Wyclef Jean on His Music Legacy, Politics and Living In The Slums

Wyclef Jean on His Music Legacy, Politics and Living In The Slums

In an interview with Wyclef Jean, the rapper brings his legacy to life with his insight and brutal honesty.

In an interview with Wyclef Jean, the rapper brings his legacy to life with his insight and brutal honesty.

Text: Nadja Sayej

It was a cloudy day in late August when New York rapper, Wyclef Jean, took center stage in Berlin. Clad in a Versace shirt, black dress pants, Ray Ban sunglasses and no shoes, all while raising his hands in the air singing a Fugees mix track, while walking on sand. If you know hip-hop, you know Wyclef as the famed ‘Haitian Sicilian’ rapper from the 1990s rap trio The Fugees—a Grammy Award-winning group that disbanded in 1997. Since then, the rapper has continued his quest for self-discovery—running for President in Haiti and continuing to fuel his entertaining lyrics.

Jean was here to perform at the Bread & Butter festival and to promote his new album, “Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee,” which drops September 15. It’ll be his first record in eight years and features DJ Khaled, Emeli Sandé and Supah Mario. After he got offstage at around 4:00pm, I caught up with Wyclef about presidential campaigns, growing up in Brooklyn and the legacy he wants to leave behind.

How did you arrive at this new album?

For me, it was a new generation vibe. The last Carnival album was eight years ago. It was inspired by the youth. The album is a mix of what the youth are doing and how [I was able to inspire them] when they were young. All the producers on the album are young—they were listening to my music when they were 12. The combination is what I call [a fusion of] 1997 meets 2017. That’s the way to explain the sonics.

Why did you become a rapper?

II come from the culture of hip hop and we have different forms, along with being a jazz musician, I wanted to be a rapper because rap is poetry and it allows you to express yourself in a certain community that normally you wouldn’t have that voice to. It allows you to show up in a neighborhood and talk about exactly what you want to talk about. That block takes it to another block and that’s how we distribute information.

Rap music is also an entire industry.

My brother became a lawyer and I [told myself] I was going to be a musician. I knew I was going to be in the culture but I didn’t know how. The other day, there was a documentary made about me on the Unsung TV series. One of the people they spoke to was rapper Kurtis Blow. He said he met me when I was 15 and I was already rapping in seven languages. I’ve always been persistent in a grind of doing something but it had to be different.

Is it true you had a gun taken out of your hand and you were given a guitar?

That’s my mama. Marlboro Projects, Coney Islands, choice is real. The reason the young kids like Young Thug can relate to me is because I don’t just talk. I ran for president for Haiti, my boots were on the ground. This younger generation respects this revolution. The way I thought in my 20s is not how I think in my 40s. It’s always good to give the kids some information and watch them grow.

The first song on the album is ‘Slums,’ how did you start there? 

There is a small crew of kids I signed from Milwaukee called the Wavy Gang. We connect because my dad’s a preacher and they’re from the church—Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin style. On all of my albums, 80% of the people aren’t famous, it’s just discoveries. I was told “You’re from the slums.” It’s right, I’m not from the hood, I’m from the slums. It’s different. The idea was like: “What would happen if I tell the story, a pure and true story?”

When you hear the verse, some of my homies ain’t here no more. Tomorrow could be okay but you can’t use the poverty to just kill everybody and shoot bang. The ‘Slums’ song is giving kids an inspiration story.

Why do you think including inspiration in your songs is important?

I don’t know any other way. Music is a tool for you to be truthful to an art. The only thing that lasts in the universe is honesty. There’s a difference between doing music and being a part of a culture. Two different things. For us, I wanted to be part of a culture.

Can you define what that culture is?

I define that culture with positive love expression. It’s important for people to know no matter how you express your art—graffiti, poetry—it’s positive. Some would say its vandalism or the devil’s music. That’s how I define the culture.

What advice do you have for young artists?

My advice is to be as eclectic and be as real as you can be. Be authentic to yourself. Fuck when you’re different or people say it’s not going to work. That’s when you got something. It’s real simple: if they’re not talking about you, you’re not popping. Good or bad, they got to be talking about you. That means if you’re working on your music and somebody got time to go online and critique you; that means you’re on your way. You know how many hours we got in a day? 24 hours. If you got time to watch mine? You’re popping!

Has your skin gotten thicker over the years?

My skin came in thick. When I left Haiti, I used to take a donkey to school. By the time I got to Brooklyn, I was the bionic man. There is nothing you can say to me. For me, I left music to be president. When I say only Dave LaChapelle can bring together the Fugees, it’s because he said, “fuck the money, the art comes first.” The money will always come but once you sacrifice the real art, then well.

Will the Fugees ever reunite?

I love that people ask it, it’s important because groups come and they vanish. Some people call the Fugees ‘the hip hop Beatles.’ Call me Paul McCartney, I walk around like I love it. At the end of the day, I am open to the opportunities. I don’t put anything negative in the air.

What kind of legacy you want to leave behind?

I want to leave a message of unity, unification of the arts.

How did growing up with a father as a reverend influence faith in your music?

My belief is, I believe in spirituality. You can’t believe in spirituality without having some kind of faith. We have the visible and invisible, they’re equally real. When something invisible happens that we recognize, we call it a miracle. When it’s normal, it becomes the norm. The spirituality of faith can be broken down from science. There is a space for faith—true spirituality doesn’t divide people.

Speaking of that, you said on CNN that we need to transcend the political to “real talk,” what is that?

You vote for your mayor, senator, and president. Everyone does. At the end of the day, if there is a party that sucks, then your power of changing it is through your mayors, senators and legislation branch. More than talk, action has to be applied. Dr. Martin Luther King said no matter how much we march, he said this legislation, this piece of paper, is the only thing that can protect the people. Now, a lot of marches are going but what are we marching for? The legislation really has to work out.

What is your hope for America’s future?

America plays apart of the world, to solve the problem we have to have unification of love everywhere, love in Israel and Palestine, love in Brooklyn and Afghanistan, Germany, everywhere. Division of man is tricky. We’ve experienced it in hip-hop; when you put one coast against another coast, we lost two big rappers. That’s how you got to think on the level of politics, at the end of the day, we do these things that corner us against each other. At the end of the day, the people of America don’t make up 2% of the population of the world. For me, it’s for the hope of the world.

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