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.
In Pictures Wyclef for President
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.