Haitian hip-hop star Wyclef Jean registered as a presidential contender yesterday, in a move into politics that generated an outburst of popular enthusiasm in his poor, earthquake-ravaged homeland.
"I would like to tell (U.S.) President Barack Obama that the United States has Obama and Haiti has Wyclef Jean," the three-time Grammy award-winner told cheering supporters in a downtown area of Port-au-Prince.
"This is the only president who will dance when Creole hip-hop is being played," Jean, 40, said in a speech after formally declaring his candidacy for the 28 November presidential election.
He filed papers at the electoral council to run as a candidate for the Viv Ansanm (Live Together) political party, as excited young supporters clad in white and red T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Fas a Fas," the party's youth movement, packed the surrounding streets.
The registration was required ahead of a Saturday filing deadline and authorities now have until 17 August to approve or reject his candidacy for the 28 November ballot.
"If his candidacy is approved, I think he's going to be the next president," said Saurel Magloire, who was among those gathered outside the electoral council.
Since former populist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ran for the country's top job in 1990, Magloire said he had never seen such a big outpouring of public support.
Jean, standing and waving to onlookers from the open sun-roof of his sport utility vehicle, drew repeated chants of "Long Live Wyclef" and "President Jean" as his impromptu motorcade later wound its way through the densely packed streets of the capital.
"It was an extraordinary homecoming for Jean, who had flown into Haiti with his wife and young daughter and other relatives on a private jet from their home in the United States.
Singer-songwriter Jean has never held elective office but is widely admired in Haiti and credited with never having forgotten his Haitian roots.
The former Fugees star, best known for his work with Colombian pop star Shakira and their 2006 mega-hit "Hips Don't Lie," was born in Haiti but grew up in New York.
He has long been active in raising money for his homeland through his Yele Haiti Foundation, especially since the 12 January earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people.
The disaster has left some 1.5 million homeless survivors still under tarpaulins and in makeshift tent cities.
More than half the population of Haiti, which is the poorest country in the Americas, is under 21. Because of that, and because he is seen as a figure of hope and inspiration for a country with a turbulent history, many analysts predict Jean could easily win the presidential election.
Haiti's outgoing government of President Rene Preval, who cannot seek re-election, has been widely criticized for failing to aid victims of the quake and for being slow to launch a credible start to the huge task of rebuilding the country.
Preval's election in 2006 brought a measure of stability to a country torn by decades of dictatorship, military rule, political upheaval and gang violence.
But Haitians, who mostly earn less than $2 a day and live in utter poverty, complain they are worse off than ever since the quake, which has been described by some experts as one of the most destructive natural disasters in modern history.
Though talk about Jean's candidacy has already generated widespread enthusiasm in Haiti, he faces many challenges in what he has described as his attempted transition "from rock star to statesman."
One potential obstacle, according to Eduardo Gamarra, a political science professor at Florida International University, is Jean's lack of management skills in a country with weak institutions that is in dire need of rebuilding.
"Whoever is president, he's going to have to be an excellent manager," Gamarra said. "The fact is, the only thing he's managed is his band."
Not only are his political skills untested, but, as a member of Haiti's exile community, he could also be vulnerable to charges he is out of touch with the daily life of Haitians.
In an interview with CNN, hours after registering his candidacy, Jean said he felt as though he had been "drafted" by the Haitian people to give them "a piece of the dream that I got in America."
Despite the desperation in Haiti, he added, "There's a crowd behind me right now with so much excitement, because they feel hope is on its way."
Jean also denied any personal financial wrongdoing stemming from his role as head of Yele Haiti, which he stepped down from yesterday, and said reported problems he had with US authorities involving his personal income taxes were being dealt with.
"The situation with the IRS was a situation that came up and it is a situation that will be handled," Jean said.
"Can I continue staying in America, working and making millions of dollars a day? Yes I can. But now the mission has changed. I'm 40 years old and I want to focus on helping the people of Haiti," he said.