When thirty-five-year-old Wyclef Jean is not on some awards-show stage strutting around the volcanic hip shakes of Shakira, he’s making or producing music with luminaries of all stripes: Carnival Vol. II (Sony), released earlier this year, has tracks with artists as varied as Norah Jones, T.I., Paul Simon and Sizzla. The papa of Caribbean-spiced political hip-hop has a life outside his music, though, and it involves being an actual papa – not just to his adopted three-year-old daughter, Angelina, but to millions of kids from his native Haiti who look up to him. (Wyclef is something like a funky Santa Claus in his homeland.) Babble talked to Clef about his campaign to get Haiti’s kids educated, vaccinated – and heard. – Tammy La Gorce
In a PSA for a Haitian vaccination campaign organized by the Pan American Health Organization in May -the farthest-reaching in Haiti ‘s history, with more than five million children set to be vaccinated – you say, “To vaccinate a child is an act of love.” In the U.S., vaccination is controversial: some parents are opposed because of religious reasons, or because of potential adverse effects, or because they think it violates individual liberty. What do you say to these parents?
It’s not my place to tell a parent what’s best. They have to make decisions based on their beliefs and life situations. The environment and accessibility to disease is not the same in all parts of the world – there are serious tropical diseases and malaria in Haiti that are not a part of the health concerns in the United States. I couldn’t apply what’s good for a child in Haiti to a child in the U.S.
You established the Yele Haiti Foundation, which provides scholarships to Haitian children, in 2004, and it’s grown each year. You’ve already sent 30,000 children to what Haiti calls intermediate school – middle school in the U.S. – and your goal is to send up to 10,000 more each year. What was your early education in Haiti like, before you moved to Brooklyn as a nine-year-old?
Yeah, as far as Yele Haiti, economies are struggling now, and it’s more difficult each year to raise money. But we’re committed. My early school years were much like what you see in third-world countries: I rode a donkey to school or walked. It was about five miles away. We had a uniform, which was my best outfit. My aunt and uncle took care of me because my parents had immigrated to the United States, and my aunt made sure that uniform was pressed and clean. My classroom was one room with around twenty kids.
What does Yele Haiti mean? Did you choose the name?
Yele means “cry freedom.” I made it up.
Does Yele Haiti help kids in Haiti beyond scholarships?
We have a lot of programs for the arts, athletics and community involvement – we’re in the process of building a recording studio in Cit’ Soleil, which is one of the most dangerous slums in the world. The idea is to give kids something to be responsible for, somewhere to express themselves. We have football and basketball programs that also help with kids’ development. And we have a program called Hip Hop Sante which teaches about AIDS prevention through hip-hop lyric contests.
A lot of celebrities have recently directed their charitable concerns toward Africa. Are other parts of the world, like Haiti, being overlooked?
Man, Haiti has always been overlooked. It’s only a hundred miles off the coast of the richest nation in the world, but there’s so little known about its challenges. And the media paints a terrible picture of the violence and the people in Haiti a lot of the time. Africa has a lot of concerns, too. It’s not about picking one over the other. But we should have equal concern about a country that has resources, that is so close to home, and is only ten million people in population. It shouldn’t take a lot, so much, to move forward.
You’re busy: Carnival Vol. II, with a rainbow of guests, came out earlier this year, and you’re working on a new album. Does your schedule allow for day-to-day involvement with Yele Haiti and/or the immunization campaign? “I think a child can have a productive and enriching childhood if they’re given the resources to succeed in life.”
I’m still promoting [Carnival II]. And I’m always recording for myself and others, plus I’m producing a lot right now. I am in with Shakira working on new stuff as we speak. And I was recently in the studio with a new artist I like named Jazmine Sullivan – she’s on J Records – plus Estelle and John Legend. I’m going to be working with Pink and T.I. in the next month, too. I give as much to Yele Haiti and the immunization program as I can, when I can.
You and your wife, Marie Claudinette Pierre-Jean, adopted your three-year-old daughter, Angelina, from America. Why did you choose to adopt an American child rather than a Haitian one?
Angelina is half-Haitian. She was a child that needed love and a life.
How would you describe your parenting style?
Loving and giving of myself and my time are the things I try to do most. No particular style.
You live in New Jersey, deep in suburbia. Are you and your wife part of the local stroller brigade? Does Angelina do gymnastics classes at the Y, and do you make small talk with the other dads around the sandbox at the local playground?
Angelina is involved in a lot of activities from ballet to art, and she likes singing. She loves the studio too.
Does Angelina listen to kids’ music? Does she have any favorite artists?
She mostly loves Nickelodeon. She loves SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer. She likes children’s programming in Spanish too. She’s learning to speak it.
Can a suburban American childhood compare, culturally, to a childhood spent in a country like Haiti? Are our kids getting enough exposure to other cultures?
I think a child can have a productive and enriching childhood if they’re given the resources to succeed in life – a stable family environment, etc. – no matter where they are. But children are very resilient.