A report by Sheila Marikar for The New Yorker.
Teachers get time off, but mentorship knows no bounds. The other day, Wyclef Jean settled into an armchair in a Los Angeles studio and logged on to Skype. He was wearing red vinyl high-tops and oversized aviator sunglasses. To do: video-chat with fledgling musicians. The session had been organized by Fiverr, an online marketplace for freelancers; for a fee of a hundred dollars, an artist could get twenty minutes of one-on-one mentorship from the former member of the Fugees.
Jean, who is forty-eight, is best known as part of the nineteen-nineties hip-hop trio, and for producing music by artists from Santana to Beyoncé. In the past few years, following a failed attempt to run for President of Haiti, in 2010 (he didn’t meet the residency requirements), he’s settled into a new role: music-industry elder statesman.
To find collaborators for his new album, “Wyclef Goes Back to School,” Jean spent nearly a year organizing talent shows on college campuses. “Like ‘American Idol,’ ” he said, “but without the hype.” The project was born of an insight: “Shit, between the last year of high school and going into college, there are so many kids who are good at music, but they never get discovered.”
Jean attributes his own success to the intervention of his seniors. Born in Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, the son of a minister, he moved with his family to public housing in Brooklyn before settling in New Jersey, where he produced hip-hop tracks and wrote the score for an Off Broadway play attended by Quincy Jones. “Quincy Jones, Bono, they shared information with me,” he said. “How do you bob and weave out of danger? It’s mentorship. People have to be, like, ‘Yo, I’m going to give you some advice.’ ”
At the studio, Jean was accompanied by an I.R.L. mentee: Jazzy Amra, a twenty-three-year-old R. & B. singer whom he would introduce to an L.A. audience that night. Amra, who wore jogging pants and a cropped T-shirt, sat in a folding chair and scrolled through her iPhone. A Fiverr staff member cued up a music video by Jean’s first student, Antonia Marquee, a pop singer with a breathy voice and Elmo-red hair. Jean nodded his head to Marquee’s “Clear,” a song about love and also, possibly, cell-phone service. (“It’ll be clear / I will be there.”) Marquee’s face blipped onto the Skype screen.
Jean praised her performance. “The minute I heard your voice, it took me to a natural Sade space,” he said.
The conversation turned to strategy. Marquee asked whether she should focus on singles or albums. Jean said that that wasn’t the right question. “If I get a thousand people to stream me, I think that’s successful,” he said. “So my question to you is: what determines success?”
Marquee considered this, and said, “If people hear my music and they want to share it without me prompting them to do so.”
“Let’s talk about what your social platform is looking like,” Jean said. “In the hood, I used to sell vacuums. That was my side hustle, to get some money to go buy another piece of equipment. But every time I sold someone a vacuum I told them that I had a CD coming out.” He asked, “So what’s your vacuum network?”
Cue professed no such network. Jean pressed: “Out of all your data, between Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, everything, what’s your following right now?”
“Uh, anywhere from one thousand to two thousand,” Cue said, sheepishly.
Jean was stern. “Your socials have to become part of your hustle,” he said.
During a break, Amra wandered over with a question: “Should I eat a slice of pizza?”
Jean cocked his head. “One slice? It’s not going to kill you.” Amra left, and Jean chuckled. “These artists, you see how focussed they are?” he said. “But that’s good, though, strategically. She has a showcase later. For the females, it’s always harder.”
The last mentee, Landon Franson, dialled in from Alberta, Canada; he’s in a country group, the Dirt Rich Band. Jean grooved to the group’s latest song, “Without Tryin’.” “It’s another smash,” he said. He explained that country music was popular throughout the Caribbean thanks to Christian missionaries from the American South. “By the time I got to the projects in Brooklyn, man, the music my mama was playing was ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ ” Jean said. “Are y’all playing live?”
Franson said that they were.
“Somebody’s gotta be working y’all’s social media,” Jean said. “The kids, all they do all day is stare at it. They got Twitter fingers.” Thanks to technology, he added, there wasn’t much distance between Franson and himself. “If someone had told you that you were going to be talking to Wyclef on Skype one day, you’d be, like, ‘Get the fuck out of here!’ ”