January 1, 2004 marked the 200th anniversary of the independence of the republic of Haiti. In the centuries following the only successful slave revolt in the western hemisphere, Haitians rightfully swelled with pride at their independence, despite the country’s frequent slides into political chaos, socioeconomic distress and outright anarchy. This past New Year’s found the Caribbean country again in turmoil, as a government mired in scandal, violence and virtual bankruptcy struggled to regain control of an impatient, often desperate populous. Yet Haitians, both in the country and in the diaspora—which stretches from the Americas to Europe and beyond—still display an indeflatable pride in the republic.
Producer-songwriter-rapper Wyclef Jean decided it was time to show his own powerful feelings for his homeland and, by extension, New York and hip-hop. Born in Haiti to a minister and his wife, nine-year-old Jean emigrated to New York’s Brooklyn and, with his family, eventually settled in nearby suburban New Jersey when he was a teenager. Together with his cousin Prakazrel “Pras” Michel and Lauryn Hill, Jean hit the big time after a rocky, ill-advised gangsta-style start. The Fugees’ 1996 sophomore release The Score shone with reggae’s influence on hip-hop and the trio’s wide-ranging tastes: “How Many Mics” echoed dub’s slow burn; the remake of Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” featured Jean’s raspy vocals in tribute to the reggae legend.
Jean’s producer credits were decidedly more eclectic: remixes for the likes of Destiny’s Child, Whitney Houston and Simply Red; collaborations with Youssou N’Dour (“How Come,” from 2000’s Joko), Carlos Santana (the monster ear worm “Maria” from the guitarist’s comeback album Supernatural) and others; co-songwriting credits that run the gamut. Jean’s own musical roots were more evident on his solo projects, especially 2000’s The Ecleftic. Rara’s syncopated beats drummed through “Thug Angels,” a bouncing cautionary tale; the Haitian troubadour tradition informed the album’s R&B hit, the Mary J. Blige duet “911.” Still, reggae and hip-hop, East Coast and West, propel the beats.
Jean finally comes home with Welcome To Haiti Creole 101. Kompas, Haitians’ primarily dance music, rules—superstars Sweet Mickey and T-Vice join the celebration—but rara, the carnival and semi religious percussion-driven carnival and semireligous style, also drives the collection. Jean raps and sings in Creole, switching to English or even Spanish at will. The political “President,” the set’s first single, made waves during last year’s elections with its antiwar pro-civil rights stance (curiously, some thought the song a pro-Bush rallying cry). The tune stands out more because of its obvious pop sensibilities—it is the only tune on Welcome that veers almost entirely from Jean’s stated M.O.: bringing Haitian music front and center.<