Wyclef Jean: Haitian sensation

Musician Wyclef Jean says he’ll never forget his Caribbean roots. Judy Fitzpatrick caught up with him when he came to perform in St Maarten

With excited fans around him, Wyclef Jean belts out one of his hits at Festival Village, St Maarten. Photograph by Judy Fitzpatrick

He may be a multi-millionaire hip hop star, but soaring high on the international popularity scale has not made Wyclef Jean forget his humble beginnings and his Caribbean roots.

The 36-year-old Jean uses his fame, influence and wealth to help improve many lives in Haiti, spearheading education, sports, employment and other initiatives to give youths hope and spark positive media attention for the troubled nation.

When he was not yet ten, his family migrated to the US in pursuit of the American dream, but it was no bed of roses. His mother ended up on welfare and he helped clean bathrooms with his father to make ends meet.

But Jean worked hard and smart. By his late teens he was grabbing attention with his guitar and musical talent, which he nurtured in jazz classes at high school. His popularity soared in the 1990s when he was a member of the popular rap group the Fugees (Haitian slang for “refugees”) which included his cousin Prakazrel “Pras” Michel and Pras’ classmate Lauryn Hill.

The group has collapsed, but Jean continues to entertain as a musician, producer, and actor.

What makes your music different and special?

I never forget my roots and where I came from. It’s important that people know that I am rooted in Haiti and that I am from the Caribbean, because this also educates people and lets them know that Caribbean people are intelligent and smart. We shouldn’t be stereotyped.

Do you see yourself as a Caribbean man?

Growing up with my mom, there was nothing in our home that wasn’t Caribbean – from the food we ate to the music we listened to and the language spoken. So I definitely consider myself part of the Caribbean.

Caribbean artistes are increasingly doing well in the US and internationally. Recently Rihanna of Barbados shot into prominence and continues to do extremely well. What are your thoughts about Rihanna and her music, and who are some upcoming Caribbean entertainers we should look out for?

Rihanna is incredible. Her shot to stardom was just a matter of time, because when you’re from the Caribbean, it’s almost like you’re over-talented. Everybody is now trying to (get) Rihanna, but she’s always been doing what she’s been doing. I think some of the most talented artistes come out of the Caribbean.

Buzzing real hard on the reggae scene and making a massive explosion in the States is Movado from Cassava Piece in Jamaica.

How much of the Caribbean have you visited and performed in?

We’re always glad to be out here in the Caribbean. We played in Jamaica, St Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Aruba. It’s a great time for the Caribbean and its energy and culture.

In which skin are you most comfortable: hip hop, reggae, kompas, R&B or folk; and why?

My natural skin is an eclectic skin. If I’m doing too much of one thing I get tired of it. Once I broke the record and sold 22 million records with the Fugees, no one has topped that, so I got bored of hip hop.

Then I did an album called The Carnival and put totally different languages in it, then when I got tired of [that] music, I came back with Shakira.

If you had to make a lifetime choice between being a musician, an actor or a producer, which would you choose and why?

[Being] a producer is part of being a musician… I am a composer of music, I pattern myself after Quincy Jones. The same way I can sing and perform, it’s the same way when I act… I turn the music so that it becomes an education about life. I consider myself a natural professor of music, without the degree.

Who constitutes your major audience? The Caribbean community in the US?

The Wyclef Jean audience is a world audience. If I’m in Shanghai the people of Shanghai sing my songs like I’m in Brooklyn.

Do you have any political ambition? President Wyclef Jean someday, perhaps?

Unfortunately Wyclef will never ever be the president of Haiti, but if there is great government I will be able to work with them and help build different things in Haiti. I think I’m the guy that can bring a resort to Haiti, help bring a proper airport, educate against violence and help bring jobs. I think that will be my role in Haiti… I can never be president because there will be a barbecue every day on the lawns of the [presidential palace].”

What would it take to better the situation in Haiti?

For Haiti to get to the next level, Caricom will have to help a little more. There has to be proper lobbying in Congress in Washington, DC, for Haiti and a lot of the trading zones will have to open more in Haiti.

To do this we will have to fight corruption at the port and bring tourism to Haiti. The image will have to be rebranded and we will have to build another airport on the other side of the country.

This will start revolutionising the country. We can’t revolutionise Haiti with firearms. They’ve been doing that for years. It has to be done by creating jobs. If there aren’t employment opportunities for people, there will always be crime.

Amidst all the economic turmoil in the USA, how is your music faring?

The course of history shows that whenever there is an economic crisis, people turn to alcohol, they turn to drugs and they turn to music that can help them find a way out of whatever it is they are going through.

I’m hoping that the music that I will put out over the coming years makes people forget what they’re going through and gives them hope that no matter what, they will overcome.

What advice do you have for young artistes in the Caribbean wishing to make their mark internationally?

There is no shortcut. That’s what I tell all artistes.

I used to clean bathrooms with my father. My mother was on welfare. I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn and my cousins got killed in the streets. I took all that energy and said I would not follow the crowd. It was hard to do… but if you work hard and you work honest you’ll make it.

I don’t think I would have had the success that I have if I had stayed in Haiti and didn’t get a chance to come abroad and expand on my music.”

Hip hop has always been affiliated with a negative image. Your comments?

If hip hop is drawing kids to do the wrong things, then why is the education system using rap music to teach kids how to read and do math and science? The problem is not hip hop. The problem is that when something generates billions of dollars it will have a commercial aspect to it. With that commercial aspect you have to read to find out what’s real and what’s not.

What I want kids to understand is that when you are imitating, understand what you’re imitating and understand that you’re imitating and that you’re not really that. Hip hop represents cultures of communities… Represent your culture, and that’s going to be your hip hop.

Any plans to retire soon?

I was planning to retire when I turn 40… but unfortunately I can’t do that right now. My daughter just turned three… What I don’t want is when she’s ten she hears that “your dad was hot when you were three”. I have an obligation to my daughter to stay super-hot until she at least turns 13. Then I will give her the guitar and she can take over.

(Jean adopted his daughter when she was just days old. She is half Haitian and half Guyanese.)

Will the Fugees ever be back?

I don’t think the Fugees is necessarily out of the game. If it does happen, you can bank on innovative music. If it doesn’t happen, the legacy was a great one. And I respect that.

What’s the next major challenge for Wyclef Jean?

My new album is coming out. It’s called To Sir With Love.  It’s going to be great. I also have a label called Carnival House Records. I have a lot of work to do this year.

Jean said the album is patterned after the movie of the same name, in which the Bahamian-American actor Sidney Poitier played the teacher. His songs are in the form of “letters written to this generation. To Sir With Love features artistes such as Timbaland and TI (Clifford Joseph Harris Jr.).

“It’s taking the actual movie and making it current for the kid who don’t know who Sidney Poitier is.”