Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Wyclef Jean: Uplifting post-quake Haiti

By Teo Kermeliotis, for CNN
  • Wyclef Jean rushed to his native Haiti hours after the earthquake
  • 'I've never, in the existence of mankind, ever seen such a thing,' he says
  • Jean has been active in promoting Haitian welfare, founding Yele Haiti in 2005
  • He denies allegations that he's misappropriated funds to finance personal projects

London, England (CNN) -- When the 7.0 tremor ripped through the small Caribbean nation of Haiti on January 12, burying thousands under the rubble and wreaking havoc on the country's infrastructure, there was no moment of hesitation for Wyclef Jean.

Just a few hours later, the Haitian-born musician was aboard a renegade plane on a mission to reach the isolated island and help those who had felt the full force of the destructive quake.

"You couldn't fly into Haiti because the airport tower was broken, so we got a renegade pilot and got in through the Dominican Republic," he told CNN.

"We flew low so as not collide with other planes and made an emergency landing; it was like something you see in the movies, something people would think we were nuts to do," he explained.

For one of Haiti's most famous sons, this was both a personal tragedy and a call of duty.

"The mentality was that I had to be there, so they could see me on the ground. Picking up bodies and bringing them to the cemeteries, helping to bury people. I felt it would have been strange to sit in New York with my arms crossed and wait a few days," Jean said.

The Grammy-winning rapper spent his first days roaming around capital Port-au-Prince, searching for bodies trapped under the ruins.

The mentality was that I had to be there, so they could see me on the ground.
--Wyclef Jean

Jean says the wrenching scenes of devastation that he confronted in the city's slum neighborhoods will haunt him for life.

"I've seen the eyes of the physicians in the aftermath; I've never, in the existence of mankind, ever seen such a thing. People roaming the streets with broken arms, broken legs, knowing it's only a matter of time before they die."

This was not the first time the former Fugees star had been active in his efforts to raise awareness about Haiti's dire need for aid.

In 2005, he set up Yele Haiti, a grassroots non-profit organization whose objective is to "restore pride and a reason to hope" to the Haitian people through projects that will allow them ultimately to help themselves, such as food distribution, support for the arts and emergency relief.

Jean coined the term "Yele" after a slang word in Creole and imbued it with the meaning, "a scream for freedom."

"Yele Haiti symbolizes a movement, not a charity," Jean told CNN. "We're screaming for freedom of the mind. The 21st-century Haiti has to start with the youth revolutionizing their mind. This was the whole idea when we started Yele: we wanted for kids to raise their self esteem."

In its first year, the foundation provided scholarships to 3,600 children following the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Jeanne.

In 2008, the organization teamed up with the UN's World Food Program and the Pan American Development Foundation to launch "Together for Haiti," an initiative focusing on providing resources for targeted food distribution, job creation and farm training.

Jean has often used his celebrity status and personal charisma to raise awareness and promote long-term progress for the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.

He has lobbied the U.S. government to allocate more educational funds to Haiti and to encourage American companies to invest in the local market. He brought former U.S. President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to tour the region and used the public profile of actors such as Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to create awareness of Haiti's plight.

In the days that followed the January earthquake, Yele Haiti became one of the most important aid organizations, gathering "several million dollars" through an SMS fundraising drive.

But recent allegations surrounding accountancy problems with the foundation's funds have suggested that Jean has misappropriated donations to finance personal projects -- an accusation the rapper strongly denies.

"I was devastated for an hour -- I was like 'I was on the ground picking up bodies and I come back and they're accusing my charity, saying they didn't do this, they didn't do that?'" Jean said.

"I want people to understand that Yele Haiti has never been about me, it's always been about the country," he told CNN.

"The way you govern is real simple: you learn from your mistakes, fix your mistakes and move forward; so all I ask is the same group of people who attacked us to come and visit me again in the next three to five months," he continued.

In the eyes of most Haitians, Jean is a local hero. He admits that every time he visits Haiti, "it's like the Beatles when landing in London." A proud Haitian himself, Jean remains hopeful that something good can be born out of the recent disaster.

"Before the quake, the mass majority of the population in Haiti couldn't read or write and was living on less than a dollar a day," Jean said. "So what the quake did was to tip Haiti over the edge to a point where everyone had to pay attention.

"But just because things are bad today, it doesn't mean they won't be better tomorrow," he said.

"Something good can come out of this definitely," he asserted. "Yele is not stopping, it's moving forward and won't be distracted by anything. And as we take this quantum leap into the 21st century, I hope the world will follow us."