Facing The Music

From the new Netflix Original based on his life, to the powerful message behind his new single, Wyclef Jean is creating a movement with his music.

Sometimes you encounter life stories that are so inspiring, you could picture an entire movie being crafted out of it. That is exactly the case for three-time Grammy Award winning artist, Wyclef Jean. The recently-announced Netflix Original film will tell the fascinating story of a child who fled Haiti to find a better life in America. The story of a young boy who didn’t allow his poverty to corrupt the richness of his imagination. A young man, who despite all odds of ending up imprisoned or killed, made it out alive, and to the highest realm of artistic success. A man fueled with such a passion to spark a change in the world, that he returned home to Haiti to run for Presidency. An artist whose words touched millions of fans all around the globe for the last 30 years. The CG-animated film inspired by Wyclef’s childhood, personal journey, and musical evolution is just the start of the social movement he aims to create for the world to face the music that a change must come. From gun violence during his dark days in Brooklyn, to the rise in international fame of The Fugees in the 90s, Global Citizen digs deeper into the life of an immigrant that, with its twist and turns, thrived into the inspiring success story we know of today.


You are considered a legend in the industry- what was it about your music that you think touched so many people? 

I don’t think I am a legend just yet—I feel like I am just getting started. But, I do credit my music touching people because I never made music to get famous. Music was a form of survival. I remember when we started with The Fugees, I said ‘We’re not going to make music, we’re going to create a movement’. We had to get up, get out of the hut, and do better for the sake of our people. And that was key, because really, music just comes and goes, but great music that touches and inspires people, is a movement.


Netflix is going to turn your childhood into an animated movie. Do you think that is when your musical journey and inspiration begun? 

My parents left me in Haiti at a young age, so I didn’t reunite with them until I was about 10 when I came to America. And even though I was poor, I still had a rich imagination and was musically self-taught. My high school music teacher discovered me when I was 15 and put me in jazz. By 17, I had was a Jazz Major, and today I can play up to 15 different instruments. Without that history and becoming a student of jazz, I wouldn’t be able to dive deeper into my love for music and be the producer that I am today.


How was Wyclef back in the 1980s different from the Wyclef today?

I’m considered a black sheep; the one that wasn’t supposed to make it out alive. Wyclef in the 1980s was just one of those kids that could have been part of the statistics. I ran around with a certain group of kids, doing things we weren’t proud of. Some of them got shot, others ended up in prison, and I wasn’t headed towards a bright path either. My father felt that in order to save my life, he had to take me out of Brooklyn and moved me into Jersey. I’d say from 1980s to now, Wyclef has more wisdom.


You are born in Haiti, moved and lived in the USA, and recently took a DNA test that revealed a 100% Nigerian descent. How does that make you feel about your identity?

They say, you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re from, which is why taking that DNA test was important to me. I feel I am very resilient with my identity, I mean I don’t know many rappers that could say that they decided to run for presidency. When I took that DNA test and found a strong Nigerian background, it made me understand how rooted I am in the motherland and allowed me to grab a lot of energy from that.


Tell us about the message behind your new single “Baba”. 

The overall message of Baba is not to forget where we come from. At the end of the day when we look at it from a satellite point of view, we are all the same. We are all one. Don’t be fooled by those trying to separate us. We have more in common than we have in division.


Aside from inspiring people with your music, you have also touched many lives through your philanthropic work. What causes do you feel most strongly about?

When I was little, I remember every Sunday my family would make an offering for Haiti, so feeling a sense of responsibility for the community definitely comes from my mother and my father. Today, the cause that is dearest to my heart is helping orphans and children who don’t have a sense of belonging. I have witnessed this first hand and in turn was able to give many kids without parents’ scholarships in Haiti. The sad thing is, these orphans don’t get protected, so you have many cases of abuse, sex trafficking, both with girls and boys, and children being raised as slaves. I feel very strongly about this because if I never made it to the States, I could have ended up being one of these kids.


Your songs always tell a story and you have continued to push the boundaries of storytelling by writing your own songs for the last 30 years. Where do you want to take your fans next?

 I want to continue creating music with a message, and I feel like I am just getting started. I call this level: Chapter 2 of the Wyclef life, with the series in the “Wyclef Goes Back to School” album. What makes this series interesting is that we are recruiting kids in their last year of high school or from university and coordinating competitions to choose our next talent to be featured in the album. My greatest gift has been discovery, from Lauryn Hill to Beyoncé in Destiny’s Child. I’m excited for these discoveries to be unveiled in Chapter 2.

by Teresa Esmezyan