The evolution of artist Wyclef Jean is anything but a typical immigrant’s tale. How does a kid from the small Haitian village of Croix-des-Bouquets grow up to become a celebrated hip-hop artist and activist? Who best to break it down, warts and all, but the man himself? TheGrio sat down with the master storyteller of his own life as Wyclef Jean revealed what Fugees fans and black book enthusiasts can expect from Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story, his new memoir.
theGrio: What inspired you to write Purpose: An Immigrant’s Story now?
Wyclef Jean: I felt that I was important that history document the true story, firsthand. I wanted the book to be like a conversation, and it was important to tell it in the raw sense, because — the thing about me? I’m not trying to be popular; I’m a refugee. My first album was Blunted on Reality, so being honest and blunt is always the way to be, as far as I’m concerned. If I make a mistake, I make a mistake.
You moved to America when you were around nine, but your earliest years were spent in Haiti. The diversity of these two worlds is so much a part of Wyclef Jean. Yours is a true immigrant’s story, and the heart of Purpose. Can you paint a picture of your experience for us?
Well, if you look at the film Slumdog Millionaire, that’s the best analogy. That was my slum. So I had culture shock; to come from that kind of world to America with all of these bright lights! I went from oil lamps and candles to electricity. There were hundreds of people walking around and talking, and can you image what it was like getting on the train for the first time in America? I was also shocked to see how people here took fresh water for granted; not in Haiti.
You write that you were hurt and surprised by the division between the black American kids and the Haitian kids when you were in high school. The American kids were very cruel, very brutal, but you found a way to bridge the gap through rap. You learned how to do it, despite the fact that English wasn’t your first language, and then got really good at it. Tell us about that experience and its significance. What was it like to hit that mark?
It felt good! There is always that fence around you when you come from somewhere else; you want to be accepted. Then you add to that the language barrier and you feel like you can’t do anything. Hip-hop allowed us to bridge the gap. It was the only place where language didn’t matter, and it didn’t matter that I was Haitian. As long as you do it good, they were willing to accept it! Hip-hop was a universal language, not just the rapping, but the graffiti, the dance, the whole culture, etc. It made you feel as if you were part of a positive gang, you know what I mean?
Yes, well music has always been a part of your life. You write that your parents bought a series of “Muppet Show” instruments for you and your siblings to play with. You even refer to your family as the “Haitian-American Partridge Family,” and along the way you learned to play multiple instruments. Your father was a preacher and only allowed church music in the house, but you found a way to sneak other types of music into your act, like rock, funk, reggae, and country; you also played with a jazz band at school; then, soon after, you learned how to mix and record demos. You really did it all. Tell us more about your musical evolution and where it brought you.
Well, coming from Haiti at the age of nine, and then becoming the leader of jazz band by the time I was 15 or 16 was quite an accomplishment, considering I didn’t learn to read sheet music until I was about 13 or 14. Think about how fast I picked up on the jazz, or how I picked up on the hip-hop, or I picked up on the church music. I just wanted to learn it all, you know? Every time that I was doing it, it felt like an escape. Music for me always feels like a safe haven from everything.
The chapters in the book where you discuss your time with the Fugees sound like a mystical time. Share a little of the magic with us. Take us on a ride.
I think for me, I just broke it down, you know, because at the end of the day I’m hearing some critics say, “Yo, he went too deep in the book, he was too raw” — but, if you are a Fugees fan, then you already know how I am. You wouldn’t want me to tell you the story of the The Score any other way than how it really was, and I think for me it was still a magical time, because there was an undertone going on while the music was going on. That undertone had passion in it, it had seduction in it, it had love, it had lust, it had betrayal, it had politics, you know what I mean? So now when someone is listening to The Score now, they can say, “Oh, now I see that what the mystique of the undertone was. It has a current that I’m feeling.” It’s the undertone of life, and that was the undertone of The Score for me.
Your love life could only be categorized as complicated; while you were with your girlfriend Claudinette, who eventually became your wife, you were carrying on a tumultuous romance with your muse, Lauryn Hill. Hill became pregnant, and during the pregnancy you say that she lead you to believe that the child was yours, when all along she knew that Rohan Marley was the father. You say that after the betrayal, “Our love spell was broken.” It seemed to break the spell for the Fugees as well. Can you comment on both of these topics?
I mean, what I did was just try to declare the truth, and I go into to the details. I mean, any guy who is reading this, when I say I was sweating, they know what I mean. Like I’m in a car, and I feel like my body is heating up, you know? They understand what I’m saying. At the end of the day, it was sort of like a triangle of a relationship, where there is a man in the middle, one woman on the right that’s a wife, and the other one is that’s a girlfriend. It doesn’t end well at the end, you know? And that’s basically what I’m saying, and at the same time, there was work that still had to be done. So how do I balance it out where I can get the work done and still keep my marriage, and still get Lauryn into the studio to rock and do what she had to do. I t was not an easy thing, but it had to be done.
What I’ve learned, and this is just from the first memoir — I plan on writing seven books — what I’ve learned is… what I’m going to say, like… try to understand. Every action brings a reaction, right? So sometimes we cry, because some of us sacrifice ourselves to go to wars and because of those wars, we lose men, but then, at the end of the day, if we didn’t fight for what we believed in, we wouldn’t be here today, so what I mean by that is action brings reaction.