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Marian Salzman Headshot

What I've Learned From Wyclef Jean

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When Wyclef Jean hired my agency about six months ago, I knew that our mission would be to help him pursue his mission: tirelessly working toward Haiti's recovery. I and my team were to take care of the details so Wyclef could look to the bigger picture--that of making Haiti top of mind for people who can make a difference and, ultimately, turning Haiti around.

We had a first lunch meeting and it all made sense to me, including the venue, a diner next to his wife's warehouse, which now functions as a space for the NGO that Wyclef co-founded called Yéle Haiti, where she accepts and processes in-kind donations. That meal was as un-Hollywood and un-hip-hop as it gets: Wyclef's wife, Claudinette, and their daughter, Angelina, then age 4, attended (OK, Angelina mostly played), and so did a bunch of my team. It was about chemistry, and we all meshed. Wyclef is contagious. I met him on a Friday and found myself dragging a friend and three teenagers to Carnegie Hall on Sunday night, because he was scheduled to perform for a few minutes. (He won us all over when we went backstage to say hi and he made time to take pictures with each of the kids, much more hipster dad than presidential candidate-to-be.)

That night, Wyclef said something to me that has been running through my head ever since: "Don't worry; when I'm in, it isn't ever boring." No quick, disposable words were ever more true.

Back in March, when I was getting quickly tutored in the Fugees and Wyclef's musical history, I couldn't have imagined then the extent of his vision and that it would lead us to where we are now: Wyclef transformed, from hip-hop star to presidential hopeful cum front-runner. Regardless of what transpires with his contesting of the election board's ruling that he's ineligible to run, I don't believe such a radical transformation has ever taken place in such a short time--and Wyclef, and the media, share in the credit for that.

Wyclef knew a bid for the presidency of Haiti wouldn't be an easy way to make a difference for the nation; of course, he also knew there is no easy way to help the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. He has, after all, been working for Haiti in some capacity for far longer than the five years since he co-founded Yéle Haiti, which is based on the ground there. But he made the difficult decision to pursue that path, anyway, knowing in his heart that his candidacy would be the best way to keep the plight of his country in headlines around the globe. Witness what Time magazine said online on Aug. 21: "Jean's brightly lit plunge into Haiti's political waters has turned the world's attention to the country again, which will be critical to prompting the international donor community to deliver the billions of dollars it's pledged to the recovery effort."

Since the start of our journey with Wyclef, we've been impressed and inspired by his tireless devotion to the people and country he loves. I'm grateful to the media for presenting the passion that underlies his efforts to put Haiti in the spotlight. On the announcement of his candidacy, the story angle that might have seemed the most sensational--a celebrity feud between Wyclef and Sean Penn (who lambasted the announcement via satellite)--never took hold. Partly, that's because we continued to emphasize the positive messages from Wyclef about helping Haiti, and partly it's because the media understood that that narrative would have been a cheap distraction from the real issues: improving Haiti's conditions and Wyclef's genuine efforts to make a difference.

Wyclef has also taught me a few things in the short time I've been working with him. (And that's saying a lot, considering I'm a 20-plus-year vet of the marketing industry--i.e., I've seen it all.) Here are five things I've learned, in no particular order, from the singer/activist/politician-in-the-making:

1. The power of positive thinking. Wyclef really believes anything (and everything) is possible, and it's infectious. So many of the stories we've seen about Clef, in such outlets as Time.com, The Miami Herald and Rolling Stone--and the gifted journalists who have covered him--have picked up on his optimistic spirit. I credit his quick ascent to potential president, at least in part, to the powerful sway of "yes." Whatever you throw at the man, he's a smile and a swing...

2. Simpler is often better. In our crazily scheduled, overloaded, overconnected world, it's sometimes easy to forget that the best way from here to there is often just A to B. Wyclef's unswerving determination and single-minded eye to his goal reminded us quite a few times that sometimes less complicated can be more effective. I joke that I'm learning Haiti two hours a day, but in watching him absorb complex briefings in digestible bites, I can't help but notice that his lack of hubris makes "getting it" and building on it a smooth sail.

3. Admitting mistakes and flaws make them much less sensational. Of course, there's no doubt that David Letterman taught me this, too. But with Wyclef, the stakes were even higher, and his frankness and transparency with the press were refreshing and instructive. He hasn't run from mistakes but instead has apologized and moved forward. I was never happier than to hear him take responsibility for Yéle's past, so we can move forward wiser now with new CEO Derek Johnson.

4. Friends can be like family, and some people collect families everywhere, across all classes and ethnicities. Those of us working with Wyclef have witnessed that the intense affection and concern he feels for the Haitian people is sincere. I've no doubt that he considers the entire nation part of his extended family. And for that seemingly endless capacity to love his country and countrymen, I salute him. I also find myself laughing about the new families he creates. Tonight I find myself chasing up a journalist I introduced him to last week, because she's now in command of details about a press event tomorrow--in Haiti--and calling his "cousin" because that's where the know-how about getting his work done lives. And I'm on with Wyclef's brother Sam so often, I feel like I know him, too. After watching him on TV, I describe him as the statesman-like brother, the yin to Wyclef's yang--the hip-hop diplomat I've been representing all these months.

5. Everyone at all levels learns in real time. Wyclef has been learning as he goes, but quickly. Among his first interviews was with NPR, where he already knew the presidential language of policy and people: "When you have a population that can't read, can't write, 80 percent living on less than a dollar a day and 90 percent of the population has to pay for their schooling...it's a façade unless we start to put some policy in place that can get these people back in schools." And our team has learned so much in our work so far with Clef. As we collaborate and as the story keeps unfolding, I continue to be surprised at all I've taken away from this experience and the things I've learned about passion, teamwork--and a place called Haiti.