the house for failing to obey his strict rules, and his son's insistence on pursuing music created a years-long rift.
Wyclef briefly attended Five Towns College on Long Island in the late 1980s, but dropped out after less than a year to pursue a professional music career with his cousin Prakazrel “Pras” Michel and Lauryn Hill in The Fugees. In 1996, their second album, The Score, topped Billboard charts and won two Grammy awards.
“Right before Fugees got big, Wyclef came to my dad and apologized,” Sam recalls. “He had accepted the fact that, ‘My son makes the kind of music that I don’t like.’ ”
But Reverend Jean still refused to attend a concert and didn't appreciate how big a star Wyclef had become. Sam recalls that on a visit to Manhattan his father was baffled when his son was mobbed with people begging for autographs.
While at the same time withholding support, Revered Jean was also shaping his son’s music. Wyclef’s songs contain Haitian Creole lyrics and beats, along with occasional infusions of Christianity. His 2003 solo album is titled "The Preacher's Son."
But his lyrics also reveal the world that Wyclef had entered, and which may come under scrutiny during the coming campaign season. "If you smoke like I smoke in your high life everyday / I'm talking 'bout Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday," he croons in "Party Like I Party." While not necessarily a reference to marijuana, he has also reportedly said: “President Bush needs to smoke marijuana.”
“He’s always been honest about what he has done, the culture and lifestyle he has,” says brother Sam. “He’s never promoted for people to do the things he’s done that he’s not proud of.”
By January 2001, Wyclef and his father had reconciled, and for the first time Rev. Gesner Jean saw his son in concert. It was at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and Wyclef was hosting a benefit for the Wyclef Jean Foundation featuring Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston, and Stevie Wonder.
The Reverend couldn’t help but crack a smile when his son strode onto the stage in a white tuxedo and matching fedora, recalls Sam. Revered Jean would die the following September.
Sam says he is unsure of Wyclef's beliefs today, but Christianity has strong roots in the Wyclef family. Their uncle is not only the former Haiti ambassador to the United States, but Raymond Joseph is also a preacher’s son and ordained minister credited with translating the first New Testament and Psalms into Haitian Creole.
Coincidentally, Mr. Joseph is also running for president of Haiti, in an election that now features at least two pastor’s sons.
“We have a lot of respect for Uncle Ray. I am sure that if Clef were to win that he’d certainly have a conversation with him. I don’t think they perceive it as running against each other. … The Haitian people, the more choices they have, the better chance they have of making a good selection.”