Wyclef Jean’s advice for celebrities who want to get political: Don’t be like Kathy Griffin.
Read up, said the musician of Fugees fame, and one-time aspiring celebrity-turned-president himself. And if you’re a high-profile person, think about how what you’re doing and saying might be interpreted, or maybe misinterpreted.
Otherwise, the cause you could just end up hurting the cause you think you’re trying to help.
“If you’re the celebrity that’s speaking based on emotion, you don’t know what policy you’re talking about, they’re going to take that sound bite and make a whole movie out of it,” Jean said, speaking to me for POLITICO’s Off Message podcast. “So, I encourage every celebrity … let’s be as smart as [Jimmy] Kimmel.”
Though he says he feels obligated to give the president a chance, he can’t stand what he’s seen so far—like with the travel ban: “as someone who considers my group being Fugees, short for refugees, I find it crazy.”
“Be very careful,” Jean warned, because the White House is clearly looking for the kind of fight the president and his aides leaned into on Wednesday, when they launched an aggressive effort to condemn Griffin for the photo she put out of herself posing with a bloody, decapitated faux Trump head. “There’s a thing with this administration and Hollywood, where it’s like the yin and the yang.”
But smart doesn’t mean be quiet to Jean, especially for people who care about the issues that Trump is churning up daily.
“The idea of you having a voice and constantly being able to express yourself, in saying, ‘I don’t agree with this,’ or ‘I agree with this,’—it’s important,” Jean said. “I feel that we’re at a time now where your voice should be louder than it’s ever been.”
It’s not just avoiding being drawn into a fight that Trump and his supporters may want, says Jean. It’s about famous and not-as-famous critics of Trump remembering that fewer people around them may agree with their attacks on the president than they might think.
He thinks about people like his sister, who voted for the president.
“We have to be careful to…not make it look like there’s a war going on with Trump supporters,” Jean said.
Starting last year during the campaign, Jean said, “I heard front whispers like, ‘Yo, yo, eff Donald Trump,’ and then behind I heard, ‘Man, Donald Trump gonna get us a job,’” Jean said.
Trump, like Bernie Sanders, made him think of the Creole word for “fire wire”—“you can always feel the electricity of the population in the direction that they’re moving in. And because Donald Trump was so different, it was clear that he had established a base, and it only was going to keep growing, because you can’t underestimate a celebrity.”
Jean was speaking in New Orleans in May at the tech investment Collision conference about the activism he’s involved in around prison reform and combating police violence, and I caught up with the man famous for singing “If I Was President” (he broke out into the first few lines of it at one point) about his thoughts on Trump—whom he worked with briefly on “The Apprentice”—and his own deferred dreams of running himself for president of Haiti, where he was born and lived until moving to New Jersey at nine years old.
“Am I a Donald Trump fan? In ‘The Apprentice,’ yes. Am I a Donald Trump fan as the president? No, but should we give the guy a chance?” Jean said. “Yes, it’s a hard job.”
I asked Jean how he reconciles the man he liked so much on set with the man who’s doing so much that he disagrees with now as president.
“You don’t,” Jean said, arguing that power always changes people. “You just understand.”
As for the "resistance," Jean said, he’s proud to be part of it, but only if it’s about more than marches and screaming.
“I just feel that, you know, he has a four-year term, and remember what Obama said, ‘Don’t boo. Vote.’ And if you don’t agree with something he’s doing, protest. No one is saying don’t,” Jean said, but “protest peacefully.”
Jean’s big issue is criminal justice reform, and for all his trouble with the current White House and leadership in Congress, he said there’s a part of him that thinks this might actually be the moment to make some headway, picking up on the support conservatives like the Koch Brothers have voiced for tackling issues like mandatory minimums even when that made for odd alliances with the Obama administration.
"It looks like a conservative movement, right? You always want smaller government, so the idea of big prisons is not the way to move forward," Jean said.
But he fears that many think the time for peaceful protests is already over when it comes to police violence.
“I’m worried about more riots. … it’s almost like we’re back to the ‘70s, closer to the ‘Nam era, where it’s almost like—the riots keep getting more and more violent,” Jean said. “Before it gets to that level, right, then we have to find a common ground with citizen and police. And in order to do that, both sides have to feel protected.”
I asked Jean — who was disqualified when he tried to in 2010, after the earthquake — if he’d run for president of Haiti again. He said no, but left the door open for something. I asked him whether that meant he’d want to run in America.
He didn’t say no.
“I think, in the future, I would serve in some form of public office,” Jean said, “definitely.”