Wyclef Jean for president?
Back in February, Wyclef Jean melodically threw down the gauntlet when he sang, "Obama, Hillary Clinton: They got competition. Vote for me. Wyclef for president."
The video, which is all over the Internet, features the former Fugees member giving new vibrancy to one of his older songs by showing average Joes and Janes rallying around him waving signs as an endorsement.
The images of him playing his guitar onstage - dreadlocks shorn and wearing a suit - are compelling; after all, politicians don't typically use reggae as a way to pledge gas-price reductions.
So when the Grammy-winning producer-rapper-humanitarian passed through Toronto last month to launch Stella Artois's first light beer, this reporter wanted to know how the campaign was going.
He chuckled and offered a reply that could best be described as off-the-cuff inspirational. "Every time I say Wyclef for president, people would scream because they knew I was talking about Obama," he said, dressed casually in a Ben Sherman button-down and jeans. "The message is that you can be anything you want to be. You aim high, you gonna touch that sky."
Coming from the Haitian-born, Brooklyn-raised son of a pastor (he was named after 14th-century theologian John Wycliffe), the message was not just hot air. Wyclef may not have the hubris of Kanye West or the roughness of Fifty Cent, but he certainly knows how to sneak substance into crowd-pleasing singles.
This week, Wyclef and Akon kick off a series of summer concerts across North America (Wyclef's most recent album, Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant, came out last year and includes collaborations with Akon, Paul Simon and Norah Jones, among others), beginning in Montreal.
Sean Paul and Kardinal Offishall will join them for the Canadian leg.
The decision to tour with Akon was not just about putting two hot names on the marquee, Wyclef says. What few people realize is that Akon actually appears in a remix on The Score, the Fugees album from 1996 that sold over 18 million copies worldwide (and no, don't expect a reunion any time soon).
He acknowledges that hip hop sounds very different today, as thug life gets supplanted by club life and artists like the late Notorious B.I.G. have given way to such fresh faces as Lil' Wayne.
"As a producer, because I do wear many hats, you can see it constantly changing in front of you," he said, seated at a bar-height table with two BlackBerrys within reach. "There are certain people who want to blame this new generation because they can't adapt and they're like, 'Yo, it's a sellout.' But guess what, when we were young, we were dancing to the Humpty Hump and now, my cousins are dancing to Soulja Boy. … It makes me think, man, maybe I'm getting old."
And to think he's only 35. Over the past few years, however, Wyclef has transitioned from a musician to a humanitarian. Yéle Haiti is the name of the foundation he founded in 2004, first as a relief initiative in response to hurricane Jeanne but which currently provides a web of educational and community support that he oversees through regular visits.
Wyclef says this surprised people despite the fact that he has always generated awareness for Haiti. "People would go on the website yele.org and say, 'We didn't know Clef was doing this much,' " he said. "I knew they knew I was committed musically. I just don't think they knew how committed I was; [that] I was committed with my life."
Yéle Haiti is one of the charities supported by One X One, the Canadian organization spearheaded by Joelle Adler. It has achieved overwhelming success in large part by getting stars such as Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and, yes, Wyclef on board. He took part in One X One's glitzy event during the Toronto International Film Festival last September, performing with Shakira and getting deep-pocketed guests to pony up for a private home concert as one of the live auction items.
Wyclef says he feels an emotional connection to Montreal and Toronto. Apparently, the former was one of three options his family had when emigrating from Haiti and the latter is one of his favourites, thanks to its "Caribbean vibe." Consequently, he calls them both his "natural cities."
But New Jersey is his home base and Wyclef is a proud family man. He is married to Marie Claudinette Pierre-Jean and they have a three-year-old daughter, Angelina, who appeared with him in a print ad for the Gap's (Product) Red campaign.
Incidentally, Akon also involves his family in his public life and has been known to bring his sons to various awards shows.
"I think it's really important for people to know that you have families," Wyclef said. "Because when kids see themselves out there, it inspires [them] to want to do better."
Spoken like a true presidential candidate. Yet Wyclef reveals that he would much prefer to sit on a beach as the owner of an ultra-lux hotel in Haiti.
He also hopes to have a "big fat gut" which, of course, has nothing to do with the Stella Artois beer.
So no running for president?
"If I run for prez, I'm going to get stressed," he answered. "I figure if I work a good 10 more years, I should be able to just chill and help the world."
Wyclef Jean, Akon and Sean Paul perform at Montreal's Bell Centre on Wednesday, Toronto's Molson Amphitheatre on Thursday and at the Ottawa
Bluesfest on Saturday. Other national dates follow the next week.
Return to Davey D's Hip Hop Corner