By Marian Salzman, Sunday, August 22, 2010, at 10:09 pm.
Originally posted on the Huffington Post.
When Wyclef Jean hired my agency about six months ago, I knew that our mission would be to help him pursue his mission: tirelessly working toward Haiti’s recovery. I and my team were to take care of the details so Wyclef could look to the bigger picture—that of making Haiti top of mind for people who can make a difference and, ultimately, turning Haiti around.
We had a first lunch meeting and it all made sense to me, including the venue, a diner next to his wife’s warehouse, which now functions as a space for the NGO that Wyclef co-founded called Yéle Haiti, where she accepts and processes in-kind donations. That meal was as un-Hollywood and un-hip-hop as it gets: Wyclef’s wife, Claudinette, and their daughter, Angelina, then age 4, attended (OK, Angelina mostly played), and so did a bunch of my team. It was about chemistry, and we all meshed. Wyclef is contagious. I met him on a Friday and found myself dragging a friend and three teenagers to Carnegie Hall on Sunday night, because he was scheduled to perform for a few minutes. (He won us all over when we went backstage to say hi and he made time to take pictures with each of the kids, much more hipster dad than presidential candidate-to-be.)
That night, Wyclef said something to me that has been running through my head ever since: “Don’t worry; when I’m in, it isn’t ever boring.” No quick, disposable words were ever more true.
Back in March, when I was getting quickly tutored in the Fugees and Wyclef’s musical history, I couldn’t have imagined then the extent of his vision and that it would lead us to where we are now: Wyclef transformed, from hip-hop star to presidential hopeful cum front-runner. Regardless of what transpires with his contesting of the election board’s ruling that he’s ineligible to run, I don’t believe such a radical transformation has ever taken place in such a short time—and Wyclef, and the media, share in the credit for that.
Wyclef knew a bid for the presidency of Haiti wouldn’t be an easy way to make a difference for the nation; of course, he also knew there is no easy way to help the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. He has, after all, been working for Haiti in some capacity for far longer than the five years since he co-founded Yéle Haiti, which is based on the ground there. But he made the difficult decision to pursue that path, anyway, knowing in his heart that his candidacy would be the best way to keep the plight of his country in headlines around the globe. Witness what Time magazine said online on Aug. 21: “Jean’s brightly lit plunge into Haiti’s political waters has turned the world’s attention to the country again, which will be critical to prompting the international donor community to deliver the billions of dollars it’s pledged to the recovery effort.”
Since the start of our journey with Wyclef, we’ve been impressed and inspired by his tireless devotion to the people and country he loves. I’m grateful to the media for presenting the passion that underlies his efforts to put Haiti in the spotlight. On the announcement of his candidacy, the story angle that might have seemed the most sensational—a celebrity feud between Wyclef and Sean Penn (who lambasted the announcement via satellite)—never took hold. Partly, that’s because we continued to emphasize the positive messages from Wyclef about helping Haiti, and partly it’s because the media understood that that narrative would have been a cheap distraction from the real issues: improving Haiti’s conditions and Wyclef’s genuine efforts to make a difference.
Wyclef has also taught me a few things in the short time I’ve been working with him. (And that’s saying a lot, considering I’m a 20-plus-year vet of the marketing industry—i.e., I’ve seen it all.) Here are five things I’ve learned, in no particular order, from the singer/activist/politician-in-the-making: