Musical extraordinaire Wyclef Jean is more than an iconic artist, whose storied career includes hits with the likes of Mary J. Blige and Destiny’s Child. In addition to his contributions as a bonafide hitmaker, the Haitian immigrant has solidified himself as a global ambassador, having led humanitarian relief campaigns for his country, and even an unsuccessful bid for political office.
His body of work spans beyond his hip-hop roots, from R&B and pop to Latin and electronic. Over the past 20 years, Jean has written and produced for an assorted crop of artists including Whitney Houston, R. Kelly, Shakira and Celia Cruz.
As a founding member of The Fugees, Jean has sold millions of records worldwide, with fans intoxicatingly singing the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly” and “Ready or Not.” And after the Fugees disbanded, he established himself as a successful solo artist, releasing commercial successes like his platinum-selling debut album, The Carnival, and the Grammy-nominated project, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book.
Jean now returns with the Carnival III: The Fall and Rise of a Refugee–his first album in eight years. The 3-time Grammy award-winning artist celebrates the 20th anniversary of his solo debut, the tenth anniversary of the second Carnival, and “911,” his duet classic with Mary J. Blige, turned 17.
In 2017, Wyclef Jean and his guitar can still warm people’s hearts and ease their mind. “There’s always a guitar and a piano nearby. I’m always writing, that’s my survival. I don’t go to a therapist. My therapy is when I pick up my guitar and sing,” Jean says in a an exclusive interview with theGrio.
See what the legendary producer, songwriter, rapper and activist shares about what listeners can expect from his latest project (out now on Legacy Records), his return to music, and much more, below.
theGrio: Congrats, it’s the 20th anniversary of the first Carnival album. How is Carnival III different from your previous releases?
Wyclef Jean: The Carnival III is no different from the first two because I am still celebrating music, life, and culture. I am celebrating the things that I love about the music. Music is a gift that I am presenting to the world. You want to put out music that will live longer after you. So again, the concept for Carnival III hasn’t changed. The only difference is that there’s new talent on this album. I worked with Emeli Sande, LunchMoney Lewis, Supah Mario, and The Knocks. I am letting everyone I’m back with the Carnival III, so get ready! On this album, people can reminisce and appreciate music, it’s like the ’90s.
TG: What is your favorite song on the album?
WJ: It will have to be “Borrowed Time, “Warrior,” “Turn Me Good,”and “What Happened to Love?” When I recorded “Borrowed Time,” I was in a “Gone to November” mode.” In “Warrior,” we are saying to the kids that get bullied in school, you are a warrior. If you feel like you’re a nerd, I was that nerd so you’re cool now. At the end of the day, don’t let anybody count you out and you can accomplish anything in life.
On “Turn Me Good,” I worked with a lovely and talented young woman name Jazzy. She definitely has a gift. When you hear this record, you might want to call it Zion because of the vibe; you can have a drink with this record. “What Happened to Love,” had two versions and at my listening party, the crowd decided which one was the best as a single. The single was inspired from the Carnival’s “Staying Alive,” and the song talks about do people really know how to love each other anymore? The song is funky and a dance record for everyone.
TG: It’s been 18 years since “Maria Maria” was released. DJ Khaled sampled “Maria Maria,” for “Wild Thoughts ft. Rihanna?” How do you feel about the record being sampled?
WJ: It feels good that the younger generation recognize real and good music. DJ Khaled is like a brother to me and he reached out to me about sampling the song. I was with the idea but he was like make sure it’s okay with Santana. Santana is your god-father (laughs). Santana was OK with the sample; he was just honored. On a serious note, I think “Wild Thoughts,” is the continuation of “Maria Maria.” “Maria Maria” will always be a song for the summer and a classic.
TG: What made you decide to be on TV1’s “Unsung”?
WJ: Unsung is a way for people to learn more about me as an artist, my personal triumphs and downfalls. They can learn more about my upbringing and you are hearing it from the source.
TG: Name something that most fans would not know about Wyclef Jean.
WK: I played bass in the Eric B & Rakim video, “Don’t Sweat The Technique,” in 1992. The Muppets Show influenced me to pursue music. I met Curtis Blow when I was 14 years old. He did my first demo and I was rapping in four different languages. Curtis Blow said to himself “Man, this kid is going to go far in life.”
TG: What prompted you to make a comeback in music?
WJ: Madeline Nelson, who is from Heads Music encouraged me to return to music. At the time, I stepped away from music because I wanted to help people in my country. In 2010, I received a lot of backlash when I wanted to run for president in Haiti. I was willing to put my music aside for my country; over 200,000 people lost their lives from the earthquake. I didn’t want people to say, “Oh, here goes another musician that didn’t do anything for his country.”
People were taking shots at me and they didn’t take me seriously. I lost but I don’t have regrets. I have to say Madeline Nelson motivated me to get back in the studio and record new music. She recognizes my talent and she was like the industry needs you. It’s a wonderful feeling to have people in your corner who have supported your music and know what you can bring to the table.
TG: Will the world see another Fugees album in the near future?
WJ: Let’s release The Carnival III first and we’ll see about a Fugees album. All of the Fugees members are on good terms. I’m not ruling out a reunion but I’m just focusing on the new album.
TG: How would you describe yourself?
WJ: A Haitian nerd from New Jersey that kind of look like Will.I.Am but better and his name is Wyclef Jean. In Texas his name is Jean and I like to call myself the “Haitian James Brown.”