On 28 November, the perpetually beleaguered and misruled Caribbean nation of Haiti will choose a new president. There is at least a possibility that they will elect a man who hasn’t lived there full-time since he was a child, and whose greatest claim on the popular consciousness is having mumbled in the background of a cover of an old Roberta Flack hit.
This is an admittedly crass and unfair reduction of the life and works Wyclef Jean, the Haiti-born, US-based former Fugee turned vastly successful producer, songwriter and record label boss, who declared his candidacy yesterday: Jean, still only 37, has been a dedicated advocate for his homeland, as frontman of the Yele Haiti charitable foundation, and as a roving ambassador for Haiti, a position to which he was appointed in 2007 by incumbent president Rene Preval. That terse introduction does, however, reflect the widespread cynicism and unease that exists about artists, even politically engaged ones, becoming politicians.
It’s a phenomenon we’re going to have to get used to. Jean might win.
“I think he has a good chance,” says Kathy Gebara-Johnson, of the United Haitians charity in the UK. “Remember that 60 to 70 per cent of the population is under 18, so his work is well known to them. He also has the kind of international clout that Haiti needs.”
There are precedents. Peter Garrett, once singer with Australian rock band Midnight Oil, who campaigned vigorously on a variety of issues, now sits in his country’s cabinet as minister for Environment Protection, Heritage & the Arts. In the US, the state of Minnesota has elected to the federal Senate the former Saturday Night Live performer-agitator Al Franken (though it might be reasonably argued that Franken was scarcely the first comedian to occupy high office in Washington).
Is any of this bad? Does it really represent a trivialisation of politics? Was the former UK cabinet minister who harumphed at me that a rock star’s opinions about geo-politics were no more valid than a Secretary of State’s guitar-playing abilities correct? Not necessarily. Some artists are dimwits, loons and bandwagon-climbers – but so are quite a lot of politicians. Certainly, artists are as entitled to seek the votes of their fellow citizens as anyone else, and many of them – especially those who’ve forged successful careers while/despite flaunting their political beliefs – can also claim a ready-made mandate of people they’ve already inspired to agree with them.
Where Wyclef Jean and Haiti are concerned, at least, there is one unarguable case to be made for his putative presidency. “Compared to what has gone before,” notes Gebara-Johnson, “he couldn’t do any worse.”