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Musician Wyclef Jean holds a Haitian flag at the 2010 Billboard Latin Music Awards. He recently announced his candidacy for the presidency of Haiti .
Musician Wyclef Jean holds a Haitian flag at the 2010 Billboard Latin Music Awards. He recently announced his candidacy for the presidency of Haiti . Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images
Joshua Keating is associate editor at Foreign Policy and the editor of the Passport blog.
In announcing his candidacy for the presidency of Haiti in an interview with Time magazine, rapper Wyclef Jean cited Ronald Reagan and Vaclav Havel as precedents for the artist-to-head of state transition. Nevermind the fact that, unlike Wyclef, both Reagan and Havel had decades of political leadership experience before becoming president, the former Fugees frontman is certainly correct that the celebrity-turned-politician is hardly unheard of anymore.
In the U.S., aside from Reagan, there's California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Al Franken. Former professional athletes Jack Kemp and Bill Bradley also both launched serious campaigns for the presidency.
Actors-turned-president include Joseph Estrada — the Philippines' biggest movie star who was elected president by the widest margin in the country's history in 1998 only to resign in disgrace three years later — and the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski who, along with his identical twin brother, former Prime Minsiter Jaroslaw Kaczynski, was a child star, appearing in the beloved Polish children's classic, The Two Who Stole the Moon. (Don't get any ideas, Olsen twins!) Icelandic comedian Jon Gnarr was elected mayor of Reykjavik several weeks ago and seems determined to run the city as an absurdist performance art project.
The list of musician politicians is quite a bit shorter. In spite of the highly-publicized non-governmental activism of rock stars like Bono and Bob Geldof, it seems like musicians have had a harder time making it in the arena of electoral politics. There was former California Congressman Sonny Bono of course (though he was also sort of an actor). Russian pop star Nikolai Rastorguev serves in the Russian Duma, though that's taken by most as a sign of how unserious that body has become. Tropacalia pioneer Gilberto Gil serves in Brazilian President Lula Inacio da Silva's cabinet, though he's the culture minister which is a logical job for one of the country's most celebrated artists.
The most successful musician in electoral politics may be former Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett, who currently serves as Australia's environment minister. (Blur drummer Dave Rowntree ran for a seat for the British parliament this year but was trounced along with the rest of the Labour Party.)
The closest thing to a musician-turned-head of state in recent years may be former nightclub DJ Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar, who took power in a military coup in 2009 and still isn't recognized by many of the countries in his region. (Somehow it's not surprising that a club DJ would be better at leading a mob than winning votes.)
While musicians don't have a great political track record compared to actors, it's possible that that could change as the first generation of hip-hop stars nears retirment age. As Time's Tim Padgett writes, "Hip-hop, more than most pop genres, is something of a pulpit, urban fire and brimstone garbed in baggy pants and backward caps." Hopefully Wyclef, as a pioneering rapper-turned-politician, can use that pulpit for good.