Five questions with: Wyclef Jean


A report by Genevieve Trainor for the Little Village Magazine.

Haitian musician Wyclef Jean, who immigrated to the U.S. when he was 9 years old, has won three Grammys over the course of his nearly 30-year music career. The first two were with his popular band the Fugees — short for refugees, the second name of Tranzlator Crew, the band he formed as a teen in New Jersey in the late ’80s with Lauryn Hill and fellow Hatian Pras Michel. His third was as a producer on Carlos Santana’s Supernatural.

Jean has built a formidable solo career in the years since the Fugees disbanded. He released the first Carnival album in 1997 (Wyclef Jean Presents the Carnival Featuring the Refugee All-Stars) and the second (Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant) in 2007. He was featured on Shakira’s 2006 Hips Don’t Lie. Jean produced the soundtrack to Jonathan Demme’s 2003 documentary The Agronomistand has scored other documentaries, including Ghosts of Cité Soleil and Angelina Jolie’s A Place in Time. He’s also collaborated with, Serj Tankian, Ludacris and others.

He heads to Iowa City as part of his 34-city Carnival Tour in support of the third Carnival release. Jean also just released the first track off of his new mixtape project, Wyclef Goes Back to School. “Sak Kap Fet” features Kofi Black and Moira Mack — the latter is Jean’s first recruit to the project, a student musician from the University of Southern California. Jean will be touring 20 schools across the country scouting new talent for the mixtape.

Tickets for the Englert Theatre show are $39.50-$159.50.

Little Village caught up with Jean via email for five questions.

You’re touring now for your album Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee. Is there a story arc that you see as linking this album to the previous two Carnival releases? Or are the connections more thematic? How did you knew it was time to return to this series?

Well, I knew that this would be Carnival III; I knew that it would fit in the context. The idea of Carnival III is a celebration — Carnival 1Carnival 2Carnival 3; celebration of culture, celebration of life, you know? You spend time doing different albums. Actually, I wouldn’t call them albums. Constantly doing music — and at times, something will spark a theme. And, in the words of Quincy Jones, this felt like, “Global Gumbo.” The idea was to celebrate not just about Carnival III. It’s for listeners to pick up Carnival III, to feel like they need to go back to Carnival Iand Carnival III. From the old Carnival fans, to the new millennial who are rocking with Wyclef Jean.

The last Carnival record was 2007’s Carnival Vol. 2: Memoirs of an Immigrant. You used “immigrant” then, but “refugee” now. How do you balance the political weight of those two words? Do you use them interchangeably for self-definition?

Well, I mean for me, I’m forever an immigrant. Whether if you’re Jewish, Italian, Haitian, Caribbean, from Palestine — at the end of the day, when we make it to America, or before our parents came, or, for some of us, before our grandparents came, it’s the whole idea is that you’re forever an immigrant. That “once upon a time in America,” ideology. The ideology I carry with me is that American dream story, and that will always be it.

You were once extremely active in Haitian politics. How are you maintaining your connection to Haiti nowadays? What are your greatest fear and your greatest hope for your home country today, especially in the wake of recent stories about increased emigration to Chile?

For me, Haiti is natural. That’s like saying, “How often do you go to Jamaica; what you think about Jamaica?” to Bob Marley. It’s like our second home. It will always be that, it’s the place we’re from.

Unfortunately, what happened is this country always catches a bad rap. But, you gotta understand that the bad rap of Haiti really comes Haiti got its independence in 1804, and after 1804 what really killed Haiti was the reparation. The idea of how much money they had to pay back to France. My greatest fear is that debt that Haiti has paid back to France.

Economically, what is the way out of that? My greatest hope is that the population of Haiti has a lot of things going for themselves. One is human capitol. The idea of young kids ready to work.

The other thing Haitians have going for them is Haiti’s soil. When you actually have a place that can produce crops within an environment where the solar matches what is going on in the soil, in a place that historically has been one of the greatest exports of the world. It makes you say, “Hold up? What if we go and start to create agri-banks and we really engage farmers in moving the country forward?” This model has been in parts of Brazil before, and parts of Israel before, and worked well.

You have had many high profile, and extremely successful, collaborations over the course of your solo career. Do you ever miss, though, the consistency and depth of collaboration that comes from being part of a group project? What value do you find in solo creative work that you can’t get from a group?

First of all, for me, I’m a composer and conductor.

Most collaborations that I do are because I write the records from the perspective of a Gershwin or Quincy Jones. My greatest passion is curating talent. And from there, the idea of performing and being able to be a songwriter comes from my Daddy’s church. I actually don’t miss anything. Like Jay-z says, “You want to hear my old shit? It’s already out there.” I look forward. Right now, I want to see who’s the next Beyoncé, next Lauryn, next Adele, next Erykah Badu. So, my passion has always been about where we can find the next level of talent. With this new mixtape, Wyclef Goes Back to School, I know we will find some of the greatest talent that is running through America.

How do you see your role as an artist in the 2018 political landscape? Do you feel a responsibility to speak?

Well, I mean, for me, “politics” will always be “politricks,” right? And, we the people will always try to figure the right situation. For me, it’s always part of my DNA to always be part of public service. You can go back to the Fugees: Free Tibet (the concert with the Dalai Lama). Rock the Vote. I’m barely 20, jumping up on the stage — equal rights and justice for everybody. That is not something that is new for me. Moving forward, I will always continue to apply my social issues and my form of activism to help the move the country and the people forward.

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