Arts Desk

Louder Than Qualms: At 9:30 Benefit for Wyclef Jean’s Haiti Charity, Artists and Audience Focus on the Positive

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Last week, Tabi Bonney got a request to perform at a benefit concert for the victims of the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake, to be held at the 9:30 Club. It was an easy decision for the local rapper. “I just got a call & agreed to perform for the people of Haiti brother,” wrote Bonney in an e-mail last week. “ I am sure that the proceeds will go to the PEOPLE OF HAITI. God is too great!”

Whatever God’s prowess, Bonney’s assurances came just as the credentials of the benefit were called into question. The event, titled “DMV Supports Haiti,” was slated to hand over some of the proceeds to a group called Yéle Haiti, which had paid unusual amounts of money to the person who started it, former Fugees member Wyclef Jean. A few days before the concert, the Smoking Gun reported that Yéle’s tax filings for 2005–07 showed that Yéle had made six-figure payments to a Manhattan recording studio and a Haitian television station, both of which are owned by Jean and Yéle board member Jerry Duplessis. Jean, who was born in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, has been dividing his time between the island and the States since the quake.

So would “DMV Supports Haiti” support a misguided charity?

Denials came from all involved in the benefit. On Monday, event publicist Candice Mackel told Arts Desk, “We stand firm in our decision. We’re just looking to have a wonderful show and to keep in mind that this is for Haiti. This is for a good cause. We just want to keep it positive.” At a press conference later that day to address the questions about the proceeds Jean and Yéle’s president, Hugh Locke, said that the controversial payments to companies Jean co-owns—$100,000 for a Wyclef Jean performance at a benefit in Monte Carlo in 2006, for instance—were made in good faith. In a statement Friday evening, Locke offered a similar defense for the $31,000 Yéle pays each year to rent space in the kitchen of Platinum Studios, which Jean co-owns.

The event came together late last week after Yodit Gebreyes, a Georgetown University graduate student who runs the Web site TalkofDC.com, convened a meeting of young professionals via Twitter to discuss raising money for earthquake relief. The group quickly contacted the 9:30 Club and the artists, who were eager to put together the benefit. “For us it was a natural thing to say yes to,” Audrey Schaefer, a spokesperson for the 9:30 Club, said last week. “We were dark on Monday. Wale was available on Monday.” All the evening’s proceeds—as well as employees’ wages and the percentage that usually goes to ticketing services—would be split between Yéle and Partners in Health, a Boston-based organization that operates a number of hospitals in Haiti, including, as of this week, the public University Hospital in Port-au-Prince.

DMV Supports Haiti discussed misgivings about Yéle in several conference calls over the weekend and concluded that money donated to the organization would be well-spent on recovery.Yéle Haiti is currently collecting supplies for an airlift out of Miami sometime this week. At the press conference, Locke said that because of Jean’s iconic status among Haitians and the group’s on-the-ground knowledge of the country, Yéle should play an essential role in relief and rebuilding efforts. He said a law firm, DLA Piper, and an auditing firm, Grant Thornton, will oversee Yéle’s relief efforts. Locke said the group hopes to raise $1 million a day. (Monday’s concert raised $36,000.)

“I think it’s fair for every organization to meet a standard and we’ll continue to watch it, but from what we’re seeing so far it’s an organization that’s run well,” Schaefer said. “And frankly, we don’t want people to get distracted. There’s a great need there. Even Wyclef said [in a YouTube video defending Yéle], ‘Examine us; if you want to give somewhere else, just give.’”

Inside the capacity club on Monday, some of the District’s biggest names in rap performed: Wale, Bonney, XO, D.C. Don Juan, Kingpen Slim. Questions about the propriety of Jean’s charity fetched varying responses. “I really can’t say,” said D.C. Don Juan. “I’m not the one who cuts the check. I can only do my best. I hope it’s true [that Wyclef’s doing the right thing].” D.C. Don Juan also asked that Arts Desk mention he’s on Twitter.

Neo-soul crooner Raheem DeVaughn said the accusations were a distraction. “I think it’s very disrespectful in a time that couldn’t be worse for a guy who’s bringing attention to Haiti,” he said. “The timing couldn’t be worse on that. They do that to all artists who speak their minds. It comes with the territory.”

During the show, there were a couple moments of silence, but mostly the atmosphere was light, like when a painting that artist Demont Peekaso created during the show got auctioned for $600, and sometimes strangely off-key, like when Bonney launched several beach balls into the crowd.

Attendees appeared to share the views of the performers on the cloud hanging over the event. “It’s already a poor country and any money helps,” said Jessica Raymond, 24. Remarked another woman: “I have faith that this will work out.”

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Raheem DeVaughn, right, made a surprise appearance; artist Deemont Peekaso created a work that was auctioned for $600.

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